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Animism has been used in a number of ways since Edward Tylor used it (in 1871) as a label to define the essence of religion as the 'belief in spirits' (i.e. metaphysical, non-empirical or imagined entities). The majority of this entry discusses the original term, and the changes in its definition over time. The more recent use of the term derives from a more respectful engagement with people who treat the world as a community of living persons, only some of whom are human. This animism labels particular cultural attempts to relate respectfully with the persons (human, rock, plant, animal, bird, ancestral, etc.) who are also members of the wider community of life. This 'new animism' is discussed in more detail towards the end of the entry. The adjectives 'old' and 'new' relate to the theorising / writing about whatever it is that is labelled 'animism'. The data or practices or cultures or whatever may be contemporary or ancient.

The old 'animism' is the belief that personalized supernatural beings (or souls) inhabit all objects and govern their existence.

Animism (from animus, or anima, mind or soul), originally means the doctrine of spiritual beings, including human souls. It is often extended to include the belief that personalized, supernatural beings (or souls) endowed with reason, intelligence and volition inhabit ordinary objects as well as animate beings, and govern their existence (pantheism or animatism). This can be stated simply as "everything is alive", "everything is conscious" or "everything has a soul".

Modern Neopagans, especially Eco-Pagans, sometimes describe themselves as animists, meaning that they respect the diverse community of living beings with whom humans share the world/cosmos. Some, however, use the term to refer to the idea that the Mother goddess and Horned god consist of everything that exists. This Pantheism in which God is equated with existence is different from animism because it imputes value to individual living beings and/or objects because they might reveal a larger reality or divinity behind everything. Animists respect beings for their own sake - whether because they have or are souls (the old animism) or because they are persons (the new animism).

The term is also the name of a theory of religion, proposed by the anthropologist Sir E. B. Tylor in his 1871 book, Primitive Culture.


In some animistic worldviews 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 worldview, humans are considered a denizen, or 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 (e.g., the Navajo religion), 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. Funeral, mourning rituals, and ancestor worship performed by those surviving the deceased are often considered necessary for the successful completion of this journey.

Rituals in animistic cultures are often performed by shamans or priests, who are usually seen as possessing spiritual powers greater than or external to the normal human experience.

The practice of head shrinking as found among headhunters derives from an animistic belief that one's war enemies, if the spirit is not trapped within the head, can escape the body. After the spirit transmigrates to another body, they take the form of a predatory animal and exact revenge.

Animism is the belief that objects and ideas including animals, tools, and natural phenomena have or are expressions of living spirits.


Early ideas on the subject of the soul, and at the same time the origin of them, can be illustrated by analysis of the terms applied to them. Readers of Dante know the idea that the dead have no shadows. This was no invention of the poet's but a piece of traditional lore.

Among the Basutus it is held that a man walking by the brink of a river may lose his life if his shadow falls on the water, for a crocodile may seize it and draw him in.

In Tasmania, North and South America and classical Europe is found the conception that the soul — σκιά, umbra — is identical with the shadow of a person. More familiar to Europeans is the connection between the soul and the breath. This identification is found both in Indo-Aryan and Semitic languages. In Latin we have spiritus, in Greek pneuma, in Hebrew ruach. The idea is found extending other planes of culture in Australia, America and Asia.

For some of the Native Americans and First Nations the Roman custom of receiving the breath of a dying man was no mere pious duty but a means of ensuring that his soul was transferred to a new body. Other familiar conceptions identify the soul with the liver (see omen) or the heart, with the reflected figure seen in the pupil of the eye, and with the blood.

Although the soul is often distinguished from the vital principle, there are many cases in which a state of unconsciousness is explained as due to the absence of the soul. In South Australia wilyamarraba (without soul) is the word used for insensible. So too the autohypnotic trance of the magician or shaman is regarded as due to their visit to distant regions or the netherworld, of which they bring back an account. Telepathy or clairvoyance, with or without trance, may have operated to produce a conviction of the dual nature of man, for it seems possible that facts unknown to the automatist are sometimes discovered by means of crystal gazing.

Sickness is often explained as due to the absence of the soul and means are sometimes taken to lure back the wandering soul. In Chinese tradition, when a person is at the point of death and their soul believed to have left their body, the patient's coat is held up on a long bamboo pole while a priest endeavours to bring the departed spirit back into the coat by means of incantations. If the bamboo begins to turn round in the hands of the relative who is deputed to hold it, it is regarded as a sign that the soul of the moribund has returned (see automatism).

More important perhaps than all these phenomena, because more regular and normal, was the daily period of sleep with its frequent fitful and incoherent ideas and images. The mere immobility of the body was sufficient to show that its state was not identical with that of waking. When, in addition, the sleeper awoke to give an account of visits to distant lands, from which, as modern psychical investigations suggest, they may even have brought back veridical details, the conclusion must have been irresistible that in sleep something journeyed forth, which was not the body (see astral travel). In a minor degree, revival of memory during sleep and similar phenomena of the sub-conscious life may have contributed to the same result. Dreams are sometimes explained in animist cultures as journeys performed by the sleeper, sometimes as visits paid by other persons, by animals or objects to the sleeper. Hallucinations, possibly more frequent in the lower stages of culture, must have contributed to fortify this interpretation, and the animistic theory in general. Seeing the phantasmic figures of friends at the moment when they were, whether at the point of death or in good health, many miles distant, must have led people irresistibly to the dualistic theory. But hallucinatory figures, both in dreams and waking life, are not necessarily those of the living. From the reappearance of dead friends or enemies, primitive man was inevitably led to the belief that there existed an incorporeal part of man, which survived the dissolution of the body. The soul was conceived to be a facsimile of the body, sometimes no less material, sometimes more subtle but yet material, sometimes altogether impalpable and intangible.

If the phenomena of dreams were, as suggested above, of great importance for the development of animism, the belief, which must originally have been a doctrine of human psychology, cannot have failed to expand speedily into a general philosophy of nature. Not only human beings but animals and objects are seen in dreams and the conclusion would be that they too have souls. The same conclusion may have been reached by another line of argument.

Folk psychology posited a spirit in a person to account, amongst other things, for their actions. A natural explanation of the changes in the external world would be that they are due to the operations and volitions of spirits.

But apart from considerations of this sort, it is probable that animals must have been regarded as possessing souls, early in the history of animistic beliefs. We may assume that man attributed a soul to the beasts of the field almost as soon as he claimed one for himself.

The animist may attribute to animals the same sorts of ideas, the same soul, the same mental processes as himself, which may also be associated with greater power, cunning, or magical abilities. Dead animals are sometimes credited with a knowledge of how their remains are treated, potentially with the power to take vengeance on the hunter if he is disrespectful.

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.

With the rise of species, deities and the cult of individual animals, the path towards anthropomorphization and polytheism is opened and the respect paid to animals tended to be reduced or lost entirely, especially in its strict animistic character.

Plant souls

Just as human souls are assigned to animals, so too are trees and plants often credited with souls, both human and animal in form. All over the world agricultural peoples practise elaborate ceremonies explicable, as Mannhardt has shown, on animistic principles.

In Europe the corn spirit sometimes immanent in the crop, sometimes a presiding deity whose life does not depend on that of the growing corn, is conceived in some districts in the form of an ox, hare or cock, in others as an old man or woman. In the East Indies and Americas the rice or maize mother is a corresponding figure; in classical Europe and the East we have in Ceres and Demeter, Adonis and Dionysus, and other deities, vegetation gods whose origin we can readily trace back to the rustic corn spirit.

Forest trees, no less than cereals, may have their indwelling spirits. The fauns and satyrs of classical literature were goat-footed; in Russia, the tree spirit of the Russian peasantry takes the form of a goat. In Bengal and the East Indies woodcutters endeavour to propitiate the spirit of the tree which they cut down. In many parts of the world trees are regarded as the abode of the spirits of the dead. Just as a process of syncretism has given rise to cults of animal gods, tree spirits tend to become detached from the trees, which are thenceforward only their abodes. Here again animism has begun to pass into polytheism.

Object souls

Some cultures do not make a distinction between animate and inanimate objects. Natural phenomenon, geographic features, everyday objects, and manufactured articles may also be attributed with souls.

In the north of Europe, in ancient Greece, in China, the water or river spirit is horse or bull-shaped. The water monster in serpent shape is even more widely found, but it is less strictly the spirit of the water. The spirit of syncretism manifests itself in this department of animism too, turning the immanent spirit into the presiding djinn or local god of later times.

Animism and death

In many parts of the world it is held that the human body is the seat of more than one soul. On the island of Nias four are distinguished: the shadow and the intelligence, which die with the body, a tutelary spirit, termed begoe, and a second spirit, which is carried on the head. Similar ideas are found among the Euahlayi of southeast Australia, the Dakotas and many other tribes. Just as in Europe the ghost of a dead person is held to haunt the churchyard or the place of death, so do other cultures assign different abodes to the multiple souls with which they credit man. Of the four souls of a Dakota, one is held to stay with the corpse, another in the village, a third goes into the air, while the fourth goes to the land of souls, where its lot may depend on its rank in this life, its sex, mode of death or sepulture, on the due observance of funeral ritual, or many other points.

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.

Evil spirits

Side by side with the doctrine of separable souls with which we have so far been concerned, exists the belief in a great host of unattached spirits. These are not immanent souls that have become detached from their abodes, but have instead every appearance of independent spirits.

These spirits are at first mainly malevolent. Side by side with them we find the spirits of the dead as hostile beings. At a higher stage the spirits of dead kinsmen are no longer unfriendly, nor yet all non-human spirits. As fetishes, naguals (see totem), familiar spirits, gods or demi-gods (see also demonology), they enter into relations with man. On the other hand there still subsists a belief in innumerable evil spirits, which manifest themselves in the phenomena of possession, lycanthropy, disease, and so on. The fear of evil spirits has given rise to ceremonies of expulsion of evils (see exorcism), designed to banish them from the community.

Differences between animism and religion

Animism is commonly described as the most primitive form of religion, but properly speaking it is not a religion at all. Animism is in the first instance an explanation of phenomena rather than an attitude of mind toward the cause of them, a philosophy rather than a religion. The term may, however, be conveniently used to describe the early stage of religion in which people endeavour to set up relations between themselves and the unseen powers, conceived as spirits, but differing in many particulars from the gods of polytheism. As an example of this stage in one of its aspects may be taken the European belief in the corn spirit, which is, however, the object of magical rather than religious rites. Sir James G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, has thus defined the character of the animistic pantheon:

they are restricted in their operations to definite departments of nature; their names are general, not proper; their attributes are generic rather than individual; in other words, there is an indefinite number of spirits of each class, and the individuals of a class are much alike; they have no definitely marked individuality; no accepted traditions are current as to their origin, life and character.

This stage of religion is well illustrated by the Native American custom of offering sacrifice to certain rocks, or whirlpools, or to the indwelling spirits connected with them. The rite is only performed in the neighbourhood of the object, it is an incident of a canoe or other voyage, and is not intended to secure any benefits beyond a safe passage past the object in question. The spirit to be propitiated has a purely local sphere of influence, and powers of a very limited nature. Animistic in many of their features too are the temporary gods of fetishism, naguals or familiars, genii and even the dead who receive a cult. With the rise of a belief in departmental gods comes the age of polytheism. The belief in elemental spirits may still persist, but they fall into the background and receive no cult.

Animism and the origin of religion

Two animistic theories of the origin of religion have been put forward. The one, often termed the "ghost theory," mainly associated with the name of Herbert Spencer, but also maintained by Grant Allen, refers the beginning of religion to the cult of dead human beings.

The other, put forward by Dr. E. B. Tylor, makes the foundation of all religion animistic, but recognizes the non-human character of polytheistic gods. Although ancestor-worship, or, more broadly, the cult of the dead, has in many cases overshadowed other cults or even extinguished them, we have no warrant, even in these cases, for asserting its priority, but rather the reverse. In the majority of cases the pantheon is made up by a multitude of spirits in human, sometimes in animal form, which bear no signs of ever having been incarnate. Sun gods and moon goddesses, gods of fire, wind and water, gods of the sea, and above all gods of the sky, show no signs of having been ghost gods at any period in their history. They may, it is true, be associated with ghost gods. In Australia it cannot even be asserted that the gods are spirits at all, much less that they are the spirits of dead men. They are simply magnified magicians, super-men who have never died. We have no ground, therefore, for regarding the cult of the dead as the origin of religion in this area. This conclusion is the more probable, as ancestor-worship and the cult of the dead generally cannot be said to exist in Australia.

The more general view that polytheistic and other gods are the elemental and other spirits of the later stages of animistic creeds, is equally inapplicable to Australia, where the belief seems to be neither animistic nor even animatistic in character. But we are hardly justified in arguing from the case of Australia to a general conclusion as to the origin of religious ideas in all other parts of the world. It is perhaps safest to say that the science of religions has no data on which to go, in formulating conclusions as to the original form of the objects of religious emotion. It must be remembered that not only is it very difficult to get precise information of the subject of the religious ideas of people of some other cultures, perhaps for the simple reason that the ideas themselves are far from precise, but also that, as has been pointed out above, the conception of spiritual often approximates very closely to that of material. Where the soul is regarded as no more than a finer sort of matter, it will obviously be far from easy to decide whether the gods are spiritual or material. Even, therefore, if we can say that at the present day the gods are entirely spiritual, it is clearly possible to maintain that they have been spiritualized pari passu with the increasing importance of the animistic view of nature and of the greater prominence of eschatological beliefs. The animistic origin of religion is therefore not proven.

Animism and mythology

Little need be said on the relation of animism and mythology. While a large part of mythology has an animistic basis, it is possible to believe, e.g. in a sky world, peopled by corporeal beings, as well as by spirits of the dead. The latter may even be entirely absent. The mythology of the Australians relates largely to corporeal, non-spiritual beings. Stories of transformation, deluge (mythology) and doom myths, or myths of the origin of death, have not necessarily any animistic basis. At the same time, with the rise of ideas as to a future life and spiritual beings, this field of mythology is immensely widened, though it cannot be said that a rich mythology is necessarily genetically associated with or combined with belief in many spiritual beings.

Animism in philosophy

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, held by Plato, Schelling and others.


Tylor argued that non-Western societies relied on animism to explain why things happen. He further argued that animism is the earliest form of religion, and reveals that humans developed religions in order to explain things. At the time that Tylor wrote, this theory was politically radical because it made the claim that non-Western peoples and in particular, non-Christian "heathens", in fact do have religion. However, since the publication of Primitive Culture, Tylor's theories have come under criticism from three quarters. First, some have questioned whether the beliefs of diverse peoples living in different parts of the world and not communicating with one another can be lumped together as one kind of religion. Second, some have questioned whether the basic function of religion really is to "explain" the universe (critics like Marrett and Emil Durkheim argued that religious beliefs have emotional and social, rather than intellectual, functions). Finally, many now see Tylor's theories as ethnocentric. Not only was he imposing a contemporary and Western view of religion (that it explains the inexplicable) on non-Western cultures, he was also telling the story of a progression from religion (which provides poor explanations) to science (which provides good explanations) (see cultural evolution).

List of phenomena believed to lead to animism

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:

The new animism

In an article entitled "Revisiting Animism", Nurit Bird-David builds on the work of Irving Hallowell by discussing the animist worldview and lifeway of the Nayaka of India. Hallowell had learnt from the Ojibwa of southern central Canada that the humans are only one kind of 'person' among many. There are also 'rock persons', 'eagle persons' and so on. Hallowell and Bird-David discuss the ways in which particular indigenous cultures know how to relate to particular persons (individuals or groups). There is no need to talk of metaphysics or impute non-empirical 'beliefs' in discussing animism. What is required is an openness to consider that humans are neither separate from the world nor distinct from other kinds of being in most significant ways. The new animism also makes considerably more sense of attempts to understand 'totemism' as an understanding that humans are not only closely related to other humans but also to particular animals, plants, etc. It also helps by providing a term for the communities among whom shamans work: they are animists not 'shamanists'. Shamans are employed among animist communities to engage or mediate with other-than-human persons in situations that would be fraught or dangerous for un-initiated, untrained or non-skillful people. The -ism of 'animism' should not suggest an overly systematic approach (but this is true of the lived reality of most religious people), but it is preferable to the term shamanism which has led many commentators to construct an elaborate system out of the everyday practices of animists and those they employ to engage with other-than-human persons. The new animism is most fully discussed in a recent book by Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World. But it is also significant in the 'animist realist' novels now being written among many indigenous communities worldwide. The term 'animist realism' was coined by Harry Garuba, a Nigerian scholar of literature, in comparison with 'magical realism' that describes works such as Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

See also


  • 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).
  • Thomas, Northcote Whitbridge. Animism. 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica

External links

  • Animism and Totem Spirit Animals: Discovering Animal Totems, Dictionaries, Feathers
  • FAQ A database which includes many questions and answers regarding animism (and which conflicts greatly with the definition of the 'old' animism above while illustrating one version of the 'new' animism quite well) on the website of Daniel Quinn, author of My Ishmael. Choose Animism from Topic.
  • [1] is a new website devoted to the discussion of the new animism. It arises from the work of Graham Harvey whose book Animism: Respecting the Living World discusses the whole topic, its benefits and problems, in considerable detail.
  • [2] A personal view of animism

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