In news stories about the referendum that is underway in Sudan this week, references are made to the fact that the people of northern Sudan are primarily Muslim, while those of south Sudan practice Christianity and animism.

Sudan, East Africa

So what is animism?

It’s a vague general term used to describe religious beliefs that differ from those of the Western mainstream.

One of the definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary is

The attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects and natural phenomena.

By extension, animism is

The belief in the existence of soul or spirit apart from matter, and in a spiritual world generally; spiritualism as opposed to materialism.

The term animism gained currency in the 19th century when anthropologists were attempting to trace the origins of religious belief.  British anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor describe “animism” as

the doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings in general.

The term comes from the Latin words animus and anima meaning “life, soul, spirit.

Tylor thought that animism was the earliest stage of religion. He thought it developed when early human beings contemplated the difference between a living and a dead body and concluded that something–the soul–animated a living body and left it when the body died. This concept of animating soul separate from body also explained for primitive people the appearance of people in dreams or in visions.

Modern thought now recognizes that the origin of a concept of the divine is more complicated than Tylor imagined. For example, the earliest belief in a deity seems to have been that of the Mother Goddess, which was the deification of the female principle of fecundity.

Many practicing Christians in southern Sudan are not completely cut off from animistic worship because of customs associated with their ethnic identity.

The Wikipedia article Religion in Sudan indicates the type of practice that is meant when writers refer to “animistic religion.” Here’s an extract:

The Nilotes generally acknowledge an active supreme deity, who is therefore the object of ritual, but the beliefs and rituals differ from group to group.

The Nuer, for example, have no word corresponding solely and exclusively to God. The word sometimes so translated refers not only to the universal governing spirit but also to ancestors and forces of nature whose spirits are considered aspects of God. It is possible to pray to one spirit as distinct from another but not as distinct from God. Often the highest manifestation of spirit, God, is prayed to directly. God is particularly associated with the winds, the sky, and birds, but these are not worshiped.

The Dinka attribute any remarkable occurrence to the direct influence of God and will sometimes mark the occasion with an appropriate ritual. Aspects of God (the universal spirit) are distinguished, chief of which is Deng (rain).

For the Nuer, the Dinka, and other Nilotes, human beings are as ants to God, whose actions are not to be questioned and who is regarded as the judge of all human behavior.

Left: Preparations for a Dinka bull-calf sacrifice, photographed by Godfrey Lienhardt between 1947 and 1951. The photograph is in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Right: Returning Lost Boy, c. 2010, honored by goat sacrifice. (See comments below.)

Left: Preparations for a Dinka bull-calf sacrifice, photographed by Godfrey Lienhardt between 1947 and 1951. The photograph is in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Right: Returning “Lost Boy,” c. 2010, honored by goat sacrifice. (See comments below.)

3 comments to Animism

  • Excellent insight into a subject not well understood in this country. Also good link to Sudan Faces.

  • […] a nutshell, the Black, Christian and Animist South rebelled against the Arabic, Muslim government’s oppression in the North out of the capitol […]

  • Thanks for the enlightening article on animism and the referral to my blog SudanFaces. My Sudanese friend, Beny, whom I wrote about in our book, Courageous Journey, was a devout Catholic from childhood, but still kept the traditions of his Dinka tribe. When he returned to his hometown in southern Sudan recently as a US citizen, the townspeople killed a goat in his honor. Part of the ceremony is stepping over the slain animal.

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