What Is Animism?

Animism is the idea that all things—animate and inanimate—possess a spirit or an essence.
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Animism is the idea that all things—animate and inanimate—possess a spirit or an essence. First coined in 1871, animism is a key feature in many ancient religions, especially of indigenous tribal cultures. Animism is a foundational element in the development of ancient human spirituality, and it can be identified in different forms throughout major modern world religions. 

Key Takeaways: Animism

  • Animism is the concept that all elements of the material world—all people, animals, objects, geographic features, and natural phenomena—possess a spirit that connects them to each other.
  • Animism is a feature of various ancient and modern religions, including Shinto, the traditional Japanese folk religion.
  • Today, animism is often used as an anthropological term when discussing different systems of belief.

Animism Definition

The modern definition of animism is the idea that all things—including people, animals, geographic features, natural phenomenon, and inanimate objects—possess a spirit that connects them to one another. Animism is an anthropological construct used to identify common threads of spirituality between different systems of beliefs.

Animism is often used to illustrate contrasts between ancient beliefs and modern organized religion. It most cases, animism is not considered to be a religion in its own right, but rather a feature of various practices and beliefs.

Origins

Animism is a key feature of both ancient and modern spiritual practices, but it wasn’t given its modern definition until the late 1800s. Historians believe that animism is foundational to the human spirituality, dating back to the Paleolithic period and the hominids that existed at that time.

Historically, attempts have been made to define the human spiritual experience by philosophers and religious leaders. Around 400 B.C., Pythagoras discussed connection and union between the individual soul and the divine soul, indicating a belief in an overarching "soulness" of humans and objects. He is thought to have enhanced these beliefs while studying with ancient Egyptians, whose reverence for life in nature and personification of death indicate strong animism beliefs.

Plato identified a three-part soul in both individuals and cities in Republic, published around 380 B.C., while Aristotle defined living things as the things that posses a spirit in On the Soul, published in 350 B.C. The idea of an animus mundi, or a world soul, is derived from these ancient philosophers, and it was the subject of philosophical and, later, scientific thought for centuries before being clearly defined in the later 19th Century.

Though many thinkers thought to identify the connection between natural and supernatural worlds, the modern definition of animism was not coined until 1871, when Sir Edward Burnett Tyler used it in his book, Primitive Culture, to define the oldest religious practices. 

Key Features

As a result of Tyler’s work, animism is commonly associated with primitive cultures, but elements of animism can be observed in the world’s major organized religions. Shinto, for example, is the traditional religion of Japan practiced by more than 112 million people. At its core is the belief in spirits, known as kami, which inhabit all things, a belief that links modern Shinto with ancient animistic practices. 

Source of the Spirit

Within indigenous Australian tribal communities, there exists a strong totemist tradition. The totem, usually a plant or an animal, possesses supernatural powers and is held is reverence as an emblem or symbol of the tribal community. Often, there are taboos regarding touching, eating, or harming the totem. The source of the spirit of the totem is the living entity, the plant or the animal, rather than an inanimate object.

By contrast, the Inuit people of North America believe that spirits can possess any entity, animate, inanimate, living, or dead. The belief in spirituality is much broader and holistic, as the spirit is not dependent on the plant or animal, but rather the entity is dependent on the spirit that inhabits it. There are fewer taboos regarding the use of the entity because of a belief that all spirits—human and non-human—are intertwined. 

Rejection of Cartesian Dualism 

Modern human beings tend to situate themselves on a Cartesian plane, with mind and matter opposed and unrelated. For example, the concept of the food chain indicates that the connection between different species is solely for the purpose of consumption, decay, and regeneration.

Animists reject this subject-object contrast of Cartesian dualism, instead positioning all things in relationship to one another. For example, Jains follow strict vegetarian or vegan diets that align with their nonviolent beliefs. For Jains, the act of eating is an act of violence against the thing being consumed, so they limit the violence to the species with the fewest senses, according to Jainist doctrine. 

Sources

  • Aristotle. On The Soul: and Other Psychological Works, translated by Fred D. Miller, Jr., Kindle ed., Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Balikci, Asen. “The Netsilik Inuit Today.” Études/Inuit/Studieso, vol. 2, no. 1, 1978, pp. 111–119.
  • Grimes, Ronald L. Readings in Ritual Studies. Prentice-Hall, 1996.
  • Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. Hurst & Company, 2017.
  • Kolig, Erich. “Australian Aboriginal Totemic Systems: Structures Of Power.” Oceania, vol. 58, no. 3, 1988, pp. 212–230., doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.1988.tb02273.x.
  • Laugrand Frédéric. Inuit Shamanism and Christianity: Transitions and Transformations in the Twentieth Centuryur. McGill-Queens University Press, 2014.
  • O'Neill, Dennis. “Common Elements of Religion.” Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction to Folk Religion and Magic , Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College , 11 Dec. 2011, www2.palomar.edu/anthro/religion/rel_2.htm.
  • Plato. The Republic, translated by Benjamin Jowell, Kindle ed., Enhanced Media Publishing, 2016.