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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][3]

Native North American totems

Cultural flag of the Kanak community, showing a flèche

The word totem comes from the Ojibway word dodaem and means "brother/sister kin". It is the archetypal symbol, animal or plant of hereditary clan affiliations. People from the same clan have the same clan totem and are considered immediate family. It is taboo to marry someone of the same clan.

The Ojibway scholar Basil H. Johnston defines dodaem, or totem, as "that from which I draw my purpose, meaning, and being," and states that "the bonds that united the Ojibway-speaking people were the totems."[citation needed] He further asserts that the feeling of oneness among people that occupy a vast territory is based not on political, economic, or religious considerations but on totemic symbols that "made those born under the signs one in function, birth, and purpose."[citation needed] This means that men and women belonging to the same totem regarded one another as brothers and sisters having kinship obligations to each other.[citation needed]

In North America, there is a certain feeling of affinity between a kin group or clan and its totem. There are taboos against killing clan animals, as humans are kin to the animals whose totems they represent. In some cases, totem spirits are clan protectors and the center of religious activity.[4]

North American totem poles

A totem pole in Thunderbird Park, Victoria, British Columbia

Totem poles of the Pacific Northwest of North America are monumental poles of heraldry; the word totem is derived from the Ojibwe word odoodem [oˈtuːtɛm], meaning "his kinship group".

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.

Possibly totemic culture in ancient China

The Sanxingdui Culture in southern China, dating back more than 5000 years, possibly placed bronze and gold heads on totems.[citation needed] Chinese transliterates totem as tuteng (圖騰). Sanxingdui bronze masks and heads (radiocarbon dated circa 1200BCE) appear to have been mounted on wooden poles. Some scholars[citation needed] have suggested that totemic culture spread from ancient Asian populations to the rest of the world. Others conclude that totemism arose separately in numerous cultures; totemic cultures in North America are estimated to have been more than 10,000 years old.[citation needed]

Korean Jangseung

A Jangseung or village guardian is a Korean carving, usually made of wood and bearing a resemblance to the totem poles of North America. Jangseungs were traditionally placed at the edges of villages to mark village boundaries and frighten away demons or welcome people in. They were also worshipped as village tutelary deities. Jangseungs were usually carved in the images of janguns (equivalent to admirals or generals) and their wives. Many jangseungs are also depicted laughing but in a frightening way. Many of the villages felt that the frightening laughter of the jangseungs would frighten away the demons because the jangseungs have no fear.[citation needed]

Totem beads in the Himalayan region

In the Himalayan region as well as on the whole Tibetan plateau area and adjacent areas, certain beaded jewelry is believed to have totemistic capabilities. Tibetans in particular give much importance to heirloom beads such as dzi beads. Though dzi beads were not produced in ancient Tibet, but by an unknown culture, most ancient dzi beads are owned by Tibetans. Different protective qualities depend on design, number of eyes, damage, color, shine, etc.[citation needed]

The ancient Polish rodnidze

The rodnidze known among the pre-Christian ancestors of the Poles is considered to have been roughly similar to the totem as mentioned above. In historical times, scholars considered that the animals and birds represented on the coats-of-arms of various Polish aristocratic clans may have been remnants of such totems (see Ślepowron coat of arms and Korwin coat of arms, possible remnants of a raven-rodnidze).[citation needed]

Antropological perspectives

File:Chief Tantaquidgeon Totem KevinPepin.jpg
Personal Totem of Mohegan Chief Tantaquidgeon, commemorated on a plaque at Norwich, Connecticut.

Totemism (derived from the root -oode- in the Ojibwe language, which refers to something kinship-related, c.f. odoodem, "his totem") 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. Lévi-Strauss diverts the theme of anthropology toward the understanding of human cognition.[citation needed]

Carl Gustav Jung

In the chapter titled "The Importance of Dreams" in Man and His Symbols,[5] 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."[5]

Sir James George Frazer

In "The Golden Bough, a study of magic and religion" [6] (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.[7][8][9]

See also


  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. Harner, Michael The Way of the Shaman. 1980, new edition, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, ISBN 0-06-250373-1
  4. Encyclopedia of Native American Religions, page 307.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jung, Karl Gustav (1964) Man and His Symbolspp. 6-7, p. 8
  6. Frazer, J., Sir. The Golden Bough, a study of magic andreligion, 1993
  7. Maryniak, Irena. Spirit of the Totem: Religion and Myth in Soviet Fiction, 1964-1988, MHRA, 1995
  8. Nikoletseas, Michael. M. (2012). The Iliad: The Male Totem. ISBN 978-1482069006.
  9. Berg, Henk de. Freud's Theory and Its Use in Literary and Cultural Studies: An Introduction.Camden House, 2004

External links