History of the Universe eBook. 398 pages, 300 illustrations only $2.99

ANIMISM (from animus, or anima, mind or soul), according to the definition of Dr. E. B. Tylor, the doctrine of spiritual beings, including human souls; in practice, however, the term is often extended to include panthelism or animatism, the doctrine that a great part, if not the whole, of the inanimate kingdom, as well as all animated beings, are endowed with reason, intelligence and volition, identical with that of man. This latter theory, which in many cases is equivalent to personification, though it may be, like animism, a feature of the philosophy of peoples of low culture, should not be confused with it. But it is difficult in practice to distinguish the two phases of thought and no clear account of animatism can yet be given, largely on the ground that no people has yet been discovered which has not already developed to a greater or less extent an animistic philosophy. On theoretical grounds it is probable that animatism preceded animism; but savage thought is no more consistent than that of civilized man; and it may well be that animistic and panthelistic doctrines are held simultaneously by the same person. In like manner one portion of the savage explanation of nature may have been originally animistic, another part animatistic.

Origin.—Animism may have arisen out of or simultaneously with animatism as a primitive explanation of many different phenomena; if animatism was originally applied to non-human or inanimate objects, animism may from the outset have been in vogue as a theory of the nature of man. Lists of phenomena from the contemplation of which the savage was led to believe in animism have been given by Dr. Tylor, Herbert Spencer, Mr. Andrew Lang and others; an animated controversy arose between the former as to the priority of their respective lists. Among these phenomena are: trance (q.v.) and unconsciousness, sickness, death, clairvoyance (q.v.), dreams (q.v.), apparitions (q.v.) of the dead, wraiths, hallucinations (q.v.), echoes, shadows and reflections.

Primitive ideas on the subject of the soul, and at the same time the origin of them, are best illustrated by an analysis of the terms applied to it. Readers of Dante know the idea that the dead have no shadows; this was no invention of the poet's but a piece of traditionary lore; at the present day among the Basutos it is held that a man walking by the brink of a river may lose his life if his shadow falls on the water, for a crocodile may seize it and draw him in; in Tasmania, North and South America and classical Europe is found the conception that the soul—σκιά, umbra—is somehow identical with the shadow of a man. More familiar to the Anglo-Saxon race is the connexion between the soul and the breath; this identification is found both in Aryan and Semitic languages; in Latin we have spiritus, in Greek pneuma, in Hebrew ruach; and the idea is found extending downwards to the lowest planes of culture in Australia, America and Asia. For some of the Red Indians the Roman custom of receiving the breath of a dying man was no mere pious duty but a means of ensuring that his soul was transferred to a new body. Other familiar conceptions identify the soul with the liver (see OMEN) or the heart, with the reflected figure seen in the pupil of the eye, and with the blood. Although the soul is often distinguished from the vital principle, there are many cases in which a state of unconsciousness is explained as due to the absence of the soul; in South Australia wilyamarraba (without soul) is the word used for insensible. So too the autohypnotic trance of the magician or shaman is regarded as due to his visit to distant regions or the nether world, of which he brings back an account. Telepathy or clairvoyance (q.v.), with or without trance, must have operated powerfully to produce a conviction of the dual nature of man, for it seems probable that facts unknown to the automatist are sometimes discovered by means of crystal-gazing (q.v.), which is widely found among savages, as among civilized peoples. Sickness is often explained as due to the absence of the soul; and means are sometimes taken to lure back the wandering soul; when a Chinese is at the point of death and his soul is supposed to have already left his body, the patient's coat is held up on a long bamboo while a priest endeavours to bring the departed spirit back into the coat by means of incantations. If the bamboo begins to turn round in the hands of the relative who is deputed to hold it, it is regarded as a sign that the soul of the moribund has returned (see AUTOMATISM). More important perhaps than all these phenomena, because more regular and normal, was the daily period of sleep with its frequent concomitant of fitful and incoherent ideas and images. The mere immobility of the body was sufficient to show that its state was not identical with that of waking; when, in addition, the sleeper awoke to give an account of visits to distant lands, from which, as modern psychical investigations suggest, he may even have brought back veridical details, the conclusion must have been irresistible that in sleep something journeyed forth, which was not the body. In a minor degree revival of memory during sleep and similar phenomena of the sub-conscious life may have contributed to the same result. Dreams are sometimes explained by savages as journeys performed by the sleeper, sometimes as visits paid by other persons, by animals or objects to him; hallucinations, possibly more frequent in the lower stages of culture, must have contributed to fortify this interpretation, and the animistic theory in general. Seeing the phantasmic figures of friends at the moment when they were, whether at the point of death or in good health, many miles distant, must have led the savage irresistibly to the dualistic theory. But hallucinatory figures, both in dreams and waking life, are not necessarily those of the living; from the reappearance of dead friends or enemies primitive man was inevitably led to the belief that there existed an incorporeal part of man which survived the dissolution of the body. The soul was conceived to be a facsimile of the body, sometimes no less material, sometimes more subtle but yet material, sometimes altogether impalpable and intangible.

Animism and Eschatology.—The psychological side of animism has already been dealt with; almost equally important in primitive creeds is the eschatological aspect. In many parts of the world it is held that the human body is the seat of more than one soul; in the island of Nias four are distinguished, the shadow and the intelligence, which die with the body, a tutelary spirit, termed begoe, and a second which is carried on the head. Similar ideas are found among the Euahlayi of S.E. Australia, the Dakotas and many other tribes. Just as in Europe the ghost of a dead person is held to haunt the churchyard or the place of death, although more orthodox ideas may be held and enunciated by the same person as to the nature of a future life, so the savage, more consistently, assigns different abodes to the multiple souls with which he credits man. Of the four souls of a Dakota, one is held to stay with the corpse, another in the village, a third goes into the air, while the fourth goes to the land of souls, where its lot may depend on its rank in this life, its sex, mode of death or sepulture, on the due observance of funeral ritual, or many other points (see ESCHATOLOGY). From the belief in the survival of the dead arose the practice of offering food, lighting fires, &c., at the grave, at first, maybe, as an act of friendship or filial piety, later as an act of worship (see ANCESTOR WORSHIP). The simple offering of food or shedding of blood at the grave develops into an elaborate system of sacrifice; even where ancestor-worship is not found, the desire to provide the dead with comforts in the future life may lead to the sacrifice of wives, slaves, animals, &c., to the breaking or burning of objects at the grave or to the provision of the ferryman's toll, a coin put in the mouth of the corpse to pay the travelling expenses of the soul. But all is not finished with the passage of the soul to the land of the dead; the soul may return to avenge its death by helping to discover the murderer, or to wreak vengeance for itself; there is a widespread belief that those who die a violent death become malignant spirits and endanger the lives of those who come near the haunted spot; the woman who dies in child-birth becomes a pontianak, and threatens the life of human beings; and man resorts to magical or religious means of repelling his spiritual dangers.

Development of Animism.—If the phenomena of dreams were, as suggested above, of great importance for the development of animism, the belief, which must originally have been a doctrine of human psychology, cannot have failed to expand speedily into [v.02 p.0054] a general philosophy of nature. Not only human beings but animals and objects are seen in dreams; and the conclusion would be that they too have souls; the same conclusion may have been reached by another line of argument; primitive psychology posited a spirit in a man to account, amongst other things, for his actions; a natural explanation of the changes in the external world would be that they are due to the operations and volitions of spirits.

Animal Souls.—But apart from considerations of this sort, it is probable that animals must, early in the history of animistic beliefs, have been regarded as possessing souls. Education has brought with it a sense of the great gulf between man and animals; but in the lower stages of culture this distinction is not adequately recognized, if indeed it is recognized at all. The savage attributes to animals the same ideas, the same mental processes as himself, and at the same time vastly greater power and cunning. The dead animal is credited with a knowledge of how its remains are treated and sometimes with a power of taking vengeance on the fortunate hunter. Powers of reasoning are not denied to animals nor even speech; the silence of the brute creation may be put down to their superior cunning. We may assume that man attributed a soul to the beasts of the field almost as soon as he claimed one for himself. It is therefore not surprising to find that many peoples on the lower planes of culture respect and even worship animals (see TOTEM; ANIMAL WORSHIP); though we need not attribute an animistic origin to all the developments, it is clear that the widespread respect paid to animals as the abode of dead ancestors, and much of the cult of dangerous animals, is traceable to this principle. With the rise of species, deities and the cult of individual animals, the path towards anthropomorphization and polytheism is opened and the respect paid to animals tends to lose its strict animistic character.

Plant Souls.—Just as human souls are assigned to animals, so primitive man often credits trees and plants with souls in both human or animal form. All over the world agricultural peoples practise elaborate ceremonies explicable, as Mannhardt has shown, on animistic principles. In Europe the corn spirit sometimes immanent in the crop, sometimes a presiding deity whose life does not depend on that of the growing corn, is conceived in some districts in the form of an ox, hare or cock, in others as an old man or woman; in the East Indies and America the rice or maize mother is a corresponding figure; in classical Europe and the East we have in Ceres and Demeter, Adonis and Dionysus, and other deities, vegetation gods whose origin we can readily trace back to the rustic corn spirit. Forest trees, no less than cereals, have their indwelling spirits; the fauns and satyrs of classical literature were goat-footed and the tree spirit of the Russian peasantry takes the form of a goat; in Bengal and the East Indies wood-cutters endeavour to propitiate the spirit of the tree which they cut down; and in many parts of the world trees are regarded as the abode of the spirits of the dead. Just as a process of syncretism has given rise to cults of animal gods, tree spirits tend to become detached from the trees, which are thenceforward only their abodes; and here again animism has begun to pass into polytheism.

Object Souls.—We distinguish between animate and inanimate nature, but this classification has no meaning for the savage. The river speeding on its course to the sea, the sun and moon, if not the stars also, on their never-ceasing daily round, the lightning, fire, the wind, the sea, all are in motion and therefore animate; but the savage does not stop short here; mountains and lakes, stones and manufactured articles, are for him alike endowed with souls like his own; he deposits in the tomb weapons and food, clothes and implements, broken, it may be, in order to set free their souls; or he attains the same result by burning them, and thus sending them to the Other World for the use of the dead man. Here again, though to a less extent than in tree cults, the theriomorphic aspect recurs; in the north of Europe, in ancient Greece, in China, the water or river spirit is horse or bull-shaped; the water monster in serpent shape is even more widely found, but it is less strictly the spirit of the water. The spirit of syncretism manifests itself in this department of animism too; the immanent spirit of the earlier period becomes the presiding genius or local god of later times, and with the rise of the doctrine of separable souls we again reach the confines of animism pure and simple.

Spirits in General.—Side by side with the doctrine of separable souls with which we have so far been concerned, exists the belief in a great host of unattached spirits; these are not immanent souls which have become detached from their abodes, but have every appearance of independent spirits. Thus, animism is in some directions little developed, so far as we can see, among the Australian aborigines; but from those who know them best we learn that they believe in innumerable spirits and bush bogies, which wander, especially at night, and can be held at bay by means of fire; with this belief may be compared the ascription in European folk belief of prophylactic properties to iron. These spirits are at first mainly malevolent; and side by side with them we find the spirits of the dead as hostile beings. At a higher stage the spirits of dead kinsmen are no longer unfriendly, nor yet all non-human spirits; as fetishes (see FETISHISM), naguals (see TOTEM), familiars, gods or demi-gods (for which and the general question see DEMONOLOGY), they enter into relations with man. On the other hand there still subsists a belief in innumerable evil spirits, which manifest themselves in the phenomena of possession (q.v.), lycanthropy (q.v.), disease, &c. The fear of evil spirits has given rise to ceremonies of expulsion of evils (see EXORCISM), designed to banish them from the community.

Animism and Religion.—Animism is commonly described as the most primitive form of religion; but properly speaking it is not a religion at all, for religion implies, at any rate, some form of emotion (see RELIGION), and animism is in the first instance an explanation of phenomena rather than an attitude of mind toward the cause of them, a philosophy rather than a religion. The term may, however, be conveniently used to describe the early stage of religion in which man endeavours to set up relations between himself and the unseen powers, conceived as spirits, but differing in many particulars from the gods of polytheism. As an example of this stage in one of its aspects may be taken the European belief in the corn spirit, which is, however, the object of magical rather than religious rites; Dr. Frazer has thus defined the character of the animistic pantheon, "they are restricted in their operations to definite departments of nature; their names are general, not proper; their attributes are generic rather than individual; in other words, there is an indefinite number of spirits of each class, and the individuals of a class are much alike; they have no definitely marked individuality; no accepted traditions are current as to their origin, life and character." This stage of religion is well illustrated by the Red Indian custom of offering sacrifice to certain rocks, or whirlpools, or to the indwelling spirits connected with them; the rite is only performed in the neighbourhood of the object, it is an incident of a canoe or other voyage, and is not intended to secure any benefits beyond a safe passage past the object in question; the spirit to be propitiated has a purely local sphere of influence, and powers of a very limited nature. Animistic in many of their features too are the temporary gods of fetishism (q.v.), naguals or familiars, genii and even the dead who receive a cult. With the rise of a belief in departmental gods comes the age of polytheism; the belief in elemental spirits may still persist, but they fall into the background and receive no cult.

Animism and the Origin of Religion.—Two animistic theories of the origin of religion have been put forward, the one, often termed the "ghost theory," mainly associated with the name of Herbert Spencer, but also maintained by Grant Allen, refers the beginning of religion to the cult of dead human beings; the other, put forward by Dr. E. B. Tylor, makes the foundation of all religion animistic, but recognizes the non-human character of polytheistic gods. Although ancestor-worship, or, more broadly, the cult of the dead, has in many cases overshadowed other cults or even extinguished them, we have no warrant, even in these cases, for asserting its priority, but rather the reverse; not only so, but in the majority of cases the pantheon is made up by a multitude of spirits in human, sometimes in animal form, which bear no signs of ever having been incarnate; sun gods and moon goddesses, [v.02 p.0055] gods of fire, wind and water, gods of the sea, and above all gods of the sky, show no signs of having been ghost gods at any period in their history. They may, it is true, be associated with ghost gods, but in Australia it cannot even be asserted that the gods are spirits at all, much less that they are the spirits of dead men; they are simply magnified magicians, super-men who have never died; we have no ground, therefore, for regarding the cult of the dead as the origin of religion in this area; this conclusion is the more probable, as ancestor-worship and the cult of the dead generally cannot be said to exist in Australia.

The more general view that polytheistic and other gods are the elemental and other spirits of the later stages of animistic creeds, is equally inapplicable to Australia, where the belief seems to be neither animistic nor even animatistic in character. But we are hardly justified in arguing from the case of Australia to a general conclusion as to the origin of religious ideas in all other parts of the world. It is perhaps safest to say that the science of religions has no data on which to go, in formulating conclusions as to the original form of the objects of religious emotion; in this connexion it must be remembered that not only is it very difficult to get precise information of the subject of the religious ideas of people of low culture, perhaps for the simple reason that the ideas themselves are far from precise, but also that, as has been pointed out above, the conception of spiritual often approximates very closely to that of material. Where the soul is regarded as no more than a finer sort of matter, it will obviously be far from easy to decide whether the gods are spiritual or material. Even, therefore, if we can say that at the present day the gods are entirely spiritual, it is clearly possible to maintain that they have been spiritualized pari passu with the increasing importance of the animistic view of nature and of the greater prominence of eschatological beliefs. The animistic origin of religion is therefore not proven.

Animism and Mythology.—But little need be said on the relation of animism and mythology (q.v.). While a large part of mythology has an animistic basis, it is possible to believe, e.g. in a sky world, peopled by corporeal beings, as well as by spirits of the dead; the latter may even be entirely absent; the mythology of the Australians relates largely to corporeal, non-spiritual beings; stories of transformation, deluge and doom myths, or myths of the origin of death, have not necessarily any animistic basis. At the same time, with the rise of ideas as to a future life and spiritual beings, this field of mythology is immensely widened, though it cannot be said that a rich mythology is necessarily genetically associated with or combined with belief in many spiritual beings.

Animism in Philosophy.—The term "animism" has been applied to many different philosophical systems. It is used to describe Aristotle's view of the relation of soul and body held also by the Stoics and Scholastics. On the other hand monadology (Leibnitz) has also been termed animistic. The name is most commonly applied to vitalism, a view mainly associated with G. E. Stahl and revived by F. Bouillier (1813-1899), which makes life, or life and mind, the directive principle in evolution and growth, holding that all cannot be traced back to chemical and mechanical processes, but that there is a directive force which guides energy without altering its amount. An entirely different class of ideas, also termed animistic, is the belief in the world soul, held by Plato, Schelling and others.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.—Tyler, Primitive Culture; Frazer, Golden Bough; Id. on Burial Customs in J. A. I. xv.; Mannhardt, Baumkultus; G. A. Wilken, Het Animisme; Koch on the animism of S. America in Internationales Archiv, xiii., Suppl.; Andrew Lang, Making of Religion; Skeat, Malay Magic; Sir G. Campbell, "Spirit Basis of Belief and Custom," in Indian Antiquary, xxiii. and succeeding volumes; Folklore, iii. 289. xi. 162; Spencer, Principles of Sociology; Mind (1877), 141, 415 et seq. For animism in philosophy, Stahl, Theoria; Bouillier, Du Principe vital.

(N. W. T.)

Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected. They appear in the text like this, and the explanation will appear when the mouse pointer is moved over the marked passage. Sections in Greek will yield a transliteration when the pointer is moved over them, and words using diacritic characters in the Latin Extended Additional block, which may not display in some fonts or browsers, will display an unaccented version.

Links to other EB articles: Links to articles residing in other EB volumes will be made available when the respective volumes are introduced online.
   "A well-rounded treatment of a vast body of facts" only $2.99
History of the Universe eBook

GoDaddy - World's #1 Domain Registrar