Animism is the name given by E. B. Tylor, the founder of modern anthropology, to the system of beliefs about souls and spirits typically found in tribal societies, from the Americas to Africa to Asia and Australia. For Tylor, animism was the world’s most primitive religion.
Tylor identified two major branches of Animism (which he spelled with a capital “A”): beliefs about souls and spirits connected with the human body, and beliefs about spirits which had an independent existence. He published his book Primitive Culture (1871) at a time when Darwin’s ideas about evolution were very much in the air, and he believed that human psychology, together with human culture and society, had undergone evolution similar to that then being claimed for the physical body. This led him to arrange various soul and spirit concepts in a developmental sequence, beginning with souls connected with the human being, through independent spirits, to polytheism, and then to monotheism—the idea of a single high God, as one finds in modern Western religions.
Andrew Lang was the first to question Tylor’s developmental sequence, in The Making of Religion (1898), by pointing out that some very primitive societies had high gods. Although later study showed that these gods were not the supreme moral beings found in the great Western religions, nevertheless Tylor’s scheme had been successfully challenged. Questions about animism’s claim to be the earliest form of religion were also heard. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough (1890), argued for a prior stage of belief in magic, and others hypothesized that belief in a psychic substance called “mana” had existed before beliefs in souls and spirits. However, since no societies with magic and mana but without souls and spirits have ever been found, this position is hypothetical at best.
Anthropologists today reject Tylor’s evolutionary orientation and developmental sequence, but recognize that the system of beliefs he described under the heading of Animism is widespread. Spelled with a lowercase “a,” animism is an appropriate label for the worldview characteristic of tribal societies around the world. This worldview is built upon the acceptance of the human being’s survival of death and of a nonphysical realm alongside the physical world, and to the extent that it helps to channel religious sentiment (and it certainly does), it deserves to be called a religion. The question of whether it was in fact humankind’s first religion cannot be answered.
As Tylor showed with example after example, the fundamental animistic soul beliefs are based on direct apprehension and experience of such things as sleep and dreaming, visions and trances—what today we would call out-of-body experiences, Near-Death-Experiences, and Apparitions. Observation and experiences of such events would naturally have suggested that the human being was composed of both physical and spiritual parts, and that the spiritual part, being detachable from the body during life, survived death. But this is only the beginning of the animistic belief system. Having survived death, the spirit might do more than simply go to the Land of the Dead (see Afterlife). It might, for instance, take control of living persons during Feasts and Festivals of the Dead (see also Possession), or it might seek to send messages to the living through specially trained persons, as in Mediumship. Shamans specialize in out-of-body travel and the direct contact with the spirits of the dead.
A spirit after death need not possess only living persons. It might lodge itself in various features of the natural world (such as trees or rocks) or in human-made objects (such as statues or spears), thereby imbuing them with a special power. The collection of beliefs about objects so imbued has been called “fetishism.” A special type of fetishism involves the spirit’s association with a ritual object, which is then propitiated, if not worshipped outright. Such is the case with ancestral tablets in China. In West Africa, ancestral shrines (in many cases, carved representations of human figures) serve a similar function (see Ancestor Worship). Similar carved figures may also serve for the temporary lodging of a shaman’s spirit helpers. Fetish objects do not always gain their power through association with a spirit, however. In West Africa, where fetishism is particularly strong, the power may also come from smearing the object with a special substance (see Fetish).
Parts of the body such as hair, nails, and even excrement are intimately connected with it, and remain in connection with the person after they have been cast off. The same may be true of the afterbirth or the foreskin removed in circumcision. All these items must be carefully buried or otherwise disposed of, lest they be found and used against one by witches or sorcerers. In many places, the soul is thought to perch on the crown of the head, and practices such as scalping and headhunting have as their intention the taking of the victim’s soul. Cannibalism often was associated with the belief that by eating a person’s flesh one ingested part of his spiritual essence, and for that reason cannibalistic practices (before they were outlawed) were sometimes part of funeral customs and rites. When cremation is practiced, the resulting ashes are sometimes mixed with water and drunk, with the same intent.
Beliefs that a person may have more than a single soul are not uncommon. The different souls may account for different body functions (one may be associated with the bones, another with the breath, a third with the intellect), they may reside in different places in the body (the crown of the head, the liver, the skin), and they may face different fates after death (one may rest in the grave with the corpse, another travel to the Land of the Dead, a third return to earth to be reborn in a child). Siberian Yakut men have as many as eight souls, whereas Yakut women have seven. In some societies, men and women have different souls, or souls may be passed to all offspring from each parent, so that each person has two souls. Because each of these souls is believed to be reincarnated in different family lines, the souls from the parents provide each person with two different heritages. A person’s given name frequently has a spiritual power, and among many Eskimo groups, a name is even a type of soul.
It is not surprising to find that in societies which live so much closer in touch with nature than the modern West, not only persons, but also animals and even plants, may have souls. In some societies, all animals are held to have souls, whereas in others, only certain animals do, and these animal souls may reincarnate in members of the same species, as happens with the human beings. Human spirits may also be reborn in animals before dying and being born once more as children (see Reincarnation). In other cases, people may have a spiritual affinity to animals of certain species. The subset of animistic beliefs concerning this side of the human relationship to animals is known as Totemism.
Totemic animals may sometimes act as Guardian Spirit for persons. Sometimes, also, a guardian spirit is a deceased person in the community or perhaps part of the same person reincarnated in one, but most often the guardian spirit is a distinct spirit entity.
For the animist, the world abounds with spirit entities of various sorts. Most have no direct connection with living or deceased persons, though they may transform themselves into animals or human beings, or make themselves felt in some other way. Prominent or dramatic natural features such as volcanos, whirlpools or giant rocks may be held to be possessed by spirits, who must be propitiated by leaving food or drink, lest they harm persons who come near them. Water spirits and forest spirits are especially common. The animistic world is also populated by myriad monsters, such as the windigo of the Algonquian Indians. It is doubtless from ideas of this sort that beliefs in elves, fairies, and other beings of Western folklore developed.
Animism is more than simply a collection of beliefs about souls and spirits. Animistic beliefs have their own logic and consistency, which justifies calling animism a system of belief. A fully developed animistic system is rare today, but parts of it exist in many places, suggesting both that it is a very ancient way of perceiving the world, and that it was at one time universal.
Andrew Lang disagreed with Tylor about his developmental sequence of beliefs, though not with his description of the beliefs themselves. On this point, in fact, Lang went farther than Tylor did, and argued that clairvoyant DREAMS and apparitions had suggested the concepts of souls and spirits partly because they were veridical. The investigations of Psychical Research leave little doubt that Lang was right on this score as well, which in turn suggests that animism has managed to survive for as long as it has in part because it is based on a realistic perception of the world.
- Lowie, Robert. Primitive Religion. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923.
- Radin, Paul. Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin. New York: Dover Publications, 1957.
- Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.