What is Totemism?

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Arguably, totemism is more of an anthropological focus than a sociological one. That does not mean it should be dismissed. Both Durkheim and Levi-Strauss wrote significant works on the subject and in this article, we delve into century old journal archives to revisit this concept in order to establish a general overview. Given its historical nature, it is important to be aware that some of the racialised language used in these older articles is oppositional to modern sociological knowledge. Terms such as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ are racially charged and should be avoided.

The dictionary definition of totemism states that totemism is a system of belief through which humans have a kinship or mystical relationship with a spirit such as that of an animal or plant. Both Lévi-Strauss (1970) and Durkheim (1973) had differing views of totemism. Durkheim framed totemism as a ‘primitive’ form of religion expressing a social reality and values of a collective group. Levi-Strauss framed totemism as an illusory mode of thought which showed that humans have capacity to express abstract thinking. Similarly, Ridington & Ridington (1970: 50) saw totemism as a form of symbolic communication which associates human expression with material objects.

Whether it can be seen as religious has long been debated but there certainly are some similarities between what Durkheim (1995: 204-205) sees as an elementary religion and modern religions. He even acknowledges this when he states that:

mythological constructions…are secondary products overgrowing a substratum of beliefs…that constitute the firm foundations on which the religious systems are built

Here, he is referring to the idea that complex and imagined mythologies grow out of the elementary symbolism of society to become religion.

Totems are natural objects or living things including plants and animals which come to be representative of a clan, tribe, or group. They are believed to have some form of spiritual connection either in the form of protector, ancestor, or helper. Totems are often used in symbolic form and can be seen in various carvings around the world. Frazer (1887: 1) describes a totem as:

a class of material objects which a [individual] regards with superstitious respect, believing that there exists between him and every member of the class an intimate and altogether special relation

Frazer (1887: 2) continues…

The connexion between a man and his totem is mutually beneficent; the totem protects the man, and the man shows his respect for the totem in various ways, by not killing it if it be animal, and not cutting or gathering it if it be a plant.

Over history a number of categorisations or types of totemism have been formulated. Perhaps the most prominent is that of Elkin (1933) who attempted to develop a system for organising the various manifestations of totemism. These were individual totemism, social totemism, and cult-totemism. Each of these also maintain sub-categories but Elgin argues that across all categories, the fundamental belief is in the relationship between human and nature.

Individual or personal totemism refers to a system whereby every individual has a totem as opposed to a single totem for the group. The totem functions as an ‘alter-ego’ and protector of the individual. Sometimes totemic acquisition is through ritual initiation.

Social totemism is made up of the following categories which can be either patrilineal or matrilineal:

Sex totemism is the division between men and women with each having their own totem. The totem comes to represent the sex-dichotomy of the group. The injuring or killing of a totem is seen as either a playful annoying of the opposite sex, or as direct attack.

Moiety totemism is totemism based upon the division of society into two groups. This dual organisation performs various functions in the social or ceremonial lives of the group. It expresses an opposition between the two but in the positive sense rather than the negative sense. A moiety totem then comes to represent membership of the group and expresses a kinship between members.

Section totemism is the division of members into four groups and each is represented by an animal or plant species. It is sometimes used as a way of regulating marriages. Section totemism is also matrilineal with totemic representation being inherited either by birth or marriage. Totems are regarded as the guardian of the human group.

Following from section totemism, sub-section totemism divides humans and natural species into eight groups. Again, the similar rituals are observed in relation to marriage and to the totem as guardian.

Patrilineal totemism refers to totemism where the species or objects of which the clan totem represents are inherited from the male line. Matrilineal is the same principle except the totem is inherited from the female line. However, in matrilineal totemism, all matrilineal relatives may be seen as ‘one flesh’ with all female descendants having received their physical existence from the same matrilineal ancestress.

Cult-totemism is a form of totemism which reflects a religious nature towards an object or animal.

Elkin also talks of dream totemism. However, he argues that on the surface it appears to categorisable as social totemism but notes that it seems to be “individual in form”. Thus, Elkin does not place this form in to a category. Levi-Strauss notes that dream totems can be revealed to pregnant women during the first symptoms of pregnancy. This is sometimes after eating meat where the fattiness of the meat is taken for having a “supernatural character”.

Clan totemism is characterised by exogamy which means an obligation to marry outside of your clan or group.

Durkheim (1973: 167-186) formulated the notion of the ‘totemic principle’ which, in some ways, reflects Levi-Strauss’ argument that totemism is the expression of abstract thought. Durkheim views the totemic principle as being the clan (or other collective) personified via totems such as animals or plants:

The god of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and represented to the imagination under the visible form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem

It is the clan expressed in material form, a material object which comes to represent the idea of the clan, and this is where see that kind of externalisation of abstract thinking mentioned by Levi-Strauss. When that material object is an animal or plant, a totem, then this totem is held in higher regard than the clan itself as it comes to embody an essence which is both present in the clan and externalised and embodied in the material object. Durkheim argues that the totemic principle is more “fully conceived under an animal form” as opposed to the man.

As you have probably noticed, the information is generally quite confusing. I have not been able to find any good piece of work that rectifies this situation. It is perhaps down to the fact that there is a very heavy reliance on an anthropologic system of categorisation that doesn’t work and cannot correctly delineate between each category. To further exacerbate the problem, the concept of totemism was largely abandoned by the 1970’s.

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