In some cultures, life and sentience are believed to exist for only certain beings, such as humans, animals, and plants. In other belief systems, however, places and objects are also believed to have some level of sentience. This is the case with animism, the belief that all things, including plants, animals, objects, locations and even concepts, are spiritually alive.
Animism is fascinating as it is not necessarily a religion in and of itself, but a belief that is a part of many different religions. It focuses on the soul of all beings and emphasizes a spiritual connection between all things, both scientifically living and non-living. Animism is an incredibly common aspect of many indigenous cultures worldwide and provides a common link between some of these cultures. In many indigenous cultures, animism is so interwoven with their way of life that they don’t even have a term for animism. It is the basis of their entire worldview.
Any event that occurs in the world is attributed to these supposed spirits. If a natural disaster such as a tornado, earthquake, or drought occurs, it indicates displeasure or dissatisfaction amongst their respective spirits. In some religions, individuals believe that humans can impact the mood or responses of these spirits. In others, the behavior of the spirits is out of their control, and they must rely on them for survival. But where did animism come from, and how has it evolved over time?
From Old to New: A Brief History of Animism
Even though animism as a concept has existed for years, identifying the concept and giving it a name took quite a while. In 1871, English anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor wrote the book Primitive Culture , in which he describes and compares groups that he considered “primitive” or “ civilized.” Though the book is often considered unsubstantiated by modern anthropologists, it was a key piece of anthropological literature in the late 1800s. In this book, Tylor coined the term “animism,” which he described as “the general doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings in general… An idea pervading life and will in nature.”
Tylor at the time had believed that animism was a primitive form of religion, and possibly the oldest religious concept. Though this has been widely debated, it is clear that animism is a significant part of ancient religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism , even if the idea of one ancient global religion has been dismissed by other archaeologists.
Tylor’s book and his definition of animism is considered one of the earliest defining moments in the subject of anthropology, the study of humanity and human behavior. Other budding anthropologists at the time considered animism to be the primary “religion” of “ primitive groups” around the world. It was believed when comparing primitive groups with civilized groups that there was an inverse correlation between civilization and animism. In essence, they believed that as civilization in these “primitive” groups increased, belief in animism decreased.
Other theories about animism began to arise throughout the 1900s. In the early 1900s, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget proposed that individuals are born with an innate belief in animism that they grow out of as they develop and learn about the world around them. In the later 20th century, American anthropologist Margaret Mead proposed the opposite: that individuals are not born with an innate belief of animism, but instead developed this belief as their culture guided them to, the same way as other religious and cultural beliefs.
In the early 2000s, an updated definition to Tylor’s was proposed. Stewart Guthrie, an anthropologist from Yale University, defined animism as “the attribution of spirits to natural phenomena such as stones and trees.” He also claimed that the development of animism originally may have been in response to evolutionary instincts in humans. Since early humans needed to be on high alert to survive in the face of predators and natural disasters, they may have begun anthropomorphizing or spiritualizing natural objects as a way to protect themselves against them. However, this theory has ultimately not been proven.
Many modern anthropologists use Guthrie’s definition, and have gone a step further by studying how animists see themselves in relation to nature and the world itself. According to modern anthropologists, most animists don’t see themselves as a superior being above the objects around them. Instead, they consider themselves an equal part of the Earth, living in it while also being their own separate species, like a piece of one big puzzle.
Tying Cultures Together
Though animism is a concept in and of itself, it can look slightly different between cultures. As a result, some anthropologists have debated whether animism is a single religion in and of itself, similar to Christianity with its different denominations, or if each culture has its own individual religion, with belief in animism as a singular part. Debate is still ongoing, though many consider it an aspect of various religions since religion can differ greatly between cultures, even if animism is a common theme between them.
In Africa, many Sub-Saharan African religions emphasize some element of animism in addition to other beliefs such as polytheism and ancestor worship. In the northern Saharan region of Africa, the Berbers make up the predominant religion. The Berbers are Northwestern Africa’s largest indigenous ethnic group, and they practice several different religions, one of which is the traditional Berber religion. This traditional, ancient religion has aspects of polytheism, shamanism, and of course, animism.
Asian cultures, on the other hand, have an even stronger basis in animism. In many Indian-originating religions, for example, animism is a dominating theme. Buddhism, for one, has a significant emphasis on coexisting with nature. Meditation amongst nature is a common practice amongst Buddhists, who believe that meditating amongst nature will result in harmony. This spiritual understanding of nature is rooted in animism.
Sikhism is similar. Sikhism is an ancient religion with origins in India, which focuses on living a practical life of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control, and purity.” Like Buddhism, it also has a significant relationship with nature and shares the belief that humans are spiritually sensitive to nature and the natural world. Respect for and harmony with nature is an essential aspect of Sikhism, as the Sikh Holy Scripture even says: “Air is the Guru, water is the father, and Earth is the great mother.” This is a clear example of animism as one of Sikhism’s many core beliefs.
Other Indian religions also focus on worshipping specific trees, such as the Bodhi and Bonsai. They may also revere sacred rivers, mountains, and other landscapes as part of their beliefs in the spirituality of nature.
During Vat Purnima, women tie thread around banyan trees to disply their love for their husbands. ( georgeburba / Adobe Stock)
Some tree species are more sacred than others, and may be used in specific religious rituals or grown at places of worship. For example, Vat Purnima is a Hindu celebration held by married women. During this celebration, women use a banyan tree to publicly display their love for their husbands. These women will come together to tie a thread around the tree to represent their love. They may also offer copper coins to the tree, as a combination of coins and regular celebration with the thread is thought to please the tree and give their husbands health and longevity.
In addition to this ceremony, the leaves of the tree are seen as highly sacred. Krishna, a major Hindu deity, is believed to live on the leaves of banyan trees. Because of this, they are planted in important areas and treated with the utmost care by those who practice Hinduism.
In the Philippines, indigenous religions that worship Anito (ancestral spirits) and Bathala (a major deity in the region) also believe in animism. In Anito worship especially, it is believed that there is an alternative spiritual world that exists alongside the physical world, where the deceased remain. Those that believe in this believe that the spiritual world often interacts with the spiritual world, which results in natural objects such as grass, trees, and rocks having their own spirits.
Outside of India and the Phillipines, Japan, Pakistan, and Korea all hold similar beliefs in their own native religions. No matter which country you look in, most will have some sort of indigenous history which includes animism. After analysis, it becomes clearer that animism is a common string tying many different religions together, even if they aren’t correlated with one another. Whether it’s the beauty, power, or wonder of nature, it’s clear many people of many different cultures have attributed unique spirituality to it.
Indian woman worshiping a tree. ( Ashish_wassup6730 / Adobe Stock)
Isn’t Dying Anytime Soon
Animism is still mostly practiced by indigenous groups worldwide, though some modern religions have continued to incorporate animism into their beliefs. For example, modern-day pagans have outwardly claimed to be animists, and demonstrate this by showing immense respect and reverence for nature and other living things. They also believe that humans share the world with spirits and that these spirits should be respected.
Though animism may not be considered a mainstream belief, it is still incredibly common in different regions throughout the world. Understanding the beliefs of others gives us a greater insight to the cultures and priorities of other people, and can show us how human thought has evolved over time. Even those that don’t worship using animism may find that they hold something in common with animistic beliefs, such as respect for nature, even if you don’t believe it has a spirit.
The next time you’re exploring nature, consider its beauty and its power. Perhaps you’ll come to understand just why some people consider it a spiritual force of its own.