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(tō`təm), an object, usually an animal or plant (or all animals or plants of that species), that is revered by members of a particular social group because of a mystical or ritual relationship that exists with that group. The totem—or rather, the spirit it embodies—represents the bond of unity within a tribe, a clan, or some similar group. Generally, the members of the group believe that they are descended from a totem ancestor, or that they and the totem are "brothers." The totem may be regarded as a group symbol and as a protector of the members of the group. In most cases the totemic animal or plant is the object of taboo: it may be forbidden to kill or eat the sacred animal. The symbol of the totem may be tattooed on the body, engraved on weapons, pictured in masks, or (among Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest) carved on totem poles. In some cultures males have one totem and females another, but, generally speaking, totemism is associated with clans or blood relatives. Marriage between members of the same totemic group is commonly prohibited.


See J. G. Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (4 vol., 1910; repr. 1968); E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915, repr. 1965); S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1918, repr. 1960); A. Goldenweiser, History, Psychology, and Culture (1933); C. Lévi-Strauss, Totemism (tr. 1963).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


The emblem of an individual family or clan, usually represented by an animal.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



according to primitive beliefs, a natural object, whether living (for example, an animal or plant) or inanimate, that is related to a particular family group.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a totem?

In American culture, we usually think of animals carved upon a tree trunk by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest (totems were also found among ancient cultures throughout the world). These carvings of sacred animals would embody their stories and myths. Perhaps the dreamer has a story that needs to be deciphered. The type of animal on the totem pole will indicate the direction of interpretation.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


1. (in some societies, esp among North American Indians) an object, species of animal or plant, or natural phenomenon symbolizing a clan, family, etc., often having ritual associations
2. a representation of such an object
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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