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animism, belief in personalized, supernatural beings (or souls) that often inhabit ordinary animals and objects, governing their existence. British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued in Primitive Culture (1871) that this belief was the most primitive and essential form of religion, and that it derived from people's self-conscious experience of the intangible, such as one's reflected image or dreams. He has been criticized for deducing that the chief function of religion is to explain various phenomena. Robert Marett studied among the Melanesians of the South Seas, noting the concept of mana, or supernatural power independent of any soul. He described the belief in such a force as animatism. People may also use mana; for example, a weapon that has killed many animals may be thought to have mana, and charms believed to have mana may be placed to protect gardens. French sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912, tr. 1965), argued that the roots of religion lay in totemism (see totem), where certain objects or animals are treated as sacred objects. Although these early conceptions of animism, animitism, and totemism have been contested and revised, the terms are still used by some anthropologists to describe certain religious beliefs and rituals. See fetish; taboo; amulet; idol; shaman; ancestor worship.
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the belief that natural phenomena, e.g. mountains or plants, are endowed with spirits or life-forces and that events in the world are the outcome of the activities of these. Compare TOTEMISM.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Animism is the belief that spirits dwell within people and objects, in effect "animating" them. Sir Edward Tylor, a late-nineteenth-century anthropologist, developed the theory for which he coined the term "animism." He believed religious thought originated in primitive people through their experience of death and dreams. They experienced the loss of a member of their tribe or family and then experienced that person again through a dream or remembrance. So the idea arose that the spirit (anima) or soul of the person had left the mortal body and now existed in another form. As people began to worship the more powerful of these spirits, religion was born. Tylor didn't fix any rigid structure to this evolution but offered the postulate that a belief in animism may have led to more generalized deities and finally the worship of a single god. (Many twentieth-century anthropologists have largely rejected this evolutionary form of religion.)

Sir James Frazier, who believed the first human attempts to systematize these spirits led to the formation of religious rituals, developed the theory further. He saw the development of the concept of personal gods as the direct result of shamans who "adopted" a special spirit as their own object of veneration. Sigmund Freud later constructed a psychological model, including the view that belief in a personal god is a projection of a father figure growing out of a human need to feel protected and secure.

Animism is found in many indigenous religions worldwide, and it is an almost universal component of regional folklore. After the famous lost colony of Roanoke disappeared in 1590, many Christian colonists believed the spirit of Virginia Dare, the first baby born in the New World, could be seen on moonlit nights in the body of a white deer, ghosting through the forest.

Science, rather than putting to rest the ancient religion, has given proponents new ways of conceptualizing their beliefs. If energy cannot be destroyed, they claim, but only changed to a different form, why is it not possible to conceive of the notion that life energy, upon the death of the body, takes on a new shape?

Thus, animism, interpreted anew, might demonstrate how religion evolves and adapts to changing times and new paradigms.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

From the Latin anima, meaning "soul" or "breath," animism is the doctrine of spiritual beings—the concept that everything in nature, animate and inanimate, has consciousness. The term came into wide currency after being used by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor to describe his theory that primitive peoples believed that there were two parts to humans: the physical, and what he described as a "phantom"—that which was believed to exist in dreams and in trance. He held that early humans went further in believing, by analogical reasoning, that this phantom body existed in all things and could also exist beyond the physical life of the body. In other words, the spirit could live on after death as a "ghost-soul." Sir James G. Frazer describes it as, "a childlike interpretation of the universe in terms of man." Tylor felt that the beginnings of religion were to be found in this early belief that there was a soul, like a human's soul, in all things.

Animism holds that all objects have a spirit or soul, which can survive the destruction of its host. Animistic medicine ascribes sickness and, especially, insanity to the possibility of the soul having been trapped outside the body. Possession, on the other hand, is ascribed to the forced entry of an alien soul into the body.

Animism ties in with ancestor worship and nature worship. Many Witches are believers in animism, giving credence to the idea that all things in nature, animate and inanimate, possess spirits or souls.

In Feng Shui, there are three principles that define the force Ch'i and so form the foundation of this ancient Chinese art. They are the concepts that everything is alive, connected, and ever changing. The vital force Ch'i is the energy that animates everything, connects it, and moves it through the cycles of life. Everything, then, is believed to have living energy, which is the essence of animism.

(See also Mana.)

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



belief in the existence of souls and spirits—that is, fantastic, supernatural, supersensory figures, which in the religious consciousness are represented by agents acting in all of dead and living nature, and which control all objects and phenomena of the material world, including even human beings. If the soul is represented as connected with any individual being or object, to the spirit is ascribed an independent existence, a broad sphere of activity, and the capacity to influence various objects. Souls and spirits are sometimes represented as amorphous, sometimes phytomorphic. They may be zoomorphic or anthropomorphic beings, but they are always assigned consciousness, will, and other human characteristics.

The term “animism” was first introduced by the German scholar G. Stahl, who used it in his work Theoria medica vera (1708) to designate his doctrine of the impersonal beginning of life—the soul which, as it were, is the fundamental basis of all vital processes and the “sculptress of the body.” During the 19th century this term was used in an entirely different sense by E. Tylor, H. Spencer, and other representatives of the so-called evolutionary school in the history of culture and ethnography. In his work Primitive Culture (1871), Tylor ascribed a dual meaning to the term “animism”: (1) the belief in souls and spirits; (2) the theory of the origin of religion. In animism Tylor perceived a “religious minimum”—that is, an embryo from which all religions grew, even the most complex and sophisticated. And this process was considered equally true in all views on the soul, not only in religion but also in idealistic philosophy.

As a theory of the origin of religion, animism did not succeed in passing the test of scientific criticism, and this theory has now been rejected by the majority of researchers. In the first place, no religion, from the crudest to the most refined, bases its beliefs exclusively on souls and spirits or can be identified completely with belief in souls and spirits. In the second place, an enormous amount of factual material accumulated by science after Tylor’s time bears witness to the fact that the process of dualizing (making double) the world—that is, dividing it into the natural and the supernatural, the sacred and the profane, the forbidden and the allowable—certainly did not begin with the attribution of spirits or souls to nature, but instead it proceeded in a much more complicated way than Tylor thought. These facts gave rise to a number of schools of thought, unified by the term “preanimism,” according to which animism was preceded by an age of magic (J. G. Frazer and others), animatism, which is the endowing of all nature with life (R. Marett, L. Ia. Shternberg, and others), and primitive prelogical mysticism (L. Lévy-Bruhl and others). Ifpreanimism proved to be just as powerless to reveal the sources of religion as was animism, it at least did reveal in the primitive representations of souls and spirits their material, substantive origin. The souls and spirits in the religion of the peoples of Australia, people from volcanic islands, and other backward peoples are doubles of real beings and sensory objects, their phantoms, so to speak, but they are still sufficiently substantive that one could see their derivation from objects and phenomena of the material world. They all have flesh and blood; they all are born, eat, have desires, even die, just like the real primitive beings around them. Myths and rituals have convincingly demonstrated that until the savage imagination has populated the supernatural world with souls and spirits, it endows things and phenomena with such supernatural characteristics. The doubles of these things and phenomena then become such souls and spirits. For example, until a savage succeeds in appeasing or scaring off the spirit of a dead person, he strives for a long time to render harmless or propitiate the dead person himself—that is, his corpse. The process of spiritualization, or division of nature and man into a living but nonmaterial soul and a material but dead flesh, was a lengthy one and passed through many stages, whereas the very concept of the soul as a nonmaterial being was an extremely late phenomenon. No matter how sophisticated the endowment of nature and men with souls or spirits may have been, it has always preserved traces of its material origin even in language and ritual. Thus, despite Tylor, animism cannot be acknowledged either genetically or chronologically as the minimum or embryo of religion.

Animism not only fails to explain the origin of religion, but it itself needs to be explained. In animism Tylor saw the “natural religion,” the “childhood philosophy” of mankind, that appeared spontaneously by force of the properties of the primitive consciousness, which invented souls and spirits and believed in their existence as a result of psychological illusion and logical aberration, connected with the phenomena of dreams, hallucinations, echoes, and the like. According to Tylor, spirits were only the “personified causes” of the phenomena mentioned above. Modern scientific research has shown that the roots of animistic concepts, just as those of all primitive religious beliefs, must be sought for not in the separate delusions of isolated savages but in the powerlessness of the savage in the face of nature and in the ignorance which has conditioned this powerlessness. But the most important defect in the animistic theory is that it regards religion as a phenomenon of individual psychology, leaving out of consideration that religion is a fact of social consciousness.

Though as a theory of the origin of religion animism has turned out to be unsatisfactory and only of historical interest, the belief in souls and spirits is considered by modern science to be an inalienable and essential component of all the religions known to history and ethnography.

Certain idealistic and fideistically inclined bourgeois scholars, as well as some theologians, are attempting to set contemporary idealism and fideism apart from animism. Some of them are trying to prove that there is nothing in common between theism in the form of “world religions” and idealism on the one hand and animism on the other hand. On the contrary, others—the so-called primal monotheists, headed by Father W. Schmidt—are attempting to reveal that conceptions of a single deity are mingled with animism in the beliefs held by the most backward peoples. This attempt is being made in order to demonstrate that even these are revealed religions, only “sullied” by a faith in spirits and sorcery. Of course, animism has been subjected and is being subjected to various kinds of modifications, depending upon the degree of its development. However, in the dogma and the ritual of the most reformed modern religions, in the Theosophist teachings concerning astral beings, the idealist teachings concerning the absolute idea, the world soul, life force, and the like, and in the spiritualist table-turning and “photographing” of spirits and ghosts there is a fundamental basis of animism, just as there is in the concepts about the other world among the most backward societies.

The term “animism” has become widespread in still another meaning. In foreign statistics the native inhabitants of Africa, South America, and Oceania who are adherents of the traditional local religions are enumerated under the general category of “animists.” This designation derives from Tylor’s conception of animism as the earliest “savage” religion. But of course these peoples in the main created their own ancient culture, and their various religions are sometimes extremely well developed. They are animists to the same degree as Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists. Therefore, such a use of the term “animism” is incorrect from a scientific point of view.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. the belief that natural objects, phenomena, and the universe itself have desires and intentions
2. (in the philosophies of the Greek philosophers Plato (?427--?347 bc) and Pythagoras (?580--?500 bc)) the hypothesis that there is an immaterial force that animates the universe
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005