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published: 7/7/14

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Animism



Animism: description, definition, beliefs

totem pole
Totem poles (Victoria, BC)

What is animism?

Animism is the belief that animals, plants, rivers, mountains, and other entities in nature contain an inner spiritual essence. Animism has many forms, which reflect the geographical environment, the religious or spiritual cultural history, and the distinct worldview of the people groups who practice its various expressions. It is found in expressions of shamanism and neo-paganism, as well as other spiritualities (more below).

What does "animism" mean?

The English word "animism" has Latin roots and means "soul" or "life." It is related to other English words like "animal" and "animate" (or "inanimate"). It's important to to know that "animism" is a word that observers of this practice, like anthropologists, have used to describe this belief system; it is not a term used by practitioners.

What do animists believe about the physical and spiritual world?

Practitioners ascribe to the idea that the spiritual world and physical world are deeply connected. Like many other religious worldviews today, they believe that spirits or souls exist. Yet unlike many other worldviews they believe that animals, rocks, wind, and rain have spirits or souls as well.



Animism in-depth: religion, examples,

Etymology, or word history

Is animism a religion?

Not in the same way that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are, for example. Although some who have studied animistic expressions in various cultures argue that it is a religion, many more would say that animism is a worldview that underlies a group's beliefs about the universe and people, which are held by practitioners. Animism isn't an organized religion with an institution (e.g. a synagogue, mosque, or church), it doesn't contain articulated doctrine (e.g. a theology of God), and it doesn't have sacred literature (e.g. the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the New Testament).

Expressions

shaman
19th century shaman

What are some examples of religions that have animistic elements in them?

Animism isn't always practiced in isolation today; sometimes it's practiced inside a larger religious context. There are several examples of this from spiritual expressions both large and small, found in both the East and the West. Expressions of animism are found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Neopaganism, and Shinto.

Is animism the same thing as shamanism?

The concepts aren't identical, but they do have overlapping elements. In shamanism, a person called a "shaman" attempts to engage the spirit world by means of entering into a trance, which is variously induced (see article for more information). It is believed that shamans have the ability to interact with the spirits of deceased people; this is perhaps their foremost characteristic. However, shamans also may be called upon when certain calamities strike a community, such as a crop failure. In this case, the shaman may attempt to engage with the spirit of the soil, rain, sun, or another related agricultural factor to improve the difficult circumstances.

Who was Sit Edward Tyler?

Tyler was a British anthropologist (1832-1917) who articulated the description of animism that is used today. In his book Primitive Culture, Tyler called animism the "idea of pervading life and will in nature"; in other words, the belief that natural objects other than humans have souls. The study of animism has progressed since Tyler's work was published, but his book remains an influential contribution to the subject.

Recommended:

Shamanism

The Occult

Black magic

Witchcraft

Alchemy



Sources:

1. Primitive Culture by Sir Edward Tyler
2. Wikipedia, "animism"