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The word totem is an anglicized rendering of the Ojibwa word ninto:tem. It refers to an animal or plant species emblematic of a specific group, notably a clan. While the term was originally applied only to practices of natives of northeastern North America, it was soon extended to refer to superficially similar phenomena around the globe, whose observances came to be known as "totemism."

Evolutionary Theories

The concept of totemism as a form of religion was first formulated by John McLennan, one of the most prominent Victorian anthropologists, in an article entitled "The Worship of Animals and Plants" (18691870). McLennan based his concept on similarities between the beliefs and practices of native Australians on one hand, and native North Americans, especially from the northeastern United States, on the other. McLennan summarized his conclusions:

There are tribes of men (called primitive) now existing on the earth in the totem stage, each named after some animal or plant, which is its symbol or ensign, and which by the tribesmen is religiously regarded; having kinship through mothers only, and exogamy as their marriage law. In several cases, we have seen, the tribesmen believe themselves to be descended from the totem, and in every case to be, nominally at least, of its breed or species. We have seen a relation existing between the tribesmen and their totem that might well grow into that of worshipper and god, leading to the establishment of religious ceremonials to allay the totem's just anger, or secure his continued protection. (p. 518)

McLennan had earlier theorized that the earliest stages of human kinship and marriage, once humanity had evolved out of primeval hordes, were characterized by matrilineal descent and by exogamya term he coined and that was arguably his most lasting contribution to anthropologythe rule that states that one must marry outside one's own kin group. Totemism, he suggested, was the earliest stage of religion, the logical companion to matrilineal descent and exogamy. The rest of his essay attempted to demonstrate that the Greek and Roman deities were anthropomorphized versions of earlier totemic animal and plant spirits.

The thesis that the worship of animals and plants was the earliest form of religion was not original to McLennan. It had been formulated over one hundred years earlier in 1760 by the French Enlightenment thinker Charles de Brosses, in a book entitled Du culte des dieux fétiches (Of the cult of the fetish gods), in which he attempted to establish parallels between ancient Egyptian religion and the contemporary religious practices of sub-Saharan Africans. However, McLennan considered fetishism to be a more general concept than totemism, which he argued was its most primitive form.

From Robertson Smith to Spencer and Gillen.

In 1889 William Robertson Smith constructed a more elaborate scenario for the origin of religion around the idea of totemism. In The Religion of the Semites, he theorized that the original form of Semitic religion (and by implication all religions) revolved around the notion of kinship between a human community, its totem species, and its god. Under normal circumstances, precisely because of such conceptions of kinship, men were forbidden to eat their totems. However, on specific ritual occasions, the totem animals were sacrificed and shared among members of the community and with their god, in an act where commensalityeating togetherwas literally a form of communion.

Robertson Smith's theories were a direct inspiration to those of Émile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud, but they were based on no concrete evidence and were entirely speculative. However, ten years later, the detailed ethnographic research of Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen in The Native Tribes of Central Australia appeared to lend credence to his hypothesis. Spencer and Gillen described important ceremonies called Intichiuma, which members of the clan performed in order to ensure the natural increase of particular species of animal or plant. At the end of the ceremony, initiates (women and children were rigorously excluded) consumed small portions of the sacred species. Spencer and Gillen's work also included elaborate descriptions of initiation ceremonies and of the churinga the sacred paraphernalia of totemic groups. They also contradicted McLennan's hypothesis that totems were associated with matrilineal descent. In fact, a child did not derive his totem directly from either his mother or father, but from the spot where his mother believed him to have been conceived.


Sir James Frazer's Totemism and Exogamy (1910) was a massive, four-volume compendium of instances of totemism throughout the world. Frazer rejected MacLennan's contention that totemism was the earliest form of religion: "If religion implies, as it seems to do, an acknowledgment of the part of the worshipper that the object of his worship is superior to himself, then pure totemism cannot properly be called a religion at all, since a man looks upon his totem as his equal and friend, not at all as his superior, still less as his god" (vol. 4, p. 5). Rather, he considered totemic practices to be a form of magic, historically prior to the emergence of religion per se. The title of his book notwithstanding, Frazer also disagreed with MacLennan's contention that totemism was necessarily associated with exogamy. Although Frazer conceded that this was frequently the case, he correctly noted that later ethnographers had amassed ample cases of cultures where totemism existed without exogamy, or vice versa, and he provided different speculative explanations for the origins of both phenomena.

Durkheim and Freud

Émile Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), emphatically rejected Frazer's claim that totemism did not constitute a religion. On the contrary, he used totemism as a case of "the simplest and most primitive religion that observation can make known to us" (1995 ed., p. 21), basing his assertion on Australian ethnography (especially Spencer and Gillen) but resorting to examples from North America and elsewhere at critical junctures of his argument. Durkheim used his analysis of totemism to demonstrate the social origins of knowledge and the underlying unity of religious, philosophical, and scientific thought. Australian social organization was quite complicated, with tribes divided and subdivided into exogamous moieties ("halves"), classes, and clans, each associated with different species, in a system that incorporated all natural phenomena. "[These] facts illuminate the manner in which the idea of genus or class took form among humans. It was the phratries [i.e., moieties] that served as genera and the clans as species. It is because men formed groups that they were able to group things" (p. 145).

Totemism was not just a way of thinking but also of acting and feeling, organized around the separation of the domains of "sacred" and "profane" that, for Durkheim, constituted the essence of religion itself. More sacred than the totem animals themselves were the churinga, bull roarers of wood or stone with schematic representations of the totemic ancestors painted upon them. Uninitiated women and children were forbidden to see them on pain of death, and loss or destruction of one of them was considered catastrophic. But totemism was no more the literal worship of churinga than of animals and plants; rather, these were merely the symbolic representations of a force, which Durkheim called mana, that was simultaneously external and internal to the worshiper. For Durkheim, the totem was the flag of the clan, a concrete object on which the individual's allegiance was projected: ultimately, it was nothing other than society's representation of itself to its members. In this sense, religion in general and totemism in particular did not "rest upon error and falsehood" but was indeed "grounded in and express[ed] the real" (p. 2). Unlike his predecessors, Durkheim stressed the fundamental comparability of "primitive" and "modern" religious thought rather than their essential dissimilarity.

Totem and Taboo.

A year later, Sigmund Freud was to suggest in Totem and Taboo (1913) that totemism was the expression of a psychological, rather than social, reality. His theory was predicated on the link between totemism and exogamy, which Freud took to be a manifestation of the horror of incest. He was also profoundly inspired by Robertson Smith's hypothesis of the ritual sacrifice and consumption of the totem animal. However, he incorporated these ideas into an original scenario of his own. Humanity, he suggested, once lived in primal hordes where the father monopolized all the women and exerted tyrannical authority over his children. His sons eventually conspired to kill him, eat him, and take his place. However, the guilt that they experienced not only prevented them from mating with their mother and sisters but ultimately caused them to institute a prohibition on incest.

Psychoanalysis has revealed to us that the totem animal is really a substitute for the father, and this really explains the contradiction that it is usually forbidden to kill the totem animal, that the killing of it results in a holiday and that the animal is killed and yet mourned. The ambivalent emotional attitude which to-day still marks the father complex in our children and so often continues into adult life also extended to the father substitute of the totem animal. (p. 182)

For Freud, parallels between the behavior of "primitives" and "neurotics" led him to seek explanations of both phenomena in terms of his understanding of universal unconscious emotional processes.

Critique and Elaboration

By the time Durkheim and Freud were writing, the very concept of totemism had already come under attack in a long article by American anthropologist A. A. Goldenweiser, "Totemism: An Analytical Study" (1910). Goldenweiser began by listing the main features believed to be symptomatic of totemism:

  1. An exogamous clan.
  2. A clan name derived from the totem.
  3. A religious attitude towards the totem; as a "friend," "brother," "protector," etc.
  4. Taboos, or restrictions against the killing, eating (sometimes touching and seeing), of the totem.
  5. A belief in descent from the totem (pp. 182183).

In a comparison of cases from around the world, he arrived at the devastating conclusion that "Each of these traits displays more or less striking independence in its distribution; and most of them can be shown to be widely-spread ethnic phenomena, diverse in origin, not necessarily coordinated in development, and displaying a rich variability of psychological make-up" (p. 266). Goldenweiser was not quite prepared to give up the concept altogether and proposed a definition of the phenomenon in terms of the association between "definite social units" and "objects and symbols of emotional value" (p. 275). Arguably, such a definition was far too vague and general to be of any use. A few years later, in a highly influential synthesis of cultural anthropology, Robert Lowie was to summarize Goldenweiser's findings and draw an even more radical conclusion: "Why not abandon the vain effort to thrust into one Procrustean bed a system of naming, a system of heraldry, and a system of religious or magical observances?" (p. 143). In other words, he suggested that there was no such thing as totemism, that it was for all intents and purposes an invention of anthropologists.

British functionalism and structural-functionalism.

British anthropologists were less ready to give up the concept of totemism than their American colleagues. Bronislaw Malinowski is often credited with an excessively utilitarian explanation of totemism: "The road from the wilderness to the savage's belly and consequently to his mind is very short, and for him the world is an indiscriminate background against which there stand out the useful, primarily the edible, species of animals or plants" (p. 44). Actually, Malinowski's position was slightly more complex, and he conceded that the "primitive" interest in nature, selective as it might be, was not limited to the edible, but included sentiments of admiration or fear. One way or the other, "the desire to control the species, dangerous, useful, or edible must lead to a belief in special power over the species, affinity with it, a common essence between man and beast or plant" (p. 45).

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski's rival and contemporary, had a more sophisticated approach to the problem, seeing it as part of "a much wider group of phenomena, namely the general relation between man and natural species in mythology and ritual. It may well be asked if 'totemism' as a technical term has not outlived its usefulness" (p. 117). More specifically, he suggested that totemism was a product of segmentary forms of social organization, the division of society into moieties, clans, or other similar institutions. He proposed a tentative analogy with sainthood in Roman Catholicism: saints are, at one level, universally recognized within the church, but also have particular relationships with specific congregations. In a similar manner, totem species do not simply stand for the clan, as Durkheim suggested, but also for the clan's place in a broader social scheme that includes all totemic species.

The students of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown tended to eschew general pronouncements on the nature of totemism. Instead, Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, among others, wrote sophisticated ethnographic analyses of religion and social organization in specific societies, discussing totemism among the Tikopia, the Tallensi, or the Nuer in terms that could not readily be generalized. For example, Evans-Pritchard sought to understand totemism in terms of broader Nuer beliefs about kwoth, "God" or "Spirit." There were both higher and lower manifestations of "spirit," with totemic spirits definitely belonging to the realm of "spirits of the below." Nuer totems, he noted, were not symbols of lineages, since some lineages had none and other lineages shared the same totem but did not otherwise acknowledge kinship with one another. Nor did totems symbolize Spirit as such, but rather the relationship between God and a particular lineage. In short, such an analysis embedded totemism within the religious beliefs and practices of a particular society.

The Structural Study of Totemism

Paradoxically, Claude Lévi-Strauss began his short book Totemism (1962) with the contention that totemism as such did not really exist, comparing it to the concept of hysteria that emerged in psychology at about the same period: "once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation" (1963 ed., p. 1). Even more damning than Goldenweiser, he suggested that the very concept of "totemism" served as a mechanism for establishing a gulf between "primitive" and "civilized" humanity. Ostensibly, totemistic primitives were those who confused the boundaries between "nature" and "culture," if not worshiping animals and plants at least positing bonds of kinship between humans and nonhuman species.

In one sense, the book was an obituary, the history of an illusion. However, it ironically recouped the value of the very concept it pretended to dismiss, as can be seen in the book's most oft-cited phrase, a rejoinder to functionalist approaches: "natural species are chosen [as "totems"] not because they are 'good to eat' but because they are 'good to think'" (p. 89). Examples of so-called totemism were really instances of universal features of human thought, a theme to which Lévi-Strauss returned in The Savage Mind (1962), several chapters of which were also devoted to totems and totemism. Seen in this light, "totemism" was simply a variety of metaphorical thoughtwith the proviso that metaphor was an indispensable feature of human thought in general. What is more, the metaphor rested, not on the perception of intrinsic similarities, but rather on the recognition of systematic differences. In other words, if there were a Kangaroo clan and an Emu clan, this was not because members of the first clan considered themselves like kangaroos and the second clan like emus. Rather, the difference between species served as a metaphor for the difference between human groups, Nature as a metaphor for Culture.

Animal symbolism and classificatory schemes.

In a radical way, Lévi-Strauss changed the terms in which problems were phrased. (To the extent that his book sealed the death knell of the concept of "totemism," there ceased to be a single problem.) Whereas Lévi-Strauss's particular concerns were with uncovering the abstract properties of human thought lurking behind concrete instances of its application, British anthropologists were able to combine his approach with an enduring preoccupation with the dynamics of specific societies. In particular, they examined the social implications of the ways in which different cultures classified animals.

Undoubtedly the best-known example is Mary Douglas's analysis of the dietary prohibitions detailed in Leviticus Robertson Smith had suggested that the pig, along with the dog, the horse, the mouse, the dove, and some varieties of fish were offered as totemic sacrifices in early Semitic religion. Douglas suggested instead that the distinction between clean and unclean (and forbidden) animals was an artifact of a system of classification made very clear in the text, and that distinguished between the normal and the anomalous. Mammals that had cloven hooves and that chewed their cud were the typical food of pastoralists like the ancient Hebrews, a criterion that excluded the pig, just as the notion that creatures who live in the water should typically possess scales and fins excluded eels, sharks, or shrimp. But such concerns with alimentary purity accompanied a preoccupation with social purity, and especially with the maintenance of a clear boundary between Jews and Gentiles, expressed in terms of separation of the clean from the unclean.

Ralph Bulmer's analysis of the classification of the cassowary by the Karam of New Guinea took a similar approach. The cassowary, a relative of the ostrich and the emu, was not classed as a bird by the Karam. There were special rules for hunting cassowaries, who could not be shot with spear or arrow but had to be snared and bludgeoned. Live cassowaries had to be kept away from the village and fields, and usually they were cooked and eaten in the forest. Indeed, a person who killed a cassowary was ritually dangerous, and had to avoid the taro crops for a month. This attitude toward the cassowary simultaneously assimilated cassowaries to quasi-human status while highlighting the symbolic separation of the domains of the forest and the cultivated fields, a separation that in turn paralleled ambivalent relations between brother and sister. Sisters left the home village at marriage, but their children held residual rights in land; however, the brother's sons tended to view these rights ambivalently at best. This attitude was captured by the symbolism of the cassowary, which was equated with the father's sister's children.

Other work along similar lines included S. J. Tambiah's analysis of food prohibitions in Thailand and Edmund Leach's comparison of the sexual commutations of animal names in English and in highland Burma. Ultimately, such analyses represent the very antithesis of the aims of the early writing on totemism, which sought to demonstrate the illogical nature of "primitive" as opposed to modern European thought. Instead, modern anthropologists have insisted, not only on the logical nature of non-European thought, but on its deep affinities with our own modes of thinking and speaking.

See also Myth ; Religion ; Symbolism ; Untouchability: Taboos .


Bulmer, Ralph. "Why Is the Cassowary Not a Bird? A Problem of Zoological Taxonomy among the Karam of the New Guinea Highlands." Man, n.s., 2 (1967): 525.

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Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995. Originally published in 1912.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

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. Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press. 1963.

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McLennan, John. "The Worship of Animals and Plants." Reprinted in his Studies in Ancient History. The Second Series: Comprising an Inquiry into the Origin of Exogamy. London and New York: Macmillan, 1896. Originally published in 18691870.

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Tambiah, S. J. "Animals Are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit." Ethnology 8 (1969): 424459.

Robert Launay