Extracts from Edward Burnett Tylor

1866 The Religion of Savages
1871 Primitive Culture
1875Anthropoloy in Encyclopedia

Tylor, E.B. 15.8.1866 "The Religion of Savages" Fortnightly Review 15.8.1866 - Volume 6, pages 71-86

The theory which endows the phenomenon of nature with personal life might perhaps conveniently be called 'animism'

Tylor, E.B. 1871 Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom

Preface to the second edition: September 1873

Since the publication of this work in 1871, translations have appeared in German and Russian. In the present edition the form of page has been slightly altered, for convenience of re-issue at once in England and America. The matter, however, remains substantially the same. A few passages have been amplified or altered for greater clearness, and on some points additional or improved evidence has been put in. Among the anthropologists whose published reviews or private communications have enabled me to correct or strengthen various points, I will only mention by name Professor Felix Liebrecht, of Liege, Mr. Clements R. Markham, Professor Calderwood, Mr. Ralston, and Mr. Sebastian Evans.

It may have struck some readers as an omission, that in a work on civilisation insisting so strenuously on a theory of development or evolution, mention should scarcely have been made of Mr. Darwin and Mr. Herbert Spencer, whose influence on the whole course of modern thought on such subjects should not be left without formal recognition. This absence of particular reference is accounted for by the present work, arranged on its own lines, coming scarcely into contact of detail with the previous works of these eminent philosophers.

An objection made by several critics as to the accumulation of evidence in these volumes leads me to remark, with sincere gratification, that this objection has in fact been balanced by solid advantage. The plan of collecting wide and minute evidence, so that readers may have actually before them the means of judging the theory put forward, has been justified by the reception of the book, even in circles to whose views many of its arguments are strongly adverse, and that in matters of the first importance. Writers of most various philosophical and theological schools now admit that the ethnological facts are real, and vital, and have to be accounted for. It is not too much to say that a perceptible movement of public opinion has here justified the belief that the English mind, not readily swayed by rhetoric, moves freely under the pressure of facts.

E. B. T.
September, 1873.


(¶) Are there, or have there been, tribes of men so low in culture as to have no religious conceptions whatever? This is practically the question of the universality of religion, which for so many centuries has been affirmed and denied, with a confidence in striking contrast to the imperfect evidence on which both affirmation and denial have been based. Ethnographers, if looking to a theory of development to explain civilisation, and regarding its successive stages as arising one from another, would receive with peculiar interest accounts of tribes devoid of all religion. Here, they would naturally say, are men who have no religion because their forefathers had none, men who represent a pre-religious condition of the human race, out of which in the course of time religious conditions have arisen. It does not, however, seem advisable to start from this ground in an investigation of religious development. Though the theoretical niche is ready and convenient, the actual statue to fill it is not forthcoming.


(¶) The first requisite in a systematic study of the religions of the lower races, is to lay down a rudimentary definition of religion. By requiring in this definition the belief in a supreme deity or of judgment after death, the adoration of idols or the practice of sacrifice, or other partially-diffused doctrines or rites, no doubt many tribes may be excluded from the category of religious. But such narrow definition has the fault of identifying religion rather with particular developments than with the deeper motive which underlies them. It seems best to fall back at once on this essential source, and simply to claim, as a minimum definition of Religion, the belief in Spiritual Beings. If this standard be applied to the descriptions of low races as to religion, the following results will appear. It cannot be positively asserted that every existing tribe recognises the belief in spiritual beings, for the native condition of a considerable number is obscure in this respect, and from the rapid change or extinction they are undergoing, may ever remain so. It would be yet more unwarranted to set down every tribe mentioned in history, or known to us by the discovery of antiquarian relics, as necessarily having passed the defined minimum of religion. Greater still would be the unwisdom of declaring such a rudimentary belief natural or instinctive in all human tribes of all times; for no evidence [1958 Harper v.2 p.9] justifies the opinion that man, known to be capable of so vast an intellectual development, cannot have emerged from a non-religious condition, previous to that religious condition in which he happens at present to come with sufficient clearness within our range of knowledge. It is desirable, however, to take our basis of enquiry in observation rather than from speculation. Here, so far as I can judge from the immense mass of accessible evidence, we have to admit that the belief in spiritual beings appears among all low races with whom we have attained to thoroughly intimate acquaintance ; whereas the assertion of absence of such belief must apply either to ancient tribes, or to more or less imperfectly described modern ones. The exact bearing of this state of things on the problem of the origin of religion may be thus briefly stated. Were it distinctly proved that non-religious savages exist or have existed, these might be at least plausibly claimed as representatives of the condition of Man before he arrived at the religious state of culture. It is not desirable, however, that this argument should be put forward, for the asserted existence of the non-religious tribes in question rests, as we have seen, on evidence often mistaken and never conclusive. The argument for the natural evolution of religious ideas among mankind is not invalidated by the rejection of an ally too weak at present to give effectual help. Non-religious tribes may not exist in our day, but the fact bears no more decisively on the development of religion, than the impossibility of finding a modern English village without scissors or books or lucifer-matches bears on the fact that there was a time when no such things existed in the land.

(¶) I propose here, under the name of Animism, to investigate the deep-lying doctrine of Spiritual Beings, which embodies the very essence of Spiritualistic as opposed to Materialistic Philosophy. Animism is not a new technical term, though now seldom used. From its special relation to the doctrine [1958 Harper v.2 p.10] of the soul, it will be seen to have a peculiar appropriateness to the view here taken of the mode in which theological ideas have been developed among mankind. The word Spiritualism, though it may be, and sometimes is, used in general sense, has this obvious defect to us, that it has come the designation of a particular modern sect, who indeed hold extreme spiritualistic views, but cannot be taken typical representatives of these views in the world at large. The sense of Spiritualism in its wider acceptation, the general belief in spiritual beings, is here given to Animism.

(¶) Animism characterises tribes very low in the scale of humanity, and thence ascends, deeply modified in its transmission, but from first to last preserving an unbroken continuity, into the midst of high modern culture. Doctrines adverse to it, so largely held by individuals or schools, are usually due not to early lowness of civilisation, but to later changes in the intellectual course, to divergence from, or rejection of, ancestral faiths ; and such newer developments do not affect the present enquiry as to the fundamental religious condition of mankind. Animism is, in fact, the groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilised men. And although it may at first sight seem to afford but a bare and meagre definition of a minimum of religion, it will be found practically sufficient; for where the root is, the branches will generally be produced. It is habitually found that the theory of Animism divides into two great dogmas, forming parts of one consistent doctrine; first, concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body ; second, concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities. Spiritual beings are held to affect or control the events of the material world, and man's life here and hereafter; and it being considered [1958 Harper v.2 p.11] that they hold intercourse with men, and receive pleasure or displeasure from human actions, the belief in their existence 1 ads naturally, and it might almost be said inevitably, sooner r later to active reverence and propitiation. Thus Animism in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in controlling deities and subordinate spirits, these doctrines practically resulting in some kind of active worship. One great element of religion, that moral element which among the higher nations forms its most vital part, is indeed little represented in the religion of the lower races. It is not that these races have no moral sense or no moral standard, for both are strongly marked among them, if not in formal precept, at least in that traditional consensus of society which we call public opinion, according to which certain actions are held to be good or bad, right or wrong. It is that the conjunction of ethics and Animistic philosophy, so intimate and powerful in the higher culture, seems scarcely yet to have begun in the lower. I propose here hardly to touch upon the purely moral aspects of religion, but rather to study the animism of the world so far as it constitutes, as unquestionably it does constitute, an ancient and world-wide philosophy, of which belief is the theory and worship is the practice. Endeavouring to shape the materials for an enquiry hitherto strangely undervalued and neglected, it will now be my task to bring as clearly as may be into view the fundamental animism of the lower races, and in some slight and broken outline to trace its course into higher regions of civilisation. Here let me state once for all two principal conditions under which the present research is carried on. First, as to the religious doctrines and practices examined, these are treated as belonging to theological systems devised by human reason, without supernatural aid or revelation ; in other words, as being developments of Natural Religion. Second, as to the connexion between similar ideas and rites in the religions of the savage and the civilised world. While dwelling at some length on doctrines and ceremonies of the lower [1958 Harper v.2 p.12] races, and sometimes particularising for special reasons the related doctrines and ceremonies of the higher nations, it has not seemed my proper task to work out in detail the problems thus suggested among the philosophies and creeds of Christendom. Such applications, extending farthest from the direct scope of a work on primitive culture, are briefly stated in general terms, or touched in slight allusion, or taken for granted without remark. Educated readers possess the information required to work out their general bearing on theology, while more technical discussion is left to philosophers and theologians specially occupied with such arguments.

(¶) The first branch of the subject to be considered is the doctrine of human and other Souls, an examination of which will occupy the rest of the present chapter. What the doctrine of the soul is among the lower races, may be explained in stating the animistic theory of its development. It seems as though thinking men, as yet at a low level of culture, were deeply impressed by two groups of biological problems. In the first place, what is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one; what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, death ? In the second place, what are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions ? Looking at these two groups of phenomena, the ancient savage philosophers probably made their first step by the obvious inference that every man has two things belonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom, These two are evidently in close connexion with the body,, the life as enabling it to feel and think and act, the phantom as being its image or second self ; both, also, are perceived to be things separable from the body, the life as able to go away and leave it insensible or dead, the phantom as appearing to people at a distance from it. The second step would seem also easy for savages to make, seeing how extremely difficult civilised men have found it to unmake. It is merely to combine the life and the phantom. As both belong to the body, why should they not also belong to one another, and [1958 Harper v.2 p.13] manifestations of one and the same soul?


1958 Harper v.2 p.461


(¶) Sacrifice has its apparent origin in the same early period of culture and its place in the same animistic scheme as prayer, with which through so long a range of history it has been carried on in the closest connexion. As prayer is a request made to a deity as if he were a man, so sacrifice is a gift made to a deity as if he were a man. The human types of both may be studied unchanged in social life to this day. The suppliant who bows before his chief, laying a gift at his feet and making his humble petition, displays the anthropomorphic model and origin at once of sacrifice and prayer. But sacrifice, though in its early stages as intelligible as prayer is in early and late stages alike, has passed in the course of religious history into transformed conditions, not only of the rite itself but of the intention with which the worshipper performs it. And theologians, having particularly turned their attention to sacrifice as it appears in the higher religions, have been apt to gloss over with mysticism ceremonies which, when traced ethnographically up from their savage forms, seem open to simply rational interpretation. Many details of offerings have already been given incidentally here, as a means of elucidating the nature of the deities they are offered to. Moreover, a main part of the doctrine of sacrifice has been anticipated in examining the offerings to spirits of the dead, and indeed the ideal distinction between soul and deity breaks down among the lower races, when it appears how often the deities receiving sacrifice are themselves divine human souls. In now attempting to classify sacrifice in its course through the religions of the world, it seems a satisfactory plan to group the evidence as far as may be according to the manner in which the offering is given by the worshipper, and received by the deity. At the same time, the examples may be so arranged as to bring into view the principal lines along which the rite has undergone alteration. The ruder conception that the deity takes and values the offering for itself, gives place on the one hand to the idea of mere homage expressed by a gift, and on the other to the negative view [1958 Harper v.2 p.462] that the virtue lies in the worshipper depriving himself something prized.

These ideas may be broadly distinguished as the gift-theory, the homage-theory, and the abnegation-theory. Along all three the usual ritualist change may be traced, from practical reality to formal ceremony. The originally valuable offering is compromised for a smaller tribute or a cheaper substitute, dwindling at last to a mere trifling token or symbol.

(¶) The gift-theory, as standing on its own independent basis, properly takes the first place. That most childlike kind of offering, the giving of a gift with as yet no definite thought how the receiver can take and use it, may be the most primitive as it is the most rudimentary sacrifice. Moreover, in tracing the history of the ceremony from level to level of culture, the same simple unshaped intention may still largely prevail, and much of the reason why it is often found difficult to ascertain what savages and barbarians suppose to become of the food and valuables they offer to the gods, may be simply due to ancient sacrificers knowing as little about it as modern ethnologists do, and caring less. Yet rude races begin and civilized races continue to furnish with the details of their sacrificial ceremonies the key also to their meaning, the explanation of the manner in which the offering is supposed to pass into the possession of the deity.

(¶) Beginning with cases in which this transmission is performed bodily, it appears that when the deity is the personal Water, Earth, Fire, Air, or a fetish-spirit animating or inhabiting such element, he can receive and sometimes actually consume the offerings given over to this material medium. How such notions may take shape is not ill shown in the quaintly rational thought noticed in old Peru, that the Sun drinks the libations poured out before him; and in modern Madagascar, that the Angatra drinks the arrack left for him in the leaf-cup. Do not they see the liquids diminish from day to day? (1)

(1) Garcilaso de la Vega,' Commentaries Reales,' v. 19. Ellis,' Madagascar, vol. i. p. 421.

The sacrifice to Water [1958 Harper v.2 p.463] is exemplified by Indians caught in a storm on the North American lakes, who would appease the angry tempest-raising deity by tying the feet of a dog and throwing it overboard. (1)

(1) Charlevoix, 'Nouv. Fr.' vol. i. p. 394. See also Smith, 'Virginia,' in Pinkerton,' vol. xiii. p. 41.

The following case from Guinea well shows the principle of such offerings. Once in 1693, the sea being unusually rough, the headmen complained to the king, who desired them to be easy, and he would make the sea quiet next day. Accordingly he sent his fetishman with a jar of palm oil, a bag of rice and corn, a jar of pitto, a bottle of brandy, a piece of painted calico, and several other things to present to the sea. Being come to the seaside, he made a speech to it, assuring it that his king was its friend, and loved the white men; that they were honest fellows and came to trade with him for what he wanted ; and that he requested the sea not to be angry, nor hinder them to land their goods ; he told it, that if it wanted palm oil, his king had sent it some ; and so threw the jar with the oil into the sea, as he did, with the same compliment, the rice, corn, pitto, brandy, calico, &c. (2) Among the North American Indians the Earth also receives offerings buried in it.

(2) Phillips in Astley's ' Voyages,' vol. ii. p. 411 ; Lubbock,' Origin of Civilisation," p. 216. Bosman,' Guinea," in Pinkerton, vol. xvi. p. 500. Bastian in 'Ztschr. für Ethnologic,' 1869, p. 315.

The distinctness of idea with which such objects may be given is well shown in a Sioux legend. The Spirit of the earth, it seems, requires an offering from those who perform extraordinary achievements, and accordingly the prairie gapes open with an earthquake before the victorious hero of the tale; he casts a partridge into the crevice, and springs over.3

Schoolcraft, 'Algic Res.' vol. ii. p. 75. See also Tanner, 'Narr.' p. 193, and above, p. 270.

One of the most explicit recorded instances of the offering to the Earth is the hideous sacrifice to the Earth-goddess among the Khonds of Orissa, the tearing of the flesh of the human victim from the bones, the priest burying half of it in a hole in the earth behind his back without looking round, and each householder carrying off a particle to bury in like manner in his favourite field. (1)

Macpherson, 'India', p.129


1958 Harper v.2 pp 532-533

With a consistency of action so general as to amount to a mental law, it is proved that among the lower races all over the world the operation of outward events on the inward mind leads not only to statement of fact, but to formation of myth. It gives no unimportant clues to the student of mental history, to see by what regular processes myths are generated, and how, growing by wear and increasing in value at secondhand, they pass into pseudo-historic legend. Poetry is full of myth, and he who will [533] understand it analytically will do well to study it ethnographically. In so far as myth, seriously or sportively meant, is the subject of poetry, and in so far as it is couched in language whose characteristic is that wild and rambling metaphor which represents the habitual expression of savage thought, the mental condition of the lower races is the key to poetry - nor is it a small portion of the poetic realm that these definitions cover.

Tylor, E.B. 1875 "Anthropology" A six part article in the Encyclopedia Britannica

Part 6: Development of Civilisation


The teaching of history, during the three to four thousand years of which contemporary chronicles have been preserved, is that civilisation is gradually developed in the course of ages by enlargement and increased precision of knowledge, invention and improvement of arts, and the progression of social and political habits and institutions towards general well-being. The conditions of such races as the older Jews, Greeks, and Germans, are known to us by ancient chronicles, and by poetry and myth even more valuable than chronicle in the details they unconsciously preserve of the state of society at the time whence they have been handed down.

Starting from the recorded condition of such barbaric nations, and following the general course of culture into the modern world, all the great processes of mental an social development may be seen at work. Falling back or decay also takes place, but only to a limited extent destroys the results of growth in culture.

It is thus matter of actual record, that the ancestors of civilised nations were barbaric tribes, and the inference seems reasonable that the same process of development had gone on during previous ages outside the domain of direct history, so that barbaric culture itself arose out of an earlier and ruder condition of primitive culture, more or less corresponding with the state of modern savage tribes.

The failure of direct record of this passage from savagery upward to barbarism was to be expected from the circumstances of the case. No people civilised enough to preserve history could have watched the age-long process of a savage tribe developing its culture; indeed, experience shows that independent progress could hardly have taken place among an uncivilised in contact with a civilised race. Nor could a barbaric nation, though it had really and independent risen from savagery within some few thousand years, give any valid account of this gradual advancement, for the very reason of its having taken place while the nation was yet in, or but little removed from, the savage state, one part of the very definition of which is that it has no trustworthy means of preserving the history of events even for a single century, much less for the long period required for so vast a development.

This view of the low origin and progressive development of civilisation was already held in ancient times, as in the well-known speculations of the Epicurean school on the condition of the earliest men, who roved like wild animals, seeking their food from the uncultured earth, till arts and social laws arose among them (Lucret., De Rerum Nat., v. 923; Horat., Sat., 1. 3); or where the like idea has taken in China the form of ancient legend, recording the time when their nation was taught to use skins for clothing, to make fire and to dwell in houses (Pauthier, Livres Sacres de Orient, p. 26).

In opposition to such views of primeval rudeness, traditions of a pristine state of human excellence have long been cherished, such as the "golden age" (Hesiod., Op. et. Dies, 108).

Till of late wide acceptance has been given to arguments, partly based on theological and partly on anthropological grounds, as to man's incapability of rising from a savage state, and the consequent necessity of a supernatural bestowal of culture on the first men, from whose high level savages are supposed by advocates of this theory to have degenerated. The anthropological evidence adduced in support of this doctrine is, however, too weak for citation, and even obviously erroneous arguments have been relied on (see, for example, Archbishop Whately, Essay on the Origin of Civilisation, and remarks on its evidence in Tylor, Early Hist. Man, p. 163).

It has been especially the evidence of prehistoric archaeology which, within the last few years, has given to the natural development-theory of civilisation a predominance hardly disputed on anthropological grounds. The stone implements, which form the staple proof of man's existence at the period of the river-drift, are of extreme rudeness as compared even with ordinary savage types, so that it is obvious that the most ancient known tribes were, as to be industrial arts, at a low savage level. The remains in the caverns justify this opinion, especially where in central France more precision is given to the idea of prehistoric life by the discovery of bone weapons for hunting and fishing, which suggest a rude condition resembling that of the Esquimaux (see the preceding section IV., Antiquity of Man). The finding of ancient stone implements buried in the ground in almost every habitable district of the world, including the seats of the great ancient civilisations, such as Egypt, Assyria, India, China, Greece, &c., may be adduced to show that the inhabitants of these regions had at some time belonged to the stone age. This argument goes far to prove that the ancestors of all nations, high and low, were once in that uncultured condition as to knowledge, arts, and manners generally, which within our experience accompanies the use of stone implements and the want of metals.

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animism dictionary - 15.8.1866 - 1871 p.9