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For other uses, see Totem (disambiguation).
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A totem (Ojibwe dodaem) is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. While the term "totem" is Ojibwe, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide, such as Africa, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Arctic. However, the traditional people of those cultures have words for their guardian spirits in their own languages, and do not call these spirits or symbols, "totems". Contemporary neoshamanic, New Age and mythopoetic men's movements not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion may misappropriate and use "totem" terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide.[1][2]

North America[edit]

Cultural flag of the Kanak community, showing a flèche

North American totem poles[edit]

Main article: Totem pole
A totem pole in Thunderbird Park, Victoria, British Columbia

Totem poles of the Pacific Northwest of North America are monumental poles of heraldry. 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.

Anthropological perspectives[edit]

Main article: Totemism
Personal Totem of Mohegan Chief Tantaquidgeon, commemorated on a plaque at Norwich, Connecticut.

Totemism is a religious belief that is frequently associated with animistic 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 Indigenous 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.[citation needed]

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. 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.[citation needed]

Carl Gustav Jung[edit]

In the chapter titled "The Importance of Dreams" in Man and His Symbols,[3] Jung wrote of the "resistance to the idea of an unknown part of the human psyche" and that "the individual's psyche is far from being safely synthesized; on the contrary, it threatens to fragment only too easily under the onslaught of unchecked emotions.... We too can become dissociated and lose our identity." However, Jung also characterizes cultures who hold totemic beliefs (as he sees them) as "primitive."[3]

Sir James George Frazer[edit]

In "The Golden Bough, a study of magic and religion" [4] (first published in 1890) Sir James George Frazer presents a plethora of totemic accounts.


Poets, and to a lesser extent fiction writers, often use anthropological concepts. For this reason literary criticism often resorts to psychoanalytic, anthropological analyses.[5][6][7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hobson, G. "The Rise of the White Shaman as a New Version of Cultural Imperialism." in: Hobson, Gary, ed. The Remembered Earth. Albuquerque, NM: Red Earth Press; 1978: 100-108.
  2. ^ Aldred, Lisa, "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality" in: The American Indian Quarterly issn.24.3 (2000) pp.329-352. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  3. ^ a b Jung, Karl Gustav (1964) Man and His Symbolspp. 6-7, p. 8
  4. ^ Frazer, J., Sir. The Golden Bough, a study of magic andreligion, 1993
  5. ^ Maryniak, Irena. Spirit of the Totem: Religion and Myth in Soviet Fiction, 1964-1988, MHRA, 1995
  6. ^ Nikoletseas, Michael. M. (2012). The Iliad: The Male Totem. ISBN 978-1482069006.
  7. ^ Berg, Henk de. Freud's Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction.Camden House, 2004