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A totem is a being, object, or symbol representing an animal or plant that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, group, lineage, or tribe, reminding them of their ancestry (or mythic past).1 In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totemic myth. They have been around for many years.
Although the term is of Ojibwe origin in North America, totemistic beliefs are not limited to Native Americans and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Similar totem-like beliefs have been historically present in societies throughout much of the world, including Africa, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Arctic polar region.
In modern times, some single individuals, not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion, have chosen to adopt a personal spirit animal helper, which has special meaning to them, and may refer to this as a totem. This non-traditional usage of the term is prevalent in the New Age movement and the mythopoetic men's movement.
Totemism (derived from the root -oode- in the Ojibwe language, which referred to something kinship-related, c.f. odoodem, "his totem") is a religious belief that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. The totem is usually an animal or other natural figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan.
Totemism was a key element of study in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religion, especially for thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated their study on primitive societies. Drawing on the identification of social group with spiritual totem in Australian aboriginal tribes, Durkheim theorized that all human religious expression was intrinsically founded in the relationship to a group.
In his essay "Le Totémisme aujourd’hui" (Totemism Today), the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that human cognition, which is based on analogical thought, is independent of social context. From this, he excludes mathematical thought, which operates primarily through logic. Totems are chosen arbitrarily for the sole purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system. Lévi-Strauss argues that the use of physical analogies is not an indication of a more primitive mental capacity. It is, rather, a more efficient way to cope with this particular mode of life in which abstractions are rare, and in which the physical environment is in direct friction with the society. He also holds that scientific explanation entails the discovery of an "arrangement"; moreover, since "the science of the concrete" is a classificatory system enabling individuals to classify the world in a rational fashion, it is neither more nor less a science than any other in the western world. It is important to recognise that in this text, Lévi-Strauss manifests the egalitarian nature of his work. Lévi-Strauss diverts the theme of anthropology toward the understanding of human cognition.
Lévi-Strauss looked at the ideas of Firth and Fortes, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard to reach his conclusions. Firth and Fortes argued that totemism was based on physical or psychological similarities between the clan and the totemic animal. Malinowski proposed that it was based on empirical interest or that the totem was 'good to eat.' In other words, there was rational interest in preserving the species. Finally Evans-Pritchard argued that the reason for totems was metaphoric. His work with the Nuer led him to believe that totems are a symbolic representation of the group. Lévi-Strauss considered Evan-Pritchard's work the correct explanation.
The word totem comes from the Ojibway word dodaem and means "brother/sister kin". It is the archetypal symbol, animal or plant of hereditary clan affiliations. People from the same clan have the same clan totem and are considered immediate family. It is taboo to marry someone of the same clan.
The Ojibway scholar Basil H. Johnston defines dodaem, or totem, as "that from which I draw my purpose, meaning, and being," and states that "the bonds that united the Ojibway-speaking people were the totems." He further asserts that the feeling of oneness among people that occupy a vast territory is based not on political, economic, or religious considerations but on totemic symbols that "made those born under the signs one in function, birth, and purpose." This means that men and women belonging to the same totem regarded one another as brothers and sisters having kinship obligations to each other.
In North America, there is a certain feeling of affinity between a kin group or clan and its totem. There are taboos against killing clan animals, as humans are kin to the animals whose totems they represent. In some cases, totem spirits are clan protectors and the center of religious activity.2
The misnamed totem poles of the Pacific Northwest of North America are, in fact, not totemic in nature. Rather, they are heraldic. They feature many different designs (bears, birds, frogs, people, and various supernatural beings and aquatic creatures) that function as crests of families or chiefs. They recount stories owned by those families or chiefs, and/or commemorate special occasions.
The Sanxingdui Culture in southern China, dating back more than 5000 years, possibly placed bronze and gold heads on totems. Chinese transliterates totem as tuteng (圖騰). Sanxingdui bronze masks and heads (radiocarbon dated circa 1200BCE) appear to have been mounted on wooden poles. Some scholarscitation needed have suggested that totemic culture spread from ancient Asian populations to the rest of the world. Others conclude that totemism arose separately in numerous cultures; totemic cultures in North America are estimated to have been more than 10,000 years old.
A Jangseung or village guardian is a Korean totem pole usually made of wood. Jangseungs were traditionally placed at the edges of villages to mark village boundaries and frighten away demons or welcome people in. They were also worshipped as village tutelary deities. Jangseungs were usually carved in the images of janguns (equivalent to admirals or generals) and their wives. Many jangseungs are also depicted laughing but in a frightening way. Many of the villages felt that the frightening laughter of the jangseungs would frighten away the demons because the jangseungs have no fear.
In the Himalayan region as well as on the whole Tibetan plateau area and adjacent areas, certain beaded jewelry is believed to have totemistic capabilities. Tibetans in particular give much importance to heirloom beads such as dzi beads. Though dzi beads were not produced in ancient Tibet, but by an unknown culture, most ancient dzi beads are owned by Tibetans. Different protective qualities depend on design, number of eyes, damage, color, shine, etc.
The rodnidze known among the pre-Christian ancestors of the Poles is considered to have been roughly similar to the totem as mentioned above. In historical times, scholars considered that the animals and birds represented on the coats-of-arms of various Polish aristocratic clans may have been remnants of such totems (see Ślepowron coat of arms and Korwin coat of arms, possible remnants of a raven-rodnidze).
- Animal worship
- Anishinaabe clan system
- Axis Mundi
- Charge (heraldry)
- Devak, a type of family totem in Maratha culture
- Nature worship
- Tamga, an abstract seal or device used by Eurasian nomadic peoples
- Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud
- Wildlife totemization
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
- Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, page 307.
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