The word "totem" and other terms such as "taboo," "fetish," and "mana" were first noted by European travelers among tribal peoples in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and were subsequently used to describe general religious phenomena. "Totem" is a North American Ojibwa term that was first reported as "totam" in 1791. Its first description is that of a tutelary (guardian) deity who watches over a hunter throughout his life, takes the form of an animal, and may never be hunted, killed, or eaten by the individual. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, some commentators noted that individuals or groups among tribal peoples stood in specific relationship to animals, birds, and plants, but little attention was given to placing this phenomenon into a general theory of the evolution of religion. Parallels were first drawn between the native peoples of North America and Australian tribal groups, where similar identifications were observed.
The earliest to regard "totem" as a universal stage in the development or evolution of religion was James Ferguson M'Lennan (1827–1881), whose first work was on the history of marriage. In trying to explain endogamous and exogamous marriage patterns, he noted relationships between marriage groups having similar or dissimilar totems, and from this he reasoned that religious traditions pass through a totem stage. He theorized that animal, plant, and bird gods precede anthropomorphic deities in time and in civilizational development. More sophisticated evolutionary theories advanced by William Robertson Smith (1846–1894), Andrew Lang (1844–1912), E. B. Tylor (1832–1917), James Frazer (1854–1941), and Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954) all employed "totemism" to describe a stage in the evolution of religion.
For example, Robertson Smith enlarged the ethnographic data on totemic deities through his fieldwork in Egypt and the Middle East and argued that "totemism" explained even biblical injunctions concerning foods and the origins of the Israelite deity. Frazer argued that "totemism" is an essential element in magical practices that precede other advanced forms of religion. Lang and Schmidt linked totemism to the presence of supreme deities and sky gods, but in diametrically opposite ways. Lang saw the totemic deity as one of the forms of the supreme deity. Schmidt argued that "totemism" is one of the degenerated forms of his primal monotheism.
Totemic deities and "totemism" played a central role in Émile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). He rejected the evolutionary thinking of both his contemporaries and earlier theorists. Drawing on Australian aboriginal traditions, Durkheim argued that "totemism" was one of the elementary forms that express the central idea of collective representation and that religion is eminently social. The term "elementary" as used by Durkheim does not refer to an early stage in the development of civilization and individual or collective consciousness, but rather means that which is the simplest, most exemplary instance of a form. The totemic relationship between tribal or clan groups demonstrated how a deity represents the social group and thus produces social cohesion and unity. "Totemism" also plays a central role in Sigmund Freud's extended cultural and historical studies, in which he attempted to move from individual psychopathology to collective or social psychopathology. In Totem and Taboo (1915) he drew parallels between the mental life of children and the religious life of "primitive" peoples. Totemic relations are an expression of guilt intended, he argues, to assuage the feelings of a violated father by a complete obedience to the father's command.
Other theorists, like Durkheim, rejected the evolutionary argument and instead sought to define the nature of totemic deities and their relationship to tribes and clans. For example, Arnold van Gennep defined "totemism" as (1) a relationship between a kinship group and a species of animals or plants that is expressed in (2) rituals that ensure the relationship to the totemic group, in (3) marriage regulations, and in (4) the totemic group's taking the name of its totem. Still others expanded the conception of totemic deities to include the dema deities of the Indonesian archipelago. Like totemic deities, the dema stand in specific relationship to social groups, but they do not necessarily take on the form of an animal, bird, or plant. In creation myths, dema initially appear as the first ancestors, who are transformed into deities, animals, and spirits through an act of violence. Claude Lévi-Strauss's structuralist anthropological study of totems, totemic deities, and totemic social relations is the recent comprehensive critique of the last century's evolutionary reflection on "totemism." He demonstrated that totemic deities and totemic relationships are located throughout the history of religious traditions. They are not confined to tribal traditions and are more importantly related to the fundamental binary oppositions of the deep structure of human reflection. Totemic ideas and concepts, then, are directly related to the structuring and communication of meaning.
"Totemism" as a distinct early stage in religious development or evolution does not exist. That was an erroneous idea of the last century and perhaps even of our own. Nevertheless there are totemic deities and totemic social relations that can help to elucidate the nature of kinship patterns and religious legitimation of authority in some religious traditions.
Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of ReligiousLife, trans. by Karen E. Fields. 1995.
Jensen, Adolf E. Myth and Cult Among Primitive Peoples, trans. by Marianna Tax Choldin and Wolfgang Weissleder. 1963.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism, trans. by Rodney Needham. 1963.
Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion: A History. 2nd ed. 1986, esp. pp. 72–96.
van Baal, Jan. Dema: Description and Analysis of Marindanim Culture. 1966.
van Gennep, Arnold. Mythes et légendes d'Australie. 1906.
totem (tō´təm), an object, usually an animal or plant (or all animals or plants of that species), that is revered by members of a particular social group because of a mystical or ritual relationship that exists with that group. The totem—or rather, the spirit it embodies—represents the bond of unity within a tribe, a clan, or some similar group. Generally, the members of the group believe that they are descended from a totem ancestor, or that they and the totem are
The totem may be regarded as a group symbol and as a protector of the members of the group. In most cases the totemic animal or plant is the object of taboo: it may be forbidden to kill or eat the sacred animal. The symbol of the totem may be tattooed on the body, engraved on weapons, pictured in masks, or (among Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest) carved on totem poles. In some cultures males have one totem and females another, but, generally speaking, totemism is associated with clans or blood relatives. Marriage between members of the same totemic group is commonly prohibited.
See J. G. Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (4 vol., 1910; repr. 1968); E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915, repr. 1965); S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1918, repr. 1960); A. Goldenweiser, History, Psychology, and Culture (1933); C. Lévi-Strauss, Totemism (tr. 1963).
to·tem / ˈtōtəm/ • n. a natural object or animal believed by a particular society to have spiritual significance and adopted by it as an emblem. DERIVATIVES: to·tem·ic / tōˈtemik/ adj. to·tem·ism / -ˌmizəm/ n. to·tem·ist / -mist/ n. to·tem·is·tic / ˌtōdəˈmistik/ adj.
totem pole a pole on which totems are hung or on which the images of totems are carved.