If you have any interest in witchcraft, nature-based religions, or the spiritual community, you may have heard the term “animism” being used. More and more people are tapping into this wonderful, ancient belief system, likely practiced by every single one of our ancestors, no matter your religious, ethnic, or cultural background.
But what exactly is animism? In this article, we will explain the meaning of animism, its history, how it differs from other religions, and more!
What is Animism?
Animism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena”, and “the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.”
The first definition is simple enough; just think of the song “colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas:
I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.
The second definition may be trickier. How is a supernatural power organizing and animating the material universe any different from monotheistic religions like Christianity?
Firstly, animism isn’t in itself a religion, as there are many religions that have animistic beliefs. Secondly, animism as a concept assumes that the unifying spirit is present within every being, while monotheistic religions may assume that each spirit is unique.
These two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, either. In some understandings of animism – especially those that aren’t steeped in religious practices – each spirit is a unique, autonomous Being. In others, the spirits are separate and unique, yet part of the same unifying spirit. Think of a rose: each petal on the rose is its own petal, and yet still part of the same rose.
Even elements of monotheism support an animistic belief in a unifying spirit. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are all separate entities held within the same spirit.
The Hermetic belief “As above, so below; as within, so without”, also encapsulates animism, in a way. If we are all pieces of the universe experiencing itself, and all material and time began with the Big Bang, we are all related.
The same matter that makes up a human also makes up an animal, a rock, a river, and a thunderstorm. With animism, the macrocosm of the greater universe is also seen within microcosms of communities, processes, and even down to the molecular level.
Who practices/believes in Animism?
Although in Western society we are steeped in beliefs of One God or even the absence of any creator or supernatural force in the universe, in the world beyond, animism is the prevailing belief.
Belief in nature spirits is more widespread as far as geographic spread and actual numbers than any monotheistic religion or atheist belief system.
Southeast Asia, almost all of Africa, rural China, Tibet, Japan, rural Central and South America, indigenous communities in North America, certain non-Christianized areas of Eastern Europe, and the indigenous Pacific Islands are all dominated by animistic beliefs.
Compared to these widespread beliefs, “dominant” world religions are brand new.
How Does Animism Differ from Monotheistic and Polytheistic Religions?
Animistic beliefs differ from monotheistic and even polytheistic religions in that it in itself isn’t a religion, and though our understanding of some indigenous belief systems is that they have many gods, this isn’t necessarily accurate.
Since these religions are most often seen through a Western lens, where our understanding of polytheism comes from Greek and Roman mythology, where many different gods were the god of something, we have proscribed the same understandings onto indigenous animistic beliefs, but this does not necessarily align with their cosmology.
Rather than a god that is in charge of rivers, for instance, the belief is that the god IS the river. Rather than ancestors that watch benevolently from some undefinable place that may or may not exist, ancestors are here on earth, in the form of certain animals, objects, and places.
For example, you may be familiar with the Mo’ai, the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island.
While from a Western viewpoint these are representations of ancestors carved into the rock and placed in positions of power around the island, to the Rapa Nui these are the ancestors themselves – when their human forms were exhausted, the spirits passed into these carvings.
This makes it particularly heart-wrenching when we think about how so many of these and other “artifacts” have been stolen to be displayed in Western museums. The belief is that, so far away from their homeland and kept behind glass, their spirits will diminish and fade away.
Spirits of Place
In animism, there is a belief in something called a Spirit of Place. Essentially what this means is that everywhere you go there is a prevailing spirit, or spirits, who guard and watch over the place. You may also hear the term Genius loci, which means the same thing.
These are not relegated strictly to natural spaces. If the animistic belief is that everything has a spirit, then urban landscapes can have Genius loci as well.
It is thought in many animistic beliefs that whenever you spend a lot of time in a place, it is right to leave an offering to its Spirit. But how can you tell which spirit in a place is the dominant spirit; the one that is right to leave offerings to?
A simple way to find this is to spend time grounding and connecting within the place, to feel a sense of one-ness. If you have a backyard, you can ‘meet’ the dominant spirit there, and leave offerings to bring protection to your home.
Start by sitting on the earth, if you can, or on a towel or blanket with your hands touching the earth. To ground yourself, close your eyes and take deep, slow breaths. Feel into your root chakra. When you feel you are ready, visualize a root extending from the column of your spine downward into the earth.
Try to visualize each layer of the earth as you send your awareness downwards until you feel the warmth of its molten core. Visualize your root wrapping securely around the core. If you feel moved to, speak a few words, either out loud or in your mind, and then ascend back into your body.
Next, bring your awareness to your crown chakra, and imagine a beam of light extending from the top of your head, upward into the air. Send your awareness above you, seeing your house, your neighborhood, your city, country, and so on, up and out of the atmosphere into space.
You can choose a celestial body to wrap your light around – the moon is a good place to start. When you have tethered to the moon, if you feel moved to, speak a few words, and begin your descent, bringing your awareness back into your body.
Now that you are grounded, spend some time sending your awareness to different parts of your yard. Investigate each plant. If there is a particularly large tree in your yard, send your awareness there.
Try to clear your mind and sense any impressions you may be getting from various places around your yard. You may feel a buzz of energy, a strong pull, or a sensation of bright light in front of your closed eyes.
Once you feel you have pinpointed the dominant spirit, spend some time sitting with it and meditating, or even bringing offerings to it.
Things like bread, fruit, cream, and honey are great – make sure anything you leave is biodegradable. Food items like these double as offerings to the animals living in the area.
The goal of leaving these offerings is to have the spirit recognize you and thank them for protecting this area. Too many of us take nature for granted, and as a result, lose the connection to the earth that lives inside of us all.
Associating with the Genius loci of places you frequent regularly establishes this connection and leads to a rich relationship with the spirits of places you inhabit.
Relationships vs. the Self in Animism
You are in a relationship with everything you come into contact with in the world around you. Nature, weather, animals, things you use every day, things you only come into contact with once. Your car, your phone, your laptop – you have a relationship to all of these things.
When you have cultivated a relationship and acknowledge the spirit of things you work with on a daily basis, you may find that processes involving those things run more smoothly.
For example, say there is a printer at a workplace that everybody uses, that may be prone to jamming. While it may seem silly to ascribe a spirit to a printer, remember that we all seem to be aware of the fact that printers can sense when we are in a hurry to print something, and will more often than not malfunction in the presence of our stress.
Those who seem to have the most frustration with the printer, grumbling about it as they’re using it, seem to have more issues than people who approach it calmly and neutrally. This is a great example of being in relationship with the spirit of an everyday item.
How would you feel if you were tasked with a job by an impatient superior, and immediately cursed out and even struck by them when you failed to do the job properly immediately?
In the same way, we are in a relationship with the spirits of nature around us, as well. When we treat the things we come into contact with well, they treat us well in return.
Dogs that are treated with aggression act with aggression, and those that are treated with compassion, gentleness, and patience become beloved companions.
Just because they don’t speak human language, according to animism, does not mean that they do not have a spirit. Who can look into the eyes of a cute dog and think that they do not feel emotions?
History of Animism
Though it may feel impossible to ascribe a spirit and personality to inanimate objects, animals, and even weather patterns now, our ancestors did not think so.
Hunter-gatherer societies looked upon violent events like thunderstorms as angry spirits, and, since they were wholly a part of the food chain of their environment, did not see themselves as any different from the animals they hunted, and that hunted them.
Jumping out of the food chain, as humans did when they tamed fire and developed tools and weapons, is most likely what removed humans from the idea that everything around them possessed a spirit as well.
Our ancestors even ascribed spirits, autonomy, and movement to the stars in the night sky. Back in the days before light pollution was even a concept, the night sky must have shone with a brilliant array of planets and stars, and since there wasn’t anything to do but sit around a fire and tell stories, over time the movement of the stars and planets in the sky began to take on recognizable patterns, and these patterns mirrored events that happened on earth. Thus, was astrology born.
Events such as eclipses were seen as malefic – imagine that your understanding of day-to-day life depended on the sun rising and setting with regularity, and then, one day, before it has even set, the entire world is plunged into shadow, birds stop singing, and strange patterns appear in the shadows on the ground, only for it all to return to normal a few minutes later.
Imagine you see the moon in the sky every night, in its waxing and waning, ebbing and flowing along with the tides and the illumination it brings on full moons, only for it to suddenly turn the color of blood.
Another example of the history of animism is the prevalence of river spirits in areas where the rivers flooded like clockwork, leaving behind fertile silt that allowed plants to grow and agriculture to develop. All of human civilization was dependent on things like flooding rivers and seasons – and so, in order to appease these spirits, offerings were made.
Some cultures did, admittedly, sacrifice other humans in appeasement, but it isn’t hard to wrap your mind around, knowing that they didn’t think of humankind as superior to other kinds.
Eventually, with the rise of Abrahamic religions that were widely monotheistic, this knowledge was lost to those who embraced the religions, and began to see their ancestors’ way of life as primitive and “savage.” Framing animistic beliefs this way serves to raise the monotheistic god above all else, as a figure to point to, to prove that we are “civilized.”
Animism is a belief system as old as humankind itself, that connects us with our surroundings and places us in the cycle of life and death on this planet, and the universe.
It is the most widely-held belief in the world, still, although the rise of technology and individualism leaves many to view it is a primitive belief. Perhaps it is, but that may not be a bad thing. There are spirits all around us, and whether we know it or not, we have a relationship to those spirits.
With this knowledge, how will you move forward in your interactions with the world around you? Even if it just means leaving a bit of fruit outside your door for the animals in your yard, or speaking gently to a piece of malfunctioning equipment, you have the power to place yourself firmly within the world in all its glory, participating in the community of spirits experiencing the spiral of life and existence all around you, ebbing and flowing with its currents and patterns, like a wave upon the shore.