The ultimate source of the term animism is the Latin word, anima, meaning spirit, soul, or life force. In contemporary anthropology, animism is the generic term for numerous and diverse religions focused on the belief that nature includes spirits, sacred forces, and similar extraordinary phenomena. This is reflected in the classic minimal definition of religion, a belief in spiritual beings, that was originally formulated by the famous British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his 1871 book Primitive Cultures. Tylor viewed animism as the basis of all religions and the earliest stage in the evolution of religion. Animism remains relevant to considerations regarding such elemental conceptual dualities as animal and human, nature and culture, natural and supernatural, inanimate and animate, body and mind, and life and death.
In general, animists believe that supernatural forces inhabit animals, plants, rocks, and other objects in nature. These forces are envisioned as spirits or souls. While they may or may not be personified, often they are categorized as male or female. They can influence human affairs for better or worse. In turn, humans may influence them to some degree through appropriate rituals and offerings, especially by ritual specialists such as shamans and priests.
Given its spatial and temporal extent, animism qualifies as the great, major, or world religion, as opposed to Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism, even though it is often omitted from books on comparative religion. The antiquity of animism appears to extend back to the time of the Neandertals some 70,000 years ago. At a cave called Shanidar in northern Iraq, archaeologists found some of the earliest evidence of intentional burials, together with offerings such as red ocher and even flowers, the latter revealed by pollen remains. In sharp contrast, other religions are relatively recent, having developed within just the last few thousand years.
Geographically, animism is the most widespread of all religions. It was the religion of the hunter-gatherers, who inhabited most of the terrestrial surface of this planet until the advent of farming, around 10,000 years ago. To this day, animism persists as the only religion in many foraging, farming, and pastoral cultures. Furthermore, it also forms a substratum of popular religion in many other societies, even though they identify with one or more of the so-called great religions. For example, Asians often embrace elements of animism in their personal religion, along with mainstream religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. Thus, in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism coexist and often commingle, and the former is a variety of animism. Neo-paganism in contemporary Europe, North America, and elsewhere is also a variant of animism. Some form of animism is still found in about half of the nearly 7,000 cultures in the world today.
Animism permeates much of human life and nature. As an illustration, rice is one of the most important food and cash crops in the world. However, in its Asian homelands, rice is not merely a material entity for nourishment, and it cannot be adequately understood only as such. In addition, it is associated with the spiritual dimension of life, and in particular, the so-called rice goddess, along with an elaborate complex of ritualistic, symbolic, and artistic expressions.
Another specific example of animism is the Thai belief in spirits that inhabit a place. Most homes and other buildings in Thailand have a separate little spirit house. It provides shelter for the spirit that was displaced by the construction of the human building. On a daily basis, offerings are placed in the spirit house, including water, fruit, candles, incense, and/or flowers. There are millions of such spirit houses throughout the country, where most people are otherwise to some degree Buddhist.
Beyond its prior antiquity, universality, and ubiquity, animism is also important because arguably it is far more natural than any other religion. Most indigenous societies that pursue animism are relatively sustainable ecologically, a point that should be obvious if one considers their existence for centuries, or even millennia, in the same region without causing resource depletion and environmental degradation to an irreversible degree. In these kinds of societies, nature is not merely a biophysical reality or economic resource, but more important, it is intrinsically spiritual. In other words, most indigenes do not rigidly segregate the natural and supernatural, but view spirits as part of the intricate and mysterious web of life. Probably the respect and reverence afforded nature because of its sacredness contributes significantly to the sustainability of these societies.
Given the temporal and spatial extent of animism, it is apparently an elemental part of human nature, and thus likely to persist indefinitely. Its ecological resonance may also contribute to its persistence.
- Albanese, C. L. (2002). Reconsidering nature religion. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
- Crosby, D. A. (2002). A religion of nature. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Formoso, B. (Ed.). (1996). The link with nature and divine mediations in Asia. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books.
- Grim, J. A. (Ed.). (2001). Indigenous traditions and ecology: The interconnections ofcosmology and community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Harvey, G. (1997). Contemporary paganism. Washington Square, NY: New York University Press.
- Lane, B. C. (2001). Landscapes of the sacred: Geography and narrative in American spirituality. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press.
- McFadden, S. (1991). Profiles in wisdom: Native elders speak about the earth. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Co.
- Narby, J., & Francis Huxley, F. (Eds.). (2001). Shamans through time: 500 Years on the path to knowledge. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.