1902 Encyclopedia > Totemism > Totemism as a Religion

(Part 2)


Totemism as a Religion

The members of a totem clan call themselves by the name of their totem, and commonly believe themselves to be actually descended from it.

Thus the Turtle clan of the Iroquois are descended from a fat turtle, which, burdened by the weight of its shell in walking, contrived by great exertions to throw it off, and thereafter gradually developed into a man. [Footnote 467-5] The Cray-Fish clan of the Choctaws were originally cray-fish and lived underground, coming up occasionally through the mud to the surface. Once a party of Choctaws smoked them out, and, treating them kindly, taught them the Choctaw language, taught theni to walk on two legs, made them cut off their toe nails and pluck the hair from their bodies, after which they adopted them into the tribe. But the rest of their kindred, the cray-fish, are still living underground. [Footnote 467-6] The Osages are descended from a male snail and a feinale, beaver. The snail burst his shell, developed arms, feet, and legs, and became a fine tall man; after-wards he married the beaver maid. [Footnote 467-7] Some of the clans of western Australia are descended from ducks, swans, and other waterfowl. [Footnote 467-8] In Senegambia each family or clan is descended from an animal (hip tamus, scorpion, &c.) with which it counts kindred. [Footnote 467-9]

Somewhat different are the myths in which a human ancestress is said to have given birth to an animal of the totem species. Thus the Snake clan among the Moquis of Arizona are descended from a woman who gave birth to snakes. [Footnote 467-10] The Bakalai in western equatorial Africa believe that their women once gave birth to the totem animals ; one woman bronght forth a calf, others a crocodile, hippopotamus, monkey, boa, and wild pig. [Footnote 467-11]

Believing himself to be descetided from, and therefore akin to, his totem, the savage naturally treats it with respect. If it is an animal he will not, as a rule, kill nor eat it. In the Mount Gambier tribe (South Australia) "a man does not kill or use as food any of the animals of the same sub-division with himself, excepting when hunger compels; and then they express sorrow for having to eat their winyon, (friends) or tumanang (their flesh). When using the last word they touch their breasts, to indicate the close relation-ship, meaning almost a part of themselves.

To illustrate.—One day one of the blacks killed a crow. Three or four days afterwards a Boortwa (crow) named Larry died. He bad been ailing for some days, but tke killing of his wingong hastened his death. [Footnote 467-12] The tribes about the Gulf of Carpentaria greatly reverence their totems: if any one were to kill the totem animal in presence of the inan whose totem it was, the latter would say, "What for you kill that fellow ? that my father !" or "That brother,belonging to me you have killed ; why did you do it ?" [Footnote 467-13] Sir George Grey says of the western Australian tribes that a maii will never kill an animal of his kobong (totem) species if be finds it asleep ; "indeed, lie always kills it reluctantly, and never without affording it a chance to escape. This arises from the family belief that some one individual of the species is their nearest friend, to kill whom would lie a great crime, and to be carefully avoided." [Footnote 467-14] Amongst the Indians of British Columbia a man will never kill his totem animal ; if he sees another do it, he will hide his face for shame, and afterwards demand compensation for the act. Whenever one of these Indians exhibits his totem badge (as by painting it on his forehead), all persons of the same totem are bound to do honour to it by casting property before it. [Footnote 468-1] The Damaras in South Africa are divided into totem, clans, called "eandas"; and according to the clan to which they belong they refuse to partake, e.g., of an ox marked with black, white, or red spots, or ofa sheep without horns, or of draught oxen. Some of them will not even touch vessels in which such food has been cooked, and avoid even the smoke of the fire which has been used to cook it. [Footnote 468-2] The negroes of Senegambia do not eat their totems. [Footnote 468-3] The Mundas (or Mundaris) and Oraons in Bengal, who are divided into exogamous totem clans, will not kill or eat the totem animals which give their names to the clans. [Footnote 468-4] A remarkable feature of some of these Oraon totems is that they are not whole animals, but parts of animals, as the head of a tortoise, the stomach of a pig. In such cases (which are not confined to Bengal) it is of course not the whole animal, but only the special part, that the clansmen are forbidden to eat. Such totenis may be distinguished as split tolems. The Jagannáthi Kumhár in Bengal abstain from killing or injuring the totems of their respective clans, and they bow to their toteins when they meet thein. [Footnote 468-5]

When the totem is a plant the rules are such as these. A native of western Australia, whose totem is a vegetable, "may not gather it under certain circumstances and at a particular period of the year." [Footnote 468-6] An Oraon clan, whose totem is the kujrar tree, will not eat the oil of that tree, nor sit in its shade. [Footnote 468-7] The Red Maize clan of the Omahas will not eat red maize. Those of the people of Ambon and Uliase who are descended from trees may not use these trees for firewood.

The rules not to kill or eat the totem are not the only taboos ; the clansmen are often forbidden to touch the totem or any part of it, sometimes even to look at it.

Thus the Elk clan of the Omahas neither eat the flesh nor touch any part of the male elk. [Footnote 468-8] The Deer-Head clan of the Omahas may not touch the skin of any animal of the deer family, nor wear moccasins of deer skin, nor use the fat of the deer for hair-oil; but they may eat the flesh of deer. [Footnote 468-9] Of the totem clans in Bengal it is said that they "are prohibited from killing, eating, cutting, burning, carrying, using, &c.," the totem. [Footnote 468-10] The Bachuanas in South Africa, who have welldeveloped totem system, may not eat nor clothe thernselves in the skin of the totem animal. [Footnote 468-11] They even avoid, at least in some cases, to look at the totem. Thus to a man of the Bakuena (Bakwain) or Crocodile clan, it is "hateful and unlucky" to meet or gaze on a crocodile ; the sight is thought to cause inflammation of the eyes.

Sometimes the totem animal is fed or even kept alive in captivity. Among the mountaineers of Formosa each clan or village keeps its totem (serpent, leopard, &c.) in a cage. [Footnote 468-12] A Samoan clan whose totem was the eel used to present the first fruits of the taro plantations to the eels. [Footnote 468-13] Amongst the Narrinyeri in South Australia, men of the Snake clan sometimes catch snakes, pull out their teeth or sew up their months, and keep them as pets. [Footnote 468-14] In a Pigeon clan of Samoa a pigeon was carefully kept and fed. [Footnote 468-15] Amongst the Kalang in Java, whose totem is the red dog, each family as a rule keeps one of these animals, which they will on no account allow to be struck or ill-used by any oile. [Footnote 468-16]

The dead totem is mourned for and buried like a dead clansman. In Samoa, if a man of the Owl totem found a dead owl by the road side, he would sit down and weer, over it and beat his forehead with stones till the blood flowed. The bird would then be wrapped up and buried with as much ceremony as if it had been a bunian being. "This however, was not the death of the god. He was supposed to be yet alive, and incarnate in all the owls in existence." [Footnote 468-17] The generalization here implied is characteristic of totemism; it is not merely an individual but the species that is rove ren ced. The Wanika in eastern Africa look on the hyaena as one of their ancestors, and the death of an hyaena is mourned by the whole people; the mourning for a chief is said to be as nothing compared to the mourning for an hyaena. [Footnote 468-18] A tribe of southern Arabia used to bury a dead gazelle wherever they found one, and the whole tribe mourned for it seven days. [Footnote 468-19] A Californian tribe which reverenced the buzzard held an annual festival at which the chief cerenionywas the killing of a buzzard without losing a drop of its blood, It was then skinned, the feathers were preserved to in ake a sacred dress for the medicine-man, and the body was buried in holy ground anlid the lamentations of the old women, who mourned as for the loss of a relative or friend. [Footnote 468-20]

As some totem clans avoid looking at their totem, so otliers are careful not to speak of it by its proper name, but use descriptive epithets instead. The three toteins of the Delawares—the wolf, turtle, and turkey—were referred to respectively as "round foot," "crawler," and "not chowing," the last referring to the bird’s habit of swallowing its food; and the clans called themselves, not Wolves, Turtles, and Turkeys, but "Round Feet," "Crawlers," and "Those who do not chew." [Footnote 468-21] The Bear clan of the Ottawas called themselves not Bears but Big Feet. [Footnote 468-22] The object of these circumlocutions is probably to give no offence to the worshipful animal.

The penalties supposed to be incurred by acting disrespectfully to the totem are various. The Bakalai think that if a man were to eat his totem the women of his clan would miscarry and give birth to animals of the totem kind, or die of an awful disease. [Footnote 468-23] The Elk clan among the Omahas believe that if any clansman were to touch any part of the male elk, or eat its flesh or the flesh of the male deer, he would break out in boils and white spots in different parts of the body. [Footnote 468-24] The Red Maize subclan of the Omahas believe that, if they were to eat of the red maize, they would have running sores all round their mouth. [Footnote 468-25] And in general the Omahas believe that to eat of the totem, even in ignorance, would cause sickness, not only to the eater, but also to his wife and children. [Footnote 468-26] The worshippers of the Syrian goddess, whose creed was saturated with totemism, believed that if they ate a sprat or an anchovy their whole bodies would break out in ulcers, their legs would waste away, and their liver melt, or that their belly and legs would Swell up. [Footnote 468-27]

The Samoans thought it death to injure or eat their totems. The totem was supposed to take up his abode in the sininer’s body, and there to gender the very thing which he had eaten till it caused his death. [Footnote 468-28]

Thus if a Turtle mail ate of a turtle he grew very ill, and the voice of the turtle was heard in his inside saying, "He ate me; I am hilling him." [Footnote 468-29] In such cases, however, the Samoans had a mode of appeasing the angry totem. The offender himself or one of his clan was wrapped in leaves and laid in an unheated oven, as if he were about to be baked. Thus if amongst the Cuttle-Fish clan a visitor had caught a cuttle-fish and cooked it, or if a Cuttle-Fish man had been present at the eating of a cuttle-fish, the Cuttle-Fish clan met and chose a man or woman who went through the pretence of being baked. Otherwise a cuttle-fish would grow in the stomach of some of the clan and be their death. [Footnote 468-30]

In Australia, also, the punishment for eating the totem appears to have been sickness or death. [Footnote 468-31] But it is not merely the totem which is tabooed to the Australians, they have, besides, a very elaborate code of food prohibitions, which vary chiefly with age, being on the whole strictest and most extensive at puberty, and gradually relaxing, with advancing years. Thus young men are forbidden to eat the emu; if they ate it, it is thought that they would be afflicted with sores all over their bodies. [Footnote 468-32]

The relation between a man and his totem is one of mutual help and protection. If the man respects and cares for the totem, he expects that the totem will do the same by him. In Senegambia the totems, when they are dangerous animals, will not hurt their clansmen; e.g., men of the Scorpion clan affirm that scorpions (of a very deadly kind) will run over their bodies without biting them. [Footnote 469-1] A Snake clan (Ophiogenes) in Asia Minor, believin that they were descended from snakes, and that snakes were their kinsmen, submitted to a practical test the claims of any man amongst them whom they suspected of being no true clansman. They made a snake bite him; if he survived, he was a true clansman ; if he died, he was not. [Footnote 469-2] The Psylli, a Snake clan in Africa, bad a similai test of kinship ; they exposed their new-born children to snakes, and if the snakes left them unharmed or only bit without killing them, the children were legitimate ; otherwise they were bastards. [Footnote 469-3] In Senegambia, at the present day, a python is expected to visit every child of the Python clan within eight days after birth. [Footnote 469-4]

Other totem clans regard a man who has been bitten by the totem, even though he survives, as disowned by the totem, and therefore they expel him from the clan. Among the Crocodile clan of the Bechuanas, if a man has been bitten by a crocodile, or merely had water splashed over him by a crocodile’s tail, he is expelled the clan. [Footnote 469-5]

But it is not enough that the totem should merely abstain from injuring, be must positively benefit the men who put their faith in him. The Snake clan (Ophiogenes) of Asia Minor believed that if they were bitten by an adder they had only to put a snake to the wound and their totem would suck out the poison and soothe away the inflammation and the pain. [Footnote 469-6] Hence Omaha medicinemen, in curing the sick, imitate the action and voice of their (individual) totem. [Footnote 469-7] Members of the Serpent clan in Senegambia profess to heal by their touch persons who have been bitten by serpents. [Footnote 469-8] A similar profession was made in antiquity by Snake clans in Africa, Cyprus, and Italy. [Footnote 469-9]

Again, the totem gives his clansmen important information by means of omens. In the Coast Murring tribe of New South Wales each man’s totem warned him of coming danger; if his totem was a kangaroo, a kangaroo would warn him against his foes. [Footnote 469-10] The Samoan totems gave omens to their clansmen. Thus, if an owl flew before the Owl clan, as they marched to war, it was a signal to go on ; but if it flew across their path, or backwards, it was a sign to retreat. [Footnote 469-11] Some kept a tame owl on purpose to give omens in war.[Footnote 469-12]

When the conduct of the totem is not all that his clansmen could desire, they have various ways of putting pressure on him.

Thus, in harvest time, when the birds eat the corn, the Small Bird clan of the Omahas take some corn which they chew and spit over the field. This is thought to keep the birds from the crops. [Footnote 469-13] If worms infest the corn the Reptile clan of the Omahas catch some of them and pound them up with some grains of corn which have been heated. They make a soup of the mixture and eat it, believing that the corn will not be infested again, atleast for that year. [Footnote 469-14] During a fog the men of the Turtle subclan of the Omahas used to draw the figure or a turtle on the ground with its face to the south. On the head, tail, middle of the back, and on each leg were placed sinall pieces of a red breech-cloth with some tobacco. This was thought to make the fog disappear. [Footnote 469-15]

In order, apparently, to put himself more fully under the protection of the totem, the clansman is in the habit a of assimilating himself to the totem by dressing in the skin or other part of the totem animal, arranging his hair and mutilating his body so as to resemble the totem, and representing it on his body by cicatrices, tattooing, or paint.

Among, the Thlinkets on solemn occasions, such as dances, memorial festivals, and burials, individuals often appear disguised in the full form of their totem animals ; and, as a rule, each clansmail carries at least an easily recognizable part of his totem with him. [Footnote 469-16] Amougst the Omahas, the smaller boys of the Black Shoulder (Buffalo) clan wear two locks of hair in imitation of horns. [Footnote 469-17] The Small Bird clan of the Omahas "leave a little hair in front, over the forehead, for a bill, and some at the back of the heid, for the bird’s tail, with much over each ear for the wings." [Footnote 469-18] The Turtle subclan of the Omahas "cut off all the hair from a boy’s head, except six locks ; two are left on each side, one over the forehead, and one banging down the back in imitation of the legs, head, and tail of a turtle." [Footnote 469-19] The practice of knocking out the upper front teeth at puberty, which prevails in Australia and elsewhere, is, or was once, probably an imitation of the totem. The Batoka in Africa who adopt this practice say that they do so in order to be like oxen, while those who retain their teeth are like zebras. [Footnote 469-20]

The Haidas of Queen Charlotte Islands are universally tattooed, the design being in all cases the totem, executed in a conventional style. When several families of different totems live together in the same large house, a Haida chief will have all their totems tattooed on his person. [Footnote 469-21] Tribes in South America are especially distiguished by their tattoo marks, but whether these are toteill marks is not said. [Footnote 469-22] The Australians do not tattoo but raise cicatrices ; in sonic tribes these cicatrices are arranged in patterns which serve as the tribal badges, consisting of lines, dots, circles, semicircles, &c. [Footnote 469-23] According to one authority, these Australian tribal badges are sometimes representations of the totem. [Footnote 469-24]

Again, the totem is sometimes painted on the person of the clansman. This, as we have seen (p. 468), is sometimes done by the Indians of British Columbia. Among the Hurons (Wyandots) each clan has a distinctive mode of painting the face ; and, at least in the case of the chiefs at installation, this painting represents the totem. [Footnote 469-25] Among the Moquis the representatives of the clans at foot-races, dances, &c., have each a conventional representation of his totem blazoned on breast or back. [Footnote 469-26]

The clansman also affixes his totem mark as a signature to treaties and other documents, [Footnote 469-27] and paints or carves it on his weapons, but, canoe, &c.

The identification of a man with his totem appears further to have been the object of various ceremonies observed at birth, marriage, death, and on other occasions.


467-5 Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, 1883, p. 77.

467-6 Catlin, North American Indians, ii. p. 128.

467-7 Schoolcraft, The American Indians, p. 95 sq.; Lewis and Clarke, Travels to the Source of the Missouri River, London, 1815, i. p. 12.

467-8 Sir George Grey, Vocabulary of Dialects of S. W. Australia.

467-9 Revue d’Ethnographie, iii. p. 396, v. p. 81.

467-10 Bourke, Snake Dance of the Moquis of Arizona, p. 177.

467-11 Du Chaillu, Explorations in Equatorial Africa, p. 308.

467-12 Stewart in Fison and Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, p. 169.

467-13 Jour. Anthrop. Inst., xiii. p. 300.

467-14 Grey, Journals of Two Expeditions in North- lVest and Western Australia, ii. p. 228.

468-1 R. C. Mayne, British Columbia, p. 258.

468-2 C. J. Anderson, Lake Ngami, 222 sq.

468-3 Rev. d’Ethn. , iii. 396.

468-4 Dalton in Trans. Ethnolog. Soc., new series, vi. p. 36 ; Id., Ethnol. of Bengal, pp. 189, 254 ; As. Quart. Rev., July 1886, p. 76.

468-5 As. Quart. Rev., July 1886, p. 79.

468-6 Grey, Journals, ii. 228 sq.

468-7 Dalton, Ethn. of Bengal, 254 ; Id., Trans. Ethnol. Soc., vi. 36.

468-8 E. James, Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, ii. p. 47 ; Third Rep. Bur. Ethnol., p. 225.

468-9 James, loc. cit. ; Third Rep., 245.

468-10 As. Quart. Rev., July 1886.

468-11 Casalis, The Basutos, 211.

468-12 Verhandl. der Berliner Gesell. f. Anthropologie, 1882, p. (62).

468-13 Turner, Samoa, p. 71.

468-14 Native Tribes of S. Australia, p. 63.

468-15 Turner, op. cit., p. 64.

468-16 Raffles, Hist. of Java, i. p. 328, ed. 1817.

468-17 Turner, op. cit., p. 21, cf. 26, 60 sq.

468-18 Charles New, Life, Wanderings, &c., in Eastern Africa, p. 122.

468-19 Robertson Smith, Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, p.195.

468-20 Boscana, in Alfred Robinson’s Life in California, p. 291 sq.; Bancroft, Native Races of the Pacific States, iii. 1,. 168.

468-21 "Brinton, The Lenape and their Legends, p, 39; Morgan, Anc. Soc., p. 171 ; Heckewelder, p. 247.

468-22 See Acad., 27th Sept. 1884, p. 203.

468-23 Du Chaillu, Equat. Afr., p. 309.

468-24 Third Rep., 225.

468-25 Ibid., 231.

468-26 James, Exped. to the Rocky Mountains, ii. p. 50.

468-27 Plutarch, De Superst., 10; Selden, De Dis Syris, p. 269 sq., Leipsic, 1668.

468-28 Turner, Samoa, p. 17 sq.

468-29 Ibid., p. 50.

468-30 Turner, Samon, p. 31 sq.

468-31 J. A. I., xiii. p. 192.

468-32 T. L. Mitchell, Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, ii. p. 341.

469-1 Revue d’Ethnographie, iii. p. 396.

469-2 Varro in Priscian, x. 32, vol. i. p. 524, ed. Keil. For the snake descent of the clan, see Strabo, xiii. 1, 14; Aelian, N. A., xii. 39.

469-3 Varro, loc. cit.; Pliny, N. H., vii. § 14. Pliny has got it wrong end on. He says that if the snakes did not leave the children they were bastards. We may safely correct his statement by Varro’s.

469-4 Revue d’Ethnograpie, iii. p. 397.

469-5 Livingstone, South Africa, p. 255.

469-6 Strabo, xiii. 1, 14.

469-7 James, Expedition to the Rocky 31ountains, i. p. 247.

469-8 Revue d’Ethnographie, iii. p. 396.

469-9 Pliny, N. H., xxviii. 30.

469-10 J. A. I., xiii. 195 n, xvi. 46.

469-11 Turner, Samoa, 21, 24, 60.

469-12 Ibid., 25 sq.

469-13 Third Report, p. 238 sq. The idea perhaps is that the birds eat in the persons of their clansmen, and give tangible evidence that they have eaten their fill.

469-14 Third Rep., 248.

469-15 Third Report, 240.

469-16 Holmberg in Acta Soc. Scient. Fennicae, iv. 293 sq., 328 ; Petroff, Report on Population, Industries, and Resources of Alaska, p. 166.

469-17 Third Rep., 229.

469-18 Ibid., 238.

469-19 Ibid., 240.

469-20 Livingstone, South Africa, p. 532.

469-21 Geolog. Surv. of Canada, Rep. for 1878-79, pp. 108B , 135B ; Smithsonian Contrib. to Knowl., vol. xxi. No. 267, p. 3 sq.; Nature, 20th January 1887, p. 285 ; Fourth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, 1886, p. 67 sq.

469-22 Martius, Zur Ethnographie America’s, zumal Brasiliens, p. 55.

469-23 Brough Smyth, Aborigines of Victoria, i. p. xli. sq., 295, ii. 313; Eyre, Jour., ii. 333, 335; Ridley, Kamilaroi, p. 140 ; Jour. and Proc. R. Soc. N. S. Wales, 1882, p. 201.

469-24 Mr Chatfield, in Fison and Howitt, Kamilaroi and Kurnai, p. 66 n. On tattooing in connexion with totemism, see Haberlandt in Mittheil. der anthrop. Gesell. in Wien, xv. (1885) p. [53] sq.

469-25 First Rep., pp. 62, 64.

469-26 Bourke, Snake Dance, p. 229

469-27 Heckewelder, Indian Nations, p. 247.

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