Basic Beliefs of Animism
In anthropology, animism can be considered to be the original human religion, being defined simply as belief in the existence of spiritual beings. It dates back to the earliest humans and continues to exist today, making it the oldest form of religious belief on Earth. It is characteristic of aboriginal and native cultures, yet it can be practiced by anyone who believes in spirituality but does not proscribe to any specific organized religion. The basis for animism is acknowledgment that there is a spiritual realm which humans share the universe with. The concepts that humans possess souls and that souls have life apart from human bodies before and after death are central to animism, along with the ideas that animals, plants, and celestial bodies have spirits.
Animistic gods often are immortalized by mythology explaining the creation of fire, wind, water, man, animals, and other natural earthly things. Although specific beliefs of animism vary widely, similarities between the characteristics of gods and goddesses and rituals practiced by animistic societies exist. The presence of holy men or women, visions, trancing, dancing, sacred items, and sacred spaces for worship, and the connection felt to the spirits of ancestors are characteristic of animistic societies.
by Alan G. Hefner and Virgilio Guimaraes
The term animism is derived from the Latin word anima meaning breath or soul. The belief of animism is probably one of man’s oldest beliefs, with its origin most likely dating to the Paleolithic age. From its earliest beginnings it was a belief that a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate. In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal.
There has been sharp divisions of thought as to the original concept of animism held by primitive peoples. An British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his “Primitive Culture” (1871) defined animism “as a general belief in spiritual beings and considered it ‘a minimum definition of religion.'” He stated all religions from the simplest to the most complexed shared some sort of animistic belief. According to him primitive peoples, defined as those without a written tradition, believed the spirits or souls caused life in human beings. They pictured these souls as vapors or shadows going from one body to another. The souls not only passed between human beings but into, plants, animals and inanimate objects as well.
Tylor reasoned primitive man arrived at his animistic belief to help him explain the causes of sleep, dreams, and death. There naturally aroused a need to distinguish between an individual who was awake and one who was asleep, or an individual who lived and one who did not. Also there was a need to give a reason for the pictures some saw when they slept. The spirits were the early man’s explanations.
Tylor was criticized by another British anthropologist Robert Ranulph Marett (1866-1943) who was convinced that primitive man had not developed the intellectual to form even such simplistic explanations as Tylor proposed. Marett suggested early religion was more emotional and intuitional in origin. He theorized that early man recognized some inanimate objects because they had some particular characteristic or behaved in some unusual way which mysteriously made them seem alive. He believed early man treated all animate objects as having a life and will of their own, but they never distinguished the soul as separate from the body, and could enter or leave the body. Marett conceded early man possessed the belief of animism, but it developed from the idea that some objects seemed to be alive like man.
It is insignificant how men and women gained the belief that a spirit or soul resides in all objects it is historically evident that they did. Trees and plants were worshiped as totems or because of their usefulness and beauty. In many cultures certain trees and plants have been feared. In some ancient cultures “trees were generally regarded as maternal deities or forest spirits, to be respected even when their lives were sacrificed for human use (pagan woodcutters never felled a tree without first begging its forgiveness). Female tree spirits live on in myth and folklore as dryads, the Greek version of the tree-worshiping druid priestesses.”
Plants and trees have been considered sacred by themselves because, as some have thought, they are home to certain spirits. Both the soma plant of India and the coca shrub of Peru are worshiped for the intoxicating properties of the products made from them. Field crops, thought to harbor spirits of infertility, has been honored by ancient tribesmen and peasants throughout Europe. Traces of these cults can still be found.
The above describes nature worshipers among which many occultists are numbered. They view life as being in everything, and everything, even man, supporting life. Life is sacred — all life. “One of the foremost characteristics of Neo-Paganism (or occultism) is the return to the ancient idea that there is no distinction between the spiritual and material, sacred and secular.” Everything is still one as it was to primitive man.
Animism may also be the unconscious fabrication of a spirit manifestation by the medium. It is not a fraud as the medium actually believes that he is channeling a spirit. It usually happens when the medium is put under pressure to attend a request or works in a spiritualistic circle where spirit phenomena are expected to occur. The spirit of the medium then fabricates a manifestation and it is interesting to notice that the medium´s body undergoes all the usual changes that happen in an actual spirit communication, such as altered breathing, contortions, and such procedures.
Shelley, Fred M. and Audrey E. Clarke, eds. Human and Cultural Geography. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1994.
Lehmann, Arthur C. and James E. Myers, eds. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1993.