Spirits In General

Side by side with the doctrine of separable souls with which we have so far been concerned, exists the belief in a great host of unattached spirits; these are not immanent souls which have become detached from their abodes, but have every appearance of independent spirits. Thus, animism is in some directions little developed, so far as we can see, among the Australian aborigines; but from those who know them best we learn that they believe in innumerable spirits and bush bogies, which wander, especially at night, and can be held at bay by means of fire; with this belief may be compared the ascription in European folk belief of prophylactic properties to iron. These spirits are at first mainly malevolent; and side by side with them we find the spirits of the dead as hostile beings. At a higher stage the spirits of dead kinsmen are no longer unfriendly, nor yet all non-human spirits; as fetishes (see FETISHISM), naguals (see TOTEM), familiars, gods or demi-gods (for which and the general question see DEMONOLOGY), they enter into relations with man. On the other hand there still subsists a belief in innumerable evil spirits, which manifest themselves in the phenomena of possession (q.v.), lycanthropy (q.v.), disease, etc.

The fear of evil spirits has given rise to ceremonies of expulsion of evils (see EXORCISM), designed to banish them from the community.

Animism And Religion

Animism is commonly described as the most primitive form of religion; but properly speaking it is not a religion at all, for religion implies, at any rate, some form of emotion (see RELIGION), and animism is in the first instance an explanation of phenomena rather than an attitude of mind toward the cause of them, a philosophy rather than a religion. The term may, however, be conveniently used to describe the early stage of religion in which man endeavours to set up relations between himself and the unseen powers, conceived as spirits, but differing in many particulars from the gods of polytheism. As an example of this stage in one of its aspects may be taken the European belief in the corn spirit, which is, however, the object of magical rather than religious rites; Dr. Frazer has thus defined the character of the animistic pantheon, "they are restricted in their operations to definite departments of nature; their names are general, not proper; their attributes are generic rather than individual; in other words, there is an indefinite number of spirits of each class, and the individuals of a class are much alike; they have no definitely marked individuality; no accepted traditions are current as to their origin, life and character." This stage of religion is well illustrated by the Red Indian custom of offering sacrifice to certain rocks, or whirlpools, or to the indwelling spirits connected with them; the rite is only performed in the neighbourhood of the object, it is an incident of a canoe or other voyage, and is not intended to secure any benefits beyond a safe passage past the object in question; the spirit to be propitiated has a purely local sphere of influence, and powers of a very limited nature.

Animistic in many of their features too are the temporary gods of fetishism (q.v.), naguals or familiars, genii and even the dead who receive a cult. With the rise of a belief in departmental gods comes the age of polytheism; the belief in elemental spirits may still persist, but they fall into the background and receive no cult.