THE WELL-KNOWN BRITISH anthropologist Edward B. Tylor defined animism in his classic 1871 book Primitive Culture as a belief in spiritual beings. He theorized that this was the ultimate basis of all of the religions of humankind. Animism derives from the Latin anima, which refers to spirit, soul, or life-force.
Animists believe that supernatural forces permeate and animate nature, including animals, plants, waters, rocks, and other environmental phenomena. Whether these forces are envisioned as personal or impersonal, they are thought to influence humans. Shamans and priests, part- and full-time ritual specialists, respectively, attempt to communicate with and thereby influence the spiritual realm.
Animism is by far the oldest religion of humanity as evidenced by Neanderthal burials and associated artifacts at Shanidar cave in northern Iraq, which archaeologists have dated to around 60,000 years ago. Pollen analysis of the plant remains over the graves indicates that these were from flowers of species known to currently grow in the region to have medicinal properties. The antiquity of other ancient religions, by contrast, extends back only a few thousand years.
By far the most widespread of all religions, animism is common in hunter-gatherer, fishing, farming, and pastoral societies throughout the world. Furthermore, it forms a substratum in the religion of many people who would identify themselves primarily with Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or another so-called world religion. Moreover, not only does animism survive and thrive in the religious beliefs of a multitude of diverse cultures, it has also been revitalized in areas where it was long suppressed, such as Europe and North America, where it may be referred to as neopaganism.
Australian Aborigines believe that their kinship is directly connected to ancestral spirits in the biotic species and land forms of their environment, a phenomenon referred to as totemism. Uluru (Ayres Rock) is one of the most famous, sacred places in nature in Australia. Many people in Southeast Asia believe that spirits dwell in rice, trees, caves, and rivers as well as in various small shrines constructed near their community, home, or business. Traditional Hawaiians recognized supernatural power or mana in sharks, forest plants, rocks, volcanoes, tides, streams, wind, rainbows, and numerous other natural phenomena. Many related taboos, rituals, institutions, and practices helped manage and conserve their environment. In modern America, some individuals suspect that if a black cat crosses their path, it may cause bad luck. In short, the majority of the some 7,000 cultures in the world today believe in some kind of supernatural forces in nature.
In addition to its antiquity, universality, ubiquity, and vitality, animism is also significant because it is the original nature religion. Most indigenous societies that pursue animism are relatively sustainable ecologically. Indeed, many have flourished for centuries or even millennia in the same general area without causing irreversible resource depletion and environmental degradation to the ecosystems in their habitat. In such societies, nature is not merely a reality that provides economic and recreational resources, but it has inherent spirituality. Accordingly, nature deserves special respect and care, and, in some cases, reverence. Animists recognize the unity of nature, spirits, and humans as integral components of the web of life. The interrelationships and interdependencies within environmental systems are elemental principles of animism as well as of the Western science of ecology. The ecological resonance of animism is probably part of the reason for its persistence. It may also contribute toward the diminution or resolution of environmental problems and crises. Indeed, some environmentalists consider themselves to be neo-animists or eco-pagans.
Anthropology; Biocentrism; Indigenous Peoples; Sustainability.
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