Animism - Traditional African

By: Zachary Begland, Anna Kustar, Soo jin Park

Origin of Animistic Religions


Animism developed at approximately the same time in different parts of the world, it is the foundation of most religions today. The origin may have been in Africa or Asia because that’s where animist tribes live today. Scientists believe that animist beliefs go back to the Paleolithic age, and that every religion today has some sort of animistic belief.

Basic Religious Beliefs

Everything has a soul and is alive, even inanimate objects like rocks or rivers. Primitive animistic tribes pictured the soul as a mist or fog that could pass between every object. These spirits are how early people explained dreams and death. Animism is a monotheistic religion because there is usually one supreme God or deity whom they praise, with helpers or assistance below Him/Her.


This is an ethnic religion, mostly practiced by tribes and small groups of people in rural areas. There is very little data about actual tribes that practice animism because they are isolated from the modern world, and therefore are able to maintain their religion instead of converting to a universalizing religion.

Branches of Animism

There are no specific branched because each tribe practices animism in their own way, although their beliefs may be somewhat similar; their rituals or stories may be completely different. Essentially every different animistic religion holds some parts of animism true while adjusting other parts to better suit themselves and their environment.

Where Animism Is?

Diffusion of Animism

Animism, being an ethnic religion, is diffused primarily through relocational diffusion, though in most occurrences, not at all. The many types of animism that exist in Africa today, have little contact with another and thus do not have the means for diffusion of a widespread area. Most of these animist religions are also not influenced by other animist religions, but some have been caught in the expansive diffusion of universalizing languages, and have either been eradicated are changed to better fit into a larger religion such as Islam or Christianity.

Holy Places

Holy places are not a very significant in animistic religions primarily because they do not apply to many people that could afford to build such places. They are also far more connected to nature than most universal religions, so their only real holy place is natural areas such as forests, mountains, and other things on a natural landscape.

Where it is Practiced Today?

Typically in very small homogenous tribes spread out through much of middle Africa, so of the largest numbers of animists are in Sudan and Cameroon, much of which is still incredible isolated from the rest of the global community. This isolation in small villages allows many Animistic religions to grow unimpeded in these areas, though farther north and south animism exists but is blended with Islam and Christianity


Around 232 million people adhere to some form or division of animism/tribal, almost 99% being in Africa. This accounts for around 4% of the world’s populations, though in some parts, people retain their animist religion, but also embrace more universal ones such as Christianity in South Africa and Islam in Northern Africa

Parts of Animism

Important People

The most important people in animism are typically shaman. Shaman are herb makers and collectors that use a wide range of natural remedies to heal people and connect things. They are though to be more in tune with nature than the common man. Shamans also have some supernatural powers that allow them to connect people to the spirit world and vice-versa. They are respected and thought to be very wise

Holy Text

No text exists in animistic religions as the religion is passed orally through generations. It is ethic and very rarely has any need to provide texts for outsiders. The main theme of animism is also too simplistic to need a standard text, essentially god inhabits all things, and the natural ones herald more power.

Religious Symbols

Many symbols in different animistic religions depict spirits of natural occurrences as well as symbols that pertain to a saying related to gods or other deities

Places of Worship

Most animistic religions worship wherever a large congregation can come together such as a market or center of the tribe. There is no set location for worship, instead it is all around. Most places are outside, as the people prefer natural worship to the environment around them
West African Dancing at a local Animist Ceremony in Ghana

Impact on Social and Family Structures

In animism elders and ancestors are the most revered group of people in the tribe or community. The older you get the wiser you are, by animism logic, and all younger people most adhere to older ones. This stands true for all aspects of daily life in an animistic community. Praying for your ancestors to help you in certain things is quite customary as ancestors are older and wiser than other, still living, human beings. Ancestors are also put in coffins and hung in high places so that they may be revered for decades

Impacts on cultural beliefs and expectations

Animism works much more toward simple things and a simple life style, rather than always getting more and more complex. Many animists will shun technology and remain at a very basic level of human existence. Many believe in a simple find or grow food as their only need and will avoid more complex situations in their life. Even their culture such as housing reflects this ideology. In animism, simplicity is key.


  • Akan- An animistic religion in West Africa that has a supreme god, Brekyirihunuade, and the Earth is seen as a mother to the people. Many followers pray to them along with their ancestors.
  • Bemba-In Zambia, has a main god names Lesa, followed by many lesser deities, some of which are considered ancestors of certain families that take part in this animistic religion.


Sacred Power - 2 - Animism, Ancestors and Totemism

Essential Question

How do the attributes of a physical environment affect animistic religions views on life, nature, and death?