Animism (from Latin animus, -i “soul, life”) is the religious worldview that natural physical entities—including animals, plants, and often even inanimate objects or phenomena—possess a spiritual essence.
Specifically, animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the religion 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 broadly 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) and not all peoples who describe themselves as tribal would describe themselves as animistic.