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According to animism, all phenomena—everything that is seen, heard, touched, or felt; every animal, plant, rock, mountain, cloud, or star, and even tools and implements—are believed to possess a soul, which is understood to be conscious and endowed with an ability to communicate. Considered the original or first human religion, animism originates from the Latin anima, meaning “soul,” which comes from the earlier Greek word animus, meaning “wind” or “breath.” It is defined as belief in spiritual beings or entities that are thought to give all things, both animate and inanimate, a certain kind of potency or life force.
Animism is a primal belief system dating back to the Paleolithic era, yet it is estimated that 40 percent of the world’s population still practices some form of animism, often in syncretism with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Contemporary people find animism a belief system that infuses their real-life situation with the sacred and provides guidance in addressing everyday problems, concerns, and needs, such as healing sickness, bringing success, or receiving guidance. Animism can be practiced by anyone who acknowledges the existence of spirits, but it does not require any affiliation with an organized religion.
As the first human thought system to interface with the nonhuman or spirit realms, animism recognizes an ontological connection between material things and their spiritual source. The artifacts and remains that document the symbolic nature of animism are unimaginably old, created long before human culture gave birth to language and recorded history. For millions of years humans have deified ancestors, animals, plants, stones, rivers, and stars, each of which was thought to be enlivened by a particular “anima” or soul, having the capacity to leave the body both during life and after death.
Animism was not discovered, created, or developed by any one individual or group; instead, it was a way of living in reciprocity with the larger natural environment and not separate from it. Indigenous people followed a kind of rudimentary animism that served many functions. Not only did animism provide answers to pressing philosophical questions—how the universe came into being, the nature of the forces operating within it, the origins of the ancestors—but also it addressed more immediate issues concerning how to live, how to die, and what happens in the afterlife.
Shaman was the name given to the holy men and women who were considered sacred leaders called on to sustain the tribe’s connection to the spirit realm and the land of the dead. Shamans were able to navigate through various cosmic levels so as to ensure that all things in nature were kept interdependent and integral to the whole universe. The basis of animism is an acknowledgement of a spiritual realm, within the physical world, that humans share with the cosmos. To become a shaman required that one have special proximity to the spirit world. Using preternatural powers, trance, ritual, dance, and shamanic “journeys,” the shaman ensured that the relation between the human community and the natural ecosystem it cohabited was reciprocal and mutual.
Western philosophical schools have employed the term animism to describe an awareness of a living presence within all matter. Aristotle’s idea supporting the relation of body and soul was animistic, as was Plato’s belief in an immaterial force behind the universe. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) expanded the notion of animism with the assertion that all substances are essentially force, tendency, and dynamism. The modern concept of vitalism challenges the idea that all phenomena can be traced back to chemical and mechanical processes and offers a perspective that presupposes an animistic understanding of human nature and the natural world. In his work Primitive Culture (1871), Edward. B. Tyler coined the term animism to refer to the original form of human spirituality and the first primitive religion. In this book, he described primitive religion as operating at a lower level of cognitive and social development than more evolved religions with coherent, systematic theologies. Primitive religion is now understood in a less ethnocentric way and is valued for its direct link to the primal mind. Today those practicing animism see themselves as part of the natural world rather than the masters and rulers of it.
Animism is emerging as a critical voice in response to the ecological crisis and is a serious topic that science, technology, and the social sciences must consider. Many in search of a new spirituality are discovering animism to offer a world view that is naturally connected to the earth, nature, and broader ecosphere. Animism fosters an attitude that reinforces living respectfully with all things.
- Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
- Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Trans. Willard. R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row.
- Halpern, Daniel, ed. 1987. On Nature: Nature, Landscape, and Natural History. San Francisco: North Point Press.
- Lehmann, Arthur C., and James E. Myers, eds. 1993. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, 3rd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
- Lovelock, James. 1986. Gaia: The World as Living Organism. New Scientist 18 (December): 25–28.
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