In this article, we’re going to delve into the mystical world of animism and shamanism.
As both are considered to be the earliest belief systems, they still hold an incredible amount of importance even today, having withstood the spread of organized religion.
I spoke with Brazilian shaman Rudá Iandé, and he provided valuable insights on how animism and shamanism differ, yet stem from the same root, and that’s what we’re going to explore today.
What is shamanism?
The term “shamanism” is believed to come from the Tungusic word šaman, which means “one who knows”. Tungusic languages originate from Siberia, and practices of the spiritual belief date back to roughly 30,000 years ago.
Traditionally, “shaman” was the name for an individual who would heal people using the help of the spirits. Today, it’s used more broadly, and in western terms, “shaman” is used for a spiritual priest, healer, or medicine man/woman.
As shaman Rudá Iandé explains:
“Shamanism is not a set of beliefs. It’s not that a shaman sees a stone and believes it’s alive and has a ‘particular soul’ as the anthropologists like to think. It’s too much of a reductionist idea.
“The scientist sees a stone and knows that it’s alive because it’s made of dynamic atoms, which are constantly moving to sustain it. The shaman sees the same stone and feels it’s alive because the shaman feels the very essence of life that puts the atoms in movement.”
This connection to the energy of all living things in the universe plays an important role in shamanism, which is neither governed by rules nor doctrine, like most religions are today.
What are the beliefs in shamanism?
More so than a concrete set of beliefs, shamanism is a way of life, which encompasses ancient healing traditions.
Those who follow shamanism believe in a strong connection with the world, but also in developing the inner connection that every individual has within themselves. In that way, we are all connected.
A shaman is believed to be an intermediary between the spiritual world and earth. Using their connection to the spirits, they can heal individuals and their wider community.
During a healing ritual, the shaman might enter into a trance-like state to help them locate the source of a person’s suffering and heal it.
And, as well as healing through the spiritual realm, most shamans are experts at concocting herbal remedies to help their subjects. They have a deep connection with Mother Nature, drawing wisdom and power through our shared energy with the world.
At the core of shamanism is the belief that healing doesn’t take place in individual sections – to achieve harmony within an individual and in society, healing should cover the entire being – the mind, body, and soul. This may also include soul work, especially if it’s believed the person is suffering from soul loss.
Many ceremonies are performed to promote balance, peace, and harmony, as well as to honor the spirits and the spirits of our ancestors.
Where is shamanism practiced?
As we already know, shamanism is believed to stem from ancient Siberian culture, yet there are examples of shamanism being practiced across the world.
Evidence of shamanism has been found in Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Oceana.
Most notably, you might have heard of shamanism being practiced in Native American tribes, where the spiritual healer would have held a high status among his or her community.
With the rise of organized religion, shamanism struggled in some communities. These ancient beliefs were looked down upon as witchcraft, or unholy, and many shamans were persecuted or forced to practice in secret.
Fast forward to today, and thankfully, many communities have kept hold of their connection to the spirits and nature. Some continue to practice tribal rituals, passed down through generations before them.
Others practice shamanism alongside religion, combining the two to achieve a well-rounded spiritual and religious belief.
And although you may have heard of the alluring tourist ventures into the Amazon to experience an Ayahuasca ceremony, as effective as it may be, there are still many traditional and modern shamans who make it their life mission to heal those around them.
What is animism?
Now, if shamanism sounds ancient, animism goes back even further in time. It’s believed to be one of the first belief systems in the world, based on the first and only definition coined in 1871 by Sir Edward Tylor.
The term animism stems from the word “anima” which is Latin for “soul”. There’s no exact date for when animism started, but evidence of its practices can be found predating any other belief or religious system.
At the heart of animism is the belief in spirits, and that everything in the world has a soul. Contrary to what the term might sound like, animists don’t worship animals, but they do worship the spirits of all living things.
What are the beliefs in animism?
Animism is the belief that everything in the universe, from animals, rivers, rocks, mountains, to the moon, stars, and the sun, has a spirit or a soul.
In animism, humans aren’t alone in having a soul. The entire world is “conscious”, even inanimate objects.
Every spirit is considered to be helpful or harmful to humans, so it’s essential to “keep them happy” if you like. Animists would worship the spirits by:
- Offering sacrifices
- Performing dances or rituals
- Offering prayers
By pleasing the spirits, animists hope that they’ll be given a good afterlife, but they also worship the spirits to ensure a prosperous, healthy life on earth, or for protection from harm.
Where is animism practiced?
Animism dates back to early mankind, with evidence of spiritual belief in the world and the afterlife found in hunter-gatherer communities.
And there’s evidence of animism across the world – Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Not to mention Northern Europe, where the Vikings and Celts were known to believe in spirits and would hold numerous rituals to appease them.
Today, tribal animism still exists in countries such as:
Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sweden, Russia, Zambia, Gabon, the DRC (the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and some communities in the US and Canada.
So what does animism look like in today’s world?
Apart from having an obvious influence in some religions, like Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, and in some Neopagan movements, elements of animism have filtered through, and there are spiritual practices found in most modern-day religions.
Within animism around the world, you might see candles, food offerings, and flowers left out for the spirits of ancestors – a prime example of this can be seen across the Island of Bali, Indonesia, where offerings are laid out every morning.
Although the dominant religion now is Hinduism, the Balinese practiced animism before its arrival, and continue to honor the spirits in their daily lives.
Shamanism vs animism: The similarities and differences
It’s interesting to note that while shamanism and animism are two different belief systems, they have some similarities.
For a start, neither followed a doctrine or had a holy book like the Bible or the Quran. There are no prophets, nor one leader who should be followed. As they both stem from our connection to nature and the environment, these beliefs were based more on feeling, on life experience.
Both have influences on religion – naturally, as the oldest belief systems in the world, it’s inevitable that they’d play a part in how spirituality is practiced, even in the context of organized religion.
And even more fascinating:
Shamanism and animism have roots laid down across the world, but as they predated travel as we know it now, it’s unlikely there was a lot of cross-cultural mixing. Despite that, shamanic and animistic practices from one side of the world to the other are extremely similar.
In addition, both share a strong belief in the power of the spirits and their ancestors. Some would argue that since animism came first, it’s a natural progression that shamanism is a branch of animism.
Yet there are some fundamental differences between the two:
Shamanism believes in individual and collective spiritual development. Shamans are seen as the spiritual healers among us who draw upon their connection to this world and the spiritual world.
Whilst shamans work as a bridge between this world and the spirit world, enlisting the help of spirits to heal others and gain knowledge, animists believe that the spirits should be appeased.
Since the spirits can be evil as well as good, animists believe in honoring the dead and offering sacrifices for the spirits, as can be seen in the Torajan people of Indonesia.
Even today, with the influences of Christianity and Islam in the region, these communities have kept their animistic beliefs and revere their ancient rituals.
And there are key differences between the two when it comes to gender roles – in many animistic societies, women were often seen as inferior to men, a practice that unfortunately still exists today in many cultures.
Yet in shamanism, it was and still is common practice for women to become shamans and take on the same healing role as a male shaman would perform, giving them equal status and rights within their community.
How is totemism connected with animism and shamanism?
So now we’ve got animism and shamanism cleared up and their differences and similarities highlighted, where does totemism come into the mix?
If you research animism or shamanism, you will certainly come across the term, so let’s take a look at each:
- Animism – the belief that everything, not just humans, has a soul or spirit. They also believe in a spiritual afterlife.
- Totemism – the belief in spirits in this life and the afterlife, and that connections can be made with the spirits using objects or things (such as totem poles, plants, or animals).
- Shamanism – the belief that shamans can access the spirit world and heal people of their illnesses, by harnessing the power and energy that resides within us and our connection to the Gaia, the universe.
What are the beliefs in totemism?
Based heavily on the animistic approach of the importance of spirits, and that everything in the world is “conscious”, followers of totemism used objects, animals, or other natural figures to represent their clan or tribe.
Often stories of the history of the clan are drawn or carved out in intricate designs on the object (usually a totem pole), which can be read and passed onto future generations.
And it’s not just the history that’s included in the story — in Aboriginal culture, for example, a totem might include information on hunting and eating habits, as well as traditional wisdom from the ancestors. In this culture, a totem is given whenever a baby is born.
This symbol represents unity, a special bond shared between the members of the clan and gives the new member their role and rights amongst their clan.
Where is totemism practiced?
Totemism could be found in India, Africa, Oceania, North America, and some parts of South America, but the word “totem” itself derives from the North American language Ojibwe. It loosely translates to “he is a relative of mine”.
Today, totemism is still practiced around the world. Just as animism and shamanism have continued to survive alongside the introduction of organized religion, in many cultures totemism continues to play an important part in their spiritual belief.
Take totemism in Nigeria for example. Just as the Aboriginals in Australia followed and lived by the guidance of their totem, clans in Nigeria would also live by the codes and rules passed down through their totem. And even though Islam and Christianity dominate the country, evidence of totemism can still be seen in individual groups.
So whilst all three, animism, shamanism, and totemism have roots deep in the belief of spirituality and ancestor worship, they differ slightly in their approach and how worship or spirituality is practiced.
Still, their similarities across indigenous cultures around the world are striking. That these ancient beliefs are still around in today’s society shows that what our ancestors once believed in is still just as important today in the modern world as it once was, many thousands of years ago.