animism (from latin anima, "breath, spirit, life") is the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. potentially, animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork and perhaps even words—as animated and alive. animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the belief system of many indigenous peoples, especially in contrast to the relatively more recent development of organised religions.
although each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, "animism" is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples' "spiritual" or "supernatural" perspectives. the animistic perspective is so widely held and inherent to most indigenous peoples that they often do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to "animism" (or even "religion"); the term is an anthropological construct.
largely due to such ethnolinguistic and cultural discrepancies, opinion has differed on whether animism refers to an ancestral mode of experience common to indigenous peoples around the world, or to a full-fledged religion in its own right. the currently accepted definition of animism was only developed in the late 19th century (1871) by sir edward tylor, who created it as "one of anthropology's earliest concepts, if not the first".
animism encompasses the beliefs that all material phenomena have agency, that there exists no hard and fast distinction between the spiritual and physical (or material) world and that soul or spirit or sentience exists not only in humans, but also in other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers or other entities of the natural environment: water sprites, vegetation deities, tree sprites, ... . animism may further attribute a life force to abstract concepts such as words, true names or metaphors in mythology. some members of the non-tribal world also consider themselves animists (such as author daniel quinn, sculptor lawson oyekan and many contemporary pagans).