Brief Introduction to Totemism

The term “totamism” first appeared in the press in 1791. The merchant James Long related how an Ojibwa hunter, having “accidentally” killed a bear, was approached by an avenging bear who demanded an explanation. Although the Indian’s apology was accepted, he was disturbed, saying to Long (1791: 86-7): “Beaver, my faith is lost, my totam is angry, I will never be able to hunt again.”

On the basis of comparable reports, JF McLennan (1869) postulated a worldwide reverence for the “mystical power” of living beings, arguing that “there is no race of men who has not passed through this primitive stage of speculative belief.” The thinkers then developed an elaborate scheme linking the descent of animal ancestors, food taboos, exogamy, and “the matriarchal stage of culture” (Haddon 1902: 7n). A “totemic” community was conceived, divided into clans, each with the name of a totem or animal ancestor. Morality boiled down to two prohibitions: not eating the totem; and against marriage within the clan. For Sigmund Freud (1965 [1913]), Emile Durkheim (1965 [1912]) and James Frazer (1910), this was the first religion of humanity.

The subject puzzled theorists well into the 20th century. Radcliffe-Brown’s first functionalist theory (1952 [1929]) explained totemic “reverence” as a reflection of the economic importance of species. His second (1951) anticipated structuralism. He noted that some Australian Aboriginal tribes had matrimoi-eties called “Eaglehawk” and “Crow”. These species provided useful “totems” because they were conceptualizable, like varieties, as “opposites,” mythology that made the scavenging crow a selfish meat thief in contrast to Eaglehawk, a generous hunter.

Previously, however, Alexander Goldenweiser (1910) had concluded that the so-called “totemic” phenomena were “conglomerates of independent characteristics”, associated – if they were – only by history and chance. This attack on totemism as a valid category culminated in Claude Levi-Strauss (1969 [1962]) Totemism. Accepting that “names” can be termed “totemic,” Levi-Strauss dismissed any intrinsic relationship with food and sex taboos as a fantasy of the intolerant of the 19th century, much like the “hysteria” of contemporary medical prejudice.

In arguing this point, Totemism begins with a discussion of Long’s account from 1791. Levi-Strauss states that “all Ojibwa food taboos derive from the hackneyed system”, which is entirely different from the totemic naming system (1969 [1962]: 91). Therefore, a “Bear” man should feel free to hunt bears. Certainly Long had reported otherwise. But he must have been “confused” (p. 92). Among the Ojibwa, as elsewhere, Levi-Strauss claims that people can be named after a species without feeling guilty about eating it. He insisted that naming systems are purely “mental”: in them, species are not chosen because they are “good to eat” or “sticky”.

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