totem, 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).

A totem is any supposed entity that watches over or assists a group of people, such as a family, clan or tribe (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition).

Totems support larger groups than the individual person. In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totemic myth.

Although the term is of Ojibwa origin, totemistic beliefs are not limited to Native American Indians. Similar totemism-like beliefs have been historically found throughout much of the world, including Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and the Arctic polar region.

In modern times, some single individuals, not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion, have chosen to adopt a personal spirit animal helper, which has special meaning to them, and refer to this as a totem. This non-traditional usage of the term is prevalent in, but not limited to, the New Age movement, and the Mythopoetic men's movement.


Totemism (derived from the root -oode- in the Ojibwe language, which referred to something kinship-related, c.f. odoodem, "his totem") is a religious belief that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. The totem is usually an animal or other naturalistic figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan.

Totemism played an active role in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religion, especially for thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated their study on primitive societies (which was an acceptable description at the time). 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.

In his essay Le Totemisme aujourdhui (Totemism Today), Claude Lévi-Strauss shows 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. Totems are chosen arbitrarily for the sole purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system. 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. It is important to recognise that in this text the egalitarian nature of Lévi-Strauss and his work is manifested in all its force, and more importantly Lévi-Strauss diverts the interest of anthropology towards the understanding of human cognition.

Lévi-Strauss looked at the ideas of Firth and Fortes, Durkheim, Malinowski, and Evans-Pritchard to reach his conclusions. Firth and Fortes argued that Totemism was based on physical or psychological similarities between the clan and the totemic animal. Malinowski proposed that it was based on empirical interest or that the totem was 'good to eat.' In other words there was rational interest in preserving the species. Finally Evans-Pritchard argued that the reason for totems was metaphoric. His work with the Nuer led him to believe that totems are a symbolic representation of the group. Lévi-Strauss saw Evan-Pritchard's work as the correct explanation.

North American totem poles

The totem poles of the Pacific Northwest of North America have many different designs (bears, birds, frogs, people, lizards, see pictogram). They have arms, wings and legs.

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. Chinese transliterates totem as tuteng (圖騰). Sanxingdui bronze masks and heads (radiocarbon dated circa 1200BCE) appear to have been mounted on wooden poles. It has been suggested by some that that totemic culture spread from ancient Asiatic populations to the rest of the world, although this is unlikely because totemic cultures in North America are estimated to be over 10,000 years old.

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.

Animals and birds appearing in historical times on the coats-of-arms of various Polish aristocratic clans are considered as possible remnants of such totems (see Ślepowron coat of arms, Korwin coat of arms, possible remnanats of a Raven-Rodnidze).

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