Animism and Mythology

Posted by Magellanic Cloud on August 19, 2006

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Animism and Mythology

Humans happen to have two different types of life. First one is their ‘physical’ life. Humans are not unique in this world in having this form of life. Obviously, other animals also possess this type of life. The real distinction or uniqueness of humans in this world is due to their having a second form of life also, which is their ‘mental’ life. Human needs are not restricted to just food, clothing, housing etc. These needs relate only to the ‘physical’ life aspect of them. Due to having the ‘mental’ life, humans also are in NEED to get ‘theoretical explanations’ of whatever they observe in their surrounding environment. Thus humans had always been in such needs as to get some theoretical understanding of their environment, their own selves, about the world, about universe, about their own relationship with the universe, about their own purpose or role in this universe, about the role of universe for them and so on, throughout the time when they first might had started their ‘conscious’ life in this world.

Presently, humans possess mainly two types of ‘theoretical understandings’ of above-mentioned things which are (i) Divine told Explanations and; (ii) Human self made Explanations.

In this way, the God Almighty Himself tells the theoretical knowledge of true religion to humanity whereas rest of the theoretical knowledge is man made.

Humans always want to get some theoretical ‘explanation’ of whatever phenomena they observe because they are RATIONAL beings in character and essence. It should be considered that as opposite to the Existentialist’s opinion, human ‘essence’ really comes first, due to which they feel the need of getting ‘theoretical explanations’ of observed phenomena. It is also due to having this ‘essence’ that they want to make ‘choices’. Coming back to the point, humans can ‘explain’ the things only on the basis of (i) whatever information (may be even incomplete or incorrect) they already possess and; (ii) what ‘approach’ they follow in the process of making interpretations of already possessed information. I shall explain this point later on.

Thus humans, due to their particular essence, always tend to explain not only the material world which they observe, they also tend to explain their own feelings, emotions, thinking, imaginations, dreams and so on. Here, we can refer to the material world as ‘external world’ and those feelings, emotions etc. as ‘internal world’.

I already stated that humans can explain the things only on the basis of whatever information they already posses and by following some approach for the interpretation of that already possessed information. In Anthropology, these ‘approaches’ are generally classified as:

1- Animism
2- Mythology
3- Religion
4- Philosophy
5- Science


This happened to be the earliest form of approach of looking at various matters when humans still were in their early stages of conscious life. They might have found themselves in material environment and they might have developed some incorrect explanations using whatever limited information they possessed in those days. They also might have encountered with such quite strange things as although they used to sleep, let’s say in caves, but during sleep time, i.e. in dreams, they could find themselves in jungles, they could see and meet their dead relatives and so on. To form somewhat explanation about material things might not have posed much problem to them. But the matter that they used to sleep in cave and in this way could wonder about in jungles and could meet their dead relatives, must have been much difficult for them to properly explain. Keeping in view the type of information, which they possessed in those early days, they might have reached such type of ‘rational’ resolution that they assumed the presence of ‘something’ inside the human body. So they might have explained this complicated matter in a way that they thought that ‘something’ could separate from the body during sleep and could come back when awakened. In addition to this, those early humans might have noticed that their life was dependent upon breathing. They might have noticed that when this chain of breath stops, human dies. So they would have reconciled this chain of breath with that ‘something’ which could leave their body during sleep and could come back when awakened and they would have called it the ‘Spirit’. That ‘spirit’ finally became a real object for them.

It is also important to consider that to properly distinguish between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ world might have been near to impossible for those early humans just because due to the much limited information which they possessed in those days. Even today wild uncivilized tribesmen and children make no difference between their ‘internal’ and ‘external’ world. Children sincerely think that external world events are dependents on their own thinking and emotions and so they sincerely think that their own thoughts and feelings can affect the physical world. When some event does not occur as per their emotional feelings, they cry and weep. Children also tend to think that toys are alive just like them. So they clothe them and ‘marry’ them. In the same way ancient humans had been considering lifeless objects as conscious in the same manner as they themselves were. So they sincerely thought that all those lifeless objects also ‘feel’, or that they also had ‘emotions’. Those ancient humans could not differentiate between external, internal, objective and/ or psychological factors or things.

These type of objective situations resulted in the emergence of Animism, which is a belief on ‘spirits’; that other lifeless objects also possess ‘spirits’ and that external world events occur as per the will of those ‘spirits’ etc.

This Animism was the first ever attempt of human kind to get themselves ‘theoretically’ and ‘emotionally’ relate to the Universe and this belief have had an everlasting impact on all the coming times.

A complete uneducated human mind, just like that of a small child, tends to believe that external world events are dependents on one’s own feelings and emotions. It is interesting to point out that throughout early history to even the present modern times, humans always have tried to ‘control’ the external world events using their own emotions and feelings.

When a small child sincerely believes that certain event must happen according to his/ her own emotional desire, it is just the case of ‘innocence’ of that small child. There is another interesting common notion of ‘children’s world’ (There is a Children’s digest also with this title — I used to study it in my childhood). What is this ‘children’s world’? How it is different from the ‘real world’? This ‘children’s world’ actually is a way in which a child identifies the relationship between his/ her ‘internal’ and ‘external’ world. For a child, the external world is filled by his/ her own emotional objects such as fairies, Ghosts, kind prince and princesses and so on. Similarly, for a child, the external world events must depend on his/ her owns emotional (innocent) feelings. For example, in my childhood, as I can remember even now, I used to think, “Kal school se chutti ho gi – just because I wanted this” (tomorrow shall be holiday, just because I wanted so!).

This ‘children’s world’ approach should be differentiated with the ‘realistic’ approach, where a ‘realist’ person clearly identifies the difference between internal and external world and he/ she knows that events of external world are dependent on rigid and constant laws of nature i.e. physical world and are not dependent on his/ her own thoughts or ideas. Here this thing must be kept in mind that ideas do have impact on external world but only in a realist sense. For example a person first conceives the idea of doing some business. Then he realistically translates that idea into reality thus affecting the events of external world.

Children of our era normally come out of the ‘children’s world’ not just because they grow up. They come out of the ‘children’s world’ due to the fact that they have been provided with sufficient education and they also have got the experience of living in a realistic society. If a child is not given proper education or if he does not get the experience of living in a realistic society, he/ she will continue living in that ‘children’s world’ throughout his/ her life. HE/ SHE CANNOT BECOME ‘REALISTIC’ BY HIM/ HERSELF.

Now consider those ancient humans who were in the initial stages of self-consciousness. They just like a child believed that entire world was filled up by their own emotional object, which was ‘spirit’. And what they could understand of external world events was just that those events must be dependent on their own emotional feelings. When a small child tries to ‘control’ the external world events by just his/ her emotional desires, we call it ‘innocent’ behavior. But when grown up people develop some formal method using which they suppose themselves able to control the external world events as per their own emotional desires, we call this ‘strategy’ as ‘magic’ (or witchcraft). These formal methods are of course various ‘jantar mantar’ or other methods. I try to explain this ‘magical’ approach by differentiating it with the ‘realistic’ approach. Suppose a ‘realistic’ person wants to kill his enemy. What he shall do? Most direct method would be to get a gun, then to go to that enemy and then to shoot him with that gun. Enemy shall die in this way. What a magician would do? A real prevalent practice for doing this task is something like that the magician makes a small statue of the enemy. Then he would dig in many needles in the body of statue. In this way magician supposes that real enemy shall die. Although it is quite un-realistic way of killing the enemy i.e. by just using a formal method to effectively utilize the ‘powers’ of one’s own emotional desires but even in this case, if enemy happens to be a superstitious person and if he also has been informed in some indirect way that magician has done this sort of thing with his statue, that enemy can really die in this case. He would die just because of psychological reason and not because of any real effectiveness of that magical method.

As I already mentioned that throughout from the early history to the modern times, humans always have tried to control the flow of external world events using the ‘powers’ of their own emotional desires. So this ‘magic’ is still prevalent but mostly in the vast lower strata of about every present day human society. This ‘magic’ seems to be more ancient than Animism itself. People had been trying to control the external world events by using their own emotional desires without using any formal method i.e. just likes an innocent child. But with the emergence of Animism, role of ‘spirits’ also entered into this magic. Magic took another shape. Now spirits were classified into two categories i.e. (i) evil spirits and; (ii) good spirits. Now the role of magician was to call for ‘evil spirits’ for such purposes as to destroy the enemies and to call for ‘good spirits’ with the purpose to provide help to the friends. This magic however had a great role in the evolvement of present day’s sciences. Both magic and science have similar purpose i.e. to control the flow of external world events in the desired way. The only difference is that magic offers such methods for this purpose, which now have been proved to be wrong whereas science offers realistic methods for this purpose. Emergence of modern science however would have been quite impossible if humans would never had tried to control external world events using the incorrect method of magic. Actually it happened to be the many failures of magical method, which led the clever people to try to find some realistic methods for the purpose. And remember that these realistic methods are now known as ‘science’.


I have discussed Animism in detail because this Animism happened to be the primary basis of most of the ancient mythology. It is clear that for the ancient humans, the entire world was filled by their own emotional object i.e. ‘spirit’. With the passage of time, as a result of many social interactions, many ‘stories’ about those ‘spirits’ emerged. Some of the spirits were appointed as chiefs of rest of spirits. Later on those chiefs became the gods and goddesses. Those stories were aimed at the satisfaction of HUMAN NEED OF GETTING THEORETICAL EXPLANATIONS about the formation and structure of universe. These stories, which are now known as ‘myths’ or ‘mythology’ described, in interesting way, the role of various gods and goddesses in the formation and daily functioning of the universe. Those ancient humans kept blind faith in those myths and they could not doubt in the truth of those stories.


9 Responses to “Animism and Mythology”

  1. “Those stories were aimed at the satisfaction of HUMAN NEED OF GETTING THEORETICAL EXPLANATIONS about the formation and structure of universe.”

    I’ve read it once, now I will get its pritn and read 2-3 times. Really, the uniqueness of your style a philosopher-writier is in the simplicity of your language. Wow….

    “It is also due to having this ‘essence’ that they want to make ‘choices’. ”

    Can you further elaborate this point?

  2. khuram said

    — “It is also due to having this ‘essence’ that they want to make ‘choices’. ” —-

    Existentialism wants to impose idea that humans don’t possesses any pre-given “essence”. First thing is human existence. When humans find themselves “existing”, then they make choices of how they should live and think.

    My point is that humans do possess a pre-given “essence”. Due to a pre-given essence, humans can “think” and “act” only in those ways which are possible by them … i.e. within the limits parameters set by their pre-given essence.

    Humans make choices because their pre-given essence allows them to make some choices in some particular styles.

    That pre-given “essence” is sum total of working princples of human mind … which I still have to share on this blog in my next article.

  3. muhammad umer toor said

    So that may also include the fact why we can not sense a few things or things which may lie beyond our perception, because of a priori nature of ours?

    You said: “Humans make choices because their pre-given essence allows them to make some choices in some particular styles.”

    Because of our limited capacity of our essence, is that mean we cannot have knowledge of all things, to infinity?

    Perhaps, I should better wait of your next article.

    Thanks for the reply, its intersting.

    Humble Regards.

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