Animism (from Latinanimus, -i "soul, life") is the worldview that non-human entities (animals, plants, and inanimate objects or phenomena) possess a spiritual essence.
Specifically, animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the belief system or cosmology of some indigenous tribal peoples, especially prior to the development and/or infiltration of colonialism and organized religion. Although each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, "animism" is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples' "spiritual" or "supernatural" perspectives. The animistic perspective is so fundamental, mundane, everyday and taken-for-granted that most animistic indigenous people do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to "animism" (or even "religion"); the term is an anthropological construct rather than one designated by the people themselves.
Largely due to such ethnolinguistic and cultural discrepancies, opinion has differed on whether animism refers to a broad religious belief or to a full-fledged religion in its own right. The currently accepted definition of animism was only developed in the late 19th century by Sir Edward Tylor, who created it as "one of anthropology's earliest concepts, if not the first".
Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows. Animism thus rejects Cartesian dualism. Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names, or metaphors in mythology. Examples of animism can be found in forms of Shinto, Serer, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Paganism, and Neopaganism. Some members of the non-tribal world also consider themselves animists (such as author Daniel Quinn, sculptor Lawson Oyekan, and many Neopagans).
Sir Edward Tylor was responsible for forming the definition of animism currently accepted in anthropology.
The term animism appears to have been first developed as Animismus by German scientist Georg Ernst Stahl, circa 1720, to refer to the "doctrine that animal life is produced by an immaterial soul." The actual English language form of animism, however, can only be attested to 1819. The term was taken and redefined by the anthropologistSir Edward Tylor in his 1871 book Primitive Culture, in which he defined it as "the general doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings in general." According to Tylor, animism often includes "an idea of pervading life and will in nature"; i.e., a belief that natural objects other than humans have souls. This formulation was little different from that proposed by Auguste Comte as fetishism.
As a self-described "confirmed scientific rationalist", Tylor believed that animistic beliefs were "childish" and typical of "cognitive underdevelopment", and that it was therefore common in "primitive" peoples such as those living in hunter gatherer societies. In fact, Tylor based his theory of animism on his experience of modern seances thereby constructing a model of 'primitive thought' (of which he had no first hand experience) from his first-hand knowledge of spiritualism. Stringer (1999) notes that his reading of Primitive Culture led him to believe that Tylor was far more sympathetic in regard to “primitive” populations than many of his contemporaries, and that Tylor expressed no belief that there was any difference between the intellectual capabilities of “savage” people and westerners. To Tylor, the fundamental distinction between western and “primitive” cultures was education; and education was a social-cultural evolutionary process that produced differing levels of sophistication, or “progress,” in different places.
Social evolutionist conceptions of animism
Tylor's definition of animism was a part of a growing international debate on the nature of 'primitive society' by lawyers, theologians and philologists. The debate defined the field of research of a new science, Anthropology. By the end of the nineteenth century an orthodoxy on 'primitive society' had emerged although few anthropologists today would accept their definition; the 'nineteenth century armchair anthropologists' argued 'primitive society' (an evolutionary category) was ordered by kinship and was divided into exogamous descent groups related by a series of marriage exchanges. Their religion was 'animism,' the belief that natural species and objects had souls. With the development of private property, these descent groups were displaced by the emergence of the territorial state. These rituals and beliefs eventually evolved over time into the vast array of "developed" religions. According to Tylor, the more scientifically advanced a society became, the less members of that society believed in animism; however, any remnant ideologies of souls or spirits, to Tylor, represented "survivals" of the original animism of early humanity.
In 1869 (three years after Tylor proposed his definition of animism), the Edinburgh lawyer John Ferguson McLellan argued that the animistic thinking evident in fetishism gave rise to a religion he named Totemism. Primitive people believed, he argued, that they were descended of the same species as their totemic animal. Subsequent debate by the armchair anthropologists (including J. J. Bachofen, Émile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud) remained focused on totemism rather than animism, with few directly challenging Tylor's definition. Indeed, anthropologists "have commonly avoided the issue of animism and even the term itself rather than revisit this prevalent notion in light of their new and rich ethnographies."
According to the anthropologist Tim Ingold, animism shares similarities to totemism but differs in its focus on individual spirit beings which help to perpetuate life, whereas totemism more typically holds that there is a primary source, such as the land itself or the ancestors, who provide the basis to life. Certain indigenous religious groups such as the Australian Aboriginals are more typically totemic, whereas others like the Inuit are more typically animistic in their worldview.
Animism as a relational ontology
After a lengthy period of disinterest, post-modern anthropologists are increasingly engaging with the concept of animism. Modernism is characterized by a Cartesian subject-object dualism that divides the subjective from the objective, and culture from nature; in this view, animism is the inverse of scientism, and hence inherently invalid. Drawing on the work of Bruno Latour, these anthropologists question these modernist assumptions, and theorize that all societies continue to "animate" the world around them, and not just as a Tylorian survival of primitive thought. Rather, the instrumental reason characteristic of modernity is limited to our "professional subcultures," which allows us to treat the world as a detached mechanical object in a delimited sphere of activity. We, like animists, also continue to create personal relationships with elements of the so-called objective world, whether pets, cars or teddy-bears, who we recognize as subjects. As such, these entities are "approached as communicative subjects rather than the inert objects perceived by modernists." These approaches are careful to avoid the modernist assumptions that the environment consists dichotomously of a physical world distinct from humans, and from modernist conceptions of the person as composed dualistically as body and soul.
Nurit Bird-David argues that "Positivistic ideas about the meaning of 'nature', 'life' and 'personhood' misdirected these previous attempts to understand the local concepts. Classical theoreticians (it is argued) attributed their own modernist ideas of self to 'primitive peoples' while asserting that the 'primitive peoples' read their idea of self into others!" She argues that animism is a "relational epistemology", and not a Tylorian failure of primitive reasoning. That is, self-identity among animists is based on their relationships with others, rather than some distinctive feature of the self. Instead of focusing on the essentialized, modernist self (the "individual"), persons are viewed as bundles of social relationships ("dividuals"), some of which are with "superpersons" (i.e. non-humans).
Tim Ingold, like Bird-David, argues that animists do not see themselves as separate from their environment: "Hunter-gatherers do not, as a rule, approach their environment as an external world of nature that has to be 'grasped' intellectually ... indeed the separation of mind and nature has no place in their thought and practice." Willerslev extends the argument by noting that animists reject this Cartesian dualism, and that the animist self identifies with the world, "feeling at once within and apart from it so that the two glide ceaselessly in and out of each other in a sealed circuit." The animist hunter is thus aware of himself as a human hunter, but, through mimicry is able to assume the viewpoint, senses, and sensibilities of his prey, to be one with it. Shamanism, in this view, is an everyday attempt to influence spirits of ancestors and animals by mirroring their behaviours as the hunter does his prey.
Religion and animism
A tableau presenting figures of various cultures filling in mediator-like roles, often being termed as "shaman" in the literature.
There is ongoing disagreement (and no general consensus) as to whether animism is merely a singular, broadly encompassing religious belief or a worldview in and of itself, comprising many diverse mythologies found worldwide in many diverse cultures. This also raises a controversy regarding the ethical claims animism may or may not make: whether animism ignores questions of ethics altogether or, by endowing various non-human elements of nature with spirituality or personhood, in fact promotes a complex ecological ethics. In modern usage, the term is sometimes used improperly as a catch-all classification of "other world religions" alongside major organized religions.
Characteristics of Animism
Tylor argued that animism consisted of two unformulated propositions; all parts of nature had a soul, and these souls are capable of moving without requiring a physical form. This gives rise to fetishism, the worship of visible objects as powerful, spiritual beings. The second proposition was that souls are independent of their physical forms. It gives rise to 'spiritism', the worship of the souls of the dead and the unseen spirits of the heavens. Others such as Nurit Bird-David, associate animism with various aspects of shamanism.
In many animistic world views, the human being is often regarded as on a roughly equal footing with other animals, plants, and natural forces. Therefore, it is morally imperative to treat these agents with respect. In this world view, humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it.
Totemism (or fetishism) includes one or more of several features, such as the mystic association of animal and plant species, natural phenomena, or created objects with unilineally related groups (lineages, clans, tribes, moieties, phratries) or with local groups and families; the hereditary transmission of the totems (patrilineal or matrilineal); group and personal names that are based either directly or indirectly on the totem; the use of totemistic emblems and symbols; taboos and prohibitions that may apply to the species itself or can be limited to parts of animals and plants (partial taboos instead of partial totems); and a connection with a large number of animals and natural objects (multiplex totems) within which a distinction can be made between principal totems and subsidiary ones (linked totems).
Many animistic cultures observe some form of ancestor reverence. Whether they see the ancestors as living in an other world, or embodied in the natural features of this world, animists often believe that offerings and prayers to and for the dead are an important facet of maintaining harmony with the world of the spirits.
A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing. Shamanism encompasses the premise that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds. Shamans are said to treat ailments/illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul/spirit restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. The shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community. Shamans may visit other worlds/dimensions to bring guidance to misguided souls and to ameliorate illnesses of the human soul caused by foreign elements. The shaman operates primarily within the spiritual world, which in turn affects the human world. The restoration of balance results in the elimination of the ailment.
Distinction from pantheism
Animism is not the same as pantheism, although the two are sometimes confused. Some religions are both pantheistic and animistic. One of the main differences is that while animists believe everything to be spiritual in nature, they do not necessarily see the spiritual nature of everything in existence as being united (monism), the way pantheists do. As a result, animism puts more emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual soul. In pantheism, everything shares the same spiritual essence, rather than having distinct spirits and/or souls.
Examples of animist traditions
Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, is highly animistic. In Shinto, spirits of nature, or kami, are believed to exist everywhere, from the major (such as the goddess of the sun), which can be considered polytheistic, to the minor, which are more likely to be seen as a form of animism.
Many traditional beliefs in the Philippines still practised to an extent today are animist and spiritist in origin in that there are rituals aimed at pacifying malevolent spirits or are apotropaic in nature.
There are some Hindu groups which may be considered animist. The coastal Karnataka has a different tradition of praying to spirits (see also Folk Hinduism). Likewise a popular Hindu ritual form of worship of North Malabar in Kerala, India is the Tabuh Rah blood offering to Theyyam gods, despite being forbidden in the Vedic philosophy of sattvic Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, Theyyam deities are propitiated through the cock sacrifice where the religious cockfight is a religious exercise of offering blood to the Theyyam gods.
Many traditional Native American religions are fundamentally animistic. See, for example, the Lakota Sioux prayer Mitakuye Oyasin. The Haudenausaunee Thanksgiving Address, which can take an hour to recite, directs thanks towards every being - plant, animal and other.
The New Age movement commonly demonstrates animistic traits in asserting the existence of nature spirits.
Some Neopagan groups, including Eco-Pagans, describe themselves as animists, meaning that they respect the diverse community of living beings and spirits with whom humans share the world/cosmos.
Animism in the broadest sense, i.e., thinking of objects as animate, and treating them as if they were animate, is near-universal. Jean Piaget applied the term in reference to an implicit understanding of the world in a child's mind which assumes that all events are the product of intention or consciousness. Piaget explains this with a cognitive inability to distinguish the external world from one's internal world.
Science and animism
In the early 20th century, William McDougall defended a form of animism in his book Body and Mind: A History and Defence of Animism (1911).
The physicist Nick Herbert has argued for "quantum animism" in which mind permeates the world at every level.Werner Krieglstein wrote regarding his quantum animism:
Herbert's quantum animism differs from traditional animism in that it avoids assuming a dualistic model of mind and matter. Traditional dualism assumes that some kind of spirit inhabits a body and makes it move, a ghost in the machine. Herbert's quantum animism presents the idea that every natural system has an inner life, a conscious center, from which it directs and observes its action.
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