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TOTEMISM is the systematic symbolization of social entities (individuals, social units) through concrete phenomenal images, often natural species, and the development of these symbols into relationships of identity, power, and common origin. The term totem derives from dotem, a term used by the Ojibwa, an Algonquin people of North America, to denote clan membership. As a concept, totemism has been treated in two distinct senses, or phases, of anthropological theory. In the first, or evolutionary sense, it was postulated as an institution of primitive thought, a necessary stage of religious conceptualization that all peoples must pass through in the course of cultural evolution. This notion was developed by such theorists as James G. Frazer and Émile Durkheim, and it was the subject of a definitive critique by Alexander A. Goldenweiser. The second, more modern sense of the term might be called its "systematic" sense, one that allows for a wide range of variance in culture-specific schemes of symbolization and classification and that approaches the significance of totemism through its relationship to these schemes. This modern sense informs the viewpoint of Claude Lévi-Strauss's critique Totemism (1963) and forms the basis for his subsequent idea of a "science of the concrete" (The Savage Mind, 1966).

The first sense of totemism tends to exaggerate its unitary aspects and make of it something of a universal primitive institution; the second tends to dissolve it into general issues of denomination and symbolism and to underplay the distinctiveness of the term and the usages to which it refers.

Instances of the naming of clans for natural species among North American peoples were known long before the practice came to be called totemism. By the time the origin, significance, and definition of totemism became a major topic of controversy among theorists of tribal religion, the area of ethnographic exemplification had shifted from the Americas to central Australia. This shift was in part a consequence of the splendid ethnography of Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen, but it also coincided with the widespread adoption of the evolutionist notion of the "psychic unity of mankind." According to this idea, human culture was essentially unitary and universal, having arisen everywhere through the same stages, so that if we could identify a people who were "frozen" into an earlier stage, we would observe modes of thought and action that were directly ancestral to our own. Australia, a continent populated originally by hunting and gathering peoples alone, seemed to furnish examples of the most primitive stages available.

Together with the concept of taboo, and perhaps also that of mana, totemism became, for the later cultural evolutionists, the emblem (or perhaps the "totem") of primitive thought or religionits hallmark, and therefore also the key to its suspected irrationality. The origin and significance of totemism became the subject of widespread theoretical speculation during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Much of the early theorization developed along the lines of E. B. Tylor's conception of the evolution of the soul (for example, totemic species as representations or repositories of the soul), or as literalizations of names (as in Herbert Spencer's hypothesis that totems arose from an aberration in nicknaming).

The controversy over totemism reached its peak after the publication of Frazer's Totemism and Exogamy (1910). In that work, Frazer distinguished totemism, as implying a relationship of equality or kinship with the totem, from religion, as a relationship with higher powers. He emphasized the solidarity function of totemism, which knits people into social groups, as a contribution to the "cause of civilization." Frazer's speculation concerning the origin of totemism, however, came more and more to reflect the particulars of his Australian exemplars. From an initial theory identifying the totem as a repository for a soul entrusted to it for safekeeping, Frazer turned to an explanation based on the Intichiuma rites of central desert Aborigines, in which each subgroup is responsible for the ritual replenishment of some (economically significant) natural species. The idea of the economic basis of totemism was later revived, in simplified form, by Bronislaw Malinowski. Finally, Frazer developed the "conception theory" of totemism, on the model of the Aranda people of central Australia, according to which a personal totem is identified for a child by its mother on the basis of experiences or encounters at the moment she becomes aware that she is pregnant. A creature or feature of the land thus "signified" becomes the child's totem.

In 1910, Goldenweiser, who had studied under Boas, published "Totemism: An Analytical Study," an essay that became the definitive critique of "evolutionary" totemism. Goldenweiser called into question the unitary nature of the phenomenon, pointing out that there was no necessary connection between the existence of clans, the use of totemic designations for them, and the ideology of a relationship between human beings and totemic beings. Each of these phenomena, he argued, could in many cases be shown to exist independently of the others, so that totemism appeared less an institution or religion than an adventitious combination of simpler and more widespread usages.

Despite the acuity and ultimate persuasiveness of Goldenweiser's arguments, the more creative "evolutionary" theories appeared in the years after the publication of his critique. Like Frazer's theory, Durkheim's conception of totemism is exemplified primarily through Australian ethnography. Durkheim viewed totemism as dominated by what he called a quasi-divine principle (Durkheim, 1915, p. 235), one that turned out to be none other than the representation of the social group or clan itself, presented to the collective imagination in the symbolic form of the creature that serves as the totem. Totemism, then, was a special case of the argument of Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, a work stating that religion is the form in which society takes account of (reveres, worships, fears) its own collective force.

Sigmund Freud included the concept of totemism, as an exemplar (like the notion of taboo) of contemporary ideas of primitive thought, in his psychodynamic reassessment of cultural and religious forms. Freud's Totem and Taboo (1918) projected human culture as the creative result of a primal oedipal guilt. The totem was selected and revered as a substitute for the murdered father, and totemic exogamy functioned as an expiatory resignation on the part of the sons of claims to the women freed by the murder of the father.

In the last major theoretical treatment of "evolutionary" totemism, Arnold van Gennep argued, against Goldenweiser, that its status as a particular combination of three elements did not disqualify totemism's integrity as a phenomenon. Yet Gennep rejected the views of Durkheim and other social determinists to the effect that totemic categorization was based on social interests. Anticipating Lévi-Strauss, who based his later views on this position (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, p. 162), Gennep saw totemism as a special case of the more general cultural phenomenon of classification, although he did not pursue the implications of this position to the degree that Lévi-Strauss did.

Claude Lévi-Strauss's modern critique effectively concludes the attack on evolutionary totemism begun by Goldenweiser, although it aims at the term totemism itself. In Totemism (1963), Lévi-Strauss critically reviews the history of the subject and reaches the conclusion that totemism is the illusory construct of an earlier period in anthropological theory. Reviewing the more recent ethnographic findings of writers like Meyer Fortes and Raymond Firth, he arrives at the proposition that it is the differences alone, among a series of totemic creatures, that serve to distinguish the corresponding human social units. He disavows, in other words, any sort of analogic relationship (of substance, origin, identity, or interest) between a totem and its human counterpart, and he thus reduces totemism to a special case of denomination or designation. This leaves unexplained (or reduces to mere detail) perhaps the bulk of the ethnographic material to totemism, concerned as it is with special ties and relationships between totem and human unit. In order to deal with this question, Lévi-Strauss developed, in The Savage Mind (1966), his notion of the "science of the concrete," in which totemic "classifications" are but a special instance of a more widespread tradition of qualitative logic. Thus Lévi-Strauss is able to substitute the systematic tendencies of an abstract classifying schema for the specific relations between a totem and its social counterpart.

What is the place of totemism in the life of an ongoing community? Consider the Walbiri, an Aboriginal people of the central Australian desert. Walbiri men are divided into about forty lines of paternal descent, each associated with a totemic lodge devoted to the lore and ritual communication with an ancestral Dreaming totem (kangaroo, wallaby, rain, etc.). When they enact the Dreaming rituals, the men are believed to enter the "noumenal" phase of existence (Meggitt, 1972, p. 72) and to merge with the totemic ancestors themselves. Here the analogies between human beings and totemic creatures are sacramentally transformed into identities, made ritually into real relationships of mutual origin and creation, so that men of the different lodges actually belong to different totemic species. When the ritual is concluded, however, they return to everyday "phenomenal" existence and reassume their human character, so that the totemic designations revert to mere names, linked to respective moieties, linked subsections, and other constituents of the complex Walbiri social structure.

Thus the "noumenal phase" of Walbiri life, the ritual state, is constituted by the analogies drawn between human beings and their totems, whereas in the "phenomenal phase" these analogies collapse into arbitrary labels. Only in the latter phase does Lévi-Strauss's proposition about the "differences alone" being the basis for coding human groups apply, for, as human beings, the members of these subsections and moieties can marry one another's sisters and daughters, something that different species cannot do. Within the same culture, in other words, totemic distinctions can serve either as "labels," to code the differences or distinctions among human groups, or, by expanding into metaphoric analogues, accomplish the religious differentiation of men into different "species."

The totemic symbolization of social units is, in many cultures, integrated into a larger or more comprehensive categorial or cosmological scheme, so that the totemic creatures themselves may be organized into broader categories. Among the Ojibwa of North America, totems are grouped according to habitat (earth, air, or water). Aboriginal Australia is distinctive in carrying this tendency to the extreme of "totem affiliation," in which all the phenomena of experience, including colors, human implements, traits, weather conditions, as well as plants and animals, are assigned and grouped as totems (Brandenstein, 1982, p. 87). These universalized systems, in turn, are generally organized in terms of an overarching duality of principles. Brandenstein identifies three of thesequick/slow, warm/cold, and round/flat (large/small)as generating, in their various permutations and combinations, the totemic-classificatory systems of aboriginal Australia (ibid., pp. 148149). A similarly comprehensive system is found among the Zuni of the American Southwest, for whom totemic clans are grouped in respective association with seven directional orientations (the four directions, plus zenith, nadir, and center), which are also linked to corresponding colors, social functions, and, in some cases, seasons.

At the other extreme is individuating, or particularizing totemism, for the individual is also a social unit. Among the Sauk and Osage of North America, traits, qualities, or attributes of a clan totem will be assigned to clan members, as personal names, so that members of the Black Bear clan will be known for its tracks, its eyes, the female of the species, and so on (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, p. 173). Among the Kujamaat Diola of Senegal, on the other hand, individuals are totemized secretly through relationships with personalized animal doubles, which are produced by defecation from their own bodies, and which live in the bush near their dwellings (Sapir, 1977). Among the Usen Barok of New Ireland, individual names are taken from plant or animal manifestations of the essentially formless masalai, or tutelary clan spirit. Wherever personal names are conceived of as a relation between the bearer of the name and some phenomenal entity, we can consider naming itself to be a form of individual totemism.

Totemic individuation of this sort, in which the character of the name itself bears a specific relational significance, occurs frequently in the naming of modern sports teams, and in formal or informal national symbols, such as the eagle or the bear. Totemism has been proposed as the antecedent of the syncretistic religion of ancient Egypt, with possible indirect connections to the Greco-Roman pantheon. Predynastic Egypt was subdivided into a large number of local territorial units called nomes, each identified through the worship of a particular theriomorphic deity. As the unification of Egypt involved the political joining of these nomes, so the evolution of Egyptian religion led to the combining of the totemic creatures into compound deities such as Amun-Re ("ram-sun"), or Re-Harakhte ("sun-hawk"). There are possible archaic connections of these theriomorphic deities, with Homeric Greek divinities: for example, the cow Hathor with the "ox-eyed Hera." Alternatively, of course, these divinities may have acquired such characterizations as the heritage of an indigenous totemism.

Totemism may not be the key to "primitive thought" that Frazer, Durkheim, and Freud imagined it to be, but the use of concrete phenomenal images as a means of differentiation is not easily explained away as merely another mode of designation, or naming. Wherever social units of any kindindividuals, groups, clans, families, corporations, sports teams, or military unitsare arrayed on an equal footing and in "symmetrical" opposition to one another, the possibility arises of transforming a mere quantitative diversity into qualitative meaning through the use of concrete imagery. Diversity is then not merely encoded but instead enters the dimension of meaning, of identity as a concrete, positive quality.

Whenever we speak of a sports team as the Braves, Indians, Cubs, or Vikings, or speak of the Roman, American, German, or Polish eagle, or consider Raven, Eagle, and Killer Whale clans, we make the differences among the respective units something more than differences, and we give each unit a center and a significance of its own. Whenever this occurs, the possibility arises of developing this significance, to a greater or lesser degree, into a profound relationship of rapport, communion, power, or mythic origin. Viewed in this light, the "totems" of a social entity become markers and carriers of its identity and meaning; to harm or consume the totem may well, under certain cultural circumstances, become a powerful metaphor for the denial of qualitative meaning. When theorists of totemism sought to explain the phenomenon solely in terms of the food quest, marriage restrictions, coding, or classification, they subverted the force of cultural meaning to considerations that would find an easier credibility in a materialistically and pragmatically oriented society, "consuming," as it were, meaning through its markers and carriers.

The ostensibly "primitive" character of totemism is an illusion, based on a tendency of literate traditions to overvalue abstraction and to reduce the rich and varied spectrum of meaning to the barest requirements of information coding. In fact abstract reference and concrete image are inextricably interrelated; they imply each other, and neither can exist without the other. Certainly, peoples whose social organizations lack hierarchy and organic diversity (e.g., social class or the division of labor) tend to develop and dramatize a qualitative differentiation through the imagery of natural species, whereas those whose social units show an organic diversity need not resort to a symbolic differentiation. The choice, however, is not a matter of primitiveness or sophistication but rather of the complementarity between social form and one of two equally sophisticated, and mutually interdependent, symbolic alternatives.

See Also

Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Australian Indigenous Religions, overview article; Warlpiri Religion.


Brandenstein, C.-G. von. Names and Substance of the Australian Subsection System. Chicago, 1982. A comprehensive, comparative analysis of totemic categories in relation to Australian social organizaiton.

Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915). Reprint, New York, 1965. The classic work on the social origin and conception of religion; totemism plays a prominent part in the argument.

Frazer, James G. Totemism and Exogamy. 4 vols. London, 1910. The work that established totemism as a central issue in the era of historical anthropology. Well written, but an exercise in a dated style of anthropological speculation.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. New York, 1918. The heuristic psychoanalytic "origin myth" of society, its neuroses and taboos; theoretical speculation on totemism at the apex of its popularity outside of anthropological circles.

Goldenweiser, Alexander A. "Totemism: An Analytical Study." Journal of American Folk-Lore 23 (1910): 179293. The classic critique on the "evolutionary" concept of totemism, valid even in relation to works published years afterward.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Le totémisme aujourd'hui. Paris, 1962. Translated into English by Rodney Needham as Totemism (Boston, 1963). The modern critique of totemism, written from a symbolic point of view; a classic of the structuralist approach.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. London, 1966. A development of the idea of totemism as denomination into the notion of a "science of the concrete."

Meggitt, M. J. "Understanding Australian Aboriginal Society: Kinship Systems of Cultural Categories." In Kinship Studies in the Morgan Centennial Year, edited by Priscilla Reining, pp. 6487. Washington, D.C., 1972. An account by a noted ethnographer of the complexities of Australian Aboriginal social conceptualization.

Sapir, J. David. "Fecal Animals: An Example of Complementary Totemism." Man, n.s. 12 (April 1977): 121. A contemporary study of a highly unusual form of individual totemism and its philosophical implications.

New Sources

Adler, Alfred, Bernard Juillerat, and Marie Mauzé. Totémismes. Ivry, France, 1998.

Morphy, Howard. "Myth, Totemism and the Creation of Clans." Oceania 60, no. 4 (1990): 5564.

Ratha, S. N. "Rethinking Totemism: Man-nature Relationship in Maintaining the Ecological Balance." Man in India 70, no. 3 (1990): 245252.

Schwartz, Theodore. "Culture Totemism: Ethnic Identity, Primitive and Modern." In Ethnic Identity: Creation, Conflict, and Accommodation. Walnut Creek, Calif., 1995.

Shapiro, Warren. "Claude Lévi-Strauss meets Alexander Goldenweiser: Boasian Anthropology and the Study of Totemism." American Anthropologist 93, no. 3 (1991): 599610.

Silverman, Eric Kline. "Gender of the Cosmos: Totemism, Society and Embodiment in the Sepik River." Oceania 67, no. 1 (1996): 3049.

Roy Wagner (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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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


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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A social institution through which divisions of a tribe (totem groups) are systematically and permanently associated with species, usually of animals, but sometimes of plants or inanimate objects, that are their totems. The word totem is of North American origin; but according to Émile durkheim, seconded in this by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Australia is its "classic land." In its current more general sense the word has no equivalent in any Australian aboriginal language, although there are local terms for particular manifestations.

Applied to aboriginal Australia it signifies a view of the word that is human-centered but not human-dominated. It is a view that assumes a mystic and spiritual relationship between man and his nonhuman environment, not separating man sharply from natural species and natural elements, but stressing his part in the total scheme of things, his sharing of the same essential quality of being. The beginnings of this relationship are traced, both for precedent and for validation, to the mythical or creative era, the Eternal Dreamtime, as it is sometimes called, with emphasis upon the aspect of continuity.

Social Function. The mystical bond is translated for everyday practical purposes into personal and social relationships that take many forms and can be classified in various ways. Probably the most important hinges on whether affiliation with a natural object such as a totem derives from (1) membership in a specific social group that defines a person's relationship in totemic terms to everyone within his social perspective, whether with ritual ramifications (cult totemism) or not (social totemism), or (2) a personal experience or revelation that confers special attributes, as on a native doctor or songman (individual totemism). The rule of totemic exogamy is not universal in Australia and relates only to social totemism. Taboos on eating the flesh of one's totem, when the totem is represented by an edible species, are significant in some areas, but rarer than suggested by early reports. A person's relationship with his totem symbolizes a range of associations. It links him with the great ancestral and spirit beings and gods, with the sacred world of myth, with the immortal and eternal, in a complex of belief and action, that, traditionally, gives purpose and meaning to human existence. In this sense totemism is, symbolically, an expression of the basic value inherent in the aboriginal way of life.

See Also: religion (in primitive culture).

Bibliography: r. m. and c. h. berndt, The World of the First Australians (Sydney 1964). e. durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, tr. j. w. swain (London 1915; repr. Glencoe, Ill. 1954). a. p. elkin, Studies in Australian Totemism (Sydney 1938; Garden City 1964); The Australian Aborigines (Sydney 1938; 2d ed. Garden City 1964). j. g. frazer, Totemism and Exogamy, 4 v. (London 1910). s. freud, Totem and Taboo (1918), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. j. strachey, 24 v. (London 1953) v.13. w. a. lessa and e. z. vogt, eds., Reader in Comparative Religion (Evanston, Ill. 1958). c. lÉvistrauss, Le Totémisme aujourd'hui (Paris 1962). a. r. radcliffe-brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (London 1952). r. l. sharp, "Notes on Northeast Australian Totemism," in Studies in the Anthropology of Oceania and Asia, ed. c. s. coon and j. m. andrews (Cambridge, Mass. 1943). w. e. h. stanner, "Religion, Totemism and Symbolism," in Aboriginal Man in Australia, ed. r. m. and c. h. berndt (Sydney 1965).

[r. m. berndt]

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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.


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 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. 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 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.