Animism (from the Latin ‘anima’: life, soul) is an umbrella term for various indigenous, land-based belief systems, “religions”, and spirituality. There is no one true animism, but there are certain similarities among all animist societies.
Animism can be roughly defined by the belief that everything, whether animal, plant, mushroom, rock, mountain, river, lake, or cloud is a person — with thoughts, wishes, dreams, needs, intentions, hopes, fears, and other emotions just like yourself. Everything is animated by a spiritual life force that runs through all beings and things alike. It is the belief in superficial differences and subliminal oneness. Everything has its place in the animist cosmos, everybody a role to play.
Graham Harvey, editor of The Handbook of Contemporary Animism (Routledge, 2015), gives a short definition of one of the key aspects that make up animism and how animists relate to their surrounding ecosystem in terms of personhood:
Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons. Persons are beings, rather than objects, who are animated and social towards others (even if they are not always sociable). […] However, animism is more accurately understood as being concerned with learning how to be a good person in a respectful relationship with others.
He goes on to state that a person is a being who may be communicated with, a being with whom other people interact “with varying degrees of reciprocity”.
Animists communicate with other living beings and even “inanimate” phenomena, objects, and parts of the landscape like storms, clouds, thunder, rivers, mountains, volcanoes, the ocean, the sky, or the earth.