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by Danie Haasbroek

Animism is one of the worldviews that believe in a God who created all things. A Supreme Being. The Lakota Sioux Native Americans call him “The Great Spirit.” Zulus call him Inkosi Yesulu or “The God of the Sky.” But, to Animists, he is no tdirectly connected with this world. He rules over this world by spirits.

by Danie Haasbroek

Animism is one of the worldviews that believe in a God who created all things. A Supreme Being. The Lakota Sioux Native Americans call him “The Great Spirit.” Zulus call him Inkosi Yesulu or “The God of the Sky.” But, to Animists, he is no tdirectly connected with this world. He rules over this world by spirits. And these spirits are active everywhere. So, Animism is that religious worldview which perceives spirits in everything. All physical objects are seen as animated or made alive by spirits. Spirits are concerned with all events, places and people in the world, as Animists view the world.

African traditional religions are Animistic at their core. So, those who have been influenced by traditional African cultures strongly believe in the existence and importance of spirits. They view these spirits as helpers or mediators between us and the one great Creator God. Without the help of the spirits, Animists believe we would be doomed to displease God and not know how to gain his favour.

It seems as though each of the following 7 major world religions (WRs) have followers who embrace some form of Animism or spirit-awareness. In fact, the various WRs often add some contact with the spirit world to their basic beliefs, thereby empowering their faith and making it more practical. These animistic hybrids are known as folk religious beliefs and practices. Each WR has a significant group practicing this folk religion, which mixes their WR with Animism.

Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen, an expert in Animistic religions, believes that up to 40% of the world’s population is Animistic. The number is so high because of the reality of folk religions in all WRs. This would make Animism the most pervasive worldview in the world, influencing all of earth’s WRs.


What rites or rituals are sacred or holy to Animists?

There are special rituals performed at times of birth, death, marriage and entrance into adulthood. The seasons also demand certain rituals centered on planting, sowing, rainy season or dry season. When someone travels, starts a job, builds a home, welcomes a visitor, eats a meal, etc.—these all could involve some prescribed religious ritual which is usually led by the individual seeking the help of the
head of the family or clan.


What are some of the chief beliefs of most Animists around the world?

Animism is a very old WR. It has no sacred book, as its teaching were passed down orally from generation to generation. Most of the tribes of sub-Saharan Africa were originally animistic. Native American Indians are traditionally animistic, as are many of the tribes of the world. In South Africa, whether Black Africans were originally Sans or Bantu related, they all were Animistic. So, while differing slightly with Animists elsewhere, we could summarize the six major elements of South African Traditional Animism as follows:

Oral Tradition – No Sacred Scriptures exist in written form. The religion was passed on by word of mouth sharing given by elders often at the close of each day. There was great respect for the elderly because they possessed the wisdom needed to guide the clan or family in its daily life.

Supreme Creator – God has made all life and all humans are responsible to him and will have to give some account to him for how they have lived.

God is all powerful – He cannot be avoided and his rule is universal. Animists do not think it is safe to live without trying to please the Supreme Being in some basic ways every day.

Religion is a way of life – a way of coping with the harsh realities and mysteries of everyday life. So, to be non-religious is, traditionally, to be un-African. Everything that happens has a religious connection. Every day included religious thought and acts.

Life after death – The human soul or spirit continues to exist in the spirit world, influencing everything in the physical world. Usually the spirits stay local to help the clan they belong to. Death usually does not change the person’s link with the clan if buried correctly. The proper burial of the dead is important because Animists believe without a grave, the dead have no
home. So people who have been improperly buried become disembodied spirits who haunt and curse their area. People dying in battle or in accidents where the body is not given a grave, become spirits who work mischief and evil. Animists have little fear of future punishment after death if they are carefully following the spirits in this life.

Spirit Mediators – Ancestors after death remain as concerned for the clan as before they died. The Creator does not concern himself personally with the life of people on earth. But he sends messages to them, Animists believe, through ancestors. Ancestors reveal themselves to their clan by dreams, strange or dangerous events involving nature, animals or someone’s physical condition. Concern with the Supreme Being is, therefore, replaced by concern with ancestor spirits in one’s everyday life.


How does the supernatural influence the natural lives of Animists?

Human mediators (usually sangomas and/or the head of clan) are special people devoted to serve the community as those who contact and communicate with spirit ancestors through dreams or trances. Sometimes they ask the spirit ancestor to possess them, entering their bodies and speaking through them.

Sangomas or shamans seek to inform the community what the spirits are saying during some time of disruption or serious problems. They try to discover what ritual or religious offering needs to occur to set things right again. Sangomas normally demand a special type of sacrifice – whether fruit, meat, blood or drink which must be offered up as it is supposed to be valued by the spirit ancestors.

Sangomas charge fees for their spiritual services and usually differ from herbal healers who are concerned with sickness and may not try to contact the ancestor spirits but just deal directly with the illness.


How does Animism affect the community of its followers?

Community is all important. The unity of the community always surpasses the concerns of the individual person. Participation in community is the main basis of all family, social, political and religious activity. The community is viewed as an organism not as an organization. It is a living thing of immense value.

Ubuntu is the essence of humanity, or what it means to be fully human. When President Mandela declared, “We have lost our Ubuntu,” he saw the essence of that which held South Africa together as falling apart. At the center of Ubuntu is the idea that “umuntungumuntungabantu” or “a person is a person through persons.” Animists think they only become fully human when they are in relationships with others in their community.


What is the moral code or basic value system of Animists?

Sin or moral wrongdoing focuses more on wrongs that affect the clan or group rather than the individual. The concerns of one individual never take precedent over the concerns of the community. Evil, to Animists, is that which disrupts the normal flow of life for the group. When calamity occurs, a sangoma or some diviner must be contacted to discover which ancestor is responsible for creating the disruption and what sacrifice is expected to deal with it. Another source of disruption is witchcraft. Witches work against the good of the community and
are blamed for great evils like someone dying prematurely or dying without producing offspring. Witches are not allowed entrance into the spirit world, but are excluded from its fellowship and are cursed to wander about forever. Evil is understood in relationship to Ubuntu. So, one becomes evil when he or she acts in a harmful way to the group.


What do Animists emphasize regarding one’s personal identity?

We have seen that community always matters more than individualism, or the pursuit of a single person’s desires and goals. Good health is also of great importance to Animists. Since each person belongs to a group, sickness affects the entire group and may be a way that the spirits are communicating to the whole group. To grow older is to strengthen the group. So one’s authority or respect in the community is related to his/her age. The older one lives, the better one becomes in the minds of others. To die at an old age is to move on to join “the living dead.” After a year or two there is a ceremony during which the ancestor spirit is received back as a helper to the clan. The Zulu tradition is for the eldest son to preside at the ceremony. He drags a branch from the grave site to the opening of the kraal, welcoming the ancestor to assist the clan. Animists believe after such a ceremony, the ancestor spirit will make itself known to some member of the clan. It is considered a great honour to be visited by an ancestral spirit in a dream or vision.


How do Animists regard the flow of human events?

Animists hold to a cyclical rather than a chronological or sequential view of history. There is no progressive purpose to history as various ages repeat themselves with no final goal in view. Human history runs like the seasons of the year and the normal cycles of nature.


Animism is a very practical worldview. It focuses more on issues needing power than on issues of meditation. It attracts people who need help and deliverance immediately because they are up against a difficult or seemingly impossible situation.

That is one big reason why all other World Religions have Animistic groups within them.

Animism brings results by contacting the spirit world. But sometimes those results are very costly and surprising. Desperate people, though, will use whatever means they can to escape their difficult situations.

In today’s urban or city-based world, it would be very hard to find a pure Animist. By that, I mean someone whose worldview is truly Animistic. The following two columns contrast these two conflicting worldviews in ten ways:

Traditonal of Rural Worldview                                Current or Urban Worldview

Small                                                       vs              Large
Clan or tribe or type of people                   vs               Many different types of people
Community focus                                      vs             Individual focus
Religious                                                  vs             Scientific
Cooperative                                             vs              Competitive
Traditional & enduring                               vs              New and changing
Local                                                       vs               Global
Simple, barter economy                            vs              Complex, cash-based economy
Unspecialised, less intellectual jobs            vs              Specialized, more intellectual jobs
Sacred                                                     vs               Secular


1. Share ways that Animistic beliefs still influence you and your family.
2. Discuss some of the positives and negatives of Animism in your opinion.
3. What do you like and dislike about today’s city-based (urban) lifestyle?
4. In what ways do you see your culture as encouraging or discouraging respect for elders?