The word animism comes from the Latin term anima, which means breath. The term animism was first used in reference to African cultures by the British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor in his book Primitive Culture in 1871. Tylor defined the term as a general belief in spiritual beings. After Tylor, other anthropologists used the term to refer to African religion, usually contending that all African religions have as a minimum the idea of material and immaterial things having breath or a soul. This minimum constituted for these authors the idea of a religion that was one of the oldest forms of belief on the Earth. Some even tried to date its origin to prehistoric times on the African continent.
The idea that a soul existed in every object, animate or inanimate, appeared to represent the sine qua non of religion. A particular soul, in this construction, would exist or did exist as a part of an immaterial soul and was therefore universal and eternal.
Most believers in the animism idea share the notion that all religions, African, Western, or Eastern, have some form of this belief in the spirit, soul, or breath force existing in all things. This belief is referred to as animitism. Because humans seem to have this belief transversally, it means that the idea of shadows, spirits, souls, or breath is responsible for the general perception in religion that humans are activated by this life force. Some people have conceived this force as a vapor or shadow that can move from one body to another, passing between humans or between humans and plants or animals. Indeed, it is also possible for inanimate objects to have this vapor.
According to the animist theories, humans came to this belief in shadows, souls, and spirits to explain the experiences of sleep, dreams, and even death. How does one distinguish between a person who is sleep and one who is awake? Furthermore, what is the meaning of a person being alive and one who is not alive? It is at this juncture that the minds of humans, according to the theories of animism, created the idea of spirit forces. The fact that these ideas appeared quite prominently in the experiences of Africans caused the earliest authors, following Tylor, to concede that Africans had indeed formulated the first responses to the problem of different states of consciousness. This concession by Tylor meant that the so-called primitive religion was the fundamental reason for the concept of soul, spirit, shadow, vapor, and breath of life in other religions.
Animism would be criticized by British anthropologist Robert Marett, who believed that it was not possible for Africans to have conceived of this notion of breath, soul, and spirit, as promoted by Tylor. In Marett's judgment, “primitive” people did not have the capacity to recognize the idea of animism within animate and inanimate objects. If Africans came to this position, in the argument of Marett, it was simply an “emotional” response to the environment and not a rational one. Of course, it could be debated how early Africans came to believe in the spirit or soul as existing in objects, but one thing is certain, they believed it. This is a historically accurate fact.
Indeed, one finds that it remains current in the context of African religion. Among the Akan of Ghana, when one wants to create a drum, the people responsible for making the drum accompany the hunters to the forest, and when they discover a tree that is suitable for the drum, they offer libations and prayers to the spirit of the tree. This is representative of the belief that trees, stones, and plants have spirits of their own that must be appeased and appealed to when one wants to make use of them. Some trees, mountains, or rocks might be thought to possess spirits that must be feared; others possess spirits that can be given reverence because of their beauty, historical significance, or utility.
Animism as a function of African religion has impacted the world to the degree that, throughout the world, there are people who believe in the convergence of the spiritual and material worlds; they believe that nothing separates the sacred and the secular or the animate and inanimate because they all possess the spirit or breath.



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Further Reading

  • Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: An Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.