In Literature, What Are the Uses for Animism?

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  • Written By: Emily Daw
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Animism generally refers to the belief in spirits or souls, whether of humans, animals, or objects such as land features. It is often presented as part of the author's cultural heritage, but can also be used in other contexts, such as to give an air of fantasy to a story or to make some particular moral or philosophical claim. Typically, animism is the belief of actual modern or historical people groups, but in literature nearly any reference to souls can be considered animistic.

Many popular works of animistic fiction are based on the author's cultural heritage. One aim of such literature is to expose that culture's beliefs to a wider audience. An example of this is Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart. The novel traces the changes in the characters and in the animistic Ibo culture of Nigera as a result of interaction with Europeans. Animism in Things Fall Apart introduced many Western readers to the complications inherent in African cross-cultural interactions.

Animism may also form a part of a character's self-discovery, as in Rudolfo Anayo's Bless Me, Ultima, a coming-of-age story that explores connections between Catholicism and Native American mystical beliefs in Chicano culture. In Bless Me, Ultima, mysticism represents a rich way of life free from simplistic answers or moral platitudes.


In other instances, literature involving animism may not draw on the author's background, but still use the beliefs of an actual people group. Given animism's frequent emphasis on the souls or spirits of natural features, this point sometimes has environmental or conservationist overtones. These works may emphasize modernity's destructiveness in contrast to the beauty of living in harmony with nature. One example of this is Michael Blake's novel Dances With Wolves, which he later adapted into a screenplay for the movie of the same name.

Many works of fantasy or fable, in some respects, can also be considered animistic. The existence of ghosts, for instance, presupposes some sort of soul or spirit. Some works of magic realism fall into this category. In fables as well, animals are given human characteristics that sometimes border on spiritual, but may also be simply anthropomorphic. The term anthropomorphism is a figure of speech in which the author figuratively attributes human characteristics to a non-human creature. Within the context of the story, an anthropomorphized object is not actually considered spiritual.


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Post 3

@pleonasm - I think that would be difficult. The problem with matching animist religion with modern technology is that in order to have modern technology you have to know how things like electricity work. You know why lightning strikes and it isn't because of spirits. You know why animals act the way they do and why sickness happens and so forth. You might be able to convince yourself that there is a higher power, but it would take quite a leap of faith to have a whole society convinced that there were spirits in the trees when they understand the workings of photosynthesis and so forth.

Of course, fantasy literature, or magical realism might actually include real spirits in the world, which I agree would make for a fascinating read if they were matched with technology.

Post 2

@bythewell - I think that many authors are writing from the point of view of someone who has never really experienced other religions and so they automatically describe anything that isn't monotheistic as "other", which is a shame.

I've never thought about it before, but it would actually be really cool to read a book with a technologically advanced civilization that has an animistic religion.

Post 1

I think authors need to be very careful and respectful when they add this kind of spirituality into a novel. It's all too easy to show it as the primitive religion of primitive people, which completely ignores the fact that animism is a religion that is still alive today and is just as sophisticated as any other kind.

This shows up in fantasy novels particularly, where they will almost always have the tribes people practicing animism, the people who are a bit more civilized practicing polytheism and the most civilized people practicing monotheism.

The type of religion is used as a short hand method of showing the reader what stage the culture is at, but in reality it's never that simple and that kind of categorization is really insulting for people who still practice animism today.

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