The word ‘animism’ derives from the Latin word anima, meaning soul or breath. It is usually applied to any religious beliefs which recognise spirits or a spirit world inherent and controlling within the physical world.
Animism can be found in many tribal or primal religions. Primal religions are those which are ancient, in existence before the advent of world religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism. There are many such religions in East Asia, particularly in rural or undeveloped areas, island communities and among tribal groups or minority nationalities. Animism is also found within most of the world religions in East Asia, in the form of folk religion.
Many people following primal religions live in isolated rural areas. Their lives are built around the forces of nature. Birth, death, illness and disaster are not hidden or sanitised as they are in many developed societies. Outside forces such as foreigners or neighbouring peoples may be feared. Some tribal groups are nomadic. It is easier to be aware of a spiritual dimension to life, and when human strengths and frailties are exposed by such environments, there is a need for spiritual support.
Primal animistic religions share essential similarities with world religions: a belief in a powerful spiritual realm which coexists with the physical world; usually prayer, sacrifice or offering as a means to communicate with the spiritual world; shrines, temples or sacred places; priests, shamans or mediums who can help the people to hear from the spirits or gods, and sometimes a belief in a ‘sky god’ who is creator and above all other gods/spirits.
Animistic folk religions usually grow out of primal religions mixed with one or more world religions. This happens when a world religion is introduced to the area where animistic religions are already practised. The world religion may seem to predominate, but often its tenets and practices will be less important than, or followed alongside, folk customs based on spirit belief.
Beliefs and practices
The spiritual force and the spirit world
The basis of animism is that the spirit world is stronger than humans. The power of the spirit world infuses everything. Spirits are often believed to dwell in particular objects, such as a tree, or places, such as an area of forest, or a village. Sometimes the spirits move around, even following people if they move.
Origin of the spirits
Some spirits are the souls of deceased ancestors. Others are beings inherent in nature and the spirit realm. For some people the spirits are intermediaries between humans and a higher god. This is often the case in a folk religion, or a primal religion recognising a supreme god. In other primal religions, the spirits are the primary beings of the spirit realm. As such their help is sought. Sometimes the help of particular spirits is sought for particular occasions, eg during illness or war, for marriage or childbirth, or for work and study. Help is also sought for amelioration of weather conditions or a good harvest.
Relationship with the spirits
Relationship between the spirit world and the human world is ongoing and requires human effort. Some spirits are seen as friendly and helpful, and gratitude is shown by the human effort of prayer or offerings. Other spirits may be evil or troublesome, and need to be avoided or appeased. Human effort is required to ensure the goodwill of the spirits, and to ensure that they are not offended or neglected.
Contact with the spirits
For contact with the spirits special methods and/or trained, gifted individuals are usually required. Some tribal groups have a shaman. Shamans enter the spirit world by way of an ecstatic trance. They return to the earthly world with messages from the spirits. Other communities make contact through a medium or through divination. Methods of divination include astrology (eg in China), fortune telling (eg by selection of a written ‘fortune’ in folk Buddhism) and rituals (in many tribal communities). In many areas, including those where a world religion is established, there are local healers who prescribe rituals to seek healing from the spirits. In rural areas they will also use natural methods (plants and herbs).
The Karen people of north Thailand
‘Animists believe everything is animated by spirits. The Karen believe spirits live in houses, fields, water, rice, buffalo, and trees. They all must be given sacrifices of food and kept happy lest they become angry and cause calamity to fall on the people. Often we saw offerings to spirits put out along the paths with bits of tobacco, thread and betel nut placed on a piece of old cloth. Besides spirits, Karen believe in taboos that cause calamities when broken, and curses that will kill other people…
‘Karen believe they have 33 souls — one for various parts of the body with the main one behind the ear. These must all be appeased with an offering and tied in with strings around the wrists. If one of these souls leaves, the person becomes sick and must make another sacrifice to call back his soul. If someone dreams, his soul is actually doing the things he dreams about. If someone wakes him up from a deep sleep too quickly, the souls may not have had a chance to get back to the body in time, so they must be called back and tied in.’ — from Stronger than the Strong by Louise Morris (OMF Books 1998)
The Naxi people of southwest China
The Naxi live mostly in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. They have a long history and traditionally are a matriarchal society. There is no traditional marriage; in the past, no-one left the family home, and children were brought up by their mother, taking her surname. There is no word for ‘father’ in the Naxi language.
Their rich culture has been heavily influenced by the Dongba religion. Dongba is polytheistic, animistic and contains elements of Taoism and Buddhism. The Naxi believe that all forces of nature contain spirits. They also venerate ancestors and try to make contact with ancestors in the spirit realm. Their gods include Sanduo, a ‘protection god’ and Yama, a feared ‘death god’.
There are over 20,000 Dongba scriptures, recorded in hieroglyphs. The Naxi creation myth recorded in the scriptures tells that their ancestor, Tabu, helped them to hatch from magic eggs. The religious leaders are shamans. They perform rituals, contact spirits and are usually healers, artists and scholars.
Similarities shared by animistic primal religions and Christianity:
Closeness to nature
Recognition of human frailty
Understanding of human need for a stronger power
Awareness of the spiritual realm
Life after death
Elements of animistic primal religions not shared by Christianity:
Many gods or spirits
Often no scriptures
Some use magic as well as religious practice
The sky god is not close to his people and does not lead by moral example or rule
Relationships are restored by sacrifice and appeasement, rather than repentance and forgiveness
Some spirits are volatile and capricious
Spirits are local rather than universal
Many people in East Asia may belong to a major religion such as Islam but actually follow a mixture of that religion and animism.
Tribal animism is part of a deeply religious way of life in which the spiritual and physical are inextricably linked.
Animistic religions often involve a strong element of fear.
Christianity often seems to fail beside animism because it does not seem to ‘work’ as effectively in terms of healing.
Many people are content within animistic religions and their ancient beliefs are integral to their culture.
Missionary work in purely animist areas; some tribal peoples have accepted the gospel quickly, with a sense of the fulfilment of an ancient expectation; others are very resistant.
Sensitivity in evangelism, particularly when culture and religion are deeply interrelated.
Mongolia: 50 percent of the population follow shamanism or animism.
China and Thailand: many of the minority nationalities are animist.
Animistic people to accept the true God without losing their cultural identity.
Animists in East Asia
Mongolia - pop 3m, 50% animist
Vietnam - pop 70m, 3% animist
Cambodia - pop 9m, 3% animist
China - pop 1200m, 3% animist
Malaysia - pop 20m, 2% animist
Philippines - pop 75m, 2% animist
Indonesia - pop 202m, 1% animist
Myanmar - pop 70m, 1% animist