Animatism is the belief that inanimate, magical qualities exist in the natural world. Specifically, it is the attribution of consciousness, personality, and common life force, but not of individuality, to phenomena observable in the natural universe. The animatistic force can be an innate part of objects, such as trees or rocks, or embedded in observable phenomena, such as thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. To be animatistic, such forces need be both supernatural and, most important, impersonal. The term animatism was first coined by Robert Marett (1899) in response to E. B. Tylor’s (1871) well-known description of animism as a form of religion used by early humans and their modern “primitive” counterparts to explain the universe by personifying all phenomena with animate power. Tylor’s animism was a spiritual force, akin to a soul, both animate and with a distinctive personality, that embodied all things in the universe and was responsible for giving life to animate being. Both terms derive from the Latin anima, meaning “soul.”
The concept of an animate yet impersonal supernatural force was first described in Melanesian by the missionary R. H. Codrington in 1891. Marett adopted this concept for anthropology, publishing it as animatism in 1909. Like Tylor, he viewed these types of belief systems as primitive forms of religion in which humans do not conceive of personal souls, but instead see external forces or phenomena as being responsible for animating the world in which humans live. He assumed, as did Tylor, that in the study of such beliefs rested clues as to the origins of religion. Drawing further distinctions between animatistic societies and the West, Marett considered practitioners of these “primitive” religions to be actors without the modern capacity of thought, saying that their religion developed under psychological and sociological conditions that favored emotional and motor processes, not ideation. Anthropologists have commonly used these early foundations to discriminate between spiritual beings with individual personalities (animism) and impersonal supernatural forces (animatism). In most animistic societies, however, there is no clear differentiation between personal spiritual beings and impersonal forces. More commonly, people perceive these powers existing side by side and interacting with each other. Spirits frequently possess practitioners of animistic beliefs or these practitioners receive information from spirits that indicate which spiritual powers are causing sickness or catastrophe.
- Codrington, R. H. (1891). The Melanesians. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Marett, R. (1899). Preanimistic Religion. Folk-Lore, 2, 1-28.
- Marett, R. (1909). The threshold of religion. Methuen: London.
- Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture. London: J. Murray.