Totemism is an aspect of religious belief centered upon the veneration of sacred objects called totems. Totemism is derived from the term “ototeman” in the Ojibwe language, meaning “brother-sister kin”. A totem is any animal, plant, or other object, natural or supernatural, which provides deeply symbolic meaning for a person or social group. In some cases, totems may imbue particular person with a feeling of power and energy. In other cases, a variety of totems can serve to demarcate particular groups or clans subsumed within larger tribes. Often, totems are seen as representative of desirable individual qualities, or the natural power from which a given social group has descended. Thus, totems help to explain the mythical origin of the clan while reinforcing clan identity and solidarity, and as such, killing, eating, and even touching a totem is often considered taboo.
This form of religious activity is most commonly found within tribal cultures and it is frequently associated with shamanistic religions and their rituals. It is important to note that the concept is generated in the academy by scholars imbued with a sense that European culture is “more civilized.” In fact all religions, including modern Christianity, have aspects to them that function precisely as do “totems” in what nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars called “primitive” societies.
Totemism as a Religious Classification
Totemism played an active role in the development of nineteenth and early twentieth century theories of religion, initially spurring the interests of many thinkers who wanted to classify totemism as an early stage within an allegedly evolutionary progression of religion. John Ferguson McLennan (1827-1881), a Scottish ethnographer, argued that the entire human race had passed through a totemic stage at some point in the distant past in which they worshiped animals and plants. Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917), the famous anthropologist, expanded totemism beyond the worship of plants and animals, claiming that it was actually an early exercise in the instinct within humans to classify their surrounding world. Ethnologist Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1941) put forth the idea that totems bind people together in social groups, and serve as an impetus for the development of civilization. Further, he posited that totemic clans began as a means for explaining the process of conception and birth. Several years later, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would place the totem at the incitation of human religiosity. For Freud, the totem was the projection of a hypothetical tribe’s Oedipal guilt for the murder of their patriarch, and subsequently the lynchpin for their systems of taboos and morality that allegedly developed in the aftermath.
Alexander A. Goldenweiser, a Russian-American ethnologist, provided one of the key criticisms against such evolutionary notions placing totemism at or near the beginning of human religious development. Goldenweiser called into question the notion that there was in fact a “psychic unity of mankind,” claiming that broad generalizations about the commonalities between cultures were unfounded, at best. Furthermore, he pointed out that there was not necessarily a connection between the use of totemic classifications, the existence of clans, and the relationships of human being to totems. These three phenomena, he claimed, coexisted only in the most rare occasions, and merging them together under the heading of “totemism” was an academic creation, rather than a description of actual phenomena. This critique created an attitude of skepticism concerning totemism in the span of human religious development. Regardless, additional evolutionary theories placing totemism at the initial stage of human development arose, such as those of Émile Durkheim.
No thinker discussed totemism as thoroughly as did Durkheim, who concentrated his study on supposedly “primitive” societies. Drawing on the identification of social group with spiritual totems in Australian aboriginal tribes, Durkheim theorized that all human religious expression was intrinsically founded in relationship to the group from which it emerges. While Tylor insisted that all religion arises from animism and Frazer put forth the view that religion spawns from an understanding of magic, Durkheim found these theories to be insufficient. Durkheim claimed that practitioners of totemism do not actually worship their chosen plant or animal totem. Instead, totems try to connect tribespeople with an impersonal force that holds enormous power over the solidarity of the clan. Durkheim calls this the “totemic principle,” which precedes belief in the supernatural. For Durkheim, totemism was also the rubric for dividing sacred from the profane. For example, Durkheim noted that animals other than the totem could be killed and eaten. However, the totemic animal has a sacred status above the others that creates the taboo against killing it. Since the clan itself is considered to be one with its totem, the clan itself is what is sacred. This reinforces the taboo against killing other people in the clan, as well as other social mores. Hence, when the tribe gathers to worship the emblem representing its chosen totem, it is actually worshiping the tribe itself. The totem is not only the symbol of the clan, but actually the clan itself, represented in the form of the arbitrary animal or plant. The totem god is, according to this theory, a projection of the clan, and devotion to the totem is devotion to the clan. Here, a society can ascertain the commitment of any individual through his or her veneration of the totem. Rituals performed to the totem, then, are performed to promote consciousness of the clan, reminding tribe members that they are committed to a real thing. According to Durkheim, it follows that belief in the soul is really just the implantation of the totemic principle into each individual.
Claude Lévi-Strauss reiterated Goldenweiser’s skepticism toward evolutionary theories of totemism, claiming totemism to be an erroneous and outdated ethnological construct. In his book-length essay Totemism Today (1963), Lévi-Strauss shows that human cognition, which is based on analogical thought, is independent of social context. For Lévi-Strauss, in contrast to the ideas functionalist anthropologist such as Sir Raymond Firth and Meyer Fortes, totems are not based on physical or psychological similarities between the clan and the totemic animal. Rather, totems are chosen arbitrarily for the sole purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system. Lévi-Strauss argues that the use of physical analogies is not an indication of a more primitive mental capacity. On the contrary, it is actually a more efficient way to cope with this particular mode of tribal life in which abstractions are rare, and in which the physical environment is in direct friction with the society. The totemic classification system, he noted, was based on relationships of opposition between nature and culture. Dissimilarities among totemic creatures found in nature serve to differentiate otherwise indistinguishable human cultural units. For Lévi-Strauss, this precludes the possibility of any relationship between human social groups and their chosen totem based on analogy. Instead, totemism is simply another means by which groups of human beings classify the world around them. In The Savage Mind (1966) he put forth the theory that totemic classifications are part of a the science of the concrete, a proto-scientific classificatory system enabling tribal individuals to classify the world in a rational, coherent fashion. This connects with the human instinct for qualitative classification and as such, Lévi-Strauss considers it as neither more nor less a science than any other classificatory system in the Western world. The strength of Lévi-Strauss’ work has rendered somewhat obsolete the theories that implicate totemism in the earliest phases of all human religious development.
Examples of Totemism in Human Culture
North American Aboriginals
Totemism can be said to characterize the religious beliefs of most indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States. The Sauk and Osage peoples of the northeastern United States, for example, assigned qualities of their clan totems through names to individual members. It was expected that those in clan of the Black Bear or the Wolf, among others, would develop some of the desirable traits of those animals. Among the Ojibwa people, from whose language the concept of totemism originated, people were divided into a number of clans called doodem named for various animals. Of the various totemic groups, the crane totem was considered the most vocal. The bear, since it was the largest, was sub-divided into various body parts that also became totemic symbols. These totems were then grouped according to habitat of the given animal, whether it is earth, air or water—and served as a means for governing and dividing labor among the various clans.
In addition, North American native peoples provide one of the most recognizable examples of totemism in all of human culture—the totem pole. Totem poles are monumental sculptures carved from great trees, typically Western Red cedar, by a number of indigenous peoples located along the Pacific northwest coast of North America. Some poles are erected to celebrate significant beliefs or events, while others are intended primarily for aesthetic presentation. Poles are also carved to illustrate stories, to commemorate historic persons, to represent shamanic powers, and to provide objects of public ridicule. Certain types of totem poles are part of mortuary structures incorporating grave boxes with carved supporting poles, or recessed backs in which grave boxes were placed. The totem poles of North America have many different designs featuring totemic animals such bears, birds, frogs, people, lizards, and often are endowed with arms, legs, and wings. Such designs themselves are generally considered to be the property of a particular clan or family group, and ownership is not transferable even if someone outside this clan or group possesses the pole. Despite common misconceptions, there has never been any ubiquitous meaning given to the vertical order of the images represented on the totem pole. On the contrary, many poles have significant figures on the top, while others place such figures bottom, or middle. While totem poles can be described as an example of totemism due to their representation of clan lineages, they were never used specifically as objects of worship. Hence, any associations made between “idol worship” and totem poles were introduced upon the arrival of Christian missionaries.
Among the Nor-Papua people, who live in the northern region of New Guinea, exogamous patrilineal groups are commonly associated with various species of fish. These totems have an unprecedented cultural presence and appear in numerous representations, including ceremonial flutes within which they take the form of spirit creatures, as well as sculpted figures that are present in every household. Individuals in the various groups are believed to be born from the fish totems. These children come from a holy place, the same holy place to which the totem fish are believed to bring the souls of the dead. Upon reaching responsible age, children are given the choice of whether they will accept the totem of their mother or father. Because of this immense totemic importance, numerous species of fish are classified as taboo for killing or eating.
In Zimbabwe, totems (mitupo) have been in use among the Shona people ever since the initial stages of their culture. The Shona use totems to identify the different clans that historically made up the ancient civilizations of the dynasties that ruled over them in the city of Great Zimbabwe, which was once the centre of the sprawling Munhumutapa Empire. Clans, which consist of a group of related kinsmen and women who trace their descent from a common founding ancestor, form the core of every Shona chiefdom. Totemic symbols chosen by these clans are primarily associated with animal names. The purposes of a totem are: 1) to guard against incestuous behavior, 2) to reinforce the social identity of the clan, and, 3) to provide praise to someone through recited poetry. In contemporary Shona society there are at least 25 identifiable totems with more than 60 principal names (zvidawo). Every Shona clan is identified by a particular totem (specified by the term mitupo) and principal praise name (chidawo). The principal praise name in this case is used to distinguish people who share the same totem but are from different clans. For example, clans that share the same totem Shumba (lion) will identify their different clansmanship by using a particular praise name like Murambwe, or Nyamuziwa. The foundations of the totems are inspired in rhymes that reference the history of the totem.
The Birhor tribe inhabits the jungle region of the northeastern corner of the Deccan province in India. The tribe is organized by way of exogamous groups that are traced through the patrilineal line and represented by totems based on animals, plants, or inanimate objects. Stories tracing the origin of the tribe suggest that the various totems are connected with the birth of distant ancestors. Totems are treated as if they were human beings and strict taboos forbid such acts as the killing or eating of a totem (if it is a plant or animal), or destroying a totem if it is an object. Such behavior represents a failure to conform to the normal rules of relations with ancestors. The consequences for such misappropriations are dire, and the Birhor believe that the subsistence of their people will be placed in jeopardy if transgressions against the totem occur. Furthermore, the Birhor have put elaborate protocol in place concerning reverence for deceased totemic animals.
The Iban tribes of Malaysia practice a form of individual totemism based on dreams. If a spirit of a dead ancestor in human form enters the dream of an individual and proceeds to offer protection in the name of an animal, the dreamer must then seek the named animal as their personal totem. The attainment of such a spirit animal is so important that young men will go to such measures as sleeping on graves or fasting in order to aid the dream state. If a dream involving animals has been experienced, then the chosen individual must observe the spirit animal in its natural environment and come to understand its behaviors. Subsequently, the individual will often carry a part (or parts) of their totem animal with them, which represents their protector spirit, and will present sacrificial offerings to its spirit. Strong taboos are placed upon the killing or the eating of the entire species of the spirit animal, which are passed along from the bearer of the spirit to their descendants.
The Maori, the aboriginal people of New Zealand, practice a form of religion that is generally classified as totemism. Maori religion conceives of everything, including natural elements, as connected by common descent through whakapapa (genealogy). Due to the importance of genealogy, ancestors, of both the mythical and actual variety, are of the utmost importance, serving as individual totems. People are thought to behave as they do because of the presence within them of ancestors. For instance, Rangi and Papa, the progenitor god and goddess of sky and the earth respectively, are seen not only as establishers of the sky and earth, but also as prototypes for the basic natures of men and women. In addition, Tane, the son of Rangi and Papa and creator of the world in the form we know it, provides an archetypal character for Maori males. Maoris also identify numerous animals, insects and natural forces as totems, including most importantly kangaroos, honey-ants, the sun and the rain. Maoris construct totem pole-like objects in honor of these totemic groups.
In modern times, some individuals not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion have chosen to adopt animals which have some kind of special meaning to them as a personal totem. This practice is prevalent in, but not limited to, the New Age movement. Beliefs regarding totems can vary, from merely adopting one as a whim, to adopting an animal that a person sees representing favorable traits reflected in their own behavior or appearance. Some believe their totem functions as a literal spirit guide. Some Native Americans and other followers of tribal religions take a dim view of New Agers’ and others’ adoption of totemic animals, arguing that a non-adherent cannot truly understand totemism apart from its original cultural context, and that, at worst, such appropriation represents a commercialization of their religious beliefs. It also bears mentioning that totemistic sentiments exist within such modern activities as the naming of sports teams, and in the choosing national symbols, among other activities. In such cases, the character of the animal or natural force described in the name comes to have significance in symbolically bestowing desirable traits upon members of the given team, club or state.
Significance of Totemism
While the works of ethnologists such as Goldenweiser and Lévi-Strauss have brought into question the importance and even the plausibility of totemism as an adequate classification in religious scholarship, the disposal of the concept altogether is hardly warranted. While it may not represent the base phase of human religiosity, as put forth by thinkers such as Durkheim and Freud, among others, it cannot be reduced merely to a mode of designation and nothing else. Undeniably, the urge to label various plants, animals, objects and forces of nature as totemic is a persistent one among human beings. Whether it is a tribal group labeling various clans by way of animals in their environment, or sports teams choosing powerful forces of nature for their insignias, the totemic reflex has remained a universal human activity until the present. As long as the surrounding environment provides a wellspring of imagery and symbolism for assisting humans in the act of summoning identity for their groups as well as their individual selves, the concept of the totem will continue to be important.
- Adhikary, Ashim Kumar. “The Birhor Universe.” Primal Elements: The Oral Tradition. Retrieved May 26, 2015.
- Garfield, Viola E. and Forrest, Linn A. The Wolf and the Raven: Totem poles of Southeastern Alaska. Revised edition. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1961. ISBN 0295739983
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- Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. Rodney Needham, trans. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1971. ISBN 978-0807046715
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- Stewart, Hillary. Looking at Totem Poles. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1993. ISBN 0295972599
- “Systems of Religious and Spiritual Belief.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Volume 26 Macropaedia. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2002. 530-577.
- Wagner, Roy. “Totemism.” Encyclopedia of Religion, Mercia Eliade, ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1987. 573-576.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia