Definition and Meaning of Animism

The term animism derives from the Latin word anima meaning breath or soul and german Animismus. The belief of animism is probably one of man’s oldest beliefs. Its origin most likely dating to the Paleolithic age. It is also a religion. One of the oldest.

From its earliest beginnings animism was a religious belief. Its meaning is that a soul or spirit exist in every object, even the inanimate ones. In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, is universal.



The animist is someone who believe or pertain to the doctrine of animism.


Origin of Animism

There has been sharp divisions of thought as to the original concept of animism held by primitive peoples. An British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his “Primitive Culture” (1871) defined it “as a general belief in spiritual beings and considered it ‘a minimum definition of religion.'”

He stated all religions from the simplest to the most complex shared some sort of animistic belief. According to him primitive peoples, defined as those without a written tradition, believed the spirits or souls caused life in human beings.

They pictured these souls as vapors or shadows going from one body to another. The souls not only passed between human beings but into, plants, animals and inanimate objects as well.




Tylor the Animist

Tylor was an animist. He reasoned primitive man arrived at his animistic belief to help him explain the causes of sleep, dreams, and death.

There naturally aroused a need to distinguish between an individual who was awake and one who was asleep, or an individual who lived and one who did not.

Also there was a need to give a reason for the pictures some saw when they slept. The spirits were the early man’s explanations.

Robert Ranulph Marett (1866-1943) a british anthropologist, criticized Tylor . He was convinced that primitive man had not developed the intellectual to form even such simplistic explanations as Tylor proposed.

Marett suggested early religion was more emotional and intuitional in origin. He theorized that early man recognized some inanimate objects because they had some particular characteristic or behaved in some unusual way which mysteriously made them seem alive.

He believed early man treated all animate objects as having a life and will of their own. But they never distinguished the soul as separate from the body, and could enter or leave the body.

Marett conceded early man possessed the belief of animism. But it developed from the idea that some objects seemed alive like man.



It is insignificant how men and women gained the belief that a spirit or soul resides in all objects. It is historically evident that they did. Trees and plants were worshiped as totems or because of their usefulness and beauty.

In many cultures certain trees and plants have been feared. In some ancient cultures “trees were generally regarded as maternal deities or forest spirits. To be respected even when their lives were sacrificed for human use (pagan woodcutters never felled a tree without first begging its forgiveness).

Female tree spirits live on in myth and folklore as dryads. It was the Greek version of the tree-worshiping druid priestesses.”

Plants and trees have been considered sacred by themselves because, as some have thought, they are home to certain spirits.

Both the soma plant of India and the coca shrub of Peru are worshiped for the intoxicating properties of the products made from them. Field crops, thought to harbor spirits of infertility, has been honored by ancient tribesmen and peasants throughout Europe. Traces of these cults are still present.

The above describes nature worshipers among which many occultists. They view life as being in everything, and everything, even man, supporting life. Life is sacred — all life.

“One of the foremost characteristics of Neo-Paganism (or occultism) is the return to the ancient idea that there is no distinction between the spiritual and material, sacred and secular.” Everything is still one as it was to primitive man.

Also buddhism share the idea of an anima in every object.





Holy Book

There is not a specific holy book of animism.



There is not a specific founder. Its origin goes back to the paleolithic era in many places.


Religion location

The animistic religion is mainly in Africa, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Canada and South America.

This religion has more than 230 million followers around the world.




by Alan G. Hefner and Virgilio Guimaraes

Sources: 129272868.