Animatism and Mana: Early Stages of Religious Evolution

Animatism and Mana: Early Stages of Religious Evolution

Animatism and Mana

Animatism, a fundamental concept in the study of primal religion, encompasses the belief in a generalized and impersonal power that permeates the natural world. Nourished by the concept of life force, this belief system endows both living beings and lifeless objects with otherworldly attributes.

What is Animatism?

Animatism is a term coined by British ethnologist and cultural anthropologist Robert Ranulph Marett. Coined within the framework of his teleological theory of the evolution of religion, animatism refers to a belief system that encompasses the notion of a generalized, impersonal power, which individuals perceive as having some degree of control over.1

The attribution of both supernatural and impersonal powers to humans, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects by certain cultures can be considered within the scope of animatism. These powers are believed to transcend the personal and reflect a higher, animatistic force.

In animatism, one of the fundamental tenets lies in the concept of mana. As Marett posits, mana represents a concentrated form of animatistic force. It is believed that mana is present within any of these objects that confer success and power.2

The concept of mana pervades many indigenous belief systems. It serves as a central pillar in the understanding of animatism. This concentrated force gives objects a transcendental quality, granting them extraordinary capabilities that are perceived as both supernatural and impersonal.

Who was Robert Ranulph Marett?
Robert Ranulph Marett was a British ethnologist and cultural anthropologist who lived from 1866 to 1943. He made significant contributions to the field of anthropology, particularly in the study of religion and its evolution. Marett is known for his teleological theory, which proposed a developmental trajectory of religious beliefs. He emphasized the importance of understanding the spiritual aspects of human culture and explored the connections between religion, society, and individual experience.

The Role of Mana

Within the animatistic framework, as previously stated, mana acts as a source of success, energy, and power. It is believed to reside within people, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, endowing them with extraordinary abilities beyond their intrinsic nature. This animatistic force is not confined to specific individuals but is considered universal, encompassing the entire spectrum of existence.

Mana is regarded as a supernatural force that operates on an impersonal level. It is not bound by personal volition or individual agency but is perceived as a pervasive and transcendental power that permeates the world. The attribution of mana to various objects and entities reflects the belief in an interconnected universe where both living beings and inanimate objects possess the potential to harness this force.

The recognition and understanding of mana are crucial for comprehending animatistic practices and rituals. Indigenous cultures engage in activities aimed at invoking and harnessing mana, seeking to establish a connection with the supernatural forces believed to reside within the objects. Through rituals, offerings, and acts of veneration, individuals strive to access the power inherent in mana, seeking protection, prosperity, and favor from the divine realm.

Animatism in Small-Scale Societies

In some small-scale societies, animatism plays a crucial role in shaping cultural and religious practices. These societies are often found in regions like Melanesia and Polynesia in the South Pacific, where animatism takes on distinct local variations, including forms such as manaism.

Within these societies, animatism offers a lens through which individuals interpret their environment and engage with the world around them. The recognition of animatistic qualities in the natural world establishes a sense of interconnectedness and interdependence. It fosters a deep appreciation for the sanctity and vitality of all elements of existence, reinforcing the belief that each component, animate or inanimate, contributes to the intricate balance of the cosmos. This holistic perspective influences various aspects of their daily lives, social structures, and spiritual practices.

In small-scale societies, animatism is intertwined with the cultural fabric. It finds expression in rituals, ceremonies, and communal gatherings. These practices become avenues for reinforcing the belief in animatistic forces and facilitating collective experiences of the supernatural. Such ceremonies may involve offerings, dances, chants, and other symbolic actions that aim to establish a connection with the animatistic realm.

Animatism and Mana
Anthropomorphic statue and fish sculpture in Taputapuatea, French Polynesia
(Pictures have been merged together to create a single image.)
Photo: Kulia Petz (Flickr) ©️CC BY 2.0

Worship and Rituals

In animatism, the act of worship involves directing reverence and devotion towards specific inanimate objects believed to be infused with animatistic power. This worship is not driven by personal deification or the attribution of consciousness to the objects themselves but is grounded in the recognition of the extraordinary qualities associated with them. The objects serve as conduits for accessing and harnessing the animatistic forces they are believed to embody.

Rituals within animatism often involve ceremonial offerings, recitations of sacred texts or chants, and symbolic actions that signify respect and veneration. These rituals are performed individually or collectively, depending on the cultural context, and are often guided by spiritual leaders or shamans who possess knowledge of the animatistic realm.

Through worship and rituals, practitioners seek to tap into the power of mana and establish a harmonious relationship with the supernatural forces they perceive to be at work. These practices are driven by a desire for protection, guidance, prosperity, and overall well-being.

The participatory nature of animatistic rituals reinforces the communal bonds within society by developing a sense of collective identity.

Animatism as a Developmental Stage in Religion

In understanding animatism, it is crucial to contextualize it within the evolution of religious beliefs. Marett’s teleological theory sheds light on the developmental trajectory of religious thought, emphasizing the significance of animatism as a crucial stage in this progression.

According to Marett, religious beliefs evolve over time, with animatism representing an early and foundational stage in this evolutionary process. Animatism emerges as a natural response to the awe-inspiring aspects of the natural world and the human quest to comprehend and connect with the forces that govern existence.

Animatism serves as a precursor to more complex religious ideologies, such as animism and polytheism, where the focus shifts towards individualized spirits or gods with distinct personalities and agency. While animatism may appear simplistic from a modern perspective, it is crucial to acknowledge its significance in shaping subsequent religious beliefs and practices.

By recognizing animatism as an integral part of religious evolution, anthropologists develop a deeper comprehension of the origins and transformations of religious thought. This developmental perspective allows for a comprehensive examination of the diversity and richness of religious systems worldwide.

Animatism is recognized by some scholars as a predecessor to animism.3

Differences Between Animatism and Animism

Animatism, as previously discussed, centers around the belief in a generalized, impersonal power and the attribution of supernatural qualities to both animate and inanimate entities. It emphasizes the presence of a concentrated animatistic force, mana, which imbues objects with extraordinary capabilities. In animatism, the focus lies in harnessing this force for personal and communal well-being.

On the other hand, animism can be characterized by the attribution of individual spirits to various elements of the natural world. Animism encompasses the belief that all beings, including animals, plants, and inanimate entities, possess distinct consciousness. These spirits are often viewed as personal entities with their own intentions, personalities, and abilities to interact with humans.

While animatism acknowledges a generalized power, animism explores the complexities of spiritual individuality and the personalized connections between humans and spirits. Animism often involves the veneration and propitiation of these spirits through rituals, offerings, and communication with the supernatural realm.

Another key distinction between animatism and animism lies in the concept of a soul. Animatism, as discussed earlier, does not involve the belief in a soul as traditionally understood in other religious and philosophical systems. Instead, it revolves around the recognition of a life force or animatistic energy that permeates all aspects of existence. Animism, on the other hand, often encompasses the belief in individual souls that persist beyond death and have the potential for afterlife or reincarnation.

Furthermore, animism tends to exhibit a more complex spiritual cosmology compared to animatism. It involves the recognition of a multitude of spirits or deities, each with their own characteristics and domains of influence. Animatism, while acknowledging a generalized power, does not typically involve the same level of intricate hierarchy and diverse pantheon as seen in animism.

It is important to note that the boundaries between animatism and animism can sometimes be blurred, and cultural contexts play a significant role in shaping the nuances of belief systems. Different cultures may exhibit variations and hybridizations of these concepts, which makes it essential to approach the study of these belief systems with sensitivity to cultural specificities.

Is It the Same as Pantheism?

No. Pantheism posits that the divine is immanent in the natural world, perceiving the entire universe as divine. It views the universe as a manifestation of a supreme, conscious entity, wherein everything is interconnected and part of the divine essence.4

  1. “Cultural Anthropology: An Applied Perspective”, Gary FERRARO, Cengage Learning – 7th edition, ISBN: 978-0495461647^
  2. Animatism” (April 28, 2023), Wikipedia contributors, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed June 30, 2023^
  3. “Folklor Kaynaklarına Göre Eski Türk ve Slav İnanç Sistemi”, Dr. Mariia TALIANOVA-EREN, Gazi Kitapevi, ISBN: 978-6257315203^
  4. “The Encyclopedia of Philosophy”, Paul Edwards (Editor), Macmillan / Collier, ASIN: B0017IMQME^