AskDefine | Define animism

Dictionary Definition

animism n : the doctrine that all natural objects and the universe itself have souls; "animism is common among primitive peoples"

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the belief that spirits inhabit natural objects or phenomena
  2. the belief that an immaterial force animates the universe
  3. worldviews and lifeways founded on the understanding that the world is a community of living persons (most of whom are other-than-human) deserving respect, in which people learn through life how to show respect in locally appropriate ways

Extensive Definition

The term animism (from Latin anima (soul, life)) commonly refers to belief systems that attribute souls to animals, plants and other entities, in addition to humans. Animism may also attribute souls to natural phenomena, geographic features, everyday objects and manufactured articles. More generally, animism is simply the belief in souls. In this general sense, animism is 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. Though animism itself is not a religion in the usual Western sense, some scholars believe that it contains the foundations on which religions are built.
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.
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.
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).

Difference from Religion

Animism is commonly described as a religion. Others do not see it as a religion at all. They argue that 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 a form 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. An example of this 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 form 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 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 belief in departmental gods comes the practice of polytheism. The belief in elemental spirits may still persist, but they fall into the background and receive no cult.
Those who argue that animism is a religion see that worship is directed toward these spirits, that are commonly called "lesser gods." Their help and intervention is sought, sacrifices are made, and their instructions received through divination are obeyed.

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.

Animism and death

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. 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.


  • 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.
  • Totem and Taboo:Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics
  • 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
  • Segal, Robert. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Wundt, W. (1906). Mythus und Religion, Teil II (Völkerpsychologie, Band II). Leipzig.
  • Quinn, Daniel. The Story of B
animism in Arabic: إحيائية
animism in Azerbaijani: Animizm
animism in Bosnian: Animizam
animism in Bulgarian: Анимизъм
animism in Catalan: Animisme
animism in Czech: Animismus
animism in Danish: Animisme
animism in German: Animismus
animism in Estonian: Animism
animism in Modern Greek (1453-): Ανιμισμός
animism in Spanish: Animismo
animism in Esperanto: Animismo
animism in Basque: Animismo
animism in French: Animisme
animism in Western Frisian: Animisme
animism in Friulian: Animisim
animism in Croatian: Animizam
animism in Indonesian: Animisme
animism in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Animismo
animism in Icelandic: Andatrú
animism in Italian: Animismo
animism in Hebrew: אנימיזם
animism in Georgian: ანიმიზმი
animism in Kazakh: Анимизм
animism in Latvian: Animisms
animism in Lithuanian: Animizmas
animism in Limburgan: Animisme
animism in Hungarian: Animizmus
animism in Macedonian: Анимизам
animism in Malay (macrolanguage): Animisme
animism in Dutch: Animistische religie
animism in Japanese: アニミズム
animism in Norwegian: Animisme
animism in Norwegian Nynorsk: Animisme
animism in Occitan (post 1500): Animisme
animism in Pushto: انيميزم
animism in Polish: Animizm
animism in Portuguese: Animismo
animism in Romanian: Animism
animism in Russian: Анимизм
animism in Sicilian: Animismu
animism in Slovak: Animizmus
animism in Slovenian: Animizem
animism in Serbian: Анимизам
animism in Serbo-Croatian: Animizam
animism in Finnish: Animismi
animism in Swedish: Animism
animism in Turkish: Animizm
animism in Ukrainian: Анімізм
animism in Chinese: 泛靈論

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