15 Animism Examples

➡️ Definition

Animism is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.

It is a worldview where the material world is interconnected with the spiritual, and every element, from rocks and rivers to animals and plants, is considered to have a soul or spirit.

This belief system is often found in indigenous and traditional cultures, where rituals and practices are centered around honoring and communicating with these spirits.

It is also evident in childhood, especially during the preoperational stage of development (ages 2-7).

➡️ Study Card
animism examples and definition
➡️ Video Lesson

Animism Examples

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1. Stonehenge

Culture/Religion: Druids

stonehenge

Stonehenge is an ancient stone circle located in Wiltshire, England.

Built between 3000 and 2000 BCE, it has long been a site of spiritual and ceremonial significance.

Although the exact purpose of Stonehenge remains a mystery, it is believed that the stones possess a special energy or spirit.

Druids and other ancient peoples held rituals there, and even today, it is a place where people gather to celebrate solstices and other significant events.

2. Mount Fuji

Culture/Religion: Japan (Shinto and Buddhist)

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest and most iconic mountain, revered as a sacred entity.

It has been worshipped for centuries by Shintoists and Buddhists who believe that it is inhabited by spirits, including the goddess Sengen-Sama.

Pilgrims often climb Mount Fuji as a form of spiritual devotion, and various festivals and rituals are held to honor the mountain’s spiritual significance.

The mountain’s majestic presence and its role in Japanese culture highlight the animistic belief in the spiritual essence of natural landmarks.

3. The Ganges River

Culture/Religion: Hinduism

The Ganges River

The Ganges River, known as Ganga in Hinduism, is personified as a goddess who purifies and blesses those who bathe in her waters.

The river is considered sacred and is central to many religious rituals and ceremonies.

Hindus believe that the Ganges’ waters have the power to cleanse sins and aid in attaining moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

This belief in the river’s spiritual essence exemplifies animism, where natural features are revered as divine entities.

4. Uluru (Ayers Rock)

Culture/Religion: Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people (Australian Aboriginal)

Uluru

Uluru, previously known by the colonial name Ayers Rock, is a massive sandstone monolith in the Northern Territory of Australia.

It is sacred to the Anangu people, the traditional landowners, who believe that it is inhabited by ancestral spirits and holds great spiritual power.

The rock features many ancient rock paintings and carvings that tell the stories of these spirits.

Uluru’s spiritual significance and its role in Anangu culture exemplify animism, where natural formations are seen as living beings with spiritual importance.

5. The Black Hills

Culture/Religion: Lakota Sioux (Native American)

The Black Hills

The Black Hills are a mountain range in South Dakota, sacred to the Lakota Sioux and other Native American tribes.

The Lakota believe the area is the home of powerful spirits and ancestral beings.

The Black Hills are central to many cultural stories, ceremonies, and rituals.

This area embodies the animistic belief that land and natural features are alive with spiritual presence, guiding and protecting the people connected to them.

6. Totem Poles

Culture/Religion: Native American & Canadian (Pacific Northwest)

Totem Poles

Totem poles are monumental carvings created by Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, representing the spirits of animals and ancestors.

Each totem pole tells a story or signifies an important event, clan lineage, or spiritual belief.

The figures on the poles embody spiritual attributes and serve as protectors and guides for the community.

Totem poles illustrate the animistic belief that animals and ancestors possess spiritual significance and continue to influence the living.

7. Sacred Cenotes of Yucatán

Culture/Religion: Mayan people of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Sacred Cenotes of Yucatán

The cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula are natural sinkholes that were sacred to the Maya civilization.

The Maya believed that cenotes were portals to the underworld and were inhabited by spirits and deities. They performed rituals and offerings in these cenotes to honor and appease these spirits.

This belief in the spiritual essence of natural water features exemplifies animism, where bodies of water are seen as sacred and spiritually significant.

8. Kachina dolls

Culture/Religion: Southwestern United States, Hopi

Kachina dolls
It was hard to generate a non-tokenistic image for this one. For a detailed authentic image, see the wikipedia page.

Kachina dolls are traditional carved figures made by the Hopi people of the Southwestern United States.

These dolls represent kachinas, spiritual beings that visit the community and bring blessings such as rain and fertility.

The dolls are used as educational tools to teach children about the kachinas and their significance.

Kachina dolls embody the animistic belief in spiritual beings that interact with and influence the physical world, playing a central role in cultural and spiritual practices.

9. Mount Kilimanjaro

Culture/Religion: Chagga people of Tanzania

Mount Kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest peak and is considered sacred by the Chagga people who live on its slopes.

They believe that the mountain is the home of spirits and a place of great spiritual power.

The Chagga perform rituals and offerings to honor the spirits of the mountain, seeking protection and blessings.

Kilimanjaro’s spiritual significance highlights the animistic belief in the sacredness of natural landmarks and their connection to the spiritual world.

10. Dreamcatchers

Culture/Religion: Native American, Ojibwe

Dreamcatcher

Dreamcatchers are traditional handmade objects used by the Ojibwe and other Native American tribes.

They consist of a web-like design within a circular frame, often decorated with feathers and beads.

Dreamcatchers are believed to filter dreams, allowing only good dreams to pass through while trapping bad dreams. They are hung above sleeping areas as protective talismans.

Dreamcatchers reflect the animistic belief in the spiritual significance of dreams and the protective power of sacred objects.

➡️ Animism in Childhood

Animism in Childhood

Jean Piaget argued that children go through a stage of childhood in which they believe in animism. That stage is the preoperational Stage of development (2 to 7 years).

In the preoperational stage, children engage in animistic thinking due to their developing cognitive abilities. For example, they might think that the sun is following them, a doll feels sad, or the wind is angry. This occurs because their understanding of the world is still very egocentric and they apply their own experiences and emotions to the objects around them.

Why Animism Occurs in Childhood

Piaget believed that animism occurs because children are trying to make sense of the world around them using their limited knowledge and experiences. They project their own feelings and intentions onto inanimate objects as a way to understand and relate to their environment.

As children grow older and progress into the concrete operational stage, they begin to develop logical thinking and understand that inanimate objects do not have feelings or thoughts. Animistic thinking decreases as their cognitive abilities mature and they gain a more accurate understanding of the world.

Examples of Animism in Childhood

1. Belief that Stuffed Animals have Emotions

a child playing with a toy

A child believing that a stuffed animal gets lonely when they are away shows how kids attribute human-like emotions to inanimate objects.

This is a classic example of animism, where children think their toys have feelings just like people.

The child might talk to the stuffed animal, hug it, or make sure it’s comfortable before leaving, reflecting their own feelings of loneliness or attachment.

2. Belief that the Moon is Following You

a child looking at the moon

When a child thinks the moon is chasing them while they are walking at night, they are giving the moon a purposeful action, which is another example of animism.

The child perceives the moon as an active participant in their environment, attributing it with the ability to follow them.

This belief stems from their imagination and limited understanding of the natural world.

3. Apologizing to Toys

a child apologizing to his toy

A child apologizing to a toy after accidentally knocking it over demonstrates animism through attributing feelings and the need for social niceties to inanimate objects.

This behavior reflects their growing understanding of social interactions and empathy, applying these concepts even to objects that don’t have consciousness.

It’s a way for children to practice social skills and express care and consideration, even towards their toys.

4. Talking to a Tree

child talking to a tree

A child talking to a tree, telling it secrets or asking it questions, is an example of animism where the child believes the tree can listen and respond.

The child might tell the tree about their day, confide in it like a friend, or even ask for its advice.

This behavior shows how children attribute life and consciousness to elements of nature, making their environment feel more interactive and alive.

5. Believing a Car is Tired

child looking at a car

When a child believes that a car is tired and needs to rest after a long drive, they are attributing human-like needs and feelings to a machine.

The child might suggest giving the car a break or patting it gently as a form of reassurance.

This reflects their understanding of their own need for rest and projecting it onto the car.

➡️ Benefits and Criticisms of Animism

Benefits of Animism

1. Environmental Stewardship

Animism promotes a deep respect for nature. Believing that all elements of the natural world have spirits encourages people to treat the environment with care and reverence. This can lead to sustainable practices and conservation efforts, as seen in many indigenous communities that rely on and protect their natural surroundings.

2. Cultural Preservation

For many indigenous cultures, animism is a core aspect of their identity. It preserves traditional knowledge, rituals, and ways of life that have been passed down for generations. This cultural continuity strengthens community bonds and ensures that valuable cultural practices are not lost over time.

3. Holistic Well-being

Animistic beliefs often promote a holistic approach to well-being. By recognizing the spiritual dimension of all things, people can find balance and harmony in their lives. Practices such as shamanic healing, meditation, and nature-based rituals can contribute to mental, emotional, and physical health.

Criticisms of Animism

1. Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation

One major criticism of animism is that it is often misunderstood or misrepresented by outsiders. Western perspectives may oversimplify or exoticize animistic beliefs, failing to appreciate their complexity and cultural significance. This can lead to stereotyping and cultural appropriation, which disrespect the traditions and beliefs of indigenous peoples.

2. Lack of Scientific Basis

Critics argue that animism lacks a scientific basis and relies on supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. This can be seen as a barrier to scientific understanding and technological advancement. Skeptics may dismiss animistic beliefs as mere superstition or irrationality, overlooking their cultural and spiritual value.

3. Potential for Conflict

Animism can sometimes lead to conflict, especially when it comes to land use and resource management. Indigenous communities may clash with government or corporate interests that do not recognize the spiritual significance of certain natural sites. These conflicts can result in displacement, environmental degradation, and loss of cultural heritage.

3. Holistic Well-being

Animistic beliefs often promote a holistic approach to well-being. By recognizing the spiritual dimension of all things, people can find balance and harmony in their lives. Practices such as shamanic healing, meditation, and nature-based rituals can contribute to mental, emotional, and physical health.

Criticisms of Animism

1. Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation

One major criticism of animism is that it is often misunderstood or misrepresented by outsiders. Western perspectives may oversimplify or exoticize animistic beliefs, failing to appreciate their complexity and cultural significance. This can lead to stereotyping and cultural appropriation, which disrespect the traditions and beliefs of indigenous peoples.

2. Lack of Scientific Basis

Critics argue that animism lacks a scientific basis and relies on supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. This can be seen as a barrier to scientific understanding and technological advancement. Skeptics may dismiss animistic beliefs as mere superstition or irrationality, overlooking their cultural and spiritual value.

3. Potential for Conflict

Animism can sometimes lead to conflict, especially when it comes to land use and resource management. Indigenous communities may clash with government or corporate interests that do not recognize the spiritual significance of certain natural sites. These conflicts can result in displacement, environmental degradation, and loss of cultural heritage.

➡️ Further Reading

References

Conty, A. (2022). Animism in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society39(5), 127-153.

Eade, J., & Stadler, N. (2022). An introduction to pilgrimage, animism, and agency: putting humans in their place. Religion, state & society50(2), 137-146.

Fales, E. (2023). Sensible Animism. In Animism and Philosophy of Religion (pp. 179-197). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Oppy, G. (2023). Animism: Its Scope and Limits. In Animism and Philosophy of Religion (pp. 199-226). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Stacey, T. (2021). Toying with Animism: How Learning to Play Might Help Us Get Serious about the Environment. Nature and Culture16(3), 83-109.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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