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Totem is a term from ethnology for symbols or group badges that represent a mythical-related connection between a person or a group and a certain natural phenomenon. The natural phenomena are often animals or plants, but also mountains, rivers, springs and the like. The "relationship" refers to the characteristics or behavior of these "role models", each associated with certain rules of conduct for those who wear the totems.

The term “totem” stands for the symbol in the sense of a profane metaphor or a sacred symbol.

The Gitxsan -Stammesgruppe Western Canada has for example the following clan totems: Wolf Clan, raven clan, Frog Clan, perennials fireweed -Clan ( English Fireweed Clan ), Killer clan and Bald Eagle Clan.


Totem pole of Xe'els, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada 10.jpg

The name is derived from the Ojibwe language of southeastern Canada, in which the word ototeman (also odoodeman ) refers to siblings who are related by blood. The fur trader James Long, who stayed with the Ojibwe / Anishinabe in 1791 , carried the term to the Europeans in the form he wrote “totam”.

Long told the story of a hunter who accidentally killed a bear (or beaver?) And was asked by a vengeful bear to make a statement. Although the bear accepted the apology, the act had permanent consequences for the hunter:

"Beaver, my faith is lost, my totam is angry, I shall never be able to hunt any more."

- James Long
For example: “Beaver, I've lost my faith, my 'totam' is angry; I will never be able to hunt again. "

In the opinion of the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss Long used allegedly instead of the term nigouimes - with the "personal guardian spirits " were named the Anishinabe, the one with the vision quest was given in the form of an animal, a plant or Minerales - the term ototeman ( written by him “totam”). Since the relatives of the tribe had animal names, the early ethnologists, according to Lévi-Strauss, equated these clan identities with the mystical-religious relationships to animal spirits.

Moreover, expressions with the suffix "-totam" have different meanings even in the different Ojibwa dialects. While the Parry Island First Nation use nintotam to refer to the "blood related" clans, which are differentiated by animal names, the people of Round Lake mean "relatives of the spouse" or simply a friend. There are also no totem animals here.

Change of meaning in ethnology

Soon the term totem was arbitrarily transferred to similar phenomena in other ethnic groups, which were automatically all placed in a religious context. In ethnology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this gave rise to the idea of ​​a globally widespread totemism as a "universal primordial religion" (→ also: animistic theory of religion ). To this extent, the concept of totemism (→ main article ) is now considered outdated.

Today the term “totem” is mostly used in science in its profane meaning as a mythologically anchored badge to identify different ethnic groups or clans of an ethnic group in different cultures. This is mainly due to the influence of Lévi-Strauss.

However, some authors emphasize that the Anishinabe's idea of ​​the guardian spirit should not be viewed in isolation from clan totemism: one as the other is rooted in mythology and any conceptual separation is artificial. In this sense, the term again approximates the religious interpretation that Long had associated through his confusion.

Totem among the Anishinabe

Ototeman referred to the Anishinabe the blood relationship in a clan ( ote ). Members of the clan were not allowed to enter into sexual relations with one another as this was considered to be incest . One considered oneself to be descended from a common ( patrilinear ) ancestor and thus as related by blood. The clans were differentiated on the basis of animal names. This category was called nintotem ("family badge "). According to the traditional world view of the Anishinabe, the five clans go back to five supernatural beings of the mythical prehistoric times, who themselves were not ancestors, but rather “godfathers” of the human ancestors.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Josef F. Thiel: Totem / Totemism. In: Horst Balz, James K. Cameron, Stuart G. Hall, Brian L. Hebblethwaite, Wolfgang Janke, Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Joachim Mehlhausen, Knut Schäferdiek, Henning Schröer, Gottfried Seebaß, Hermann Spieckermann, Günter Stemberger, Konrad Stock (eds .): Theological Real Encyclopedia . Volume 33: Technology - Transcendence. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2002, ISBN 3-11-019098-2 , pp. 683-686.
  2. Markus Porsche-Ludwig, Jürgen Bellers (ed.): Handbook of the religions of the world. Volumes 1 and 2, Traugott Bautz, Nordhausen 2012, ISBN 978-3-88309-727-5 , p. 597.
  3. a b c Gerhard Kubik: Totemism: ethnopsychological research materials and interpretations from East and Central Africa 1962–2002. (= Studies on ethnopsychology and ethnopsychoanalysis. Volume 2). LIT Verlag, Münster 2004, ISBN 3-8258-6023-X , pp. 4–9.
  4. Ditmar Brock: Life in Societies: From the origins to the ancient high cultures. 1st edition. Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2006, ISBN 3-531-14927-X , p. 187.
  5. ^ Graham Harvey: Animism: Respecting the Living World. Wakefield Press, 2005, p. 165.
  6. Horst Südkamp: Cultural and Historical Studies: Totemism: Institution or Illusion? In:, online PDF document, accessed January 23, 2015, p. 33.
  7. a b Walter Hirschberg (founder), Wolfgang Müller (editor): Dictionary of Ethnology. New edition, 2nd edition. Reimer, Berlin 2005, pp. 377-378.
  8. Christian F. Feest : Animated Worlds - The religions of the Indians of North America. In: Small Library of Religions. Volume 9, Herder, Freiburg / Basel / Vienna 1998, ISBN 3-451-23849-7 , p. 70.
  9. Marvin Harris: Cultural Anthropology - A Textbook. From the American by Sylvia M. Schomburg-Scherff. Campus, Frankfurt / New York 1989, ISBN 3-593-33976-5 , pp. 292-293.
  10. Horst Südkamp: Cultural and Historical Studies: Totemism: Institution or Illusion? In:, online PDF document, accessed January 23, 2015, pp. 39–43.
  11. Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch: Animals of the Shamans: Power animals, totem and animal allies. AT Verlag, Aarau / Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-03800-524-7 , p. 61.