ANIMISM (Latin: animare—vivify; anima—soul; animus—spirit)—the belief among primitive peoples that there are souls or spirits that give life to nature; E. B. Tylor’s theory that these beliefs are the initial stage of religion and in a process of evolution other forms of religion develop out of animism.

The theory of Tylor (1832–1917), like the theories of J. Lubbock, H. Spencer, and J. G. Frazer, was an attempt to provide an evolutionary explanation of history of religion within cultural anthropology. Tylor thought that religion developed in a linear fashion in the following order: animism—manism—fetishism—polydemonism—polytheism—monotheism. Animism—belief in spirits or soul— is the first stage in this development. it is the so-called minimum of religion and as such it may be most concisely defined. The theory of the primacy of animism is based on the thesis that man’s fundamental religious experience is the experience of the existence of the soul (he arrives at the judgment that the soul exists on the basis of an analysis of psychological and parapsychological states). This thesis is supported by research on the religious experiences of autochthonic peoples such as those of Australia, Oceania, North America, and South America (with the assumption that these experiences reflect the religious consciousness of the people of the stone age). According to Tylor, a man who lived in a primitive tribal society would observe phenomena such as sleep, dreams, hallucinations, life, and death. On the basis of these observations he would form the idea of the soul—the personal force that animates the body, and then he would accept the existence of a similar power (spirit-animus) in nature. In this way he could explain the occurrence of certain natural phenomena (e.g. the growth of plants, rain, lightning, and thunder).

The next link in the development of animism was the appearance of the idea that the soul (anima) can exist apart from the body after death as well. According to Tylor this belief provided the basis for the gradual transformation of animism into manism, that is, ancestor worship (a belief in the protecting power of dead relatives); into fetishism (a belief in the presence of a superhuman force or power in certain objects, e.g. a tree, or a stone, and that man could make these powers favorable to himself by sacrifices); into polydemonism (the extrapolation of the idea of pure spirits to all animate and inanimate nature, which is manifested in the worship of animals, especially serpents); finally, into the first form of polytheism (a belief in the existence of individualized deities who patronized different objects such as the sun or rivers). Polytheism in the proper sense and monotheism arise from these primitive beliefs.

Tylor published his theory in 1871 in his two-volume work Primitive Culture in which for the first time he used the concept of animism to describe primitive beliefs (he took this description from G. E. Stahl’s Theoria medica vera, Hl 1737, where it meant a living substance). W. Wundt developed the idea in his work Mythus und Religion (L 1909) with this difference: Wundt regarded animism as a pre-religious stage, and the mechanism of the evolution of religious belief was based on the principle of association of mental images and historical-geographic connection.

Tylor’s views were criticized by his student, R. E. Marret, and by R. H. Cardington. They said that there was a more primitive stage than animism. That stage is dynamism (also called animatism), a belief in an impersonal power (mana) that exists in nature and acts autonomously; man in the stone age was not yet able to produce a concept as abstract as that of the soul, and so was unable to think reflectively and see nature in terms of animism. A. Lang, the author of premonotheism (initially he had supported animism) also criticized animism. Catholic researchers associated with the cultural-historical school—M. Gusinde, W. Schmidt—also criticized animism. Like Lang, they said that the oldest form of religion is monotheism, and that polytheistic religions were only a departure from primitive sources. Marxist scholars of religion such as J. P. Francew presented a different view on the genesis of animism and a different method for investigating animistic beliefs: according to them, animism could not have been the oldest form of religion since it was associated with the formation and consolidation of tribes; this phenomenon should be analyzed in the context of the entire world-view of the people of that time (including their beliefs on the social sphere).

G. d’Alviella, ERE I 535–537; T. Margul, Sto lat nauki o religiach [One hundred years of science about religions], Wwa 1964, 84–111; S. A. Tokariev, Rannije formy religii i ich razvitie, Mwa 1964 (Pierwotne formy religii i ich rozwoju [Primitive forms of religion and their developmnet], Wwa 1969 17–38); K. W. Belle, ERel I 296–302; M. Kairski, Zarys encyklopedyczny religii [Encyclopedic Outline of Religion], Pz 1992, 19–22.

Anna Z. Zmorzanka

<--Go back