Animism is the idea that all things—animate and inanimate—possess a spirit or an essence. First coined in 1871, animism is a key feature in many ancient religions, especially of indigenous tribal cultures. Animism is a foundational element in the development of ancient human spirituality, and it can be identified in different forms .
- It is the concept that all elements of the material world—all people, animals, objects, geographic features, and natural phenomena—possess a spirit that connects them to each other.
- Animism is a feature of various ancient and modern religions, including Shinto, the traditional Japanese folk religion.
- Today, animism is often used as an anthropological term when discussing different systems of belief.
Animism is often used to illustrate contrasts between ancient beliefs and modern organized religion. It most cases, animism is not considered to be a religion in its own right, but rather a feature of various practices and beliefs.
Animism is a key feature of both ancient and modern spiritual practices, but it wasn’t given its modern definition until the late 1800s. Historians believe that animism is foundational to the human spirituality, dating back to the Paleolithic period and the hominids that existed at that time.
Source of the Spirit
Within indigenous Australian tribal communities, there exists a strong totemist tradition. The totem, usually a plant or an animal, possesses supernatural powers and is held is reverence as an emblem or symbol of the tribal community. Often, there are taboos regarding touching, eating, or harming the totem. The source of the spirit of the totem is the living entity, the plant or the animal, rather than an inanimate object.
By contrast, the Inuit people of North America believe that spirits can possess any entity, animate, inanimate, living, or dead. The belief in spirituality is much broader and holistic, as the spirit is not dependent on the plant or animal, but rather the entity is dependent on the spirit that inhabits it. There are fewer taboos regarding the use of the entity because of a belief that all spirits—human and non-human—are intertwined.
Modern human beings tend to situate themselves on a Cartesian plane, with mind and matter opposed and unrelated. For example, the concept of the food chain indicates that the connection between different species is solely for the purpose of consumption, decay, and regeneration.
Animists reject this subject-object contrast of Cartesian dualism, instead positioning all things in relationship to one another. For example, Jains follow strict vegetarian or vegan diets that align with their nonviolent beliefs. For Jains, the act of eating is an act of violence against the thing being consumed, so they limit the violence to the species with the fewest senses, according to Jainist doctrine.