What is Totemism? The Concept of Totem in Sociology

“Totemism” is a concept frequently encountered in the study of primal religions. So, what is totemism and when did it originate? How has totemism shaped the worldviews of indigenous communities?

What is Totem?

A “totem” is a symbol or object that represents a group of people, such as a family, tribe, or community. In many indigenous cultures, it can take the form of an animal, plant, or object of spiritual significance. This concept of totem is believed to have originated from ancient times when people began to form communities and develop a sense of identity.

In many indigenous cultures, totems are considered sacred and used in ceremonies and rituals to express each tribe’s unique character and spirit. They serve as a reminder of the beliefs, values, customs, and identity of the people.

What is Totemism? The Concept of Totem in Sociology
Totem poles are artifacts decorated with carved figures, such as animals, humans, and supernatural beings, that represent the family lineage, clan, or history of the community that created it. (Location: Vancouver, Canada)

The Meaning of Totem in Contemporary Societies

In contemporary societies, the meaning of totem has been adapted and reinterpreted in various ways. For some, it has become a symbol of identity or affiliation with a particular group or subculture. For example, sports teams often have mascots or symbols that represent their team spirit and identity, which can be seen as a form of modern totemism.

In popular culture, totems have also been depicted as magical or supernatural objects with mystical powers, such as in the Marvel Comics universe where characters like Wolverine have animalistic totems that give them their abilities.

In some contemporary spiritual practices, totems are used as a tool for personal growth and self-awareness. This might involve working with specific totems that represent different qualities or aspects of oneself, and using them as a guide for personal development.

Meaning of Totemism in Sociology

In sociology, totemism refers to a belief system in which members of a particular social group or tribe regard an object, animal, or plant as sacred and a symbol of their identity.

The meaning of totemism in sociology is often discussed in terms of the theories put forth by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim. Durkheim argued that totemism was a form of collective worship that served to reinforce social cohesion and solidarity. According to Durkheim, the totem was a representation of the group or clan’s shared identity, values, and beliefs. By worshiping the totem, members of the group could reaffirm their connection to one another and to the larger society.1

Another important theory of totemism in sociology was proposed by the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer. Frazer argued that totemism was rooted in primitive magic and that the totem represented a form of sympathetic magic. According to Frazer, the totem was believed to have magical powers that could be used to bring good fortune, fertility, and protection to the group. In this view, the totem was not just a symbol of the group’s identity, but a source of power and control over the natural world.2

In addition to Durkheim and Frazer’s theories, there have been many other interpretations of totemism in sociology. Some scholars argue that totemism is a way of relating to the natural world and that it reflects a deep reverence for the environment. Others see totemism as a form of ancestor worship or as a way of honoring the spirits of the dead. Still others view totemism as a means of regulating social behavior and maintaining social order within the group.

Origins of Totemism

There is no consensus on when totemism emerged, but there are several theories in the fields of sociology and anthropology that attempt to explain the origins of totemism.

When did totemism first appear?
Although it is not known when it first appeared, some researchers think that totemism has been practiced in primitive hunter-gatherer societies since the Paleolithic.3

One theory suggests that totemism originated as a way of identifying and distinguishing different social groups. In the Paleolithic era, people may have identified with specific animals, which would become their totems. This identification would serve as a means of distinguishing one group from another, as well as creating a sense of unity within a particular group.

Another theory suggests that totemism was born out of a need to explain the nature. In this view, the totemic animal or plant was seen as a symbol of the nature, and people would have developed stories and myths around their totems to explain the natural phenomena that they observed.

A third theory proposes that totemism developed as a way of managing resources. In this view, different groups would identify with different totems, which would in turn serve as a means of regulating access to certain resources. For example, a group that identified with a particular animal may have had special access to the hunting grounds where that animal was found.

Totemism in Indigenous Cultures

Totemism is an integral part of many indigenous cultures, representing the deep spiritual and cultural connections between these communities and the nature. An individual’s totem is usually determined by their family or clan and serves as a powerful symbol of their connection to their ancestors and the wider community. The totem is also believed to have a unique spiritual power that can be called upon for guidance, strength, or protection when needed. This connection between the individual and their totem is considered sacred and is seen as a manifestation of their bond with their ancestors.4

In addition to its spiritual significance, totemism is also used as a way of identifying and distinguishing different groups within a community. For example, in some Indigenous Australian cultures, an individual’s totemic group is determined by their birthplace and ancestry, and is often associated with a specific animal or plant. These totemic groups are believed to share the spiritual power and energy of their totems, reinforcing the importance of these sacred symbols within the community.

Grave Poles
The Tiwi people of northern Australia conduct the Pukamani ceremony using grave poles called tutini, which are not necessarily connected to totemism. Although these poles are sometimes likened to totem poles, their purpose is to assist the dead in their journey to the spirit realm. In this way, the tutini function as a guide for the souls of the deceased.
Photo: Laterthanyouthink (Wikimedia)
©️CC BY-SA 4.0

Totem and Cultural Identity

In indigenous cultures, the totem is inherited through family lines. It is believed that the totem connects individuals to their ancestors and helps them understand their place in the world.

Totemic identities are often associated with specific roles and responsibilities within the tribe or community. For instance, people belonging to a particular totemic group may be responsible for performing certain rituals or ceremonies, as well as maintaining and passing on cultural practices and traditions. Such practices reinforce the importance of totemic identity as a way of maintaining cultural continuity and preserving the knowledge of past generations.

Moreover, totems play a crucial role in establishing and reinforcing community identity. Each totemic group or tribe has its distinct set of beliefs, practices, and traditions that differentiate it from other groups or tribes within the community. By identifying with a specific totem, individuals express their sense of belonging and solidarity with their community, as well as their pride in their cultural heritage.5

Taboo and Prohibition in Totemism

In the context of totemism, taboo and prohibition refer to the cultural and social restrictions placed on certain animals, plants, or objects that are considered sacred or significant by a particular totemic group. These restrictions can take many forms, including dietary restrictions, restrictions on hunting or gathering certain resources, and limitations on the use of certain objects or materials.6

Taboo and prohibition in totemism have various functions, including social control and reinforcing group identity. Firstly, they help to reinforce the identity of a totemic group by establishing a unique set of beliefs, practices, and values that distinguish it from other groups within the larger community. By adhering to the restrictions placed on certain animals or objects, individuals within a totemic group affirm their membership in that group and their commitment to its shared beliefs and practices.

Secondly, taboo and prohibition play an important role in regulating social behavior and maintaining order within a totemic group. By restricting certain activities or behaviors, these rules help to prevent conflict and promote cooperation among group members. For example, dietary restrictions may prevent over-hunting of a particular species, ensuring that community has adequate resources in the long run.

Thirdly, taboo and prohibition can be seen as a form of respect for the natural world and the spirits that inhabit it. By treating certain animals, plants, or objects as sacred, individuals within a totemic group demonstrate their reverence for the natural world and their belief in its spiritual power.

It is important to note that taboo and prohibition can vary widely between different totemic groups, and may change over time as social and environmental conditions change. However, despite these variations, the underlying functions of taboo and prohibition in totemism remain largely the same, serving to reinforce group identity, regulate social behavior, and promote respect for the natural world.

The Spiritual Beliefs in Totemism

Central to totemism are the spiritual beliefs associated with totems, which are considered sacred symbols that represent a group or individual’s spiritual identity.

One of the most prominent spiritual beliefs in totemism is the concept of reincarnation. According to this belief, the spirits of ancestors are reborn into new bodies, often within the same totemic group or clan. This idea of reincarnation reinforces the importance of ancestral connections and the continuity of cultural traditions and practices. It is also believed that the spirit of the animal represented by a totem can be reborn in humans, and that humans can attain a higher level of spirituality by embodying the characteristics of their totem animal.

Another important spiritual belief in totemism is the idea of animism. This belief is closely linked to the concept of totems, as totem animals are seen as manifestations of the spirits of the natural world.7

In addition to these spiritual beliefs, totemism is also often associated with social structures and power dynamics within communities. For example, in some totemic societies, individuals are identified by their totem and may only marry within their totemic group. This creates a sense of social cohesion and reinforces the importance of totemic identity as a way of maintaining cultural continuity and preserving the knowledge of past generations.

  1. “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”, Émile DURKHEIM, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 9780199540129[]
  2. “The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion”, James George FRAZER, Suzeteo Enterprises, ISBN: 9781645940210[]
  3. “Totemism of the Peoples of Altai Origin”, Kuljamal Tologonovna DJAMANKULOVA, Religion and State in the Altaic World, De Gruyter, 2022. 59-64[]
  4. “Beyond Nature and Culture”, Philippe DESCOLA, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 9780226144450[]
  5. “Primitive Mentality”, Lucien LÉVY-BRUHL, Alpha Editions, 978-9354151521[]
  6. “Culture and Communication: The Logic by which Symbols Are Connected”, Edmund LEACH, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 9780521290524[]
  7. Animal Animism: Evolutionary Roots of Religious Behavior” Stewart GUTHRIE, 2002[]