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TOTEMISM (totem, from the Ojibwa, an Algonquin Indian language, ototeman, prob. he is a relative of mine.) Spelled variously by early scholars dodeme (Father de Smet), toden (Father Petitot), toodaim, dodaim, totam (J. K. Long). A socio-religious complex formerly thought to be an organic unity including some combination of the mythical relationship of a kin group with a species of animal, plant, other natural phenomenon (black duck’s egg, sunlit cloud), or artifact (stone ax, canoe mast); ceremonies for the increase of the species; taboos on killing or eating these except ritually; kin groups named for these: matrilineal descent; and exogamy.

Although introduced to Europeans by the 17th-cent. Jesuit missionaries to North America the first publication of the term in Eng. is generally credited to J. K. Long in 1791. The first American account was a posthumously published History of the Ojebway Indians by an Ojibwa chief named Peter Jones who died in 1856. It was J. F. McLennan, a Scotch lawyer, who brought the topic to the attention of science in a series on “The Worship of Animals and Plants” in the Fortnightly Review in 1869 and 1870.

W. Robertson Smith’s The Religion of the Semites (1894) precipitated a debate among Bible scholars with the claim “that clear traces of totemism can be found in early Israel.”

Totemism was described in many parts of the primitive world, but was most richly and dramatically manifested among aboriginal Australians. These tribes represented the most primitive cultures known. Thus, for Robertson Smith, Emile Durkheim, J. G. Frazer, Sigmund Freud, and for many encyclopedists, anthropologists, theologians, and students of comparative religion down to the 1920s, Australian totemism presented a sense of organic unity among the constituent elements of the pattern found there, with two closely related consequences: (1) the necessity of theoretical explanations for divergencies found elsewhere, and (2) the concept of a “stage” in religious evolution from which all constituent elements found individually or in combination anywhere must be derived.

Premises of inquiry were influenced by preoccupation with origins. Reconstructions of primitive totemism rested upon beliefs that contemporary savagery represented early stages of human evolution, and that all primitives were fairly alike. Totemic theory in much of the standard lit. was thus innocent of precepts of cultural diversity, relativity, and history basic to modern ethnological research. Edward B. Tylor significantly cautioned in 1899, “What I venture to protest against is the manner in which totems have been placed almost at the foundation of religion...Totemism...has been exaggerated out of all proportion to its real theological magnitude.” Other contemporaries of Robertson Smith (qt. M. O. Evans, “Totemism,” ISBE) “have opposed or abandoned the theory as applied to Israel.”

Examples of alleged Biblical indicators of totemism may be grouped under five elements.

b. Food taboos, dietary laws (Lev 11:44-47; 20:25, 26; Deut 14;) and breaking these (Isa 65:4; 66:17).

c. Matrilineal descent (Gen 22:20-24; Judg 8:19; Ruth 1:8; 2 Sam 17:25).

d. Exogamy (Judg 12:9).

e. Animal worship (Ezek 8:7-11).

Besides the absence of human descent from the totem species, ritual eating of them, and increase ceremonies for them, Biblical examples have been erroneously interpreted as the totemic elements in question. Prohibited foods do not correlate with family names, some of which represent clean and some unclean animals. The evidence cited is wholly insufficient to prove matrilineal descent, not to mention totemism, since matrilineal clans occur widely in nontotemic societies.

Important also is the methodological error of deriving totemism from the separate elements that are identified correctly. Animal names are altogether too common to infer a relationship of totemic pattern merely from the name; exogamy is a rule in all clans, totemic or not; Ezekiel 8 clearly indicates patrilocality, thus, presumably patrilineality rather than matrilineality; and worship of animals is very rare in totemic societies, also occurring in nontotemic ones. Thus, regarding totemism in the Bible one may conclude with Kautzsch (HDB, extra vol. 614f., qt. Evans, op. cit.) “the religion of Israel as it presents itself in the OT has not retained the very slightest recollection of such a state of things.”

Anthropologists have practically demolished totemism as a cultural complex. In 1916 Franz Boas called it “an artificial unit, not a natural one” and claimed that “There is no proof that all these customs belong together and are necessary elements of...a ‘totemic complex.’” Later scholars concurred (R. Lowie, 1920; A. Goldenweiser, 1931).

Modern consensus among Western anthropological structuralists is expressed by Levi-Strauss (1963): “Totemism does not constitute a phenomenon sui generis but a specific instance in the general field of relations between man and the objects of his natural environment.” They generally agree with him that “totemism is an artificial unit, existing solely in the mind of the anthropologist, to which nothing specifically corresponds in reality” and treat it as a “totemic illusion.”

Soviet anthropologists repudiate this “nihilistic point of view” (Tokarev 1966) and “continue to regard totemism as corresponding to an objective reality” (Makarius and Makarius 1967). They feel that “the bourgeois scientist is not usually able to understand fully the regularity of social phenomena; such understanding is only possible on the basis of Marxist methodology” (Tokarev 1967).


J. K. Long, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader (1791); J. F. McLennan, “The Worship of Animals and Plants,” FR, VI and VII (1869 and 1870); W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites, 2nd ed. (1894); E. B. Tylor, “Remarks On Totemism...,” JRAI, XXVIII (1899), 138-148; J. G. Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (1910); A. Goldenweiser, “Totemism, an Analytical Study,” JAF, XXIII (1910), 179-293; J. T. Driscoll, “Totemism,” CE, XIV (1912), 789-794; E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912); M. O. Evans, “Totemism,” ISBE, V (1915), 3000; F. Boas, “The Origin of Totemism,” AA, XVIII (1916), 319-326; S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1918); A. L. Kroeber, “Totem and Taboo: An Ethnologic Psychoanalysis,” AA, XXII (1920), 48-55; R. H. Lowie, Primitive Society (1920); E. S. Hartland, “Totemism,” HERE, XII (1928), 393-407; A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, “The Sociological Theory of Totemism,” Proceedings of the 4th Pacific Science Congress (1929); A. Goldenweiser, “Totemism: An Essay on Religion and Society,” in V. F. Calverton (ed.), The Making of Man (1931), 363-392; A. L. Kroeber, “Totem and Taboo in Retrospect,” AJS, XLV (1939), 446-451; M. H. Pope, “Totemism,” IDB, IV (1962), 674; C. Levi-Strauss, Totemism (1963); W. A. Lessa and E. Z. Vogt (eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, 2nd ed. (1965), 269-297; S. A. Tokarev, “The Problem of Totemism As Seen by Soviet Scholars,” CA, VII (1966), 185-188; R. M. Berndt, “Totemism,” NCE, XIV (1967), 212; R. Makarius and L. Makarius, “On Soviet Views of Totemism,” CA, VIII (1967), 258-260; S. Tokarev, “Reply,” CA, VIII (1967), 260, 261; W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semi tes, 3rd ed. with an introduction and notes by Stanley A. Cook, prolegomenon by James A. Muilenberg (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

to’-tem-iz’-m: How far the belief in totems and totemistic relationships existed in early Israel cannot be discussed at length here. Evidence of the belief in deified animal ancestors is supposed by some writers to be found in the tribal names Leah ("wild cow"?), Rachel ("ewe"), Simeon (synonymous with the Arabic sim`u, which denotes a cross between a wolf and a hyena), Hamor ("ass"), Caleb ("dog"), Zibiah ("gazelle"), etc. But these names in themselves "do not prove a totem stage in the development of Israel" (HPN, 114); philologically, the view has a shaky foundation (see, e.g. article "Leah" in 1-vol HDB).

Again, it is true that, as a rule, in totemic communities the individual may not kill or eat the name-giving object of his kin, these animals being regarded as sacred in totem worship and therefore "unclean" (taboo) as food. But the attempt to connect such personal names as Shaphan ("rock-badger"), Achbor ("mouse"), Huldah ("weasel")--all from the time of Josiah (2Ki 22:3,12,14; compare Deborah ("bee"), Gaal ("beetle"?), Told ("crimson worm," "cochineal"), Nabash ("serpent"))--with the list of unclean animals in Le 11 (see 11:5 (margin),29) and De 14 is beset with difficulties (compare, however, Isa 66:17; Eze 8:10 f), since all the names cannot possibly be explained on this ground.

See also SACRIFICE, II, 2, (4); VI, 1.

Robertson Smith (followed by Stade and Benzinger) strongly advocated the view "that clear traces of totemism can be found in early Israel" (see HDB, III, 100). G. B. Gray also seems inclined to favor the view that some of these names may be "indirectly derivative from a totem stage of society" (HDB, III, 483 f), while at the same time he recognizes that "the only question is whether other explanations are not equally satisfactory" (HPN, 105).

Other writers, such as Wellhausen, Noldeke (ZDMG, 157 f, 1886), Marti (Gesch. der israelit. Religion, 4th edition, 24), Addis (Hebrew Rel., 33 f), have opposed or abandoned theory as applied to Israel.

"Upon the whole we must conclude once more that, while it is certainly possible that Totemism once prevailed in Israel, its prevalence cannot be proved; and, above all, we must hold that the religion of Israel as it presents itself in the Old Testament has not retained the very slightest recollection of such a state of things" (Kautzsch, HDB, extra vol, 614 f; compare p. 623).

The theory is also opposed by Job. Jacobs (article "Are there Totem-Clans in the Old Testament?" in Archaeol. Review, III (1889), number 3, 145 ff); F.V. Zapletal, Der Totemismus u. die Religion Israels; and S. A. Cook, in JQR, XIV, number 55.

The evidence on either side is inconclusive, but the weight of authority is opposed to the view that totemism ever existed in Israel. What is certain is that totemism was never a potent factor, either in the early religion of Israel as an organized people, or in any of the dominant cults of the historical period as a whole (see articles "Family" in HDB, I, 850 (Bennett); "Sacrifice," HDB, IV, 331 (Paterson], and DEFILEMENT (Crannell), IMAGES, 3, 6 (Cobern), and ISRAEL, RELIGION OF, II, 1, (4) (Orelli), in this Encyclopedia).


In addition to the works cited in the text, see, for theory of the prevalence of totemism in early Israel, W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites (2nd edition, 1894), Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1903); A. F. Scot, Offering and Sacrifice (1900); and I. Benzinger, Hebraische Archaol. (1907); against, Eric Brit, 11th edition, XIII, 177, article "Hebrew Religion" (Whitehouse); Standard BD, 782; Temple DB, article "Shaphan." For a general account and discussion of totemism, see Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (1910) and The Golden Bough (3rd edition, 1907-13); Westermarck, History of Human Marriage (1891); Deans, Tales from the Totems of Hidery (1898); Lang, Myth, Ritual, Religion (new edition, 1899), The Secret of the Totem (1905), and article "Totemism" in Encyclopedia Brit, 11th edition, XXVII, with extensive bibliography; HDB, extra vol, 115; and Cymru, 1892-93, p. 137; 1893-94, p. 7.