Many of us who learn about Animism feel attracted to it. The idea that the whole world is alive naturally makes sense to many of us. However, the word “Animism” has a complex history. If we wish to reclaim this word in helpful ways, it is then important that we learn about its history first. Below, I try to give a very brief explanation about Old and New Animism.
“Primitive Culture” & the Old Animism
The most common definition of the word “Animism” is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence 1. This definition has its origins in Edward Tylor, the father of anthropology and author of the book “Primitive Culture”, who classified Indigenous peoples as “primitive” and argued that in the savage view every man had, in addition to his body, a “ghost-soul,” a “thin unsubstantial human image,” the “cause of life or thought in the individual it animates,” capable “of leaving the body far behind” and “continuing to exist and appear to men after the death of that body 2. Tylor was a rationalist and so, in his mind, the “primitive people” were therefore delusional and thought like a child 2, not being able to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects. Tylor also suggested that modern religion had evolved in stages from animistic beliefs 2, and ultimately humanity would end up rejecting religion altogether in favour of scientific rationality. According to E. Tylor, Animism characterizes tribes very low in the scale of humanity, and thence ascends, deeply modified in its transmission, but from first to last preserving an unbroken continuity, into the midst of high modern culture.
The New Animism
Nowadays, Tylor’s views have been largely dismissed as incorrect and offensive. Many anthropologists even avoid using the word “Animism” to describe Indigenous beliefs due to its old meaning, and indeed, there are many Indigenous Peoples who don’t like to be called Animists due to all this history. Nevertheless, different people have been reclaiming the word in helpful ways throughout the last decades.
The “new animism” emerged largely from the publications of the anthropologist Irving Hallowell which were produced on the basis of his ethnographic research among the Ojibwe communities of Canada in the mid-20th century. For the Ojibwe encountered by Hallowell, personhood did not require human-likeness, but rather humans were perceived as being like other persons, who for instance included rock persons and bear persons. For the Ojibwe, these persons were each wilful beings who gained meaning and power through their interactions with others; through respectfully interacting with other persons, they themselves learned to “act as a person”. Hallowell’s approach to the understanding of Ojibwe personhood differed strongly from prior anthropological concepts of animism. He emphasized the need to challenge the modernist, Western perspectives of what a person is by entering into a dialogue with different worldwide-views. 1
Besides Irving Hallowell, other people have been helping with the emergence of the “New Animism”, such as the work by Nurit Bird‐David, David Abram and Graham Harvey, between many others. Graham Harvey’s book was a life changer for me. Below I share his definition of Animism, from his book “Animism: Respecting the Living World”:
Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) toward and among other persons.
Animism is all about relationship. How do we relate respectfully with Humans, Other-than-Humans and the Ancestors? How do we approach Elders, including Stone Elders and Tree Elders? In Human societies, we are taught how to respectfully relate with each other, we learn about the appropriate ways of acting and talking in each situation. However, our mainstream culture has long forgotten how to relate with the Other-than-Human people. If we all share this world, and if we truly see them as equals to us, then we must remember the Old Ways, and how our ancient Ancestors – those who still had an Animistic way of seeing the world – related with the Other-than-Human community as well as how they showed respect for their own Ancestors. We have lost the framework to do most of this, it’s true, and most of it is probably lost forever. Nevertheless, we must do our best to remember and learn what we can from our own Ancestors, as well as slowly and humbly start creating new ways of relating with the Other-than-Human community to replace what cannot be recovered. Earth-honouring traditions, such as those from Indigenous cultures, can be very inspirational, however, it is also important to be mindful and not appropriate from their culture. For us here in Portugal, we must keep in mind that rituals and ways of relating are place based, so it is important to listen to the local Spirits of Place and develop frameworks and rituals that work where we live.
But why is it important to reclaim this word at all? Animism is not a religion (people with different beliefs, including atheists, can be Animists), but represents a set of core values that recognize personhood in (and therefore stops objectifying) the Other-than-Human people. I truly believe that if we incorporate these core values in our lives, then our destructive and individualistic behaviours towards the Earth will have to stop. We cannot live in isolation, we are all connected and part of the Great Web of Life. Once we open our heart and awareness, and we go through the grieving process for the Earth, there’s no turning back. They are our Kin, our Family, and they are dying, disappearing forever. Are we going to change our ways or let the destruction continue? We can make a choice. Let us choose Life.
- Animism (Wikipedia)
- “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology, by Nurit Bird‐David
- What is Animism by Daniel Foor