Animism refers to a religious belief that souls or spirits exist in animals, plants and other entities, in addition to humans. Animism may also attribute souls to natural phenomena, geographic features, and even manufactured objects. Religions which emphasize animism in this sense include Shinto, Hinduism and pagan faiths such as folk religions and Neopaganism.
Some theories have been put forward that the belief in animism among early humans were the basis for the later evolution of religions. In this theory, early humans initially worshipped local deities of nature, in a form of animism. These grew into larger, polytheistic deities, such as gods of the sun and moon. Eventually these evolved into a belief in one, monotheistic God.
In many animistic world views found in early cultures, the human being is often regarded on an equal footing with animals, plants, and natural forces. In this world view, humans are considered a part of nature, rather than superior to, or separate from it. In such societies, ritual is considered essential for survival, as it wins the favor of the spirits of one’s source of food, shelter, and fertility and wards off malevolent spirits. In more elaborate animistic religions, such as Shinto, there is a greater sense of a special character to humans that sets them apart from the general run of animals and objects, while retaining the necessity of ritual to ensure good luck, favorable harvests, and so on.
A large part of mythology is based upon a belief in souls and spirits. Myths that portray plants, inanimate objects, and non human animals as personal beings are examples of animism in its more restrictive sense. As mythology began to include more numerous and complex ideas about a future life and purely spiritual beings, the overlap between mythology and animism widened. However, a rich mythology does not necessarily depend on a belief in spiritual beings.
Shinto, the traditional religion of Japan, is highly animistic. In Shinto, spirits of nature, or kami, exist everywhere, from the major ones, such as the goddess of the sun, who can be considered polytheistic, to the minor, who are more likely to be seen as a form of animism.
Many Pagans and Neopagans believe that there are spirits of nature and place, and that these spirits can sometimes be as powerful as minor deities. Polytheist Pagans may extend the idea of many gods and goddesses to encompass the many spirits of nature, such as those embodied in holy wells, mountains and sacred springs. While some of these many spirits may be seen as fitting into rough categories and sharing similarities with one another, they are also respected as separate individuals. On the other hand, some Wiccans may use the term animist to refer to the idea that a Mother Goddess and Horned God consist of everything that exists.
Most animistic belief systems hold that the spirit survives physical death. In some systems, the spirit is believed to pass to an easier world of abundant game or crops, while in other systems, the spirit remains on earth as a ghost, often malignant. Still other systems combine these two beliefs, holding that the soul must journey to the spirit world without becoming lost and thus wandering as a ghost. Mourning rituals and ancestor worship performed by those surviving the deceased are often considered necessary for the successful completion of the journey.