Totemism is that part of ANIMISM that relates to a mystical connection believed to occur between human beings and certain features of the world in which they live, especially wild animals. Totemism has sometimes been thought to be a coherent system in its own right, but it has been shown to refer only to a loose set of practices, which do not always or of necessity appear together.

The word “totem” entered the English language in the published journal of John Long (1791), an English trader who spent several years among the Ojibwa as an interpreter. Long equated the totem with the Ojibwa guardian spirit, which some later writers have held to be an error.

The concept of “totemism” received a major boost when it was presented by Emile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) as the world’s most primitive religion, based on its appearance among certain groups of Australian Aborigines. The Aranda of Central Australia claimed descent through Reincarnation from their totem animal, which led Durkheim to suggest that the idea of the totem had led to the idea of the soul. A depiction of the totem might be used to mark ritual objects, suggesting to Durkheim that the essence of the totem’s meaning lay in its evocation of a primal magical or spiritual force, called mana. The association of the totem and mana also explained why people were prohibited from eating their totem animals, Durkheim believed.

Even by the time Durkheim wrote, questions had been raised about totemism as a coherent system, identifi able as such. In Totemism (1963), anthropologist Claude Lévi- Strauss reviewed what had been written about the subject and showed just how varied were the beliefs and practices that might be classified as totemic. Social groups named after animals, taboos on eating the animal to which one “belonged,” and descent from the animal, were found widely, though not always together. Moreover, a totem was not necessarily an animal—it might be a natural phenomenon, a physical feature, even a human-made object. Totemism emerges from Lévi-Strauss’s study as a heterogeneous collection of beliefs related to some fundamental animistic ideas, that were classed together by anthropologists because they seemed to relate to the same type of things. For members of tribal societies, however, “totemism” has no recognizable meaning.

The American anthropologist Ralph Linton has written about a situation he encountered during World War I, when he belonged to the 42nd or “Rainbow” Division of the American Expeditionary Force, which shows how natural and easy it is for such practices to develop, even in modern society. Linton’s division was given its name by a staff officer because the division was composed of units from so many states that their regimental colors were as varied as those of the rainbow. It started as a nickname, but as soon as the division arrived in France, the name came into common use. When asked what division they were from, men would answer: “I am a Rainbow.”

Some five or six months after the division had got its name, it was generally agreed that a rainbow was an appropriate symbol for it—a rainbow was said to appear every time the division went into action, no matter what the weather was like at the time. Then the Rainbow Division found itself stationed alongside the 77th Division, which had its own symbol, the Statue of Liberty. Men of the Rainbow Division imitated those of the Statue of Liberty Division by beginning to wear rainbow insignia. These practices caught on, so that by the end of the war, the entire American Expeditionary Force was composed of various well-defined groups, each with its own special set of insignia, ideas and observances.

Linton identified several ways in which the behavior of the American troops was similar to that of tribal peoples:

(1) segmentation into groups conscious of their identity;
(2) the identification of each group with an animal, thing, or natural phenomenon;
(3) the use of this term as a form of address, or in conversation with strangers;
(4) the use of an emblem to signify personal or group ownership of articles;
(5) respect for the “patron” represented by the emblem; and
(6) a vague belief in the power of this patron to look out for their interests.


  • Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1965.
  • Levi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.
  • Linton, Ralph. “Totemism and the A.E.F.” American Anthropologist 26 (1924): 296–300.
  • Radin, Paul. Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin. New York: Dover Publications, 1957.
  • Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley  – September 1, 2007

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