Concept in formation of ancient religious beliefs

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Animism is the concept that lies at the core of every ancient religion. The term first came forth in anthropological writings of Edward B. Tylor in 1873 and since then, numerous researchers and historians have studied the concept of animism to better understand the force that drives primitive cultures. Animism is apparently connected with religious beliefs but research in the field reveals that many ancient cultural beliefs are also animistic in nature. In his book, Primitive Cultures, Tylor defined animism “a minimum definition of religion” which underscores the significance of this concept in formation of ancient religious beliefs.

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Animism is derived from Greek word anima, which means soul, and ancient religions like Santeria and Hoodoo are based on the concept that everything in this world has a soul. But in its advanced form, animism affects most ancient cultural beliefs, rituals and religious values. Worshipping of trees, fire and idols is grounded in the very concept of animism as Tylor further explains:

Animism, in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in controlling deities and subordinate spirits,… resulting in some kind of active worship” (1970b, 11).

Such beliefs drive many ancient traditions. For example in Hinduism, cow is considered a sacred being, which must not be slaughtered under any condition. Similar beliefs exist in other primitive cultures too as Tylor writes: “trees generally regarded as maternal deities or forest spirits, to be respected even when their lives were sacrificed for human use (pagan woodcutters never felled a tree without first begging its forgiveness). Female tree spirits live on in myth and folklore as dryads, the Greek version of the tree-worshiping druid priestesses.” In short the animistic belief that every object is sacred because it has a soul has resulted in conversion of inanimate objects like stones, trees into deities and supernatural forces. Animism lies at the center of ancient practices of ‘polytheism’, idol worshipping or ‘pantheism’.

The religion of Santeria is a good example of animistic religions. The soul that animists believe exist in every object is given the name of Ashe in Santeria. Joseph Murphy writes in his book Santeria:

The sacred world of Santeria is motivated by Ashe. Ashe is growth, the force toward completeness and divinity. [Santeria is based on the] belief that the real world is one of pure movement. In fact, the real world is one not of objects at all but of forces in continual process.” (130)

In short, animism removes every distinction between “spiritual and material, sacred and secular.”

To the neighbor

Ancient religions are not based on the same concepts as Christianity or Islam. Since they existed even before the birth of Christ, their beliefs are not based on some Holy Book or revelation. Instead most ancient religions believe in spirits, supernatural forces, and ghosts etc. followers of ancient religions of Santeria, Voodoo believe that everything in this world contains a soul which means they believe that every object is just as important as human beings. Animism is the term we use for this ancient belief.

Animism is the reason behind ancestor worshipping in old religions. Followers of these religions believe that when a person dies, his soul lives on and turns into stronger force such as a deity. They seek help of these spirits and when something goes wrong, they feel it is because their dead ancestors are angry with them.

Ancient religions in all corners of the world are animistic in nature as they consider inanimate or dead objects sacred and worship them. Most religions have rituals surrounding this belief. Because they feel that every object has a soul, we notice that most old religions have something to do with magic too. These religions originated mostly from Africa and Asia and magic is a common practice. Animism is the reason people of old cultures worship things like stones, trees and fire. And in some cultures, they wouldn’t let you use destroy their sacred objects even if your depended on it. For example, if you go to India, you won’t be allowed to slaughter a cow.

Revealed religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism have no such beliefs because the concept of animism doesn’t exist in these religions. Followers of revealed religions believe in one God and His omnipresence. On the other hand, people who follow animistic religions have numerous deities and they believe in more than one force.


Tylor, Edward B. 1970b. Religion in Primitive Culture (Primitive Culture, Part 2) London: John Murray, 1958.

Santeria, Joseph M. Murphy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

Taylor, E.B. “Animism.” Primative Cutlure, London: John Murray, 1873

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