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A totem 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. The totemic symbol may serve as a reminder of the kin group's ancestry or mythic past. While the term "totem" is Ojibwe in origin, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to cultures worldwide. Totemistic beliefs are found in regions of Africa, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Arctic. Contemporary neoshamanic New Age and mythopoetic men's movements not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion may appropriate "totem" terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide.
Totemism (derived from the root -oode- in the Ojibwe language, which refers to something kinship-related, c.f. odoodem, "his totem") is a religious belief that is frequently associated with animistic religions. The totem is usually an animal or other natural figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan.
Totemism was a key element of study in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religion, especially for thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated their study on Indigenous societies. 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 Totémisme aujourd’hui" (Totemism Today), the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued 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. 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. Lévi-Strauss diverts the theme of anthropology toward 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.' 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 considered Evan-Pritchard's work the correct explanation.
There are historical reasons for this resistance to the idea of an unknown part of the human psyche. Consciousness is a very recent acquisition of nature, and it is still in an "experimental" sate. It is frail, menaced by specific dangers, and easily injured. As anthropologists have noted, one of the most common mental derangements that occur among primitive people is what they call "the loss of a soul"–which means, as the name indicates, a noticeable disruption (or, more technically, a dissociation) of consciousness.
Among such people, whose consciousness is at a different level of development from ours, the "soul" (or psyche) is not felt to be a unit. Many primitives assume that a man has a "bush soul" as well as his own, and that this bush soul is incarnate in a wild animal or a tree, with which the human individual has some kind of psychic identity. This is what the distinguished French ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Brṻhl called a "mystical participation." He later retracted this term under pressure of adverse criticism, but I think his critics were wrong. It is a well-known psychological fact that an individual may have such an unconscious identity with some other person or object.
This identity takes a variety of forms among primitives. If the bush soul is that of an animal, the animal itself is considered some sort of brother to the man. A man whose brother is a crocodile, for instance, is supposed to be safe when swimming a crocodile-infested river. If the bush soul is a tree, the tree is presumed to have something like parental authority over the individual concerned. In both cases an injury to the bush soul is interpreted as an injury to the man. In some tribes is assumed that man has a number of souls; this belief expresses the feeling of some primitive individuals that they each consist of several linked but distinct units. This means that the individual's psyche is far from being safely synthesized; on the contrary, it threatens to fragment only too easily under the onslaught of unchecked emotions.
While this situation is known to us from the studies of anthropologists, it is not so irrelevant to our own advanced civilization as it might seem. We too can become dissociated and lose our identity. We can be possessed and altered by moods, or become unreasonable and unable to recall important facts about ourselves or others, so that people ask: "What the devil has got into you?" We talk about being able to "control ourselves," but self-control is a rare and remarkable virtue. We may think we have ourselves under control; yet a friend can easily tell us things about ourselves of which we have no knowledge.
The word totem comes from the Ojibway word dodaem and means "brother/sister kin". It is the archetypal symbol, animal or plant of hereditary clan affiliations. People from the same clan have the same clan totem and are considered immediate family. It is taboo to marry someone of the same clan.
The Ojibway scholar Basil H. Johnston defines dodaem, or totem, as "that from which I draw my purpose, meaning, and being," and states that "the bonds that united the Ojibway-speaking people were the totems." He further asserts that the feeling of oneness among people that occupy a vast territory is based not on political, economic, or religious considerations but on totemic symbols that "made those born under the signs one in function, birth, and purpose." This means that men and women belonging to the same totem regarded one another as brothers and sisters having kinship obligations to each other.
In North America, there is a certain feeling of affinity between a kin group or clan and its totem. There are taboos against killing clan animals, as humans are kin to the animals whose totems they represent. In some cases, totem spirits are clan protectors and the center of religious activity.
They feature many different designs (bears, birds, frogs, people, and various supernatural beings and aquatic creatures) that function as crests of families or chiefs. They recount stories owned by those families or chiefs, and/or commemorate special occasions.
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. Some scholars have suggested that totemic culture spread from ancient Asian populations to the rest of the world. Others conclude that totemism arose separately in numerous cultures; totemic cultures in North America are estimated to have been more than 10,000 years old.
A Jangseung or village guardian is a Korean totem pole usually made of wood. Jangseungs were traditionally placed at the edges of villages to mark village boundaries and frighten away demons or welcome people in. They were also worshipped as village tutelary deities. Jangseungs were usually carved in the images of janguns (equivalent to admirals or generals) and their wives. Many jangseungs are also depicted laughing but in a frightening way. Many of the villages felt that the frightening laughter of the jangseungs would frighten away the demons because the jangseungs have no fear.
In the Himalayan region as well as on the whole Tibetan plateau area and adjacent areas, certain beaded jewelry is believed to have totemistic capabilities. Tibetans in particular give much importance to heirloom beads such as dzi beads. Though dzi beads were not produced in ancient Tibet, but by an unknown culture, most ancient dzi beads are owned by Tibetans. Different protective qualities depend on design, number of eyes, damage, color, shine, etc.
The rodnidze known among the pre-Christian ancestors of the Poles is considered to have been roughly similar to the totem as mentioned above. In historical times, scholars considered that the animals and birds represented on the coats-of-arms of various Polish aristocratic clans may have been remnants of such totems (see Ślepowron coat of arms and Korwin coat of arms, possible remnants of a raven-rodnidze).
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