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What is Animism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Loosely speaking, animism refers merely to a belief in souls. However, most people use it specifically to refer to beliefs that all objects have souls, not just people. Animism plays a role in many so-called “primitive” practices and shamanic traditions. The concept of animism is also the root of many world religions, and traces of animist belief can be seen in others; Christians, for example, believe in the concept of a soul and in a guiding force which oversees the universe.

The word is derived from the Latin anima, for “soul.” Animists believe that all objects are ensouled, and that some things such as mountains and rivers actually carry the souls of deities. This is reflected in many traditional creation myths, which often involve the trapping of deities or higher forces in the land. Natural events and phenomena are said to be expressions of these souls; when a god is angry, for example, it might rain.

Many animist belief systems also include the idea that souls are separate from the body. Under these beliefs, it is possible for a soul to leave one entity for another, or for someone's soul to be reincarnated in someone else. An animist shaman or priest may also send his or her soul on journeys while the body remains where it is. Elaborate rituals may be performed in these cases to release the soul from the body so that it can travel.

In cultures which practice animism, there are often a lot of festivals, feasts, and celebrations. Each festival is designed to cater to a specific deity, keeping his or her soul happy and content so that the people will remain blessed and healthy. Some festivals or ceremonies may also be conducted to bring about a change; a festival might ask for rain or fertility, for example. These festivals may be taken very seriously in some cultures, while others have evolved more abstract and ceremonial versions.

Some people make the unfortunate mistake of attributing animism to primitive cultures. This is not, in fact, the case. The concept of animism is ancient and it undoubtedly gave birth to mainstream culture and religion, although only traces of the original animism can be seen in religions like Judaism and Christianity. Practitioners of animist religions can be found in almost every country, and while some of them do live remote lives with little contact, others are part of vibrant, highly modernized societies.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon258710 — On Apr 03, 2012

I need the name of some of the feasts and celebrations. What are some religious customs? Not very helpful.

By BioNerd — On Jan 22, 2011

Natural disasters have naturally made people afraid of what animals and nature can do to eradicate life, and therefore they have assigned gods to govern these forces. I find it implausible that they would actually have a spiritual force governing them. Everything is random.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 21, 2011

Witch doctors hold sway over their communities in diabolical and oppressive manners in animistic cultures today. The spiritual oppression conducted by a witch doctor causes a tribe to live in fear and paranoia, harassed on a daily basis by their leader. This is the reason that many caste systems developed with the priestly caste being above even the ruling and warrior elite.

By Leonidas226 — On Jan 19, 2011

Many consider animism to have evolved into more advanced religions such as the dominant ones of our day. There is also a lot of syncretism that remains where these dominant religions spread. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, many people still revered trees up until the Russian army deforested them. They were considered to be deeply spiritual in nature and not to be disturbed. Animism often had solid evidence to support it, and people could be harassed by angry ghosts from time to time. Living in fear, they adopted sacrificial systems.

By pfrydryk — On Jan 24, 2008

May one say that an Animist is diametrically opposed to a Phenomenologist? I'm writing an article for HELIUM on the "Philosophy of Reality," and I contend that an Animist perceives reality in a totally inward, soulful way, while the Phenomenologist looks at reality (existence) as perceived and felt.

I would appreciate any thoughts you might share with me.


Fran Cummings

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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