Much work has been done on the study of totemism by reference to the Australian Aboriginal people by Elkin, Spencer, Gillen, and Radcliffe-Brown. Totemism is a system that provides the identity of a social group. It is dependent upon certain intimate and exclusive relationship towards a particular animal or plant. It is a worldwide phenomenon from Africa to North America. Durkheim regarded totemism as the basic principle of all religious and social life. Totem was taken to stand for the unity and solidarity of the group to which it is attached. The totemic group is usually exogamous. The particular animal is not, in the developed forms, an item of diet of the group.
Totemic rituals are thought of as maintaining the species, to provide food for another group. At the same time the totem animal is maintained and multiplied to provide food for the first group. Durkheim opined that totemic belief and ritual strengthened and symbolised the solidarity of the group. Therefore of considerable survival value. Radcliffe-Brown declared the totem animal was important to the tribe. This is so in Australia. In Africa it appears no more than as an arbitrary symbol of the social unit. Totemism provides a common body of values, beliefs, and customs, by which every individual in a particular society learns, lives, accepts, and transmits such universal, unquestionable values and assumptions that are termed by Durkheim as collective representations. Levy-Bruhl described totemism as a system of classification which is mentally necessary.
In regard to totemic classification Claude Levi-Strauss described totemism as a classificatory system. He claimed it was necessary. Totemism divided man into clans, the practice of exogamy being another method of exchange, women being the commodity. Totemism is a widely spread and important form of division, but it does not involve a real relationship between man and animals – it is an intellectual scheme in order to grasp the natural, social universe as a whole. Levi-Strauss postulated the concept of the superstructure and totemism. A system of classification that had a superstructure that was linguistic and logical in character. Name and nature were constitutive. The constitution of things were made real and recognisable for us by the act of thought. Using an apparatus of names and classes by which we thus organise our world. This gives meaning to existence and the objective world. The superstructure was the mediator between matter and the intelligible factual entities. Levi-Strauss was emphatic that the system of thinking and the superstructure were not final. Levy-Bruhl regarded that several simultaneous systems existed in different parts of the world, and that such a system was a process of change and development. At the same time the conservative superstructure resisted change. The symbolic systems of magic, religion, and totemism are therefore natural to primitive man.
A religious significance of totemism can be seen in the ‘intichiuma’ ceremony of the Australian Aborigines. This is ‘Regeneration of the Kangaroo’ is held at the sacred ceremonial stone that represents where the original, ancestral kangaroo descended into the earth ages ago. The purpose of the ceremony is to drive out in all directions the spirits of kangaroos, and thus increase their umber. The young men then hunt the kangaroos. The flesh is then divided. The ceremony therefore provides more than food. It penetrates and is penetrated by quickenings of sacrifices, prayer, communion.
With reference to the totem and tribal unity totemic religion is an expression of social solidarity. Religion is social. Its significance is the social group. Entities and gods are the tribe divinised. God and society are thus one. Rites express the collective sentiment. This sentiment is expressed in every thing that is done, such as tribal dances and meals. This expression strengthens the group.
In regards to the individual and the totem, it is seen than humans get all that makes them human from society. Religious cult and totemic ritual recreates them, imbues them, with life and it is the life of the tribe. Simultaneously the tribe is regenerated. The individual is raised above him or herself, and this makes them lead a life superior to that which they would lead as individuals. The totemites receive manhood or womanhood and their individual essence from the tribal spirit. The tribal spirit possesses them in the ceremonies and rites in this form of religion.
As for the totem and the clan Radcliffe-Brown wrote that “Whenever a society is divided into groups and there is a special relation between each group and one or more classes of objects that are usually natural species of animals or plants but may be artificial objects or parts of an animal.” The totemic groups are of various kinds. Totemism is not animal or plant worship, but more the affiliation of a group with an animal or plant species. The totemic clan is named after its totem. Members are descended from the same ancestors. The clans of the Iroquois are animal totems, such as bears, turtles, and eels. The classic examples come from Australia. The Arunta tribe has the totemic groups of Kangaroos, and the Witchetty Grubs. Radcliffe-Brown stated further that “…the wider unity and solidarity of the whole totemic group, society, as a whole through its segments stands in a ritual relation to nature as a whole.”
In New South Wales there exists sex totemism. The bat is a male totem and the tree creeper is a female totem. There exists a common relationship between totem and clan, but not all clans are totemic. Among the Australian Aborigines, where field work was carried out by Elkin, Spencer, Gillen and Radcliffe-Brown, totemism was seen to be a religious system whereby the group depended upon an intimate and exclusive relationship with an animal or plant for its identity. The totem provided the social group with its name, for example, kangaroo. The name tends to give an outward, visible sign, of supernatural force that binds the tribe together. The totem is the ancestor of the tribe, and functions as a fund of life force. It is not a one way process of dependence upon the supernatural. The totem requires sacred rituals that give strength and fecundity. Rituals maintain the life force of the totemic animal and also ensure multiplication and availability of food for other tribes.
The Kangaroo totemic group refrains from killing kangaroos, unless solemn and sacramental procedures are employed. Other tribes have their own sacred animals. This ensures that a wide range of insects, plants and animals are available. When a plentiful supply exists a ceremony is held to allow the eating of the totem. The sacredness that is inherent in the totem is therefore transferred to the people of the totemic group. Every clan member contains a mystic substance within, of which his or her soul consists, and therefore obtains a social as well as a religious status. The totem as the sacramental meal is a communion feast. The worshipper partakes of food and drink, entering into fellowship with some supernatural force. This establishes a union between man and the divine, mediated by the victim as eaten by the worshippers. Sacrifice and totemic ritual takes many forms. The men of the tribe periodically strive to enter into sacramental relations with the fountain and source of their tribal life. This is obtained by the assimilation of the sacred flesh of the species.