Animism (from animus, or anima, mind or soul), according to the definition of Dr. E. B. Tylor, the doctrine of spiritual beings, including human souls; in practice, however, the term is often extended to include panthelism or animatism, the doctrine that a great part, if not the whole, of the inanimate kingdom, as well as all animated beings, are endowed with reason, intelligence and volition, identical with that of man. This latter theory, which in many cases is equivalent to personification, though it may be, like animism, a feature of the philosophy of peoples of low culture, should not be confused with it. But it is difficult in practice to distinguish the two phases of thought and no clear account of animatism can yet be given, largely on the ground that no people has yet been discovered which has not already developed to a greater or less extent an animistic philosophy. On theoretical grounds it is probable that animatism preceded animism; but savage thought is no more consistent than that of civilized man; and it may well be that animistic and panthelistic doctrines are held simultaneously by the same person.

In like manner one portion of the savage explanation of nature may have been originally animistic, another part animatistic.


Animism may have arisen out of or simultaneously with animatism as a primitive explanation of many different phenomena; if animatism was originally applied to non-human or inanimate objects, animism may from the outset have been in vogue as a theory of the nature of man. Lists of phenomena from the contemplation of which the savage was led to believe in animism have been given by Dr. Tylor, Herbert Spencer, Mr. Andrew Lang and others; an animated controversy arose between the former as to the priority of their respective lists. Among these phenomena are: trance (q.v.) and unconsciousness, sickness, death, clairvoyance (q.v.), dreams (q.v.), apparitions (q.v.) of the dead, wraiths, hallucinations (q.v.), echoes, shadows and reflections.

Primitive ideas on the subject of the soul, and at the same time the origin of them, are best illustrated by an analysis of the terms applied to it. Readers of Dante know the idea that the dead have no shadows; this was no invention of the poet's but a piece of traditionary lore; at the present day among the Basutos it is held that a man walking by the brink of a river may lose his life if his shadow falls on the water, for a crocodile may seize it and draw him in; in Tasmania, North and South America and classical Europe is found the conception that the soul - σκιά, umbra - is somehow identical with the shadow of a man. More familiar to the Anglo-Saxon race is the connexion between the soul and the breath; this identification is found both in Aryan and Semitic languages; in Latin we have spiritus, in Greek pneuma, in Hebrew ruach; and the idea is found extending downwards to the lowest planes of culture in Australia, America and Asia. For some of the Red Indians the Roman custom of receiving the breath of a dying man was no mere pious duty but a means of ensuring that his soul was transferred to a new body.

Other familiar conceptions identify the soul with the liver (see OMEN) or the heart, with the reflected figure seen in the pupil of the eye, and with the blood. Although the soul is often distinguished from the vital principle, there are many cases in which a state of unconsciousness is explained as due to the absence of the soul; in South Australia wilyamarraba (without soul) is the word used for insensible. So too the autohypnotic trance of the magician or shaman is regarded as due to his visit to distant regions or the nether world, of which he brings back an account. Telepathy or clairvoyance (q.v.), with or without trance, must have operated powerfully to produce a conviction of the dual nature of man, for it seems probable that facts unknown to the automatist are sometimes discovered by means of crystal-gazing (q.v.), which is widely found among savages, as among civilized peoples. Sickness is often explained as due to the absence of the soul; and means are sometimes taken to lure back the wandering soul; when a Chinese is at the point of death and his soul is supposed to have already left his body, the patient's coat is held up on a long bamboo while a priest endeavours to bring the departed spirit back into the coat by means of incantations.

If the bamboo begins to turn round in the hands of the relative who is deputed to hold it, it is regarded as a sign that the soul of the moribund has returned (see AUTOMATISM). More important perhaps than all these phenomena, because more regular and normal, was the daily period of sleep with its frequent concomitant of fitful and incoherent ideas and images. The mere immobility of the body was sufficient to show that its state was not identical with that of waking; when, in addition, the sleeper awoke to give an account of visits to distant lands, from which, as modern psychical investigations suggest, he may even have brought back veridical details, the conclusion must have been irresistible that in sleep something journeyed forth, which was not the body. In a minor degree revival of memory during sleep and similar phenomena of the sub-conscious life may have contributed to the same result. Dreams are sometimes explained by savages as journeys performed by the sleeper, sometimes as visits paid by other persons, by animals or objects to him; hallucinations, possibly more frequent in the lower stages of culture, must have contributed to fortify this interpretation, and the animistic theory in general.

Seeing the phantasmic figures of friends at the moment when they were, whether at the point of death or in good health, many miles distant, must have led the savage irresistibly to the dualistic theory. But hallucinatory figures, both in dreams and waking life, are not necessarily those of the living; from the reappearance of dead friends or enemies primitive man was inevitably led to the belief that there existed an incorporeal part of man which survived the dissolution of the body. The soul was conceived to be a facsimile of the body, sometimes no less material, sometimes more subtle but yet material, sometimes altogether impalpable and intangible.