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What is Totemism | Totemism Beliefs

Updated on March 9, 2016


Totemism is a mystical relationship of people with a plant or animal or some natural phenomena. The members who constitute a totemic group constitute a kinship unit.

Totemism Definition

According to Herbert Spencer, if a particular group or individual is protected or saved by a plant or an animal, their descendants enshrine a feeling of obedience and respect to that species. With the passage of time, this respect or obedience led to totemism.

According to Ancy Haddon, In the beginning a particular group might have lived on a particular species for their survival. This species might have also been a medium of exchange. With the passage of time, this group might have been referred to or identified with that species and thus would have led to totemism.

According to James Frazer, Primitive man might have developed a production and consumption club. In this club it was the duty of the group to preserve items meant for consumption. In this manner, the area of responsibility for preservation of certain objects was different for different groups. Each group might have been identified with the objects they collect and preserve which might have led to totemism.

Frazer also propounded certain alternative theories. In primitive people a belief existed where they thought that any harm or an attempt to life can be avoided when the human soul exists or takes refuge in another plant or animal. Because of the existence of human soul in another plant or animal, that particular species itself becomes sacred. Another theory of Frazer accounts for the lack of knowledge of how the women conceive. According to some primitive people the ancestors' souls exist in certain centers which influence the women's impregnation and conception of these ancestors again.

According to Hopkins, primitive people used to perceive the plants or animals as their parents because they take care of their hunger and other needs. From this belief totemism took shape.

According to Tylor, primitive people believe that the soul of the dead ancestor would reside in a plant or animal and the latter would protect the group. This belief might have led to totemism.

Golden Wiser: According to him two factors have led to the birth of totemism. The religious factor is the belief in the supernatural beings in some objects led to totemism. The social factor, the belief that a particular species is the protector of the group led to totemism. According to him, totemism has a psycho-social flavor.

Characteristics of Totemism

  1. The members in a society who have the common totem constitute a kin unit such as clan.
  2. Totemic groups are exogamous.
  3. Members of totemic group enshrine special emotional feelings with, the totems.
  4. Death of the totem is ceremoniously mourned.
  5. The members of a clan do not eat or kill or destroy the totem.
  6. The members conduct periodic ceremonies for the perpetuation of the totem.
  7. The members usually believe in the rebirth of the totem.


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