Belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies. Such beliefs are traditionally identified with small-scale (“primitive”) societies, though they also occur in major world religions. They were first competently surveyed by Edward Burnett Tylor in Primitive Culture (1871). Classic animism, according to Tylor, consists of attributing conscious life to natural objects or phenomena, a practice that eventually gave rise to the notion of a soul. Seealso shaman.
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In a broader sense of the word, animism is simply the belief in souls, a belief present in nearly all religions. British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued in Primitive Culture (1871) that this belief was the most primitive and essential part of religion. Defined in this way, animism is not itself a religion, at least in the usual Western sense. However, some scholars believe that it contains the foundations on which religions are built.
Animism in this sense contrasts with polytheism (the worship of various gods), in that animistic worship is of minor, local deities, whereas polytheism is the worship of major deities.
Tylor invented this definition as part of a proposed theory of religion in his 1871 book Primitive Culture. According to Tylor, all religion rests on, or stems from, a belief in gods or supernatural beings, which in turn stems from a belief in souls.
Critics have claimed that calling a religion "Animism" is an incorrect use of the term, because it is naming a religion after only one of its characteristics. The equivalent would be naming Christianity "monotheism", because monotheism is a key belief in Christianity.
Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud thought that "primitive men" came up with the animistic system by observing the phenomena of sleep (including dreams) and of death which so much resembles it, and by attempting to explain those states. Freud regarded it as perfectly natural for man to react to the phenomena which aroused his speculations by forming the idea of the soul and then extending it to objects in the external world.
Animism is a belief held in many religions around the world, and is not, as some have purported, a type of religion in itself. It is a belief, such as shamanism, polytheism or monotheism, that is found in several religions.
In many animistic world views found in hunter-gatherer cultures, the human being is often regarded as on a roughly equal footing with animals, plants, and natural forces. Therefore, it is morally imperative to treat these agents with respect. In this world view, humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it. In such societies, ritual is considered essential for survival, as it wins the favor of the spirits of one's source of food, shelter, and fertility and wards off malevolent spirits. In more elaborate animistic religions, such as Shinto, there is a greater sense of a special character to humans that sets them apart from the general run of animals and objects, while retaining the necessity of ritual to ensure good luck, favorable harvests, and so on.
Most animistic belief systems hold that the spirit survives physical death. In some systems, the spirit is believed to pass to an easier world of abundant game or ever-ripe crops, while in other systems, the spirit remains on earth as a ghost, often malignant. Still other systems combine these two beliefs, holding that the soul must journey to the spirit world without becoming lost and thus wandering as a ghost (e.g., the Navajo religion). Funeral, mourning rituals, and ancestor worship performed by those surviving the deceased are often considered necessary for the successful completion of this journey.
From the belief in the survival of the dead arose the practice of offering food, lighting fires, etc., at the grave, at first, maybe, as an act of friendship or filial piety, later as an act of ancestor worship. The simple offering of food or shedding of blood at the grave develops into an elaborate system of sacrifice. Even where ancestor worship is not found, the desire to provide the dead with comforts in the future life may lead to the sacrifice of wives, slaves, animals, and so on, to the breaking or burning of objects at the grave or to the provision of the ferryman's toll: a coin put in the mouth of the corpse to pay the traveling expenses of the soul.
But all is not finished with the passage of the soul to the land of the dead. The soul may return to avenge its death by helping to discover the murderer, or to wreak vengeance for itself. There is a widespread belief that those who die a violent death become malignant spirits and endanger the lives of those who come near the haunted spot. The woman who dies in childbirth becomes a pontianak, and threatens the life of human beings. People resort to magical or religious means of repelling their spiritual dangers.
It is not surprising to find that many peoples respect and even worship animals (see totem or animal worship), often regarding them as relatives. It is clear that widespread respect was paid to animals as the abode of dead ancestors, and much of the cults to dangerous animals is traceable to this principle; though we need not attribute an animistic origin to it.
The practice of head shrinking among Jivaroan and Urarina peoples derives from an animistic belief that if the spirit of one's mortal enemies are not trapped within the head, they can escape slain bodies. After the spirit transmigrates to another body, they can take the form of a predatory animal and even exact revenge.
However, many mythologies focus largely on corporeal beings rather than "spiritual" ones; the latter may even be entirely absent. For instance, Australian mythology focuses largely on corporeal, non-spiritual beings. Stories of transformation, deluge and doom myths, and myths of the origin of death do not necessarily have any animistic basis.
As mythology began to include more numerous and complex ideas about a future life and purely spiritual beings, the overlap between mythology and animism widened. However, a rich mythology does not necessarily depend on a belief in many spiritual beings.
Today Animists live in significant numbers in countries such as Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Gabon, the Republic of Guinea Bissau, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, Timor Leste, the United States and Mexico.
Modern Neopagans, especially Eco-Pagans, sometimes describe themselves as animists, meaning that they respect the diverse community of living beings and spirits with whom humans share the world/cosmos.
Many Pagans and Neopagans believe that there are spirits of nature and place, and that these spirits can sometimes be as powerful as minor deities. Polytheist Pagans may extend the idea of many gods and goddesses to encompass the many spirits of nature, such as those embodied in holy wells, mountains and sacred springs. While some of these many spirits may be seen as fitting into rough categories and sharing similarities with one another, they are also respected as separate individuals. On the other hand, some Wiccans may use the term animist to refer to the idea that a Mother Goddess and Horned God consist of everything that exists.