Totemism is a method of using totems in a religious way. These totems can be in the form of an animal, plant, or something more abstract like a river.
Their symbolism depends on the clan using the totems. They could be to signify strength in someone or divide classes of people. Totemism is much more complex than Europeans once presumed.
What Is Totemism?
Totemism is a religious belief that humans are connected to nature through totems. The belief has been used for thousands of years, despite the lack of European acknowledgment until the 1800s.
In totemism, there is a belief that nature and humans have a friendly relationship. The belief is so sacred and mystical that if you are represented by a totem, in most cultures, you are not to hunt or eat that totem animal/plant.
The reason that totemism is so complex is that each culture puts a different spin on it. In general, it categorizes people. While some may use totems to separate genders, others may use them to symbolize a specific ancestor.
Either way, totemism is often used in either group or individual symbolism. For groups, it separates into clans, classes, and more. For individuals, it separates into traits, relationships, and hereditary aspects.
- “Totem” comes from the Ojibwa word “ototeman”
- Ototeman means kinship
- Totems are holy symbols
- Spirit animals are directed related to totems
- Totems should be well cared for
- Animals depicted in totems were protected
What Is The Difference Between Totemism And Animism?
Totemism is the belief that certain animals are sacred and are used as symbols to honor and grant strength. In this religion, animals and humans are connected, with each group of people having special connections to different animals.
Animism is the belief that all animate and inanimate things have spiritual energy. This is caused by the belief in animism that there are spirits, demons, and other supernatural beings living among us with the ability to possess objects, animals, and people.
To fight off the evil spirits, one must pray to good higher powers and exorcise evil ones.
History of Totemism?
There is no recorded history of how far totemism goes back because it was considered a primitive religion. Europeans often saw it as taboo and did not associate with it.
The first mention wasn’t until 1791. But in the 1800s, John Ferguson McLennan gave the world a new perspective on it when he said, “There is no race of men that has not come through this primitive stage of speculative belief.”
Because of this normalization, people started to let go of the belief that totemism was evil or ignorant. Instead, research was taken seriously, and the belief in totemism became widespread.
4 Forms of Totemism
- Symbolism – totemism can be used to symbolize traits or gifts, with each animal representing something specific to a clan.
- Protection – there is an old belief that as long as you keep the totem healthy and clean, so shall the clan be. One socialist in the early 1900s called this a form of self-worship.
- Classification – because clans often stuck to their own, it was important to them to connect certain animals to each clan. That way, they could stay segregated and keep their own forms of government.
- Simple Worship – the history of worshipping objects or animals goes back further than totemism, and it is just another form of it.
Cultural Examples of Totemism
Totemism was used in many indigenous tribes across the world. It was so common that most countries were affected by its classification system as well as the spiritual aspect of it.
North American Natives
Perhaps the most widespread example of totemism is in North America. Each clan in North America would connect itself to a specific animal, hoping it would grant them the positive traits of said animal.
The bear would be strong, and the fox would be graceful. It was the Native Americans that created the totem poles to combine animals, each level having a different representation.
The Australian Aboriginals were a staple for totemism. Anthropologist A. P. Elkin wrote The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them in the 1930s, giving the world a closer look at how they viewed totemism.
In their system, there was a complicated way of dividing people into totems. But there was a simpler way for the totems to function.
In Elkin’s book, there were six functions of a totem.
- Social – gave direction on marriage, diet, and more
- Cult – connected to secret sub-clans
- Conception – abstract with multiple meanings
- Dream – the animal/plant that you appear as in others’ dreams
- Classification – sorting and dividing classes
- Assistant – healing and guiding
The Maori people of New Zealand used totemism as one of their main religious practices. They connect totemism in nature to their ancestors, believing them equally important.
The way someone acts is believed to be due to the ancestors currently within them as well as the effect that their totems have on them.
The Iban tribes in Malaysia have a unique totemism practice based on dreams. They connect their ancestors to certain animals. That way, if they see that animal in a dream, they know which ancestor is contacting them.
They sometimes try to manifest these dreams by sleeping on the grave of dead ancestors.
In Zimbabwe, totems are used by the Shona people. They use them to separate clans just like other ancient civilizations.
The totems in Zimbabwe protect, divide clans, and praise those with related traits. All of this is done through related poetry and rhymes that reference the histories of the totems.
Importance Of Totemism
An important part of human history, totemism is still practiced today. They represent one of the first classification systems and the crucial relationship between humans and the earth.
Totemism gave many people a way to point out their strengths and weaknesses to get to know themselves and others better. But most importantly, it taught the importance of having beliefs, unity, and ototeman.