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It’s not only humans that have a soul, according to early religious beliefs. In order to survive the harsh trials of primitive life, people needed to live in kinship with their environment. They believed animals, plants, objects and even elements of the weather had a soul too.

What Is Animism?

Animism is the belief that all objects and living things possess a soul or spirit. It is considered by authors to be the earliest form of religion. The term was coined by the English anthropologist, Sir Edward Tylor, and its Latin derivation, Anima, means soul or breath of life. Animism was prevalent in indigenous tribes, and thought to be a primitive form of religion which later evolved into modern, organized monotheistic religions.

The Theories of Animism

The development and understanding of primitive cultures and religions came about after European explorers discovered Africa, India, and the New World – the Americas and Australia. These colonialists brought their religion, Christianity, with them, and used their own standards and understanding of religion and culture as a yardstick for the new civilizations they encountered. According to authors who’ve written about this period, the colonialists were mostly missionaries. Thanks to their own personal viewpoints, the missionaries labelled cultures as primitive if they ascribed souls to things other than human beings and believed these spirits were able to communicate with all things and influence their everyday life. With the growing support of Darwin’s theories at the time, the European intellectuals were further convinced of the primitive nature of the cultures and religions of the native tribes they encountered.

Early Theories

Sir Edward Tylor published a book entitled Primitive Culture in 1871, which delineated the alleged progression of religion from animism to polytheism and later monotheism. Tylor judged cultures by the standards of 19th century Europe, and therefore viewed animism as a flawed religious system. In his studies, he alleged that, in order for cultures to possess religion in its most basic form, they needed to believe in spiritual beings minimally. From that point, he purported, their belief system would evolve and became more complex, developing doctrine and performing rites to influence deities and demons. Some scholars believe Tylor may have been too disconnected from cultures with animistic beliefs and did not understand how fundamental their religious views were to their day-to-day struggle to survive.

The debate on animism and primitive societies was prevalent in Tylor’s time and led to further religious theories, such as totemism. The concept of totemism was originally defined as belief in an animal representing a person’s guardian spirit, but later changed focus, to the familial relationship with a plant or animal spiritual being. Certain scholars purported the belief in magic and the supernatural preceded the development of religion. When the practitioners of magic failed the people, they developed a belief in gods instead.

Modern Viewpoint

In 1960, anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell published his essay Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View. The author proclaimed the Ojibwa people of North America ascribed the qualities of a person, such as sentience, ability to communicate and personal choice, to things like the weather, cookware, stones etc. Hallowell sought to challenge the Western definition of a person.

Anthropologist Nurit Bird-David was influenced by Hallowell’s work. In 1999, she published an article based on Hallowell’s premise and added that perhaps the soul of an individual is not rigid and bound to that person, but rather that the boundary between souls is fluid. The soul is further defined by its relationship with others and the environment, the author alleges. In 2005, anthropologist Graham Harvey published his book Animism: Respecting the Living World and supported the view that not all persons are human. He also defined animism in terms of the relationship between things.

Examples of Animism

Totemism is viewed as a subcategory of animism. Similarly, fetishism is the ascribing of power to an object, for instance in Voodoo. Voodoo practitioners serve the spirits and deal with the hidden world of mysteries, spirits, invisibles and angels. Shamanism is also viewed as a subcategory of animism. Authors claim shamans communicate with, and enter, the spirit world by putting themselves into a trance. In order to cure illness in the body, they believe they need to heal the soul. Skilled shamans purportedly communicate with benevolent spirits, while the less adept, or black shamans, often rely on the succor of evil deities.

Animistic Way of Life

The various animistic subcategories are linked by their primal desire to survive through communication with spiritual beings and the particular circumstances and kinship effected by them. In order to survive, the people would need to eat animals, even though they regarded animals as persons. Authors point out the animals interacted closely with each other and humans on a familial level. Animists also expressed their kinship with plant life, when they sourced plant food to eat. One culture offered invocations to their food sources, some authors claim.

To the Europeans, in the age of discovery, civilization was the ultimate goal. They believed unequivocally in the superiority of an advanced state of society. Seen from their viewpoint, anything differing from their ideal was inferior and needed to be changed in order to correct primitive or native ways. But what effect did civilization have on these peoples? With the modern movement towards harmony with nature and the spiritual world, it seems we are reverting back to our barbaric ways, but when has man been truly at his happiest: in an advanced society which celebrates narcissism and greed or when living in kinship with all living things?


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September 17, 2018 9:17 pm

I have been living a life that is animistic in nature for several years now. I have been amazed at the treasures that cross my path daily. I feel honored, that the world around me knows that I am very aware of the life in it, and in turn drops these natural gifts across my path.

March 7, 2018 7:35 pm

I’m a bookworm and am always fascinated by what there is to learn, all I’ve picked up in all my years and yet i was surprised by something knew. Thankyou! This is the sort of content i hope to find. aaaand of course at the end in the last sentence is the necessary preaching rating: 9.9/10 -0.1 for the moral of the story, coz really, save it for Sunday morning or a page dedicated to the matter. It would take a few separate pages to cover the mistakes that have lead us to where we are now, so many threads… Read more »