The word totemism denotes in a broad sense the complex of beliefs concerning the existence of a sort of kinship between a human group, or a single individual, and an animal or a plant serving as an emblem of this link. This relationship implies a range of rituals and taboos, especially alimentary and sexual ones, which bind those who recognize themselves as members belonging to the same totem. The word itself, in the variant totam, was used in 1791 by the English traveler J. Long to designate the link of kinship and the worship of plants and animals by the Algonquin Indians of the Ojibwa, in Eastern North America. Although the term referred to the clan totem, Long used it to describe individual totemism, that is to say, the belief in the existence of a personal link between a person and an animal (more rarely a plant), which is considered as a guardian spirit.

In anthropology, the acceptance of the notion of totemism began in the late nineteenth century and diminished at the beginning of the twentieth century. During this period scholars focused their attention especially on religious aspects of totemism, and they considered it principally as one of the most archaic forms of worship. So conceived, the idea of totemism achieved widespread fame and it was analyzed by various disciplines. Its introduction in the anthropological debate goes back to McLennan, who stressed how totemism was typified by three elements: fetishism, exogamy, and matrilineal descent. To these aspects Rivers would later add another, namely, prohibiting the group from eating the plant or the animal considered as a totem, except during certain ritual events.

While on the one hand the rapid increase of ethnographic data concerning totemism promoted their inclusion in great evolutionistic syntheses suggested by various authors, on the other it already heralded their superseding. The first important comparative exposition of known ethnographic data is due to Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy (1910), in which three different hypotheses concerning the origins of totemism are suggested. The first hypothesis states that the first form of totemism is the individual one, involving the idea that there is an external soul dwelling in animals and plants. The second hypothesis stresses the magical aspect of totemism, particularly expressed in its Australian variant. The third hypothesis stresses primitive humans’ misunderstanding about the existence of a bond between sexuality and conception, with the consequent idea that the latter could depend on the action of an animal or vegetable spirit.

In Frazer’s monumental work the arrangement of the collected ethnographic data concerning totemism aimed particularly to stress western modern rationality, in contrast to primitive thinking. One of the results of this approach was to hide a large variety of differences existing in the ethnographic data. The continuous decrease of this concern enabled scholars to stress how the variety of totemic phenomena was too wide to be ranged in a single typology. Research put forward by other scholars enabled them to identify very different phenomena, and when agreement was rare it was not easy to formulate universal hypotheses. Analogies began to be suggested with greater care, and with consideration of historical and geographical continuities and discontinuities.

Consequently, the age of major diffusion of the notion of totemism coincided with that of its major decline. In the year in which Frazer’s monumental work appeared, another author, Goldenweiser (1910), stressed that it was misleading to include such different data as social organizations by clans, their being labeled by names of plants and animals, and, finally, the belief in a real or mystical relationship between clan members and a totemic species in a single institution. All these phenomena were not always equally present. Furthermore, in many cases they were independent of one another.

The evolutionistic approach to the problem of totemism did not necessarily presuppose the comparative method. It was sufficient to assume that totemism could be one of the most archaic forms of religion. Thus Durkheim (1912) was interested only in Australian totemism, which he claimed to be its most archaic form. According to Durkheim the totem is the main symbol of the society itself. In this way his analysis of totemism becomes an illustrative example of the inextricable link between the religious and the social. Durkheim’s sociological approach was an alternative to a previous approach in which a psychological explanation concerning the creation of institutions and religious phenomena prevailed. The advance offered by this new approach was evident. Social phenomena were explained by the social itself and not by more or less imaginative conjectures about primitive thinking.

Although Durkheim’s arguments were very incisive, the psychological approach to the study of totemism received a new impulse from the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In his work Totem und Tabu (Totem and Taboo) (1912), Freud tried to establish a parallelism between the two major prohibitions concerning totemism – alimentary and sexual – and the Oedipus complex. Ethnographic data were underestimated by him in favor of the Darwinian hypothesis concerning the prehistoric existence of the so called primitive horde. Freud supposed a social scenario in which there is not yet a form of exogamy and the whole group is ruled in a despotic way by a single man, the father, who is unable to control his instincts. This despotic father claims to be the only person who has access to the females of the group. Such an intolerable situation would have triggered a violent rebellion of the sons against him. The youngest men killed the despotic father to devour him, and then they were racked with remorse. A sense of guilt for the crime committed led the sons to substitute the father with a symbolic figure, a totemic species. At the same time, the prohibition of sexual relationships with the females of the group, previously ordered by their despotic father, was spontaneously observed by them. This would be the reason for the appearance of totemism and exogamy as well.

Although in opposition to the arguments put forward by Durkheim, this purely psychological explanation of totemism formulated by Freud is to some extent similar because both authors share an evolutionistic and universalistic vision of cultural facts. A loss of interest in the notion of totemism began only when the evolutionistic perspective of analysis was abandoned. Until it was assumed as valid, the interest in totemism was assured by its presumed universalistic aspect, being considered as expressing a particular stage of human evolution. The fact that a particular and empirical form of totemism could not include any traits considered as an integral part of the totemic institution did not seem a problem. In any case, they were necessarily supposed to exist in a different stage of cultural evolution. So ethnographic evidence was considered important not so much for its local relevance as for expressing something considered as universal.

While Elkin was one of the last authors to assume that ethnographic analyses could still be developed in the direction of a more generalized interpretation of totemism, van Gennep (1920) was among the first authors to recognize that it could not be considered as a universal cultural phenomenon. This lack of universality of totemism was reasserted by some American anthropologists. Historical and relativistic methods of analyzing cultural facts gained ground in the United States. Authors such as Boas, Lowie, and Kroeber were very careful to stress the variety of ethnographic data. British functionalists such as Malinowski and above all Radcliffe Brown moved in an almost identical direction. In the latter’s work particularly there are important suggestions concerning the tendency, typical of the most archaic societies, to change animals and plants into objects of worship able to ensure well being of the group.

A turning point toward the dissolution of the notion of totemism is represented by the publication of Levi Strauss’s famous book, Le Tote misme aujourd’hui (Totemism Today) (1962), in which the author speaks of ”totemic illusion.” He stresses that totemism does not correspond to a primitive form of religion but must be understood within the broader human tendency to  classify everything in  different species. According to Levi Strauss, the core of totem ism is represented not so much by a relationship between a group and a species as by the fact that this correspondence with different species is used to conceptualize the differences between the various human groups. Thus the specific nature of totemism would consist in enabling the representation of differences between human groups by resorting to analogies taken from the natural world. Totemism can be understood only on the basis that entire systems of differences, not single elements, are compared. Through totem ism, relationships and differences among human groups are conceptualized by analogies with differences among species of animals and plants. According to Levi Strauss, this would be the most important aspect of totemism. He supports his opinion through the statement that totemic species are useful for thinking and not for eating.

The analysis of totemism proposed by Levi Strauss does not merely represent one opinion among others. It tries also to explain why the notion of totemism had an enduring life among anthropologists, despite its illusory character. According to Levi Strauss, the idea of totemism was in a certain sense a sign of the ethnocentrism included in most anthropological works. To talk about totemism meant stressing the discord represented by a kind of thinking that assumed a confusion between natural and cultural spheres, considered quite different in western cultural tradition. Despite the rightness of these observations, the intellectualistic approach adopted by the French anthropologist in his analysis of totemism on the one hand effectively synthesizes the old fashioned debate concerning the idea of totemism, while on the other it seems to discourage possible alternative ways of research undertaken by other authors. Among these, those which focus their attention on the material and moral implications of totemistic practices assume a certain importance today.

A year before the publication of Levi Strauss’s book, Raoul and Laura Makarius (1961) resumed the argument concerning the relationship between totemism and exogamy and highlighted a possible “alimentary” origin of the marriage taboo among peoples composing a single group in which meals are shared. Furthermore, the remarks proposed by Valerio Valeri (1999) assume great importance with regard to the moral relevance of totemic taboos. Valeri highlights how the “phonological” approach adopted by Levi Strauss does not allow us to appreciate the complexity of relationships between humans and animals, but merely focuses attention on less important aspects of totemism. Totemism constitutes a complex of phenomena reducible neither to an essence nor to a formalism in regard to which the conscious self representations of groups are considered as a trifling matter.


  1. Durkheim, IE. (1912) Les Formes élémentaires de la vie Alcan, Paris.
  2. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1965) Theories of Primitive Religion. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  3. Frazer, J. G. (1910) Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society. Macmillan, London.
  4. Freud, S. (1912) Totem und Tabu. Heller, Vienna.
  5. Goldenweiser, A. (1910) Totemism: An Analytical Journal of American Folklore 23: 179-293.
  6. Levi-Strauss, C. (1962) Le Totemisme aujourd’hui. Puf, Paris.
  7. McLennan, J. F. (1869 70) The Worship of Animals and Plants. Fortnightly Review 6: 407-27; 7: 194-216.
  8. Makarius, R. & Makarius, L. (1961) L’Origine de l’exogamie et du totemisme. Gallimard, Paris.
  9. Valeri, V. (1999) The Forest of Taboos: Morality, Hunting, and Identity Among the Huaulu of the Moluccas. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
  10. Van Gennep, A. (1920) L’Etat actuel du problème toté mique: Etude critique des théories sur les origines de la religion et de l’organisation sociale. Leroux, Paris.

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