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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.
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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



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.


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