Animism in Anthropological and Psychological Contexts

Animism in Anthropological and Psychological Contexts

Animism is the view that everything in the universe has a spirit or life force. Across many indigenous cultures, the world is viewed as a living system where every aspect of nature is deemed alive. But what does it mean to perceive the world as alive? How has this perspective influenced our perception of nature and our role within it?

What is Animism?

Animism is based on the view that everything has a distinct spiritual essence.1 This includes inanimate entities such as mountains, stones, lakes, caves, and clouds. It is deeply rooted in many indigenous cultures and is characterized by the view that the world is a living system where every aspect of nature is considered alive.

The term “animism” comes from the Latin “anima”, which means soul or life. In the anthropological context, it was first discussed in detail by the English anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor in his book “Primitive Culture” in 1871.2

Animism can be thought of as a view that argues that everything is interconnected. Animists regard people, animals, plants and inanimate objects as equal parts of the universe or nature. They emphasize that humans should live in harmony with nature.

Although animism is often associated with traditional and indigenous cultures, it has influenced many modern philosophical and spiritual movements.

The Origin of Animism

It is difficult to determine when animism first appeared. However, it is thought that it emerged in prehistoric times with the effect of early people’s efforts to explain and make sense of the world around them.

Animatism is acknowledged by certain scholars as an early manifestation of the animistic worldview.3

Animism in the Paleolithic

During the Paleolithic era, all human species, who generally made a living as hunter-gatherers, developed a deep bond with nature. Moreover, as their cognitive abilities improved, they began to attribute symbolic meanings to the elements of nature. Indeed, in the Upper Paleolithic, the first religious behaviors emerged.

The earliest evidence for the existence of animistic beliefs is often found in Upper Paleolithic cave art, which depicts animals and other natural objects with symbolic meanings. For example, many cave paintings feature animals with more than one head or more legs than they should. This leads researchers to think that animals and some natural objects are seen as more than physical entities.

Animism in the Neolithic

The hunter-gatherer livelihood and nomadic lifestyle were replaced by agriculture and farming in the Neolithic. With this change, also known as the Agricultural Revolution, animals and plants gained new meanings for people.

Domesticated animals became an important resource for people during the Neolithic. They provided people with vital products such as milk, meat and fur. This, in turn, helped people show respect for the spirits of animals. People believed that these spirits could influence their lives and should be appeased with rituals and offerings.

Likewise, plants also became a vital resource for people. Agriculture allowed people to increase their food supply and have more free time. Therefore, people began to respect the spirits of plants and sanctified them.

Animistic Beliefs and Practices

Animistic practices and traditions have been a part of folk culture since prehistoric times. These traditions, especially in indigenous cultures, have been passed on to posterity, often orally. This cultural transfer is usually realized through tales, legends, myths and other cultural expressions.

Animism is a holistic view that accepts the whole world, even the universe, as alive. It argues that everything in nature, from the smallest pebble to the highest mountain, has a spiritual essence or spirit. According to animism, these spirits can communicate with humans and other spirits.

Are animism and totemism the same?
Animism focuses on individual spirits that help to perpetuate life. However, in totemism there is typically a primary source, such as a totem plant or animal, that provides the basis for life. Additionally, animism is often associated with shamanism, while totemism is more closely linked to tribal cultures. According to anthropologist Tim Ingold, Australian Aborigines are more totemic, while Inuit are more typically animistic.4

Almost all animistic rituals are designed to maintain a harmonious relationship between humans and spirits. Indigenous peoples often perform rituals to appease spirits and ask for their help in hunting, healing or other activities. For example, it is common in Arctic regions to perform rituals to pay homage to the spirits of animals. According to the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit compiled by the ITK, the Inuit people have certain rituals they practice before hunting for a successful hunt.5

These rituals are usually led by shamans. By summoning the spirits of the animals in the area, the shaman gets some kind of approval for the hunt.

Hunt, arctic animism
Return from the Hunt
(Arctic exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum)
Photo: Michael Barera (Wikimedia) ©CC BY-SA 4.0

Another example is that some Turkic communities living in Siberia make offerings to nature spirits before they set off on a journey. In this way, the spirits are satisfied and it is hoped that the journey will take place without any accident or trouble.

In some Native American communities, people perform special rituals to protect the trees they consider sacred. In addition, some communities respect trees and try to minimize their cutting.

Animism Meaning in Psychology

In a psychological context, animism refers to the belief that inanimate objects such as toys, cars, and white goods have a consciousness or soul, and the tendency to attribute human characteristics to them. This belief is especially common among young children and is considered a normal stage in their cognitive development.

Is it instinctive or learned behaviour?
According to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, children instinctively attribute anthropomorphic features to inanimate objects, but later give up on this. On the other hand, according to the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, children are not born with an animistic worldview, they are taught by societies.6

Children’s animistic beliefs are thought to stem from their difficulty in distinguishing between their inner experiences and outer reality. According to psychologists, children may attribute feelings to objects because they do not yet fully understand that these objects do not have consciousness.

As children grow, they often tend to develop more complex and sophisticated understandings of the world. However, some may continue to hold animistic beliefs well into adolescence or even adulthood, especially if supported by cultural or religious traditions. Additionally, some people may believe in animistic beliefs later in life as a result of personal experience or philosophical beliefs.

Having animistic beliefs as an adult may be widely accepted in some cultures and may even be considered mainstream. However, the opposite is possible as well. Ultimately, the prevalence of animistic beliefs among youth and adults can vary greatly depending on cultural contexts.

It should be noted that people’s religious and spiritual beliefs are highly personal, and the meaning of animism in anthropology is not exactly the same as in psychology.

Neo-Animism and Its Impact on Contemporary Belief Systems

The alluring charm of animism faded away gradually, as the powerful currents of major religions swept across the world. However, interest in animist beliefs revived in the late 20th century.

This movement, which is a modern interpretation of animism and includes new spiritual practices, was called neo-animism. Neo-animism has also had an impact on some contemporary belief systems. In particular, traces of neo-animism can be seen in neo-paganism, neo-shamanism and Wicca, which are characterized by respect for nature.

Neo-animism is a growing trend in some contemporary societies and its impact on belief systems and environmental attitudes is significant. While there are potential problems with cultural appropriation, the rise of neo-animism underscores a growing awareness of the interconnectedness between people and nature.

  1. Rethinking Animism: Thoughts from the Infancy of Our Discipline“, Martin D. STRINGER, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 5, No 4^
  2. “Primitive culture”, Edward Burnett TYLOR, 1871, Open Library: OL6946625M, LCCN: 04028527, OCLC/WorldCat: 355146^
  3. “Folklor Kaynaklarına Göre Eski Türk ve Slav İnanç Sistemi”, Dr. Mariia TALIANOVA-EREN, Gazi Kitapevi, ISBN: 978-6257315203^
  4. “Totemism, animism and the depiction of animals”, Tim INGOLD, The Perception of the Environment, 2000^
  5. “Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit”, Editors: Joe KARETAK, Frank TESTER, Shirley TAGALIK, Fernwood Publishing, ISBN: 9781552669914^
  6. “Animism: Respecting the Living World”, Graham HARVEY, Wakefield Press, ISBN: 9781862546783^