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Totemism

Totemism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Totemism has been the subject of much discussion within the social sciences, in particular within the discipline of social anthropology, concerning both what totemism means and whether it is a valid, cross-culturally descriptive term for the range of phenomena it is often used to describe. Various definitions of totemism exist, but it is usually agreed that the word totem is derived from the language of the Ojibwa, an Algonquin Native American ethnic group from north of the Great Lakes region in North America. Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has produced one of the most important works on the subject, Totemism (1962), describes how the Ojibwa expression ototeman means, approximately, He (she) is a relative of mine ([1962] 1991, p. 18). This is significant, for a useful and broad definition of totemism is that it refers to the use of plants or animals by social groups as guardians or emblems that are ritually celebrated. In such a system, different social groups are identified with different species.

There have been two phases in how totemism has been considered by anthropologists. Initially, it was presented by such scholars as Émile Durkheim (18581917) and James Frazer (18541941) within an evolutionary frameworkthat is, totemism was seen as a unified and universal phenomenon that was a required state of the religious belief through which all societies must proceed. The second, less simplistic view allows for variety in both the classificatory systems and the symbolism evident in totemism in different cultural contexts. The latter is best represented by the work of Lévi-Strauss. A third phase of thinking about totemism is sometimes apparent, in that totemism is at times now subsumed, usually erroneously, within the category of shamanism. As a result, the religious beliefs and practices of hunter-gatherer communities, for instance, might be referred to exclusively as those of shamanism, while totemism is suppressed or avoided. This third view might reflect the fads to which scholarship, like many other endeavors, is subject, for shamanism is academically fashionable at present, whereas totemism is not.

The archaeologist Steven Mithen has suggested that cognitive developments indicate that totemism and anthropomorphic thought developed as early as circa 100,000 years ago as a result of the integration of the domains of social and natural history intelligence (1996). This view is interesting, if difficult to prove, and the denotations of the earliest possible material indicators of totemism have been subject to debate. For example, recent interpreters of Upper Paleolithic rock art, which appeared around 40,000 years ago in Europe, see it as primarily shamanic rather than totemic. This interpretation is based upon the distribution of the images present in rock art. The species represented in a shamanic system will be widely depicted as guardians available to people in many different groups. In contrast, the species represented in totemic rock art are much more preferentially depicted within the group territory for which they serve as a totemic emblem. The later rock art of parts of Australia is usually described as totemic. The rock art of Wardaman country in the Northern Territory, for example, is linked with the dreaming (i.e., creation) and with totemism through the representation of painted dreaming beings such as emus, devil dogs, flying foxes, and nail-tail wallabies.

Bruno David has described the central role of totemism in various Australian aboriginal societies, as manifest in rock art but also in totemic centers and sacred objects, and their associated rituals, the whole creating a socially meaningful, ordered world (David 2002, p. 51). In the Australian examples, totemism is manifest across whole landscapes; in other societies, it may be prominently attested in different ways. The totem poles produced by various Native North American ethnic groups of the Pacific Northwest Coast, such as the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands, provide an example of the variety that exists, affirming Lévi-Strausss thesis, as well as the absence of a universal totemic template. Totemism certainly continues today, in Australia and also among the Tallensi of northern Ghana, but as is usual, it forms one element of a set of religious beliefs and practices that cannot be defined as solely totemic. In fact, totemism has probably never been the sole element of any group religious practice and belief where totemism is found, but rather coexists alongside, for instance, animistic beliefs, ancestral and earth cults, or shamanism. Among New Age groups where paganism, neoshamanism, and druidism are found, totemic beliefs, as understood by the definition given above, apparently do not exist. In the United Kingdom, for instance, where druidism, paganism, and neoshamanism all prevail, totemism rarely enters the relevant vocabulary, perhaps indicating its absence or a need to refine the definition of what totemism is.

SEE ALSO Dreaming; Lay Theories; Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Magic; Myth and Mythology; Religion; Rituals; Shamans; Supreme Being; Symbols; Visual Arts

BIBLIOGRAPHY

David, Bruno. 2002. Landscapes, Rock-Art, and the Dreaming: An Archaeology of Preunderstanding. London: Leicester University Press.

Layton, Robert. 2000. Shamanism, Totemism, and Rock Art: Les Chamanes de la Préhistoire in the Context of Rock Art Research. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10 (1): 169186.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. [1962] 1991. Totemism. Trans. Rodney Needham. London: Merlin.

Mithen, Steven. 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London: Thames and Hudson.

Wagner, Roy. 1986. Totemism. In The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, vol. 14, 573176. New York: Macmillan.

Timothy Insoll

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Totemism

Totemism

A form of religious and social organization among tribal peoples that associates groups of persons with particular animals or objects. The term derives from the language and practice of the Ojibway tribe of Native Americans, but the Ojibways' own form of totemism was not typical of the use of the term as adopted by anthropologists. A totemic tribe consists of a number of totem groups, each closely related to a totem, which may be an animal or an inanimate object. That totem is specific for that particular group, thus while every member of the tribe has a characteristic totem, it will differ from those of other totem groups within the same tribes in the same area. Plants are used as totems in some parts of the world, and other totems are sometimes only a token part of an animal (i.e., a buffalo tongue instead of a buffalo).

A totem implies some kinship between the animal or object and the members of the group, sometimes a belief in descent from an animal totem. Masks and images may reinforce this association. Members of a particular totemic group respect the animal or object used as totem, and place a taboo on its being destroyed by members of that group, although their taboo does not apply to other members of the tribe.

Totemism is practiced around the world, among Australian aborigines, some African societies, certain North and South American Indian tribes, and among the peoples of Indonesia and Melanesia. Among Australian aborigines, totemism is related to a belief in the constant reincarnation of the spirits of primary animal forms into human beings.

In North America, the totem pole, used by Native American tribes of the Northwest coast of Canada and the United States, is the most widely recognized example of totemism. These poles or pillars are carved and painted with symbolic animals or spirits to represent ancestry or to tell family legends.

Sources:

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Reprint, New York: Collier, 1961.

Frazer, James G. Totemism and Exogamy. 4 vols. N.p., 1910.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York: Random House, 1960.

Tedlock, Dennis. Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and Philosophy. New York: Liveright, 1975.

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totemism

totemism An association between human groups or individuals and specific animals or plants which entailed ritualized observances and sometimes eating avoidances. The term was first drawn to the attention of Westerners by J. Long in Voyages and Travels (1791), being derived from the American Indian Algonquin language. The ensuing debates read like a history of anthropological theory.

J. F. McLennan searched for the origins of totemism, asserting it to be a remnant of animism (the belief that natural phenomena, animate and inanimate alike, are endowed with spirits or souls which effect consequences in society). William Robertson Smith argued that people had totems because they expected something beneficial from them. James Frazer argued that totemism existed where ‘savages’ had no knowledge of the role of the human male in conception. Émile Durkheim took totemism as the most elementary form of religious life and suggested that it was the clan worshipping itself. Bronislaw Malinowski offered a matter-of-fact explanation: namely, that in order to survive, people had to have detailed knowledge and control over animals and plants, especially the indispensable species. E. E. Evans-Pritchard questioned functional utility as an explanation. The most useless animals could be the object of ritual attention. The relationship between humans and animals could be seen as metaphorical. Meyer Fortes linked the perceived relations between humans and animals to those between living men and their ancestors. Claude Lévi-Strauss concluded that the differences between animals or plants were used by humans to affirm differences between themselves. Animals were ‘good to think with’ and were just one example of humanity's need to classify. His arguments stimulated further studies of animal symbolism in both non-Western and Western societies.

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Totemism

Totemism. The practices and beliefs relating to the identification of a totem object. The word totem is taken from the Ojibwa of Canada, the word dotem/oteman signifying, ‘he is a relative of mine’. Ojibwa clans are named after animal species, so that the totem idea expresses membership of the same exogamic group. However, the word ‘totem’ was applied, far more loosely, to animals, plants, or other objects associated with a social or kinship group, often regarded by the group as sacred. Totemism thus became the cornerstone of far-reaching theories of religion, e.g., Durkheim and Freud. However, totemism is neither an institution nor a religion, but is rather a classificatory device which mediates between conceptions of the natural world and social categories and relations. It is a mode of thought in which relations are established through totemic emblems of such a kind that a single, unified cosmos is envisaged and established.

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totemism

totemism Complex collection of ideas held by certain primitive societies about the relationships between human beings and the animals or plants around them. The natural objects or people with which many tribal societies believe they have a kinship or mystical relationship are called totems. Members of a totem group are prohibited from marrying others of the same group, and from killing or eating their totem. Elaborate, often secret, rituals form an important part of totemistic behaviour.

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