Totem and the Practice of Totemism
A totem (Ojibwe doodem) is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. While the term totem is Ojibwe, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide, such as Africa, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Arctic. However, the traditional people of those cultures have words for their guardian spirits in their own languages, and do not call these spirits or symbols, "totems".
Contemporary neoshamanic, New Age and mythopoetic men's movements not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion have been seen to use "totem" terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide.
One thing to remember is that you cannot choose your totem spirit, rather it chooses or has already chosen you. The Spirit chooses you and they decide to whom they will reveal themselves. Much of the process of identifying your spirit animal is paying attention to both your past and your present. It is a process of developing your inner knowledge and spiritual understanding.
The totem itself is a symbol that represents this animal. This could be any number of items - a crest, a totem pole, an emblem, a small figurine, and engraved or painted stone, or anything else that depicts your animal guide.
There are hidden qualities and forces of nature that we can access if we are attuned to the natural forces around us. The animals express the spirit nature of that species and exemplify qualities we can learn from. They are psychological and spiritual symbols that convey to us qualities we are needing or lacking in our daily lives. They are a mirror of us reflecting our own innate qualities to help ourselves better understand our connection to all things. Personal power animals and the connection to animals and their wisdom are found throughout the world in many cultures. From cave paintings, ornate jewelry and carvings to countless stories and legends. Animal wisdom helps connect to our innate being. In the distant past there was no separation between man and animal. This view is reemerging as we awaken to the knowledge of the animals. We were and are inextricably linked as one. Animals, regardless of culture and location, teach us by example.
Characteristics & Meaning
Totemism is belief in the kinship of a group of people with a common totem. The word totem is derived from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) word 'odoodem' meaning "his kinship group" signifying a blood relationship. Totemism was the practice of having a natural object or animate being, such as as a bird or animal, as the emblem of a family, clan, or tribe. Totemism encompassed a system of tribal organization according to totems. A totem was believed to be mystically related to the group and therefore not to be hunted.
The term totemism has been used to characterize a cluster of traits in the religion and in the social organization of many peoples. Totemism is manifested in various forms and types in different contexts and is most often found among populations whose traditional economies relied on hunting and gathering, mixed farming with hunting and gathering, or emphasized the raising of cattle.
Although totems are often the focus of ritual behaviour, it is generally agreed that totemism is not a religion. Totemism can certainly include religious elements in varying degrees, just as it can appear conjoined with magic. Totemism is frequently mixed with different kinds of other beliefs, such as ancestor worship, ideas of the soul, or animism. Such mixtures have historically made the understanding of particular totemistic forms difficult.
The idea and concept behind Totemism is that people have a spiritual connection or kinship with creatures or objects in nature, making the practice very similar to Animism. Totemism was part of a range of beliefs of the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians of North America that also included:
Animism - Animism is a belief based on the spiritual idea that the universe, and all natural objects within the universe, have souls or spirits. It is believed that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, trees, rocks etc. - refer to Animal Totems and Power Animals Ritualism & Ceremonialism the use of ancient practises, rituals and ceremonies to further existing beliefs
Shamanism - A range of beliefs and practices regarding communication with the spiritual world in which a religious leader, like a Shaman, enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community including sickness The concepts of Totemism, Animism, Ritualism and Shamanism should all be considered to gain a full understanding of the religious beliefs of the Native American tribes who practised Totemism.
Some examples of totemism
Among the Wiradjuri, an Aboriginal people who traditionally lived in New South Wales (Australia), totem clans are divided among two subgroups and corresponding matrilineal moieties. The group totem, named “flesh,” is transmitted from the mother. In contrast to this, individual totems belong only to the medicine men and are passed on patrilineally. Such an individual totem is named bala, “spirit companion,” or jarawaijewa, “the meat (totem) that is within him.” There is a strict prohibition against eating the totem. Breach of the taboo carries with it sickness or death. It is said: “To eat your jarawaijewa is the same as if you were to eat your very own flesh or that of your father.”
The medicine man identifies himself with his personal totem. Every offense or injury against the totem has its automatic effect upon the man who commits it. It is a duty of the totem to guard the ritualist and the medicine man while he is asleep. In the case of danger or the arrival of strangers, the animal goes back into the body of the medicine man and informs him. After the death of the medicine man, the animal stands watch as a bright flickering light near the grave. The individual totem is also a helper of the medicine man. The medicine man emits the totem in his sleep or in a trance so that it can collect information for him.
In this tradition, sorcery may also be practiced by the medicine man. By singing, for instance, the medicine man can send out his totem to kill an enemy; the totem enters the chest of the enemy and devours his viscera. The transmission of the individual totem to novices is done through the father or the grandfather, who, of course, himself is also a medicine man. While the candidate lies on his back, the totem is “sung into” him. The blood relative who is transmitting the totem takes a small animal and places it on the chest of the youngster. During the singing, the animal supposedly sinks slowly into his body and finally disappears into it. The candidate is then instructed on how he has to treat the animal that is his comrade, and he is further instructed in song and the ritual concentration that is necessary to dispatch the totem from his body.
Among the Nor-Papua of New Guinea, patrilineal, exogamous groups (consanguineous sibs) are spread over several villages and are associated with animals, especially fish. They believe that they are born from totems, and they make them taboo. Children are given an opportunity to decide during their initiation whether they will respect the paternal or maternal totem. Each group of relatives has a holy place to which the totem animal brings the souls of the dead and from which the souls of children are also believed to come. Totem animals are represented in various manifestations: as spirit creatures in sacred flutes, in disguises, and in figures preserved in each man’s house. At the end of initiation ceremonies, the totems are mimicked by the members of the group.
Among the Iban of Sarawak (Malaysia), individual totemism has been the tradition. Particular persons dream of a spirit of an ancestor or a dead relative; this spirit appears in a human form, presents himself as a helper and protector, and names an animal (or sometimes an object) in which he is manifested. The Iban then observe the mannerisms of animals and recognize in the behaviour of the animals the embodiment of their protector spirit (ngarong).
Sometimes, members of the tribe also carry with them a part of such an animal. Not only this particular animal, but the whole species, is given due respect. Meals and blood offerings are also presented to the spirit animal.
Young men who wish to obtain such a protector spirit for themselves sleep on the graves of prominent persons or seek out solitude and fast so that they may dream of a helper spirit. Actually, only a few persons can name such animals as their very own. Individuals with protector spirits have also attempted to require from their descendants the respect and the taboo given the animal representing the spirit. As a rule, such descendants do not expect special help from the protector spirit, but they observe the totemistic regulations anyway.
The Birhor, a people that were traditionally residents of the jungle of Chotanagpur Plateau in the northeast Deccan (India), are organized into patrilineal, exogamous totem groups. According to one imperfect list of 37 clans, 12 are based on animals, 10 on plants, 8 on Hindu castes and localities, and the rest on objects. The totems are passed on within the group, and tales about the tribe’s origins suggest that each totem had a fortuitous connection with the birth of the ancestor of the clan.
The Birhor think that there is a temperamental or physical similarity between the members of the clan and their totems. Prohibitions or taboos are sometimes cultivated to an extreme degree. In regard to eating, killing, or destroying them, the clan totems are regarded as if they were human members of the group. Moreover, it is believed that an offense against the totems through a breach of taboo will produce a corresponding decrease in the size of the clan. If a person comes upon a dead totem animal, he must smear his forehead with oil or a red dye, but he must not actually mourn over the animal; he also does not bury it.
The close and vital relationship between the totem and the clan is shown in a definite ceremony: the yearly offering to the chief spirit of the ancestral hill. Each Birhor community has a tradition of an old settlement that is thought to be located on a hill in the area. Once a year, the men of each clan come together at an open place. The elder of the clan functions as the priest who gives the offering. A diagram with four sections is drawn on the ground with rice flour. In one of these, the elder sits while gazing in the direction of the ancestral hill. The emblem of the particular totem is placed in one of the other sections of the diagram; depending on the circumstances, this emblem could be a flower, a piece of horn or skin, a wing, or a twig. This emblem represents the clan as a whole. If an animal is needed for such a ceremony, it is provided by the members of another clan who do not hold it as a totem. The Birhor show great fear of the spirits of the ancestral hill and avoid these places as far as possible.
Among the Kpelle people of Liberia there is not only group totemism but also individual totemism. Both kinds of totems are referred to variously as “thing of possession,” “thing of birth,” or “thing of the back of men.” These phrases express the idea that the totem always accompanies, belongs to, and stands behind one as a guide and warner of dangers. The totem also punishes the breach of any taboo.
Kpelle totems include animals, plants, and natural phenomena. The kin groups that live in several villages were matrilineal at an earlier time, but during the 20th century they began to exhibit patrilineal tendencies. The group totems, especially the animal totems, are considered as the residence of the ancestors; they are respected and are given offerings. Moreover, a great role is played by individual totems that, in addition to being taboo, are also given offerings. Personal totems that are animals can be transmitted from father to son or from mother to daughter; on the other hand, individual plant totems are assigned at birth or later.
The totem also communicates magical powers. It is even believed possible to alter one’s own totem animal; further, it is considered an alter ego. Persons with the same individual totem prefer to be united in communities. The well-known leopard confederation, a secret association, seems to have grown out of such desires. Entirely different groups produce patrilineal taboo communities that are supposedly related by blood; they comprise persons of several tribes. The animals, plants, and actions made taboo by these groups are not considered as totems. In a certain respect, the individual totems in this community seem to be the basis of group totemism.
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