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the practice of symbolically identifying humans with nonhuman objects (usually animals or plants). The classic case of totemism is when a clan claims an animal as a mythological ancestor: however, the term has also been used to cover a wide range of symbolic practices. Functional anthropologists, such as RADCLIFFE-BROWN, (under the influence of DURKHEIM) have explained totems in terms of their being symbols of group solidarity. FREUD, in Totem and Taboo, (1913) used the idea of a totem as a mediator between repressed culture and instinctive nature. Later, structural anthropologists, as exemplified by LÉVI-STRAUSS, focused on their capacity to express structures of difference between humans and animals. He argues that totemism, like TABOO, is yet another instance of nature being ‘good to think with’, that is to say, certain objects possess qualities that express vital features of human experience and are thus used to construct a mythology of the concrete.



in tribal societies, a system of beliefs, myths, rites, and customs deriving from the notion that a supernatural kinship exists between individual groups of people and totems—usually either animals or plants or, less commonly, natural phenomena or inanimate objects. Clan totemism is more common than individual or gender totemism. The totem, most often an animal, is an object of religious veneration for the group, usually a tribal community, that bears the totem’s name. The group’s members are therefore forbidden to hunt, kill, or eat the totem; because of their common relation to the same totem, they are also forbidden to marry one another.

A totemic group considers itself related to the totem through shared mythical ancestors, who are either half-human and half-animal or half-human and half-plant. The group believes that the totem is the bestower and protector of life’s blessings, and in that conviction it practices magic rites intended to proliferate the totem. Such rites include the ceremonial consumption of the totem’s flesh—otherwise taboo—the telling of myths, and dancing by masked tribesmen imitating the totem.

Scholars differ with respect to the origin and essential meaning of totemism. Some, including the French sociologist E. Durkheim, regard totemism as a form of religion; others, such as the contemporary French scholar C. Lévi-Strauss, reject the religious interpretation of totemism, contending that the phenomenon is merely a system of primitive classification. The English ethnographer J. Frazer, despite his extensive research on the subject, was unable to formulate any conclusions regarding the nature of totemism. According to Soviet scholars, particularly D. K. Zelenin, A. M. Zolotarev, S. A. Tokarev, S. P. Tolstov, and D. E. Khaitun, who have conducted a thorough study of the subject, totemism is a global phenomenon that appears in a particular stage of society’s development; it is one of the oldest religious systems, reflecting in fantastic form the kinship ties in primitive societies.

Totemism has been preserved most fully among the Australian aborigines. Vestiges of totemism, however, appear in all world religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.


Tokarev, S. A. Rannie formy religü i ikh razvitie. Moscow, 1964.
Khaitun, D. E. Totemizm, ego sushchnost’ i proiskhozhdenie. Stalinabad, 1958.
Frazer, J. Totemism and Exogamy, vols. 1–4. London, 1910.
Lévi-Strauss, C. Le Totémisme aujourd’hui. Paris, 1964.


References in periodicals archive ?
Like shamanism and the avunculate, totemism has also had a checkered past in the last three generations of cultural anthropology.
My own view on the animism/totemism issue us that totemism is a particular social organization of animism.
1998, << Totemism, Animism, and the Depiction of Animais >> : 181-207, in M.
At the same time when Rhys was still heavily engaged in his primary research in Tasmania, he wrote a review of the structuralist approach to Upper Palaeolithic cave art published by Leroi-Gourhan (Jones 1967), arguing that the form of the argument (that there was a binary organisation of the content and context of paintings and engravings in caves, which was related to the binary opposition between the sexes) had remarkable similarities to the structure of the argument that totemism was the underlying organisational principle of the cave art as it was known fifty years earlier.
His reluctance to use ethnographic analogy is well known and grows directly out of the above-mentioned abuses of the first five decades of the twentieth century; notably the unwarranted transplantation of hunting magic, fertility magic, and totemism from their ethnographic contexts to prehistoric ones.
Geertz uses the example of totemism here as an illustration: individuals may refer to themselves by the name of a totem animal in order to indicate their clan, which is legitimized by the power of the totem.
The result, according to Wilcken, was the mature flowering of 'poetry in the laboratory' through Totemism, The savage mind, and Mythologiques.
En 1967, l'anthropologue anglais Edmund Leach publie un recueil sur The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism.
In 1966 he supplemented it with a study of ritual, entitled Gadjari among the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia, which describes in rich detail the multiple interconnections between mythology, totemism, ritual, songs, objects and place that together serve to unify social groups separated by distance.
The animistic origin of these cults suggests the possibility that a form of totemism attaches to these beliefs.
Although working with concepts like totemism he never grasped the complexities of social organization.
1936 A Note on Djamindjung Kinship and Totemism, Oceania IV(4), 441-51.