What is Animism?

What is Animism?

Wendy Showell
PMT 551 Seminar: Graduate Writing
Instructor: Cecilia A. Ranger, S.N.J.M., Ph.D.
Fall Term 2003

     It is an accepted norm of social conversation. Once we progress past superficial banter and current events, religion often comes into play. It is a vital part of our connection, our relation to self, other, and community. We are, whether we realize it or not, always seeking others like us, others to connect to, and religion is an integral part of that relationship. We have a language we recognize, labels and categories that we use to measure that relationship. Whether the words be Christian, Catholic, or Buddhist, the language tells us by what degree we relate. When I am asked this question, my answer often gives the asker pause, and an opening for more questions. As an animist, I am used to the questions, as it is not a familiar term in our language of religion.

     The primary reason this word causes trouble within the realm of religion is because it does not have purely religious roots. The word, stemmed from the Latin anima meaning breath, wind, and air, and translated as the breath of life, vital principle, or soul, is a term coined by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his 1871 writing, Primitive Culture. Tylor is often considered to be the father of anthropology, and the wealth of his writing concerns the subject. He became interested in the religions of primitive cultures by chance on a trip to Mexico where he began studying the ancient religious rites of their primitive peoples. The theory that he began, and later anthropologists built upon, was that religion, like culture, evolved. To Tylor, the purpose of anthropology was to reconstruct the evolution of culture, from primitive beginnings to the modern state. He applied this same theory to the evolution of religion. He identified animism, or what he saw as the belief in souls, as the first stage in the evolution of religion, which then progressed from polytheism to monotheism.

     The basis of Tylor’s animism is the idea of souls or spirit separate from the physical, material existence. Encyclopædia Britannica defines animism simply as the belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies. Classic animism, according to Tylor, consists of attributing conscious life to natural objects or phenomena, a practice that eventually gave rise to the notion of a soul. While such beliefs are traditionally identified with small-scale or primitive societies, the roots can be seen in most major world religions. Wolfram notes that, since Tylor, animism has often been thought of as the earliest identifiable form of religion (1195). Anthropologists, at the very least, seem to agree on the progress of religious evolution from that point forward. It is assumed that polytheism arose when the spirits associated with natural objects and occurrences was generalized to the idea of gods or deity similarly applied to these objects and occurrences. The Roman pantheon is one historical example of this. Later Hebrew rejected the many gods for the one god, Yahweh. However, even they wrote of Elohim, the all-encompassing creator spirit. Monotheism has further evolved from these ancient roots to the forms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that we are familiar with today.

     While Tylor had many supporters, he had a handful of critics as well. Best known perhaps is R.R. Marett. In his 1914 book, The Threshold of Religion, Marett brings into play two limitations on Tylor’s theory. First, the primitive’s attribution of life or spirit was limited to those objects that behaved in an unusual, or otherwise unexplainable, way. In this view, not everything was considered to be with spirit. Second, Marett claimed that this curious behavior would not necessarily lead the primitive to attribute a soul or spirit to the object. The object might be alive, an example being lightening, without necessarily having a soul or spirit within it. This detached theory was coined as animatism or preanimism. He used the Melanesian example of mana to back up his theory. To the Melanesian people of the Pacific, mana was not a soul, but a kind of communicable energy. While it possessed creation energy, it was not by definition alive, or with spirit.

     So where does this leave the modern animist? I have found in my studies numerous definitions of the word, each with its own slant. Joseph B. Tamney offers a fair definition when he defines animism as a form of religion centered on relating to spiritual powers or beings that permeate the world. These spirits may be conceived as an impersonal force running through everything, capable of both creation and destruction, encompassing the cycle of growth, death, and rebirth. This energy may also be understood as a multitude of spirits with varying personalities. Spirits and humans are interdependent parts of a single cosmos (Swatos). Animism is, as a whole, a far more wide spread system than often portrayed, and stands as the basis of many modern religions. Native American Spirituality is an animist belief. All forms of traditional shamanism fall under the definition of animism. In all, there are more than one hundred million adherents of the various traditional religions of Africa, North America, South America, Asia, and the South Pacific alone (Wilson 21). While many of these religions are still only found in their tribal societies, many have flourished in urban areas. Some, such as Native American Spirituality and Yoruba, are finding status as world religions.

     As long as the faithful are willing to come back to the source, animism will flourish. We go by many different names, but we are all created of the same spirit, all interconnected, in relation to self, each other, community, and creator. No label or category severs this tie. We only differ in how we express our connection to creator. Every tradition has its story, its myth, and its means by which to communicate its story across the generations. While we differ greatly across cultures, animists tend to favor song, poetry, and the music which breathed creation into being. Our beliefs and ideals can be found woven within the verses of songs far older than the cultures that embrace them today. Much like verse gives way to chorus, and chorus returns to verse, an eternal song of creation is found spanning generations and cultures. The Mali Poem, Birago Diop, offers us a glimpse of the eternal cycle of spirit held in belief by the African Traditional religions, and animists worldwide:

     Those who are dead are never gone:
     they are there in the thickening shadow.
     The dead are not under the earth:
     they are there in the tree that rustles,
     they are in the wood that groans,
     they are in the water that runs,
     they are in the water that sleeps,
     they are in the hut, they are in the crowd,
     the dead are not dead.
     Those who are dead are never gone:
     they are in the breast of the woman,
     they are in the child who is wailing,
     and in the firebrand that flames.
     The dead are not under the earth:
     they are in the fire that is dying,
     they are in the grasses that weep,
     they are in the whimpering rocks,
     they are in the forest, they are in the house,
     the dead are not dead. (Wilson 233)

It is important to know that, no matter how far we evolve, this basic belief of eternal spirit and connection to all creation will strengthen our bonds to all other beings in creation. As long as we can see through the dogma and doctrine and return to source, animism will survive.

Works Cited

“Animism.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 3 Nov, 2003.

Marett, R.R. The Threshold of Religion. London: Methuen, 1909.

Swatos, William H., Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.

Tylor, Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture:Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. New York: Gordon Press, 1871.

Wilson, Andrew,ed. World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts. St. Paul: Paragon House, 1995.

Wolfram, Stephan. A New Kind of Science. Champaign: Wolfram Media, Inc., 2002.

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