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Anthropology of religion
A totem pole in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Social and cultural anthropology

A totem (Ojibwe doodem) 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 derived from the North American Ojibwe language, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide. 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 have been known to use "totem" terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide.[1]

North America[edit]

Personal totem of Mohegan Chief Tantaquidgeon, commemorated on a plaque at Norwich, Connecticut

North American totem poles[edit]

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, or commemorate special occasions.[2][3] These stories are known to be read from the bottom of the pole to the top.

Anthropological perspectives[edit]

A totem pole in Thunderbird Park, Victoria, British Columbia

Totemism is a belief 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.

Scottish ethnologist John Ferguson McLennan, following the vogue of 19th-century research, addressed totemism in a broad perspective in his study The Worship of Animals and Plants (1869, 1870).[4][5] McLennan did not seek to explain the specific origin of the totemistic phenomenon but sought to indicate that all of the human race had, in ancient times, gone through a totemistic stage.[4]

Another Scottish scholar, Andrew Lang, early in the 20th century, advocated a nominalistic explanation of totemism, namely, that local groups or clans, in selecting a totemistic name from the realm of nature, were reacting to a need to be differentiated.[6] If the origin of the name was forgotten, Lang argued, there followed a mystical relationship between the object — from which the name was once derived — and the groups that bore these names. Through nature myths, animals and natural objects were considered as the relatives, patrons, or ancestors of the respective social units.[6]

British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer published Totemism and Exogamy in 1910, a four-volume work based largely on his research among Indigenous peoples of Australia and Melanesia, along with a compilation of the work of other writers in the field.[7]

In 1910, Russian American ethnologist Alexander Goldenweiser, subjected totemistic phenomena to sharp criticism.[8]

The founder of a French school of sociology, Émile Durkheim, examined totemism from a sociological and theological point of view, attempting to discover a pure religion in very ancient forms and claimed to see the origin of religion in totemism.[9]

The leading representative of British social anthropology, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, took a totally different view of totemism. Like Franz Boas, he was skeptical that totemism could be described in any unified way. In this he opposed the other pioneer of social anthropology in England, Bronisław Malinowski, who wanted to confirm the unity of totemism in some way and approached the matter more from a biological and psychological point of view than from an ethnological one. According to Malinowski, totemism was not a cultural phenomenon, but rather the result of trying to satisfy basic human needs within the natural world. As far as Radcliffe-Brown was concerned, totemism was composed of elements that were taken from different areas and institutions, and what they have in common is a general tendency to characterize segments of the community through a connection with a portion of nature. In opposition to Durkheim's theory of sacralization, Radcliffe-Brown took the point of view that nature is introduced into the social order rather than secondary to it. At first, he shared with Malinowski the opinion that an animal becomes totemistic when it is “good to eat.” He later came to oppose the usefulness of this viewpoint, since many totems—such as crocodiles and flies—are dangerous and unpleasant.[10]

As a chief representative of modern structuralism, French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and his, Le Totémisme aujourd'hui ("Totemism Today" [1958])[11] are often cited in the field.


Poets, and to a lesser extent fiction writers, often use anthropological concepts, including the anthropological understanding of totemism. For this reason literary criticism often resorts to psychoanalytic, anthropological analyses.[12][13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Aldred, Lisa, "Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality" in: The American Indian Quarterly 24.3 (2000) pp. 329–352. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  2. ^ Viola E. Garfield and Linn A. Forrest, (1961). The Wolf and the Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska. Seattle: University of Washington Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-295-73998-3.
  3. ^ Marius Barbeau (1950). "Totem Poles: According to Crests and Topics". National Museum of Canada Bulletin. Ottawa: Dept. of Resources and Development, National Museum of Canada. 119 (1): 9. Retrieved 24 November 2014.
  4. ^ a b MacLennan, J., The worship of animals and plants, Fortnightly Review, vol. 6-7 (1869-1870)
  5. ^ Patrick Wolfe (22 December 1998). Settler Colonialism. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 111–. ISBN 978-0-304-70340-1. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
  6. ^ a b Andrew Lang A., Method in the Study of Totemism (1911)
  7. ^ Totemism and Exogamy. A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society (1911-1915)
  8. ^ Goldenweiser A., Totemism; An analytical study, 1910
  9. ^ Durkheim E., Totémisme (1910)
  10. ^ Radcliffe-Brown A., Structure and Function in Primitive Society, 1952
  11. ^ (Lévi-Strauss C., Le Totémisme aujourd'hui(1958); english trans. as Totemism, by Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963
  12. ^ Maryniak, Irena. Spirit of the Totem: Religion and Myth in Soviet Fiction, 1964-1988, MHRA, 1995
  13. ^ Berg, Henk de. Freud's Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction. Camden House, 2004