AskDefine | Define totem

Dictionary Definition



1 a clan identified by their kinship to a common totemic object
2 emblem consisting of an object such as an animal or plant; serves as the symbol of a family or clan (especially among American Indians)

User Contributed Dictionary



Ojibwe odoodeman


  1. any natural object or living creature that serves as an emblem of a tribe, clan or family
  2. the representation of such object or creature
  3. the clan etc whose kinship is defined in reference to such an object or creature


  • Danish: totem
  • Dutch: totem
  • Finnish: toteemi
  • French: totem
  • German: Totem
  • Ido: totem
  • Portuguese: totem
  • Slovenian: totem
  • Spanish: totem
  • Vietnamese: tô-tem; vật tổ

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

A totem is any entity which watches over or assists a group of people, such as a family, clan or tribe (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition).
Totems support larger groups than the individual person. In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totemic myth.
Although the term is of Ojibwa origin, totemistic beliefs are not limited to Native American Indians. Similar totemism-like beliefs have been historically found throughout much of the world, including Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and the Arctic polar region.
In modern times, some single individuals, not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion, have chosen to adopt a personal spirit animal helper, which has special meaning to them, and refer to this as a totem. This non-traditional usage of the term is prevalent in, but not limited to, the New Age movement, and the Mythopoetic men's movement.


Totemism (derived from the root -oode- in the Ojibwe language, which referred to something kinship-related, c.f. odoodem, "his totem") is a religious belief that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. The totem is usually an animal or other naturalistic figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan.
Totemism played an active role in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religion, especially for thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated their study on primitive societies (which was an acceptable description at the time). 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 Totemisme aujourdhui (Totemism Today), Claude Lévi-Strauss shows 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. Totems are chosen arbitrarily for the sole purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system. 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. It is important to recognise that in this text the egalitarian nature of Lévi-Strauss and his work is manifested in all its force, and more importantly Lévi-Strauss diverts the interest of anthropology towards 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.' In other words there was rational interest in preserving the species. 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 saw Evan-Pritchard's work as the correct explanation.

North American totem poles

The totem poles of the Pacific Northwest of North America have many different designs (bears, birds, frogs, people, lizards, see pictogram). They have arms, wings and legs.

Possibly totemic culture in ancient China

The mysterious 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), which means "flags embroidered with animal patterns representing the barbarian tribes". Sanxingdui bronze masks and heads (radiocarbon dated circa 1200BCE) appear to have been mounted on wooden poles. It has been suggested by some that that totemic culture spread from ancient Asiatic populations to the rest of the world, although this is unlikely because totemic cultures in North America are estimated to be over 10,000 years old.
totem in Catalan: Tòtem
totem in Czech: Totem
totem in Modern Greek (1453-): Τοτέμ
totem in Danish: Totem
totem in German: Totem
totem in Spanish: Tótem
totem in Esperanto: Totemo
totem in Persian: توتم
totem in French: Totem
totem in Croatian: Totemizam
totem in Italian: Totemismo
totem in Hebrew: טוטם
totem in Kurdish: Totem
totem in Dutch: Totem
totem in Japanese: トーテム
totem in Norwegian: Totem
totem in Polish: Totem (religia)
totem in Portuguese: Totem
totem in Russian: Тотемизм
totem in Finnish: Toteemi
totem in Swedish: Totem
totem in Chinese: 圖騰

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

allegory, ancestral spirits, angel, animal kingdom, ashram, attendant godling, blood, body, breed, brood, caste, charactery, cipher, clan, class, colony, commonwealth, commune, community, control, conventional symbol, daemon, deme, demon, economic class, emblem, endogamous group, extended family, fairy godmother, familiar, familiar spirit, family, folk, genius, genius domus, genius loci, gens, good angel, good genius, guardian, guardian angel, guardian spirit, guide, house, household gods, iconology, ideogram, invisible helper, kind, kinship group, lares and penates, lares compitales, lares familiaris, lares permarini, lares praestites, lares viales, line, lineage, logogram, logotype, love knot, manes, matriclan, ministering angel, moiety, nation, nuclear family, numen, order, patriclan, penates, people, phratria, phratry, phyle, pictogram, plant kingdom, race, sept, settlement, social class, society, special providence, species, stem, stirps, stock, strain, subcaste, symbol, symbolic system, symbolism, symbolization, symbology, token, totem pole, tribe, tutelar god, tutelary, type
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