Many of us who learn about Animism feel attracted to it. The idea that the whole world is alive makes sense to many of us, naturally. However, “Animism” has an history, and not the best one. If we wish to reclaim this word in helpful ways, it is then important that we learn about its history first. Bellow, I try to give a very brief explanation about Old and New Animism. I also invite you to visit my resources page and check the articles, books and courses on Animism I share there.
“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. Bellow 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 (Wikipedia)
- “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology, by Nurit Bird‐David
- What is Animism by Daniel Foor