1902 Encyclopedia > Animism


ANIMISM, a term formerly employed in Biology to denote the theory of which Stahl is the chief expositor; the theory of the soul (anima) as the vital principle, cause of the normal phenomena of life, or of the abnormal phenomena of disease. It is now current in the wider anthropological sense given to it by Dr E. B. Tylor (Primitive Culture, chapters xi.-xvii.), as including the general doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings. This application is not only appropriate, but is even rendered indispensable by the absence of any other suitable word; for spiritualism, though occasionally used in a general sense, has become associated with a particular modern development of animistic doctrine; anthropomorphism, if less objectionable, is also to some degree inadequate; while the term theology cannot be extended to include the lower forms of the doctrine of spiritual beings, and indeed many of its higher developments, except by an ill-considered departure from ordinary usage, which raises in many minds a prejudice against the most reliable results of anthropological inquiry.

An animistic philosophy, explaining the more strange or striking phenomena of nature by the hypothesis of spiritual agency, is universally prevalent among savage races; and unless the wide-spread animistic beliefs of savages are to be regarded as but degenerate or corrupted relics of those possessed by more cultured peoples,—a theory which can scarcely be held to account for the essential and native appropriateness of animism as it flourishes among races of low culture, and its less appropriate and apparently derivative character as it survives in higher civilisations,—there seems tenable ground for the inference, that an animistic philosophy must have been that which was earliest developed among the prehistoric societies of mankind. In accordance with this view, animism may be described as the distinctive philosophy of primitive culture. It is manifestly the outcome and development of that earliest analogical reasoning, which concludes external objects to be animated with a life essentially similar to our own; it is the expression and application of our first general theory of natural causes,—a theory rude and inadequate, yet marvellously self-consistent and serviceable: and its history appears primarily to be that of a dominant and pervading philosophy, applied to explain all the phenomena of nature and life, save only those ordinary sequences which the uncivilised man regards as needing no explanation; afterwards, in the progress of culture, that of a system of thought always more or less modified and restricted by the increase of positive knowledge, and surviving only in greatly refined or greatly enfeebled forms, or only reviving at intervals of time.

Of the origin of animism perhaps no perfect account has yet been given. It can hardly be said to be obvious why, in uncultured races or individuals, there should arise that invariable tendency to represent natural forces as conscious and anthropomorphic. There is reason to believe, however, that the type of all the forms in which the tendency manifests itself, is to be discovered in the conception of the human soul. Evidently the notion of an animating, separable, and surviving soul commends itself as the ready explanation of many familiar phenomena, and the appropriate instrument of a philosophy which ascribes animation to nature at large; so that thus, according to the account given by Dr Tyior, primitive animism may be considered to have arisen simply from the evidence of men’s senses, interpreted by the crude and childlike science of the prehistoric world. From the sight of life and death it was, he conceives, naturally inferred that every man has a life, or vital principle, the departure of which from his body causes death,—this idea being confirmed by apparent temporary departures, such as swoons and sleep. From the appearance of men seen in dreams and visions, it was not less cogently argued that every man has also a phantom likeness of his body, separable from it so as to appear to others at any distance, and continuing to exist and appear after the bodily death of its proper owner. Accordingly, the definition of the soul in primitive religion would, as in the lower existing religions it actually does, combine these leading qualities in the conception of an "apparitional soul," which is a thin, unsubstantial human image, the cause of life and thought in the individual it animates, capable of quitting his body for a time or altogether, and so leaving him insensible or dead, and when thus absent from the body appearing to other persons asleep or awake. From this conception, then, animism may reasonably be supposed to have had its origin, especially as other animistic doctrines exhibit such a distinct affinity and relationship to this of the apparitional soul, as almost amounts to a proof of direct derivation from it. The hypothesis being correct, it would, for instance, follow that the lower animals ought to be considered as having souls similar to human souls, inasmuch as they have life, and their phantoms are likewise seen. Moreover, though inert objects, such as clothes or weapons, have not life, yet their phantoms appear to men in dreams, and thus they must be considered as having something of the nature of souls, separable from their grosser part, and surviving its destruction. Now, in fact, both these ideas are recognised in the religions of the lower races. They come into special prominence in the savage and barbaric rite of sacrifice for the dead, where not only are wives and slaves slain to do service to their master’s soul in the world of spirits, but horses and cattle are slaughtered to be spiritually transmitted thither, and clothes, ornaments, and other articles are destroyed, that he may wear and use the "object-souls" thus sent to him. The savage doctrine of a future state, presently to be referred to, also strikingly corroborates the theory of the phantom soul as the origin and centre of animistic thought.

There remains, however, the difficulty of understanding by what process this rudimentary doctrine of the soul has grown into the great system of developed animism: a system of thought so comprehensive as to hold all nature in a web of vital action and spontaneity; so multiform as to invent some new spirit-race for almost every fresh order of phenomena; so coherent as to create a perfect plexus of ideas that mutually support and interpret one another; finally, so persistent, that even its more extravagant developments can survive for ages in defiance of accurate knowledge. It is difficult to realise how exceedingly slow and gradual must have been that growth of positive science and its methods of verification, which has allowed a fanciful and little regulated philosophy to take root so firmly and cast its branches so far. Yet only by a great and connected development does it seem possible that animism could be so matured and extended. Regarding many, at least, of the varied forms of animistic belief, there is already sufficient evidence to make it probable that they have arisen by one continuous process of evolution, extending through the lower to the higher civilisation.

This evidence of continuity of development Dr Tyior represents as partly historical, and partly turning upon the principle of survival in culture. Thus, as among savage tribes, the soul is actually identified with the shadow or the breath, the use of such words as GREEK, GREEK, umbra, anima, shade, and spirit, may be held to show the derivation of the civilised conception of the soul from the same primitive and savage idea. The primitive conception of the soul as consisting of a thin, vaporous, material substance, held its place in ancient philosophy and theology, being supported by such writers as Epicurus and Origen, and was only gradually superseded by the more modern belief of the soul’s immateriality. The elves, fairies, goblins, &c., so well known in modern folk-lore, correspond to the nature-spirits and demons of the savage religions. In these cases there has been survival with considerable change; on the other hand, the continuity of animistic thought is likewise indicated by many instances in which an idea survives with little or no modification. Such instances are to be found in many old customs, and especially among peasants, whose notions of the spiritual world are often almost savage. Thus the ancient funeral sacrifice of the warrior’s horse for him to ride into the other world, which was for the last time in Europe actually and officially done at Treves in 1781, is still kept up in form by leading the dead soldier's horse to his grave. The piece of money is still put in the hand of the corpse at an Irish wake; and in most countries of Europe may still be seen the pathetic custom of setting out offerings of food for the spirits of the departed. Sacrifices to the deities of wells and rivers, trees and rocks, have continued almost unchanged in the rudest districts of such countries as Russia. As a historical example, the primitive theory of convulsions, delirium, madness, &c., being caused by demoniacal possession lasted on among educated people through the Middle Ages, and has only been fairly suppressed by the modern medical schools.

Proceeding on the inference of continuous development, the same writer has attempted a classification of animistic doctrines as they appear in the religious philosophy of the lower and higher culture. The doctrine of souls, as distinguished from that of other spiritual beings, is first considered. It is found possible to trace the conception of the human apparitional soul in various beliefs concerning ghosts, wraiths, doubles, &c., which survive among civilised societies long after the soul has ceased to be conceived as material or ethereal. The notion of animal-souls, largely prevalent among savage tribes, still faintly survives in our own country. The doctrine of plant-souls seems long to have formed an important element in the religious philosophies of India; and even the doctrine of object-souls, which exercises unlimited dominion in savage religions, can still be traced as influencing some of the actions, though not, perhaps, the explicit opinions, of civilised men. Closely allied, like these doctrines, to the primitive notion of the apparitional soul, is the belief in the soul’s existence after death, which appears either as a doctrine of transmigration, describing the re-birth of souls in successive bodies, or in its more general and more important form as the doctrine of a future life. The latter, as commonly held by savage races, supposes the phantom souls of the departed either to remain here as hovering ghosts, or to be transported to some distant region, there to continue a life more or less similar to the present, but with little or no trace of moral retribution: in more advanced civilisations, however, this doctrine exercises the most powerful moral influence, by distinguishing the heaven of the good from the hell of the wicked. The primary doctrine of souls is next described as leading to the development of the doctrine of other spiritual beings, from the lowest ranks of demons and elves, up to the highest deities of the Pantheon. The life and action of the body being ascribed to a soul, all other phenomena of the universe were in like manner ascribed to soul-like beings or spirits, which are thus, in fact, personified causes. So disease among the lower races is accounted for by possession by demons, who are often themselves human souls, and who enter the bodies of their victims, causing all kinds of illness, and especially those phenomena of convulsion and delirium in which the patient seems actually animated by a spirit not his own. Other events and accidents of life are in the same way accounted for among savages as the acts of the demons, good or evil, whom they believe to pervade the universe; and as these beings are, more often than not, conceived to be souls of deceased men, the consequent worship of divine Manes is the principal religion of the lower state of civilisation. The doctrine of object-souls, expanding into the general doctrine of spirits conveying influence through material objects, becomes the origin of Fetichism and idolatry. Spiritual beings, under a thousand names, are multiplied upon the earth; not only those guardian spirits and hurtful demons directly influencing the lives of men, but others, far more numerous, with varied functions to discharge in the economy of the external world. To the lower races all nature being animated nature, every brook and well, every rock and glade, is peopled by nature-spirits; while Heaven and Earth, Sun and Moon, Rain and Wind and Thunder, are either themselves adored, or personified in the character of mighty nature-gods, such as Zeus, Apollo, or Poseidon,—spiritual beings who are, as it were, the great animating souls of their special phenomena. Among the lower races also, there appears in a rudimentary form that antagonism between a good and evil deity, which forms the fundamental idea of Zoroastrism and Manichaeism. Lastly, the conception of a Supreme Deity appears at a very early stage of civilisation, whether one of the great nature-deities, such as Heaven or Sun, is raised to this royal pre-eminence, or whether a being of the nature of a soul of the world, like the Great Spirit of the North American Indians, is venerated as Creator and Lord of the universe. Then, by a natural evolution, Monotheism is established.

Such, briefly sketched, is Dr Tylor’s account of the development of animism, considered as the main principle of the philosophy of religion, throughout the various grades of civilisation. Whether, having shown many popular superstitions to be undoubted survivals from an ancient state of belief, he has been equally successful in proving a like derivation for doctrines recognised by modern religion, will be questioned by many who perceive the bearing of his conclusions upon the actual validity of theological tenets. It is proper to point out that he has noted one great distinction between the lower and higher animism, which consists in the absence of any distinctly ethical element in the spiritual philosophy of the less cultured races. Only at a comparatively late stage of their development do the moral feelings become associated with animistic beliefs.

The final decay of many forms of animistic belief, much more readily than the process of their development, admits of being traced with the aid of historical evidence. Indeed, the history of each of the sciences is a record of the progressive substitution of matter for spirit and law for spontaneity; and we can still witness the process of decay in various stages; for while certain sciences—like astronomy, since the time when Kepler imagined minds in the planets—have wholly exterminated the animism within their borders, there are others that have scarcely yet advanced so far—biology, for example, which is still familiar with "vital force" and final causes. Nor is the process commonly a rapid one: in many cases, as a world of illustration has been adduced to prove, a declining spiritual conception may persist for a length of time, refined and modified into a "principle" or "essence," whose action, though still automatic like a spirit’s, is also regular like that of a natural law. Among all civilised races, however, animism has long ceased to be known as the universal philosophy or explanation of nature, and its remaining manifestations are in great measure reduced to a secondary or rudimentary form. Thus animism survives in the imperfect theories of childhood, it survives also, as we have seen, in the superstitions of the uneducated; and as, in primitive societies, language and imagination fostered the development of spiritual myth, so animism, embodied in metaphor, remains in later civilisations as an important element, if not in truth the very substance of imaginative literature.

The process by which animism comes to be superseded by positive science is therefore familiar, both in its history and results. Regarding its real nature, however, the greatest difference of opinion exists, and there is raised one of the most interesting questions connected with animism—the question of its relation to metaphysics. According to the well-known doctrine of Comte, which, having since his time been expounded and illustrated by several of his followers, would now appear to be accepted by many even of those who do not profess themselves Positivists, animism passes into positive science through metaphysics. In support of this view there is pointed out, what has just been explained, that as knowledge progresses, anthropomorphic and animistic conceptions rarefy and sublimate into so-called essences or principles, with which conceptions metaphysical discussions are shown to be largely conversant. Systems of ontology betray their history by a hundred clinging vestiges of animism; and all the favourite ideas of the dialectician are to be traced in the symbolism of savage religions. The Platonic ideas, to take but a single instance, are closely represented by the species-deities of the North American Indians; while, even in the writings of the master himself, how animistic and mythical is the character they maintain. It is, therefore, concluded that metaphysics is little more than decaying animism, and that a large proportion of animistic theory, before being superseded by positive science, passes through the "metaphysical" stage. From this view of the nature of his science, and its relation to animism, the metaphysician, however, dissents. While admitting that degenerate "metaphysical" conceptions do exist, and that psychology and ontology, more perhaps than other sciences, are confused and retarded by their influence, he refuses to recognise these conceptions as metaphysical in any special or indeed admissible sense. The facts by which the Positivist seeks to prove that animism, as one inadequate explanation of nature, grows into metaphysics, another system of explanation almost equally unsatisfactory, the metaphysician rather regards as proving that metaphysics, a legitimate science, grows out of primitive animism by precisely the same process as other sciences. The discovery in savage or other religions, of dialectical ideas mythically expressed and explained, only confirms him in the belief that there does exist a class of phenomena which it is the business of the science of metaphysics to investigate, since even mythical explanations are seldom formed, unless in the presence of some real problem calling for solution; and he contends that in this way the subject matter of metaphysical science, though long overgrown and encrusted with animistic conceptions, does gradually shine through and assert itself in the light of positive knowledge. If these arguments then be allowed, metaphysics is no decaying animism, but rather a science in the act of struggling free from animism; and animism itself, though often passing in its decay through a phase misnamed metaphysical, is quite improperly represented as undergoing any transformation into metaphysics.

Reviewing the conclusions countenanced by what evidence we possess touching the nature and history of the doctrine of spiritual beings, we find that while it is possible, and even necessary, to regard animism as a system of primitive philosophy extending through various forms into the higher civilisations, yet this view being for the most part unsupported by direct historical evidence, and depending largely on the inference of a close analogy between primitive and savage thought, is in great measure confessedly theoretical, leaving much room for dispute, both as to the extent to which animistic beliefs have been transmitted and modified by a regular, continuous, and uninterrupted process, and as to the conditions which, in special instances, have led to their formation and development, or disappearance and decay. A theory that represents, not only the extravagances of mythology and superstition, but indeed all that we call spiritual, nay, all that we name divine, as but the fruit of a natural anthropomorphic tendency, much more appropriate to savage than to civilised life, is, it is manifest, in thorough inconsistency with many widely accepted doctrines of philosophy and theology. Regarding the importance of the inquiry there is, however, no dispute. Spiritual philosophy has influenced every province of human thought; and the history of animism, once clearly traced, would record the development, not of religion only, but of philosophy, science, and literature. (A. O. L.)

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