Totemism is a system of belief in which man is believed to have kinship with a totem or a mystical relationship is said to exist between a group or an individual and a totem. A totem is an object, such as an animal or plant that serves as the emblem or symbol of a kinship group or a person. The term totemism has been used to characterize a cluster of traits in the religion and in the social organization of many primitive peoples.
Totemism is manifested in various forms and types in different contexts, especially among populations with a mixed economy (farming and hunting) and among hunting communities (especially in Australia); it is also found among tribes who breed cattle. Totemism can in no way be viewed as a general stage in man’s cultural development; but totemism has certainly had an effect on the psychological behaviour of ethnic groups, on the manner of their socialization, and on the formation of the human personality.
The term totem is derived from ototeman from the language of the Algonkian tribe of the Ojibwa (in the area of the Great Lakes in eastern North America); it originally meant “his brother-sister kin.” The grammatical root, ote, signifies a blood relationship between brothers and sisters who have the same mother and who may not marry each other. In English, the word totem was introduced in 1791 by a British merchant and translator who gave it a false meaning in the belief that it designated the guardian spirit of an individual, who appeared in the form of an animal–an idea which the Ojibwa clans do indeed portray by their wearing of animal skins. It was reported at the end of the 18th century that the Ojibwa name their clans after those animals that live in the area in which they live and appear to be either friendly or fearful. The first accurate report about totemism in North America was written by a Methodist missionary, Peter Jones, himself an Ojibwa chief, who died in 1856 and whose report was published posthumously. According to Jones, the Great Spirit had given toodaims (“totems”) to their clans; and because of this act, it should never be forgotten that members of the group are related to one another and on this account may not marry among themselves. (see also Algonquian languages)
Generally speaking, totemistic forms are based on the psychomental habits of the so-called primitives, on a distinctive “thought style” which is characterized, above all, by an “anthropopsychic” apprehension of nature and natural beings, for instance, ascribing to them a soul like man’s. Beasts and the things of nature are again and again thought of as “persons,” but mostly as persons with superhuman qualities.
1. THE NATURE OF TOTEMISM
It is advisable to define totemism as broadly as possible but concretely enough so that some justice can be done to its many forms. Totemism is, then, a complex of varied ideas and ways of behaviour based on a world view drawn from nature. There are ideological, mystical, emotional, reverential, and genealogical relationships of social groups or specific persons with animals or natural objects, the so-called totems. It is necessary to differentiate between group and individual totemism. These forms exhibit common basic characteristics, which occur with different emphases and not always in a complete form. The general characteristics are essentially the following: (1) viewing the totem as a companion, relative, protector, progenitor, or helper–superhuman powers and abilities are ascribed to totems and totems are not only offered respect or occasional veneration but also can become objects of awe and fear; (2) use of special names and emblems to refer to the totem; (3) partial identification with the totem or symbolic assimilation to it; (4) prohibition against killing, eating, or touching the totem, even as a rule to shun it; and (5) totemistic rituals. (see also nature worship, taboo)
Though it is generally agreed that totemism is not a religion, in certain cases it can contain religious elements in varying degrees, just as totemism can appear conjoined with magic. Totemism is frequently mixed with different kinds of other beliefs–the cult of ancestors, ideas of the soul, beliefs in powers and the spirits. Such mixtures make the understanding of particular totemistic forms difficult. The cultic veneration of definite animals and natural things and powers by all those who belong to an ethnic unit do not belong to totemism itself.
1.1. Group totemism.
Group (social or collective) totemism is the most widely disseminated form of totemism. Though the following characteristics can belong to it, they must not be taken to be part of a whole system: (1) mystic association of animal and plant species, natural phenomena, or created objects with unilineally related groups (lineages, clans, tribes, moieties, phratries) or with local groups and families; (2) hereditary transmission of the totems (patrilineal or matrilineal); (3) names of groups that can be based either directly or indirectly on the totem (the same holds true for personal names used within groups); (4) totemistic emblems, symbols, and taboo formulas are, as a rule, a concern of the entire group, but they can also belong to subdivisions of that group. Taboos and prohibitions can apply to the species itself or they can be limited to parts of animals and plants (partial taboos instead of partial totems). (5) Totems for groups are sometimes connected with a large number of animals and natural objects (multiplex totems) whereby a distinction can be made between principal totems and subsidiary ones (linked totems). Totems are associated or coordinated on the basis of analogies or on the basis of myth or ritual. (Just why particular animals or natural things–which sometimes possess absolutely no recognizable worth for the communities concerned–were selected as totems is often hard to fathom and may be based on eventful and decisive moments in a people’s past which are no longer known.) (6) Accounts of the nature of totems and the origin of the societies in question are informative, even if they are sometimes valuable only as supplementary rationalizations; they are especially informative with regard to their presuppositions. If, for example, one group supposes that it is derived directly or indirectly from the totem, this may be recounted (as a rationalization) that an animal progenitor was changed into a human being who then became the founder of the group or that the ancestral lord of the group was descended from a conjugal union between a man and a representative of the animal species. Groups of men and species of animals and plants can also have progenitors in common. In other cases, there are traditions that the human progenitor of a kin group had certain favourable or unfavourable experiences with an animal or natural object and then ordered that his descendants had to respect the whole species of that animal.
Group totemism is now found especially among peoples in Africa, India, Oceania (especially in Melanesia), North America, and parts of South America who farm rather than simply gather food from nature. Peoples with hunting and partly harvesting economies who exhibit this form of totemism include, among others, the Australian Aborigines (hunters who occupy a special position due to the many forms of totemism among them), the African Pygmies, and various tribes of North America–such as those on the northwest coast (predominantly fishermen), in parts of California, and in northeast North America. Moreover, group totemism is represented in a distinctive form among the Ugrians and west Siberians (hunters and fishermen who also breed reindeer) as well as among tribes of herdsmen in north and Central Asia.
1.2. Individual totemism.
Individual totemism is expressed in an intimate relationship of friendship and protection between a person and a particular animal or a natural object (sometimes between a person and a species of animal); the natural object can grant special power to its owner. Frequently connected with individual totemism are definite ideas about the human soul (or souls) and conceptions derived from them, such as the idea of an alter ego and nagualism–from the Spanish form of the Aztec word naualli, “something hidden or veiled”–which means that a kind of simultaneous existence is assumed between an animal or a natural object and a person; i.e., a mutual, close bond of life and fate exist in such a way that in case of the injury, sickness, or death of one partner, the same fate would befall the other member of the relationship. Consequently, such totems became most strongly tabooed; above all, they were connected with family or group leaders, chiefs, medicine men, shamans, and other socially significant persons. In shamanism, an earlier trait of individual totemism is often ascertained: the animalistic protective spirits can sometimes be derived from individual totems. To some extent, there also exists a tendency to pass on an individual totem as hereditary or to make taboo the entire species of animal to which the individual totem belongs. In this can perhaps be seen the beginning of the development of totems that belong to a group. Many tales about the origins of the group totem could, perhaps, point in this direction.
Individual totemism is widely disseminated. It is found not only among the tribes of hunters and harvesters but also among farmers and herdsmen. Individual totemism is especially emphasized among the Australian Aborigines.
2. SOME EXAMPLES OF TOTEMISM
(New South Wales, Australia) Totem clans are divided among two subgroups and corresponding matrilineal moieties. The group totem, named “flesh,” is transmitted from the mother. In contrast to this, individual totems belong only to the medicine men and are passed on patrilineally. Such an individual totem is named bala, “spirit companion,” or jarawaijewa, “the meat (totem) that is within him.” There is a strict prohibition against eating the totem. Breach of the taboo carries with it sickness or death. It is said: “To eat your jarawaijewa is the same as if you were to eat your very own flesh or that of your father.” The medicine man identifies himself with his personal totem. Every offense or injury against the totem has its automatic effect upon the man who commits it. It is a duty of the totem to guard the ritualist and the medicine man while he is asleep. In the case of danger or the arrival of strangers, the animal goes back into the body of the medicine man and informs him. After the death of the medicine man, the animal stands watch as a bright flickering light near the grave. The individual totem is also a helper of the medicine man. The medicine man emits the totem in his sleep or in a trance so that it can collect information for him. Finally, black magic (sorcery) is also practiced by the medicine man; by singing, for instance, the medicine man sends out his totem. To kill an enemy, the totem enters the chest of the enemy and devours his viscera. The transmission of the individual totem to novices is done through the father or the grandfather who, of course, himself is also a medicine man. While the candidate lies on his back, the totem is “sung into” him. The blood relative who is transmitting the totem takes a small animal and places it on the chest of the youngster. During the singing, the animal supposedly sinks slowly into his body and finally disappears into it. The candidate is then instructed on how he has to treat the animal that is his comrade, and he is further instructed in song and the ritual concentration that is necessary to dispatch the totem from his body. (see also dietary law, passage rite)
( Murik Lakes, west of the mouth of the Sepik River, north New Guinea) Patrilineal, exogamous groups (consanguineous sibs) are spread over several villages and are associated with animals, especially fish. They believe that they are born from totems and they make them taboo. Children are given an opportunity to decide during their initiation whether they will respect the paternal or maternal totem. Each group of relatives has a holy place to which the totem animal brings the souls of the dead and from which the souls of children are also believed to come. Totem animals are represented in various manifestations, as spirit creatures in sacred flutes, in disguises, and in figures preserved in each man’s house. At the end of initiation ceremonies, the totems are mimicked by the members of the group. (see also initiation rite)
(Sungai Dayak, Sarawak, Malaysia) Among these peoples, individual totemism is clearly discernible. Particular persons dream of a spirit of an ancestor or a dead relative; this spirit appears in a human form, presents himself as a helper and protector, and names an animal (sometimes one of the natural objects) in which he is manifested. The Iban then observe the mannerisms of animals and recognize in the behaviour of the animals the embodiment of their protector spirit ( ngarong). Sometimes, members of the tribe also carry with them a part of such an animal. Not only the particular animal, but the whole species of the animal is given due respect. Meals and blood offerings are also presented to the spirit animal. Young men, who wish to obtain such a protector spirit for themselves, sleep on the graves of prominent persons or seek out solitude and fast so that they may dream of a helper spirit. Actually, only a few persons can name such animals as their very own. Individuals with protector spirits have also attempted to require from their descendants the respect and the taboo given the animal representing the spirit. As a rule, such descendants do not expect special help from the protector spirit, but they observe the totemistic regulations anyway. Thus it can be concluded that particular families or groups of relatives of the Iban represent totem communities.
( Munda-speaking hunter and harvester tribe that resides in the jungle of Chotanagpur Plateau, northeast Deccan, India) The Birhor are organized into patrilineal, exogamous totem groups. According to one imperfect list of 37 clans, 12 are based on animals, 10 on plants, eight on Hindu castes and localities, and the rest on objects. The totems are passed on within the group, but no account of their origin is available. From tales about the tribe’s origins, it appears that the totem had a fortuitous connection with the birth of the ancestor of the clan. The Birhor think that there is a temperamental or physical similarity between the members of the clan and their totems. Prohibitions with regard to taboo are sometimes cultivated to an extreme degree. In regard to eating, killing, or destroying them, the clan totems are regarded as if they were human members of the group. Moreover, it is believed that an offense against the totems through a breach of taboo will produce a corresponding decrease in the size of the clan. If a person comes upon a dead totem animal, he must smear his forehead with oil or a red dye, but he must not actually mourn over it; he also does not bury it. The close and vital relationship between the totem and the clan is shown in a definite ceremony: the yearly offering to the chief spirit of the ancestral hill. Each Birhor has a tradition of an old settlement–thought to be located on a hill in the area. Once a year, the men of each clan come together at an open place. The elder of the clan functions as the priest who gives the offering. A diagram with four sections is drawn on the ground with rice flour. In one of these, the elder sits while gazing in the direction of the ancestral hill. The emblem of the particular totem is placed in one of the other places of the diagram; depending on the circumstances, this emblem could be a flower, a piece of horn or skin, a wing, or a twig. This emblem represents the clan as a whole. If an animal is needed for such a ceremony, it is provided by the members of another clan who do not hold it as a totem. The Birhor show great fear of the spirits of the ancestral hill and avoid these places as far as possible. (see also social structure)
( Liberia, West Africa) In this society, there is not only group totemism but individual totemism as well. Both categories have the same designations, namely, “thing of possession,” “thing of birth,” “thing of the back of men.” These phrases express the idea that the totem always accompanies man, belongs to him, and stands behind him as a guide and warner of dangers. The totem also punishes the breach of any taboo. The totems are animals, plants, and natural phenomena. The kin groups that live in several villages were matrilineal at an earlier time, but they are beginning to exhibit patrilineal tendencies. The group totems, especially the animal totems, are considered as the residence of the ancestors; they are respected and are given offerings. Moreover, a great role is played by individual totems that, in addition to being taboo, are also given offerings. Animal personal totems can be transmitted from father to son or from mother to daughter; on the other hand, individual plant totems are assigned at birth (plants of a tree of life for the child) or later. The totem also communicates magical powers. It is even believed possible to alter one’s own totem animal; further, it is considered an alter ego. Persons with the same individual totem prefer to be united in communities. The well-known leopard confederation, a secret association, seems to have grown out of such desires. Entirely different groups produce patrilineal taboo communities which are supposedly related by blood; they comprise persons of several tribes. The animals, plants, and actions made taboo by these groups are not considered as totems. In a certain respect, the individual totems in this community seem to be the basis of group totemism.