Totemism is a system of belief in which humans are 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 human 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.
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.
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:
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 mixedwith 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.
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 tothe 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 questionare 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 itis 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 tribesof herdsmen in north and Central Asia.
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 familyor 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.
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