Totemism, a complex system of ideas, symbols, and practices based on an assumed relationship between an individual or a social group and a natural object known as a totem. The totem may be a particular species of bird, animal, or plant, a natural phenomenon, or a feature of the landscape with which a group believes itself linked in some way. The term totem is derived from the language of the Ojibwa, a Native North American tribe.

The totemic relationship is widespread and has been observed in Malaysia, Africa, and Guinea. It is especially strong among some Native Americans and the Australian aborigines. In these societies, the totem is often regarded as a companion and helper with supernatural powers and as such is respected and occasionally venerated. The individuals of a totemic group see themselves as partially identified with or assimilated to the totem, which may be referred to by special names or symbols. Descent may be traced to an original totemic ancestor, which becomes the symbol of the group. With the exception of some totemic rituals, killing, eating, or touching the totem is prohibited. Individual shamans (see  Shaman) have been known to cultivate a personal friendship with a particular totemic animal or plant.

Few anthropological concepts have undergone such radical change as that of totemism. Most of the theories about this phenomenon propounded in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been discarded. Totemism is no longer regarded as a religion, much less as an early stage in the religious and cultural history of the human race. It is admitted, however, that a totemic relationship may involve some religious elements, such as the cult of ancestors and the belief in spirits (see  Animism). The current skepticism about totemism in anthropological literature is exemplified by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss's theory that totemism is an anthropological concept having no objective reality.

The basis of totemism seems to lie in the world view of some societies that assume a specific relationship between human beings and the powers of nature, a relationship that serves as the foundation for a classificatory scheme. Totemism may thus be interpreted as a conceptual device for sorting out social groups by means of natural emblems. Furthermore, some scholars point out that when different social groups within the same society draw their names and identities from plants or animals, these totems serve as symbolic devices showing that society, although divided into many groups, still remains a whole. Totems identify and symbolize a group that shares common interests–particularly an interest in the protection of kin members–in societies that have no other agency or mechanism for performing this function. Recently, some anthropologists have argued that Australian totemism, because of its taboos against killing and eating one's totem, has acted as a conservation device, helping people adapt to their natural environment. Totemism would, in this interpretation, have an ecological significance and would thus have played an important role in the development and survival of those societies in which it flourished.

Contributed By:

John A. Saliba, S.J., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Detroit. Contributor to Anthropologica and other publications.


"Totemism," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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