What is animism? Definition and concept

The history of the development of religion has come a long and difficult path. In their primitive consciousness they deified various phenomena of nature. That is how the first forms of religious ideas appeared. Let us consider what animism is, what is its specificity and role in the development of religious representation.

Origin of religion

Probably, it will never be possible to find out exactly what caused the desire in the primitive consciousness to believe in the existence of higher — divine forces. Most likely, when confronted with the mighty forces of nature — thunderstorms, snowfalls, hurricanes, and rainstorms — and being unable to explain their nature, our distant ancestors began to believe that each phenomenon is controlled by its own spirit. So, there is the spirit of the wind, the spirit of the sun, the spirit of the earth, and so on. In order to appease these invisible but all-powerful beings, people began to perform various rituals and sacrifice to them. That is how the first religious ideas appeared.

Spirits have not yet had any material incarnation. Later, when a person learns to build cities and engages in farming, animal husbandry, crafts, his dependence on the forces of nature will decrease. Therefore, the gods, who have replaced the spirits, will acquire a human form.

So, the first religious beliefs - animism, totemism, fetishism - appeared in the era of the primitive communal system, when people engaged in hunting and gathering, lived in caves or primitive dugouts, already created their own primitive weapons and tools. Most likely, they did not know the fire at that time.

The most ancient forms of religious beliefs are called protroreligions, that is, primitive, simplified forms of religious beliefs characteristic of our distant ancestors. They became the basis by which paganism developed, and later - the three leading world religions.

animism religion

Types of Protropel

Religious scholars and historians identify 4 Proto-religions:

  • Animism.
  • Fetishism.
  • Totemism.
  • Magic

We are unlikely to ever know which one appeared earlier, scientists believe that they arose at about the same time, while the beliefs of some of the most ancient tribes fancifully interwoven into themselves the features of various Proto-religions.Consider what animism is and how it differs from other forms of the most ancient religious ideas.

what is animism


In scientific literature, the term "animism" is commonly understood as the deification of the forces of nature, belief in the soul and non-material spirits that exist in most ancient beliefs. This protroreligiya is very important, because it is within the framework of it that such a complex notion as belief in the non-material component, the soul, is formed, it is on this basis that the teaching on the immortal soul will be created later.

The term itself was first used by the German explorer Georg Stahl in 1708 and is derived from the Latin word "anima" - the soul.

Belief Features

What features were inherent in this ancient belief?

  • Belief in the spirits of natural phenomena.
  • Ancestral spirits.
  • The presence of patronizing entities.

It was within the framework of animism that the funeral cult appeared. Even in the time of the Cro-Magnon, there was a tradition to bury the dead in the best decorations, with weapons, household items. The more notable and respected the deceased was, the more the tools and weapons were put in his grave. It would seem, why do this, it would be much more sensible to transfer these things alive, to use in hunting or in war.But the ancients already had some idea that after the death of the physical shell, his spirit would continue on its way. And such ritual ceremonies emphasized the tribute to the reposed.

what is animism

Another example is the ancestral cult. For example, in Western New Guinea, primitive peoples previously had a tradition of storing a Korvar to their home — the progenitor’s skull, which was in a place of honor. Later, the skull was replaced by the image of the ancestor. It was believed that he protects the home and brings good luck to members of the genus.

Both cults say that our ancestors believed in the afterlife, and their ideas about the world were not limited to material ones.


Consider the forms of animism, the oldest of which was the belief that behind every natural phenomenon is its own spirit. Unable to understand the essence of a natural disaster, the ancient people began to spiritualize the forces of nature, believing that each of them was controlled by a spirit.

Gradually, spirits become rational, endowed with appearance, characteristic character traits, myths and a whole system of mythology emerge, within which a person sought to explain the world around him.Animism, gradually developing, turned into polytheism, characteristic of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Slavic countries and many others.

The most important feature of animism is the division of the world into material and spiritual. Therefore, another form of belief is the conviction of the existence of some other world where the human soul falls after the death of the body. Interestingly, similar ideas are manifested among the ancient peoples, who were geographically disunited from each other.

animism forms


Another Proto-Religion, the remains of which can be found today in the peculiarities of the religious beliefs of backward tribes is totemism. Consider the definition, features of this view and compare totemism and animism. There are such distinctive features:

  • Ancient people believed that each person (as well as a tribe, clan) has a certain ancestor - an animal or a plant, which is called a totem.
  • Most often the totem was the representative of the flora or fauna that lived in the territory of residence of the tribe.
  • There was a mystical connection between the tribe and the totem animal.
  • Totem lent patronage to his tribe.
  • The presence of a taboo system - bans.So, the totem animal could not be killed on the hunt or eaten.

The emergence of this protroreligia, the researchers believe, was due to the fact that in the life of ancient people animals and plants were very important, served as the main source of food, without them the very existence of mankind would be impossible.

totemism animism

Unlike animism

Speaking about what animism is and how it differs from totemism, it should be noted that in the first case there were many spirits, each of which was responsible for his own natural phenomenon or element. And the properties of the totem were endowed with one particular animal or plant. In certain tribes, for example, among the Indians, both beliefs are intertwined: many tribes have their own totems, while believing in the existence of the spirits of nature.

In the Proto-Religions, one can note the common thing: if the religion of animism presupposed the conduct of rituals for coaxing the spirits (both natural and ancestors), then totemism implied coaxing the totem beings.

animism totemism fetishism


Another Proto-religion is fetishism, that is, the belief that the subject of the material world acts as the bearer of the highest magical power.Absolutely any object could be a fetish to which primitive consciousness appropriated magical functions. So, a stone-boulder, which somehow attracted the ancient man, could become an object of worship.

Most often, such a belief in its pure form can be found among African tribes who worship the statues of gods, bones, and plants.

What are the differences between fetishism and animism? These forms of belief rather complement each other. Thus, a fetish could become the material embodiment of a certain spirit, worshiping him, the primitive man hoped to appease the spirit itself. Most of the fetishes, like the spirits themselves, were several, they were asked for help, they carried out rituals in their honor, thanked them for their luck at the hunt.

fetishism animism

Interestingly, the remnants of fetishism can be traced even in the leading world religions. Worship of the holy relics, icons, statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary - this is what turned into this ancient belief. In Buddhism, there are sacred stupas, the worship of which is close to the worship of fetish. Fetishism has also been preserved as a belief in amulets and talismans.


Another ancient Proto-Religion is magic, while often the features of the three previous ones are interwoven in it in an organic way.Compare magic and animism:

  • Magic implies belief in a higher power, just like animism.
  • A person endowed with a special gift - a magician, a sorcerer - could come into contact with them, and even make sure that these forces were patronized in hunting or war. In the animism nothing of the kind was observed, the spirits tried to appease, but the people could not influence them in any way.

Gradually, in many tribes their magicians appeared who were engaged only in carrying out special rites, they were respected, often even the bravest warriors were afraid of them.

Magic has been preserved in our time, many people believe that with the help of special rituals, you can attract success in business, to achieve the favor of the chosen one. Sometimes modern black sorcerers use their abilities with malicious intent, sending curses. Someone is skeptical of magic, but since this belief has existed for many thousands of years, its significance should not be completely denied.

animism magic


No less interesting is the phenomenon of shamanism, which, despite its antiquity, is practiced to this day. Shamans conduct their rituals, during which they fall into a trance and communicate with the spirit world. The objectives of such rites are quite varied:

  • Bring luck on the hunt.
  • Healing the sick
  • Help the tribe in a difficult situation.
  • Prediction of the future.

Consider the features of animism and shamanism. Both religious beliefs are connected with the world of spirits, but if the first implies a belief in their existence and direct participation in human destinies, the shamans, plunging into a trance, communicated with these intangible beings, asked them for advice, asked for help.

animism and shamanism

That is why the functions of a priest were often attributed to shamans, they were respected and honored.

Animism in the modern world

We examined what animism is and how it is related to other protroreligions. Interestingly, this ancient religious presentation has survived to this day; it is thanks to the observation of primitive peoples living far from civilization that helps researchers to fill the problems in studying the history of religions. Such beliefs can be found in indigenous African nations, Sami, Papuans of Oceania.

The earliest Proto-religions testify that the consciousness of primitive man was not so primitive, he understood that, in addition to the material world, there was also a spiritual sphere.And with the means at his disposal, he tried to explain incomprehensible objects and phenomena.

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