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A totem is any natural or supernatural object, being or animal which has personal symbolic meaning to an individual and to whose phenomena and energy one feels closely associated with during one's life.

A simplified dramatic example of this belief in practice is in the Walt Disney Pictures animated film, Brother Bear. In the film, a boy from a proto-Inuit tribe receives a totem of the Bear, which represents Love. Although he initially rejects it, by the end of the story he follows its ideals more literally than anyone ever dreamed possible.

For some tribes, totems can represent larger groups than the individual person, and clans and tribes can have a totem. 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 totem myth.

Although the term is of Native American origin, totemistic beliefs are not limited to Native Americans. Similar totemism-like beliefs have been historically found throughout much of the world, including Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and the Arctic polar region.

In modern times, some individuals, not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion, have chosen to adopt as a personal totem an animal which has some kind of special meaning to them. This practice is prevalent in, but not limited to, the New Age movement. Beliefs regarding totems can vary, from merely adopting one as a whim, to adopting an animal that a person sees representing favorable traits reflected in their own behavior or appearance. A few believe their totem acts as a literal spirit guide. Some Native Americans and other followers of tribal religions take a dim view of New Agers' and others' adoption of totem animals, arguing that a non-adherent cannot truly understand totemism apart from the cultural context, and that at worst, it represents a commercialization of their religious beliefs.


Totemism (derived from the root -oode in the Ojibwe language, which referred to something kinship-related) is a religious belief that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. The totem is usually an animal or other naturalistic figure that spiritually represents a person or, more likely, a clan.

Totemism played an active role 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 (the term primitive societies was an acceptable description at the time). 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 Totemisme aujourdhui (Totemism Today), Claude Lévi-Strauss shows 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 the egalitarian nature of Lévi-Strauss and his work is manifested in all its force, and more importantly Lévi-Strauss diverts the interest of anthropology towards the understanding of human cognition.

Strauss looked at the ideas of Firth and Fortes, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard to reach his conculsions. Firth and Fortes argued that Totemism was based on a physical or psychological similarties 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. Strauss saw Evan-Pritchard's work as the correct explanation.

North American totem poles

Main article: Totem pole

The totem poles of North America have many different designs (bears, birds, frogs, people, lizards, see pictogram). They have arms, wings and legs. The Chinese totim carvings also have many animal forms but are made with greater details; the smaller ones even have legs, arms and costumes.

Ancient totem culture in Sanxingdui, China

The oldest surviving totem culture (totim in Chinese) may be found in Sanxingdui, China, dating back more than 5000 years. Metal masks in gold or bronze were mounted on wood poles. It is possible that totem culture may have spread from China to the rest of the world.

Totems in Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe totems (mitupo) have been in use among the Shona people from the initial stages of their culture. The use of totems identifies the different clans that historically made up the ancient civilizations of the dynasties that ruled the Shona people from Great Zimbabwe. Most notably these symbols were associated with animal names. The purpose of the totem was meant to guard against incestuous behaviour; for the social identity of the clan; and also to praise someone in recited poetry. In contemporary Shona society there are at least 25 identifiable totems (mitupo) with at least 60 principal names (zvidawo).Every Shona clan is identified by a particular totem (mutupo) and principal praise name (chidawo). The principal praise name in this case is used to disitinguish people who have the same totem but are from different clans; for example clans that share the same totem Shumba (lion) will show their different clansmanship by using a particular praise name like Murambwe, or Nyamuziwa. The foundations of the totems are inspired in rhymes that reference the history of the totem.

The Clan is the core of every Shona chiefdom. It is a group of agnatically related kinsmen and women who trace their descent from a common founding ancestor.

See also

  • Charge (heraldry)

External links

de:Totem eo:Totemo es:Tótem ru:Тотемизм fi:Toteemi fr:Totémisme he:טוטם nl:Totem pt:Totem sv:Totem zh:图腾崇拜

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