Loosely speaking, animism refers merely to a belief in souls. However, most people use it specifically to refer to beliefs that all objects have souls, not just people. Animism plays a role in many so-called “primitive” practices and shamanic traditions. The concept of animism is also the root of many world religions, and traces of animist belief can be seen in others; Christians, for example, believe in the concept of a soul and in a guiding force which oversees the universe.
The word is derived from the Latin anima, for “soul.” Animists believe that all objects are ensouled, and that some things such as mountains and rivers actually carry the souls of deities. This is reflected in many traditional creation myths, which often involve the trapping of deities or higher forces in the land. Natural events and phenomena are said to be expressions of these souls; when a god is angry, for example, it might rain.
Many animist belief systems also include the idea that souls are separate from the body. Under these beliefs, it is possible for a soul to leave one entity for another, or for someone's soul to be reincarnated in someone else. An animist shaman or priest may also send his or her soul on journeys while the body remains where it is. Elaborate rituals may be performed in these cases to release the soul from the body so that it can travel.
In cultures which practice animism, there are often a lot of festivals, feasts, and celebrations. Each festival is designed to cater to a specific deity, keeping his or her soul happy and content so that the people will remain blessed and healthy. Some festivals or ceremonies may also be conducted to bring about a change; a festival might ask for rain or fertility, for example. These festivals may be taken very seriously in some cultures, while others have evolved more abstract and ceremonial versions.
Some people make the unfortunate mistake of attributing animism to primitive cultures. This is not, in fact, the case. The concept of animism is ancient and it undoubtedly gave birth to mainstream culture and religion, although only traces of the original animism can be seen in religions like Judaism and Christianity. Practitioners of animist religions can be found in almost every country, and while some of them do live remote lives with little contact, others are part of vibrant, highly modernized societies.