Totemism is widespread and developed among the American Indians and the aborigines of Australia. Traces of it are found in South Africa, in the Polynesian Islands, and among the Dyaks of India. The original signification of one's totem was apparently that of a person's family or tribe, and in a narrower sense a person's belongings, and totemism (as it was originally conceived by anthropologists) involved a group of beliefs and customs wherein an intimate relation existed between an individual or a group of individuals and a class of natural objects known as a person or group's totem. The conviction that such an intimate union exists constitutes the religious aspect of totemism, and the customs which result therefrom form the sociological aspect. The main features in the religious aspect of totemism are shown in the rites and ceremonies performed with a view to show or to attain identity with the totem. Thus, at solemn totemic festivals the totem animal is sacrified and eaten even by its own clan.
A totem is most frequently an animal species, more rarely a plant, occasionally an inanimate object, e. g. sun, wind, rock, etc. However, there are sacred animals and plants which are not totems. In any event, the basis of totemism is the animistic conception of nature. The life revealed in living things, the forces manifested by physical objects are ascribed to spirits animating them or dwelling therein. "There is indeed nothing in nature", writes Charlevoix, "if we can believe the savages, which has not its spirit." The feeling of weakness in the midst of powers and forces greater than his own leads one to seek union with one or more of these powers. It becomes his or her guide and support; its power is added to his or hers; its life or "essence" or "mystery" becomes part of his or her very own, he or she is called by its name, and some part of its physical embodiment is viewed as his or her most valued possession, as the mark of his spirit protector and the sign of his strengthened life, i. e. his or her "medicine" or "mystery". In other words, people are endowed with the qualities of their totems.
In studying the relation of the spirit-life of the totem to the natural life of the individual, one can conceive that the latter is at times more prominent and at times the spirit-life is principally considered. In the former case, the members of the totemic clan are united, not only in the possession of the same common spirit-life, but through ties of consanguinity, by participation in a common human life, In the latter case the members of the totem clan would not of necessity be related to one another by blood, but would consider themselves relatives by a common participation in the spirit-life of the same totem. Thus one can understand why some tribes have both clan and individual totems, and again why some clans have two or more totems. Finally, in the theory that the clan totem is the natural development of the individual totem, the contention of some scholars that the term totem should be reserved to the clan totem is of little moment.
Totemism, like fetishism and shamanism, is based on animism, but differs from them in the way the spirits are conceived to enter into the lives of men and manifest their power. American Indians have always made a distinction between the spirit-life of the totem and the ordinary human life or strength of men. The former was considered sacred, mysterious, mystic, supernatural. This is shown by the terms used to designate the spirit-life, e. g. wakan of the Dakotas, orenda of the Iroquois, tlokoala of the Kwatiutl Indians. Dorsay says that an Indian's wakaned is considered inspired and as possessing supernatural power. Thus the Indian's "medicine bag" is his "mystery bag", writes Catlin, and Dr. Hoffman tells us that the young Algonquin receives from the Great Mystery the particular animal form he might adopt as his guardian mystery, and this becomes his advisor, monitor, and intercessor with the superior manidos.
The real nature of Totemism, therefore, is the conception of a twofold power or life or strength in the individual, i. e. his human life plus the spirit-life of the totem. However, the measure in which the spirit-life enters into the human life of the totemic individual varies in different culture groups, with the spirit-life holding a subordinate position in relation to the human life, with the spirit-life so prominent that the human life is absorbed by it and consequently ignored and forgotten, or with both the spirit life and the human life equally recognized but at times in a confused manner. In the first case the human element predominates and descent is reckoned by human generation. Boas wrote that the Kwatiutl Indians do not consider themselves to be descendants of the totem; they believe the totem came from an ancestor who had an adventure with an animal which he took as his totem and transmitted to his clan; and that the connexion between the totem and the clan has become so slight that it has degenerated into a crest. The Tlingit do not believe in descent from the totem, yet count the totem as their relative or protector, as e. g. Indians of the Wolf totem implore the wolves: "we are your relations, pray do not hurt us." Hence Powell's statement, that the totem of the clan is considered to be the progenitor or prototype of the clan, is not universally true.
In the case where the spirit-life is considered as absorbing the human life, the fact of human generation is ignored and forgotten. Thus, e. g. among the Aruntes human paternity is unknown. They believe that conception is the entrance of the spirit of an ancestor into the body of a woman, and that every child born is the reincarnation of an animal or plant ancestor. In the olden times the totemic ancestors were families or groups of families who lived in some definite part of the tribal territory. Some would be swans, others dogs, kangaroos, snakes, etc. They carried with them sacred stones called churinga, i. e. soul or spirit-life. Upon death the spirit-life would remain in the churinga and would haunt the place where these were. In the course of time all the camping-places, water-holes, large rocks, springs, hills, trees, etc., would be thronged with spirits of all kinds. The exact locality of these ancestral spots, with the specific kind of spirits dwelling there, was known from oral tradition. In virtue of the spirit-life, these spots were considered as related to one another in the same way that human beings are related, e. g. a soakage may be the mother's brother of a certain hill, a rock may be the father of a particular sand-hill, a tree may be the brother of a sand-hole, etc. If in passing a particular spot a woman feels the quickening of the child, she ascribes it to the fact that an ancestral spirit of that spot has at that moment entered her body. The object, e. g. stone, piece of wood, etc., that met her eye at that moment is carefully taken as the churinga of the child and placed in the secret storehouse of the tribe kept for that purpose. Thus the totem of the child will be the totem of the spot whence the churinga was taken. Hence there could be children of the same parents all possessing different totems.
In the third case, where both the spirit-life of the totem and the human life of the individual are recognized but in a confused manner, another class of beliefs and myths have gathered around totemism. North American Indians, in explanation of their origin, lose their human ancestry in the remote past to the point where it is rooted in an animal. Thus, Indians of the Wolf totem say they are descended from wolves, of the Crane totem from cranes, of the Turtle totem from turtles, etc. They believe that their ancestors were endowed with superhuman powers, or were transformed human or semi-human creatures partaking of both human and animal natures with the power of transforming themselves into animal or human shapes at will.
The phenomena of totemism were first studied by Jesuit missionaries to North America during the seventeenth century. Phenomena of the same kind were observed by travellers and missionaries in Australia. The importance of Totemism in the early history of society was first pointed out by J. F. McLennan, who proposed as a working hypothesis that the ancient nations of the world had passed through a peculiar kind of Fetishism or Animism which finds its typical representation in the totem-tribes of Australia and of North America. On these lines Robertson Smith attempted to show that Totemism lay at the root of the Semitic religions and thus was the basis of the faith now embraced by the most civilized nations of the world. This theory is now rejected by scholars. To wit, totemism does not appear as a precise stage of religious evolution exclusive of all other beliefs. Rather, it is found among races varying much in modes of living, e. g. hunting, pastoral, agricultural, and industrial, and, becoming part of their varied beliefs and customs, assumes very different forms.
Herbert Spencer classed totemism under animal-worship and explained it as evolving from the custom of naming children after natural objects and then confounding these metaphorical names or nicknames with the real objects, i. e. ancestors, and consequently paying to the animals the same reverence they paid their ancestors. Akin to the "nickname" theory of Spencer was the explanation of Lord Avebury. He viewed Totemism as nature-worship and says it arose from the practice of naming individuals and then their families after particular animals; the individuals would look upon the animals at first with interest then with respect, and at length with a sort of awe. Andrew Lang proposed the "sobriquet" theory, adopting the opinion of de la Vega that totems were names imposed by outsiders to distinguish the individuals or families from one another. Max Muller wrote, "A totem is a clan mark, then a clan name, then the name of the ancestor of the clan, and lastly the name of something worshipped by the clan." Pikler said the original germ of totemis was found not in religion but in the practical every-day needs of man. Risley also says that the totem is an ancient nickname, usually derived from some animal, of the supposed founder of the exogamous sept, now stripped of its personal association and remembered solely in virtue of the part it plays in giving effect to the rule of exogamy. In criticism it can he said that the name-theory fails to explain the intimate relation of the individual or clan to the totem, which prompted Durkheim to write, "A totem is not only a name; it is first and above all a religious principle."
The transmigration theory of totemism, advocated by G. A. Wilkin, and also by Tylor, regards the totem as the bridge over the gap between a clan of men and a species of animals, so that they "become united in kinship and mutual alliance." However, a belief in transmigration is found among peoples who show no trace of totemism, while it is unknown to the African Baganda and to most if not all of the North American Indians whose totemism is clearly marked. Hence Frazer holds that totemism and transmigration are distinct and independent. Finally, transmigration may enter into phases of totemism under the form of the reincarnation of ancestors; this, however, is not the original element but a corrupted phase found only occasionally and hence a later development.
The economic theory of totemism, proposed in accord with those anthropologists who hold that the starting-point of social organization was the necessity of procuring food, appears in two forms. Dr. A. C. Haddon maintains that totems originally were the animals or plants on which the local groups of people chiefly subsisted and after which they were named by the neighbouring groups. However, this theory fails to explain the existence of inanimate objects as totems. Again, Baldwin Spencer denies such specialization of diet between the local groups. The second form was advocated by Prof. Frazer, who, following Spencer and Gillen, taught that totemism is not so much a religious as an economic system, and held that it originated as a system of magic designed to supply a community with the necessities of life, especially food and drink. Thus each totem group performs magic ceremonies called intichiuma for the multiplication of the totem-plant or animal. Hence the prime duty of a totem clan was to provide a supply of its totem-animal or plant for consumption by the rest of the tribe, and thus ensure a plentiful supply of food. Frazer afterwards rejected this theory as too complex, and says that probably the co-operative communities of totemic magicians in Australia are developments of totemism rather than its germ. In fact, the economic theory does not account for the sense of kinship between man and animal, and the belief prevailing in places that the clan is descended from the animal.
The external soul theory was propounded earlier by Prof. Frazer, i. e., the possibility of depositing the souls of living people for safety in external objects such as animals or plants, but not knowing which individual of the species is the receptacle of his soul, the savage spares the whole species from a fear of injuring unwittingly the particular individual with which his fate is bound up. Frazer rejected this theory on the ground that it was not confirmed by subsequent research.
The conception theory is the third and last explanation of Frazer. He says that totemism has its source in ignorance of paternity, and is a primitive explanation of conception and childbirth -- i.e., that conception is due to a spirit of an ancestor entering the body of a woman, that she associates it with the object which was nearest her when the child was first felt in the womb, and that this object is regarded as the deserted receptacle of the spirit. Since the spirits of people of one particular totem are believed to congregate in one spot, and the natives know these spots, the totem of the child can easily be determined. However, this theory is based on the beliefs of the Arunta tribe in Australia. It does not explain the widespread extent of totemism.
The Manitou theory first proposed by the Jesuit missionaries to North America in the seventeenth century and revived in our day by Dr. Franz Boas, Miss Alice Fletcher, Father Morice, Mr. Hill-Tout, and J. Owen Dorsay, teaches that the manitou of the individual has developed into the totem of the clan. This can be explained in two ways. First by real inheritance, e. g. the guardian spirit of an ancestor is transmitted to his descendants. Hence the clan totem is the hereditary manitou of a family. Dr. Boas states that the guardian spirit of the North Pacific Coast becomes hereditary. Father Brun says that the Totemism of French West Africa is essentially familial in the sense of the Roman gens. Lang objects to the inheritance of the personal totem by the clan on the ground that mother descent is more primitive than paternal descent. However, the objection make the controversial and unproven assumption that totemism is primitive. Frazer says the clans would be stable and permanent even with mother descent, if the husband took up his abode with the wife's people or the wife remained at home. Morgan states that this condition is true of the Iroquois, whose clans are permanent even with mother descent. Hill-Tout writes that in North-West Canada the totem is hereditary either from father to son in the paternal right, or from the man to his sister's children in the maternal right. For even under maternal right the head of the clan is invariably a man — the elder male relative on the maternal side. Thus the founders of families and of totem-crests are as invariably men under matriarchy as under patriarchy; in the former, indirectly through the man's sister, in the latter, directly to his children. Frazer points out that among the Melanesians, where mother-kin prevails, the nearest male relative of the children is the mother's brother. And Swanton says of the Tlingit shamans that spirits descended from uncle to nephew. The great difficulty with the real inheritance theory is that it does not explain enough. If may account in places for the change of the personal totem of an ancestor into the clan totem, but it fails to tell how or why the same totem is held by different clans or tribes or stocks not connected by ties of blood-relationship. The natural explanation is that the fauna and flora of a country are substantially the same, and individuals in different parts belonging to different tribes could in the usual way acquire a totem which they would transmit to their descendants. Thus with members of the same clan there would be the same totem with consanguinity. With members of different clans having the Same totem there would not be consanguinity but a kind of relationship based in the possession of the same. Hence Dr. Fison writes of the Australians: " All men of the same generation who bear the same totem are tribally brothers, though they may belong to different and widely separated tribes." If, therefore, real inheritance be supplemented by supposed inheritance, it can be safely maintained that the clan totem, taken in its widest extent, is a development or extension of the individual totem or manitou through real or supposed inheritance. The nature of the supposed inheritance becomes clear from the following.
In its social aspect, the totem is generally taboo to the members of the clan. Generally speaking, they cannot kill it or eat its flesh except during solemn totemic ceremonies wherein a person will address an apology to his totem before killing it. The main social feature of totemism is shown in binding together the members of the totem clans. All members of the totem clan regard one another as kinsmen and brothers, and are bound to mutual help and protection. Father Brun, however, warns that although certain social institutions are placed under the protection of totemic beliefs, the social institutions as a whole are not based upon totemism. The truth is that totemism, like any other belief which enters into the life of a people, has an influence on their culture. The influence of Totemism is shown also in the birth, marriage, and death ceremonies. Thus, e. g. a child of the Ottawa deer clan on the fifth day after birth was painted with red spots or stripes in imitation of a fawn; the bride and groom in the Kolong red-dog clan of Java were rubbed before marriage with the ashes of a red-dog's bones; a member of the Amaha buffalo clan was on dying wrapped in a buffalo robe, etc.
The relation of exogamy to Totemism is a problem of great difficulty, and will not be completely solved until the origin of exogamy is definitely established. It is a fact that the custom prevails in many tribes that a man cannot marry a woman of his own totem, but must seek a wife from another totem clan. Hence many writers inferred that Totemism and exogamy existed together as different sides of the same institution. Thus Lang regards exogamy as the essential feature of Totemism. Hill-Tout takes issue with him maintaining that it is accidental or secondary, that the possession of the same totem becomes a bar to marriage only because it marks kinship by blood, which is the real bar. Lang by totem means "the hereditary totem of the exogamous clan" and admits that if we take totem in its wider extent as comprehending the "personal" totem, the "secret society" totem and the "tribal" totem, then members of these totem groups can intermarry. McLennan and Robertson Smith held that Totemism is found generally in connexion with exogamy, but must be older than exogamy. This view has been confirmed by the investigations of Spencer and Gillen among the Australian savages. They teach that Totemism is a primary and exogamy a secondary feature, and give traditions proving the existence of totems long before that of exogamous groups, and that when the latter did arise, the totems were not affected by them. Hence the exogamous class is a social organization totally different in origin and nature from the totemic clan, and not a mere extension of it, although they have crossed and blended in many places. Again Totemism and exogamy are found existing separately. Father Brun says the totemic clans of the Sudan are not exogamous. Dr. Rivers points out that the natives of Banks Islands have pure Totemism and pure exogamy existing side by side without influencing each other.
Different theories have been proposed to account for the origin of exogamy, Westermark says it arose in the aversion to marriage between blood relatives or near kin, i. e. in horror of incest. This is very probably the true solution. McLennan holds that exogamy was due originally to scarcity of women, which obliged men to seek wives from other groups, i. e. marriage by capture, and this in time grew into a custom. Durkheim derives exogamy from Totemism, and says it arose from a religious respect for the blood of a totemic clan, for the clan totem is a god and is especially in the blood. Morgan and Howitt maintain that exogamy was introduced to prevent marriage between blood relations: especially between brother and sister, which had been common in a previous state of promiscuity. Frazer says this is the true solution, that it really introduced group marriage, which is an advance to monogamy, and that the most complete record of this is the classificatory system of relationship. Lang, however, denies there is any group marriage, and says the so-called group marriage is only tribe-regulated licence. Hill-Tout writes that exogamous rules arose for political reasons by marriage treaties between the groups. Darwin denies primitive promiscuous intercourse, and says exogamy arose from the strongest male driving the other males out of the group. This is also the opinion of Lang, Atkinson, and Letourneau.