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Animism (from Latin anima (soul, life)) commonly refers to a religious belief that souls or spirits exist in animals, plants and other entities, in addition to humans. Animism may also attribute souls to natural phenomena, geographic features, everyday objects, and manufactured articles. Religions which emphasize animism in this sense include Shinto, Hinduism and pagan faiths such as folk religions and Neopaganism.

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.


There are three differing definitions of what constitutes animism. The most widely held and accepted is that it is a belief in non-human souls.

Belief in non-human souls

It is generally accepted that "animism" refers to the belief that non-human entities can have a soul, such as animals and plants, as well as inanimate objects such as rocks. Often these entities must be placated by offerings in order to gain favours, or even worshipped.

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.

Belief in souls

Sir E. B. Tylor used the term "animism" to mean simply "a belief in souls". He did not restrict the term "animism" to religions that attribute souls to non-human entities. With such a definition, virtually all religions can be considered animistic, including Christianity and Islam.

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.

A type of religion

The term "Animism" (with a capital "A") is sometimes used to refer to a specific group of religions that strongly believe that non-human souls live all around us, and can be interacted with. These religions are more correctly known as folk religions or indigenous religions.

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.

Scientific reasons for animism

Various scientific reasons for why a belief in animism evolved have been put forward.

Psychological reasons

The justification for attributing life to inanimate objects was stated by Hume in his Natural History of Religion (Section III): "There is an universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.

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 as an explanation for unknown phenomena

Lists of phenomena from the contemplation of which "the savage" was led to believe in animism have been given by Sir E. B. Tylor, Herbert Spencer, Andrew Lang and others; an animated controversy arose between the former as to the priority of their respective lists. Among these phenomena are trance states, dreams and hallucinations.

Animism and religion

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.

Origin of Religion

Some theories have been put forward that the belief in animism among early humans were the basis for the later evolution of religions. In this theory, initially put forward by Dr. E. B. Tylor, early humans initially worshipped local deities of nature, in a form of animism. These eventually grew into larger, polytheistic deities, such as gods of the sun and moon. Eventually these evolved into a belief in one, monotheistic God.

World View

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.


A large part of mythology is based upon a belief in souls and spirits — that is, upon animism in its more general sense. Myths that portray plants, inanimate objects, and non-human animals as personal beings are examples of animism in its more restrictive sense.

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.


The term "animism" has been applied to many different philosophical systems. It is used to describe Aristotle's view of the relation of soul and body held also by the Stoics and Scholastics. On the other hand monadology (Leibniz) has also been termed animistic. The name is most commonly applied to vitalism, a view mainly associated with Georg Ernst Stahl and revived by F. Bouillier (1813-1899), which makes life, or life and mind, the directive principle in evolution and growth, holding that all cannot be traced back to chemical and mechanical processes, but that there is a directive force which guides energy without altering its amount. An entirely different class of ideas, also termed animistic, is the belief in the world soul (anima mundi), held by Plato, Schelling and others.

Animistic religions

These following religions have significant beliefs in animism (when meaning a belief in non-human souls).

African Traditional Religion

African Traditional Religion, a group of belief in various spirits of nature, is highly animistic. Although belief in a high creator god is maintained, everyday emphasis tends to be on the worship of other lesser spirits.


Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, is highly animistic. In Shinto, spirits of nature, or kami, exist everywhere, from the major (such as the goddess of the sun), who can be considered polytheistic, to the minor, who are more likely to be seen as a form of animism.



Many, though not all, Neopagan religions, practise a form of animism.

New Age

The New Age movement commonly purports animism in the form of the existance of nature spirits and fairies.


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.

See also

References and notes


  • Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. Penguin, 2006.
  • "Animism". Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th ed. Vol. 2. 1911. Online Encyclopedia. JRank. 10 July 2008 .
  • "Animism". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
  • "Animism". The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2001-07. Inc. 10 July 2008 .
  • Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ballantine Books, 1994.
  • Cunningham, Scott. Living Wicca: A Further Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Llewellyn, 2002.
  • Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. Ideas that Changed the World. Dorling Kindersley, 2003.
  • Freud, Sigmund (1950). Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-00143-1.
  • Higginbotham, Joyce. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth- Centered Religions. LLlewellyn, 2002.
  • Segal, Robert. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Wenner, Sara. "Basic Beliefs of Animism". Emuseum. 2001. Minnesota State University. 10 July 2008 .

Suggested reading

  • Bird-David, Nurit. 1991. "Animism Revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology", Current Anthropology 40, pp. 67-91. Reprinted in Graham Harvey (ed.) 2002. Readings in Indigenous Religions (London and New York: Continuum) pp.72-105.
  • Hallowell, A. Irving. "Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view" in Stanley Diamond (ed.) 1960. Culture in History (New York: Columbia University Press). Reprinted in Graham Harvey (ed.) 2002. Readings in Indigenous Religions (London and New York: Continuum) pp.17-49.
  • Harvey, Graham. 2005. Animism: Respecting the Living World (London: Hurst and co.; New York: Columbia University Press; Adelaide: Wakefield Press).
  • Ingold, Tim. 2006. 'Rethinking the animate, re-animating thought', Ethnos, 71(1) : 9-20
  • Wundt, W. (1906). Mythus und Religion, Teil II (Völkerpsychologie, Band II). Leipzig.
  • Quinn, Daniel. The Story of B

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