Animatism, not to be confused with animism, is the belief in a supernatural power that animates all living things in an impersonal sense. It is therefore not individualized or specialized in terms of a particular object, such as one finds in animism, but is a rather more generalized belief in an invisible, powerfully impersonal energy that is everywhere. Of course, it is possible that some individuals might tap into this power and consequently be able to manipulate it better than others.
In some African societies, as among the Asante of Ghana, it is thought that the king carries with him the ability to change the nature of society by how he handles his office. In fact, if he endangers the order of the universe by violating certain taboos that threaten to destabilize the community by misappropriating or misusing the unseen power of the Earth, he might risk losing his office.
Thus, the belief in supernatural energy that is not a part of a supernatural being is the essence of animatism. Derived from the same Latin root as animism, the term animatism was meant to differentiate the individual spirit in animate and inanimate objects from the more generalized belief in the active spirit of the universe. One cannot grant any ethical or moral quality to this active spirit because it is neither good nor evil, neither right nor wrong, but everywhere present and therefore inherently dangerous if it is violated. Some have described it by the electricity metaphor; it is everywhere and it can bring harm, but it is not moral or immoral; it is amoral.
Although one may find animatism and animism in the same culture, they must be distinguished as concepts. Animism may be said to have personality and animatism is impersonal; whereas animism shows us individuals with special spiritual characteristics or traits, animatism simply exists as a force in the universe in a generalized sense. Of course, it should also be clear to the reader that Africans have rarely characterized their societies in this way. Both concepts, derived from European anthropology, have been applied to African societies as a way to explain a complex phenomenon to Western readers.



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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Scheub, H. (2000). A Dictionary of African Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.