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Animism and Anthropomorphism:
The Body of God

By WindCat
(Written for Ecclasia)


Animism - n. (Latin - anima - soul; and ism)

1. the belief that all life is produced by a spiritual force that is separate from matter.

2. the belief that natural phenomena and objects, as rocks, trees, the wind, etc. are alive and have souls.

3. the doctrine of the existence of soul as independent of matter.

4. a belief in the existence of spirits, demons, etc.

Anthropomorphism - n. (gr. Anthropo - man; gr. morphe - form) the attributing of human shape and characteristics to gods, objects, animals, etc.


Although all four definitions of animism are applicable, the one's I am primarily concerned with are: 2. the belief that objects and phenomena have souls and, to a lesser extent, 4. a belief in the existence of demons, spirits, etc. The aspect of anthropomorphism that most interests me is the attributing of human characteristics to deity (n.b., anthropomorphism seems to overlap animism in the attributing of human characteristics to animals and objects; other areas of overlap will surface further into the paper).

Anthropologists, in general, believe that animism is characteristic of primitive religions; developed by unsophisticated, ignorant savages. Anthropomorphism, it is believed, was the development of advanced, intellectually developed cultures like the Egyptians and Greeks. (Anthropologists also think that they are scientists and that monotheism is the ultimate in spiritual development.)

There are grounds for this belief. If we look at the so-called "primitive" cultures of today, we notice that most of their deities are animistic and the more "sophisticated" cultures have one or more deities in human form.

We can even see signs of an "evolution" in the views of deity. From the spirits of rocks, wind, rivers and fire we can see the development of Gnomes (Earth), Sylphs (Wind), Undines (Water), and Salamanders (Fire). From plant spirits we derive dryads and nymphs.

It's not much of a step from these creatures who are tied to their elements, but who have human or quasi-human characteristics, to actual human-formed deities who have dominion over these elements and objects. We go from Earth to Gnome to Gaea; from Wind to Sylph to Boreas, Eurus, Notus, and Zephyrus; from Fire to Salamander to Apollo, Vulcan, and Hestia; from Water to Undine to Neptune and Tethys.

As these deities "matured," they grew away from their animal or objective physical attributes. So we depart from a Gaea seen as the Earth with mountain-breasts and valleys, rivers, caves and trees as her physical attributes to Gaea as a woman presiding over the Earth and it's fertility. The Sylphs go from being human-shaped gusts of air (female) to four brothers who rule the winds. Apollo, Vulcan, Hestia and Mars divide the fires between them to rule the sun, the wild fires, the fires of the forge, and the fires of war. Neptune and Tethys lose their fins and scales and rule the waters.

Eventually the deities lose their natural attributes and become human, even down to their emotions, lusts, and actions. But even then some attributes remain. Athena keeps her owl, Jove is still the Thunderer. Horus, Anubis, Sekhmet and the Egyptian pantheon keep their animal attributes in the some-time form of their heads; Horus - Hawk, Anubis - Jackal, Sekhmet - Cat; and so on.

If we examine modern religions (e.g. Judeo/Christian/Islamic) superficially, deities are totally human, indeed, presumably, the perfection of humanity. In order to describe the attributes of deity, however, we still have to resort to animistic metaphors. God suddenly becomes "the Dove of Peace," "the Lamb," "the Burning Bush," "a Mighty Fortress," "a Fountain," "the Living Water." God has become, not just the image of man, but the image of the Universe he or she is supposed to have created.

Non Judeo/Christian/Islamic religions, not having separated themselves so thoroughly from nature, have a less difficult time accepting the animistic/annthropomorphic face of deity. To them rocks "grow" and natural elements are not disturbed without appropriate compensatory actions. They understand deities, demons, spirits and other entities as being part of each other without the need of distinctions.

We finally recognize that animism and anthropomorphism are the same thing; the attribution of soul to all things; and soul in the only way we can understand it - as human.


Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary, Unabhridged.

Barbara Walker, The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.

Barbara Walker, The Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects.

Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Withes' God.

Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches' Goddess.

Anthropology Lectures at Fresno City College and Fresno State College, 1966 - 1968.


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This page last updated January 6, 2005