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Animism is a big lie we deal with here in the jungle. Regarding a good definition for animism, fellow missionary David Scoville wrote,
Animism is a religion because it is a system of beliefs which link a man with his culture and, within the context of nature, to the supernatural. Very simply stated, an animist is one who believes in spirits whose activity affects his universe and whom he seeks to control to his advantage through ritual and ceremony. The Christian faith proposes one God who alone controls the universe. He is sovereign, doing as He wills within that universe. In contrast, an animist, is one who believes in multiple gods (spirits) and feels that he (the man) can and must control his universe. Thus, through ritual, and ceremony he seeks to placate, manipulate, coerce, or whatever to achieve his best interests. Animism proposes that the right ritual guarantees the right result, so the animist seeks by all means possible via his ritual to rise to the controller position.*
The tribal people we work with are animists at the core of their worldview.
They believe in and fear many types of spirits, witches, sorcerers, and witchdoctors. Their lives revolve around the supposed activities of the spirit world. They believe every sickness or misfortune is the result of the malicious activities of an evil spirit, and very good fortune is because they have said the proper secret chant, or done the right appeasement to the evil spirit.
In the animistic religion of the tribal people, there are many alleged classes of spirits to be feared. Two of these classes are the territorial spirits and the spirits of the dead. Here is what the tribal people say about these spirits and what I have come to understand of the beliefs of animism based on my observations and interactions with the tribal people.
These are some of the most feared spirits. There are many territorial spirits around the jungle, inhabiting the river beds, gorges, caves, and desolate places. They seem to stay in their relative areas and do harm to passers by. A person, when walking through a spirit’s territory, can supposedly be shot by one of his invisible arrows. This leads to sickness, which can cause death. When one is suspected of being shot by the arrow of a territorial spirit, he can do the appropriate sacrifice to appease it, thus securing a quick recovery from the arrow wound. In certain sicknesses caused by territorial spirits, the people will spill pigs’ blood on the ground, right at the area the person was made sick. This is done to appease the spirit, and hopefully get rid of the sickness.
The ancestral spirits and spirits of the dead are also greatly feared by the people we work with. It is said that when a person dies, his spirit goes to be with “God,” but his shadow turns into a shadow spirit that roams around the village or jungle and dances on the rocks at night. The shadow spirits of the ancestors who died long ago along with the shadow spirits of the people who have recently died are all still around causing trouble, sickness, and death. Shadow spirits can travel long distances if they like, moving on the wind. They are visible at night to some people, but their homes cannot be searched out by humans. After a person dies and is burned, a small house is erected for the person’s shadow spirit at the cremation spot. This house can be made of rocks or wood and sometimes will have a roof structure. More often than not, the roof is left off. One thing that is consistent no matter what the construction method is the door. A small door allows the shadow spirit to go in and out of his house.
There are two types of shadow spirits: the swollen spirit and the spirit of the dead.
This is the most feared shadow spirit. They are white in color since their skin has been stripped, and what is visible are the muscle and veins. They also smell really bad. If a person dies because someone has put sorcery on them, their shadow will become a swollen spirit. (If a person swells and bloats up as he is dying or after he dies, then the tribal people know that sorcery was the cause of death.) The dead person’s swollen spirit is really angry and malicious in the afterlife and is greatly feared among the living people.
This is a black spirit. If a person dies from natural causes, then his shadow will become one of these kinds of spirits. These evil spirits of the dead are not as malicious, but are still feared and respected.
When a child is born to a family that had another child who died, the mother will cut off the living child’s pinky finger above the knuckle and offer it as an appeasement to the dead sibling’s shadow spirit. The mother will say, “Here, take this finger and leave your brother alone. Do not harm him.” The finger is wrapped and usually placed in the rafters of the home above the fire pit.
In places that have been impacted by the Truth of God’s Word, animistic practices have been rejected by the majority of the people and have mostly died out. It has been really exciting to offer to the people another worldview—the one true worldview. For many of the tribal people, they have chosen to follow the Creator God, and such a huge burden has been lifted from their shoulders as they no longer fear the evil spirits (whether true demonic ones or perceived ancestral and territorial ones). Now these believers have a proper fear of the sovereign God and know that His purposes for them are good in Jesus Christ, who has conquered the evil spirits of the world (Colossians 2:15). Even with social pressure to conform to the old ways of evil spirit worship, many tribal believers are holding fast to the promises in the Word of God!
*David Scoville, The Amazing Danis! (Maitland, Florida: Xulon Press, 2007), 197–198.
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