What is animism? Animism beliefs recognize that all things in this world are intelligent and have agency.
What is an animist and how can you apply animism to your daily life? As an animist I am often asked to explain my beliefs. My favorite definition comes from Gordon Harvey, who describes animism as a way of seeing the world as full of persons, most of which are non-humans.
The root word for animism is “anima,” which means breath, spirit, and soul. Animism beliefs recognize that all things are intelligent and have agency.
Animism examples can be traced back to the Paleolithic Age. It is the oldest and most enduring faith. All indigenous cultures have animism beliefs. These cultures inhabit a world wherein everything is alive and aware. Shinto, a polytheistic religion unique to Japan, is an expression of animism. Shintoists not only seek blessings from various nature deities, but they also believe that artifacts like buildings can confer blessings.
We are born animists. According to psychologists, we’re supposed to outgrow this phase in which we project human attributes to inanimate objects before the age of ten. However, many adults continue to do animistic things like naming their cars. Do we do this, as some researchers theorize, because it’s a quirk or because we recognize and share something called “soul” or “spirit” with all creation?
Animism assumes the world is a community of living persons. The Maori tribes of New Zealand regard themselves as part of all creation, at one with the mountains, the sky, and the stars. In 2017, a North Island Maori tribe fought for the Whanganui River to be recognized as an ancestor. The river was given the rights of legal personhood. In July 2019, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to grant all its rivers the same legal status as humans. In the same year, residents in Toledo appalled by Lake Erie’s health drew up an emergency “bill of rights” and the lake was made a person.
Animists recognize that we are children of the Earth, connected on a mitochondrial level to amoeba, fish, river, and tree bark. We work to connect and maintain relationships with all beings and we do our best to see and listen in a deeper way.
Animism Examples and Practices
So how can you practice animism? How can you engage and shape new relationships with your environment?
Begin with the realization that we are not superior to nature and that nature is not our gift. The spirits of a place do not belong to anyone and have as much right to exist and flourish as you and I.
When you are ready, start your practice by sitting with a being (plant, animal, rock, etc.) in your own backyard if you have one, or visit your local park. Always think local. Animism is about community building, so do your best to get to know the spirits that share your space.
Keep your visits short at first. You will want to build a reciprocal relationship based on mutual admiration and respect, so don’t force your presence upon any being. Always begin by introducing yourself. If you are entering a forest, for example, or a similar wilderness place, you will want to leave a libation, such as clean water, before entering.
Nurture your relationship with a place and the spirits of that place by offering up your skills and unique abilities as a human being. Ask yourself, how can I help these beings thrive? Share a story with a being, clear a path, listen, pick up litter, or straighten a path.
Seeing the world as alive helps us align with the natural world. Our efforts are ultimately rewarded with a deeper sense of belonging and connection.
Keep reading: “Animal Divina.”