Introduction to Animism

 by Lanie Johnson, M.A.  and Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

Let’s start with some formal definitions of animism.

 “the belief that all natural phenomena have souls independent of their physical being” (from Latin anima, soul), Webster’s New World DICTIONARY, Third College Edition)

 “Any of various primitive beliefs whereby natural phenomena and things animate and inanimate are held to possess an innate soul.” (The American Heritage DICTIONARY of the English Language)

Ken and I have observed that most people are either not familiar with Animism or have differing ideas about what it is. This is understandable since there are no written historical records. However, scholars in archaeology, anthropology, history & philosophy of religion are in general agreement on these two points:

         • Animism is the most ancient religion. Although there is some controversy regarding the derivation of the word “religion” – most people agree that it is from the Latin religare (to bind strongly. So Animism is like other religions in that it involves being strongly bound, but it differs in that its binding is to the Universe rather than to a particular deity.

                  “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the

                  universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw

                  forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by con-

                  conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

                                                               – Carl Sagan, Astronomer & science  writer, 1994

         Animism is not a religion that has a special building or temple, or scripture, or holy days. The religion of Animism, strongly binding one to the Universe in all its manifestations, all of which have spirit or soul, is more a way of life or culture than a formal religion.

         Animism was originally the religion of all Hunter-Gatherers, our ancestors for most of the last 200,000 years. How do we know that? Through archaeological traces of our ancestors and comparative anthropological studies of present-day hunter gatherers, all of whom are animists.  

        It is basically a belief that every part of the world is suffused with spirit and is therefore sacred. It  thus stands apart from most contemporary religions in which only certain things, like a particular text, such as a bible, or building, like a church, mosque, or synagogue, is sacred, and the rest of the world is regarded as profane.

         Our present culture started only about 10,000 years ago. So, the original religion of most of humanity has been Animism for 95% of the time we have been here.

         To tell you the truth we (Ken & Lanie) sometimes confuse hunter gatherers and animists, because a hunter gatherer’s spiritual life is so infused with their culture.

         There is some confusion about the difference between Hunter-Gatherers, Indigenous people, Primitive or Tribal people, and so on.  People like the Maasai and Bantu of Africa, and many American Indians, were not Hunter-Gatherers.  They are or were horticulturalists, that is, people who till small gardens, or agriculturalists who farm, or pastoralists who herd animals.

          Animism can also be distinguished from Paganism in that Pagan means “of the country” and refers to farmers.

As their name implies, Hunter-Gatherer people hunt animals and gather wild plants they find around them.  They live in small groups or bands of 10-30 related persons. Most of their possessions are communal. They have no hereditary or elected leaders. They make decisions by consensus and have a cooperative, sharing society. Of course, this doesn’t mean they never get angry, jealous, or mean.  However, they have created a culture in which such behavior is minimalized. Theirs is a way of life in which one has relationships with non-human life forms – thanking plants or animals used to sustain human life, for example.

We would like you to listen now to the words of Chief Seattle, and see if you recognize some of these animist ideas in his speech:

CHIEF SEATTLE’S SPEECH                                                                                               

            First off, we need to tell you that these are probably not Chief Seattle’s exact words. They are based on notes taken by a local physician, who attended the speech, and which were written up some years later in a newspaper article. Nevertheless, the sentiments expressed in this speech fit so remarkably the animist point of view, and have such a poetic nobility, that they can stand almost as an animist manifesto. Here are the words: 

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

         Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

         We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, [the body heat of the pony,. . .] and man, all belong to the same family

         The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

         If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us; that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

         Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

         This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

         . . .Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival. . .

         We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.

         As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.

Hunter Gatherer Beliefs:

         How far back does Man’s intelligence and sense of aesthetics and beauty go?   Thirty thousand year old flutes, cunningly carved from the wing bones of Swans and Mammoth ivory, demonstrate planning, impressive craftsmanship, and love of music.  Four hundred thousand-year-old throwing spears (or Javelins) show that H. erectus was no unconscious thinking scavenger, but was capable of forethought, and able to learn skills handed down from others.  But, were these guys religious?

         Deliberate Burials:

         So far, there are no hints of any religious thoughts on the part of H. erectus.  However, there were deliberate burials of Neanderthals.  Do they represent thoughts of an afterlife or a return from death?  The position of the buried person, often in a fetal position, and facing East toward the rising sun, indicate hope for renewal just as the Sun is reborn each day.  The inclusion of tools, weapons, and ornamentation shows the hope for a return in which the buried party will find all the possessions needed to carry on his/her life again.  Some burials also contained offerings of such things as deer antlers, boar jaws, flint tools, and Red Deer jaw bones.  There are other clues.

         Cave Bear Grottos:

          High up in the Alps grottos have been discovered in which many Cave Bear skulls have been carefully arranged.  Cave Bears are thought to represent the Animal Master, whose propitiation would hopefully insure the return the next year of Man’s principal food animals. 

         Religious thoughts:

         Cro-Magnon cave paintings in France and Spain, such as the “Sorcier des Trois Freres” may also represent Animal Masters or some kind of sympathetic magic, insuring the success of the The Great Hunt, which was surely early Man’s greatest occupation.  His view of the Earth as sacred is demonstrated in contemporary HGs like Australian Aborigines, who see animate forms in natural geography, like the “woman’s legs” in NW Australia 


         What about HG cosmology? that is, beliefs about the relationship between humans & Nature. One expression of their cosmology is in the games they play. The widespread incidence of games of chance (gambling, really) shows an underlying philosophy that life is a game of chance; in other words, acceptance of Nature and what it brings. On the other hand, games of strategy, which appeared later, among agriculturalists, indicate interest in control.

         Ancient myths are often about animals as the first people – or older brothers – who are valued as teachers. HG religion is usually called Animism, or the belief that everything in the world is alive and has a spirit: people, animals, birds, trees, rocks, water, etc. It’s based on respect for the natural world and all its beings.

Animism, as Daniel Quinn says, “embodies a worldview: the world is a sacred place, and humans belong in that sacred place.” There are many different ways of relating to the Natural World as an Animist, as we’ll now see as we explore some selected readings:



         The beautiful and insightful adventure of a South African WWII hero, who upon his return, searches for & finds the last remnants of the remarkable Bushmen, surviving in style in an inhospitable desert.

THE HARMLESS PEOPLE. Elizabeth Marshal Thomas.

         An anthropologist lives with South African Bushmen and describes a society that works – wonderfully. She returns 20 years later to see what effect our culture has had on theirs.

THE FOREST PEOPLE. A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo. Colin M. Turnbull.

         Another anthropologist lives with Congo Pygmies. He admires their lifestyle and social organization, which they manage to retain despite the incursions of Bantu agriculturalists. 


         A scholarly analysis of the impressive technological and cultural achievements of our ancient ancestors.        


         Do hunter-gatherers have something to tell modern culture? A brilliant analysis by the most respected scholar on the subject. 

ORIGINAL WISDOM: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing. Robert Wolff.

         A psychologist lives with the most remote people of Malaysia, the S’ingoi.

OUR BABIES, OURSELVES: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Meredith F. Small.

         A Pediatric Anthropologist examines different cultures’ approach to parenting.

LIMITED WANTS, UNLIMITED MEANS. A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment. John Gowdy, ed.

         The interaction between Hunter-Gatherer economics and the environment. Describes a culture in harmony with the Earth.