Animism is one of the earliest known spiritual structures. From an anthropological standpoint, it is a belief system based upon the concept of all things having a spirit or soul. Humans and animals have souls, as do plants and trees and rocks, thus eliminating any separation between the mundane world and the metaphysical one. Nineteenth-century anthropologist E.B. Tylor defined animism as a belief that all natural objects – in addition to, but not only humans – have souls. This includes living beings — dogs, horses, birds, etc. – as well tangible items like rocks, mountains, the sea, trees and flowers. It also includes natural phenomena such as earthquakes, wind and lightning.
One thing that anthropologists have yet to agree on is whether or not early cultures had one, all-encompassing and universal belief system that would be considered animism, or if instead, the term applies to multiple mythologies and worldviews.
Typically, anthropologists – particularly those influenced by Tylor – agree that for a belief system to be animistic, there are two criteria. The first is, as mentioned above, that all natural things have souls or spirits. The second, and equally significant requirement is the belief that these souls are capable of moving without a physical form. In addition, many early animistic societies practiced some form of ancestor veneration.
In some societies that are animistic, there is some overlap with shamanistic practices as well.
Although we often think of animism as primitive and ancient, there are some groups that still practice it today. In Malaysia, there are tribes who still honor the rice spirits at the time of planting and of the annual harvest. Shinto, which is the predominant spirituality of Japan, has a strong foundation in animistic beliefs. Following the devastating March 2011 earthquake that struck Japan, many Japanese made offerings at Shinto and Buddhist shrines to the spirits of the land, hoping to gain a better spiritual understanding of all that had taken place.
Although it is not universal to all Pagans, many Neopagans incorporate animism into their beliefs today. It’s not uncommon to hear someone talk about the spirits or soul of a tree, or a river, or a piece of wood. In many cases, these individual spirits are seen as parts of a greater cosmic whole.