The Origins of Totemism

[Thomson – Prehistoric Aegean]. “Totemism is the magico-religious system characteristic of tribal society.” [36]. Each clan of which the tribe is composed is associated with a natural object – plant or animal – or totem. Clansmen regard themselves as akin to the totem species, and descended from it. There is an annual ceremony to increase the totem in numbers. Totem members may not intermarry.

Prohibition is taboo – taboo against eating, not killing [Spencer & Gillen. (1904)]. Northern Tribes of Central Australia]. Conversely it means may not eat the species of another clan without permission.

Totemism survives most completely among the lower hunting tribes of Australia. Found in disintegrated forms in America, Africa, India, and other parts of Asia [Indo-European totemism is touched on by Frazer but ignored by Lowie]. Numerous traditions exist as survivals and relics of ideology in Europe, Semitic, and Chinese civilisations. Due to deep rooted nature of totemic practices. [Thus – Semitic totemism – Robertson Smith in Religion of the Semites (1927)]. Chinese in Granet, M. (1930) in Chinese Civilisation; India – O R. Ehrenfels in Mother Right in India (1941).

Australian totemism is the most primitive stratum. It is deduced that the present Australian form represents the original. Thus – relate original with present to an evolutionary process , thus “…the result may be accepted as an approximation to the history of totemism in general.”

The majority of Australian totems are edible species of plants and animals. The remainder are natural. [Spencer and Gillen determined 200 species of which 150 were edible]. Natural objects include stones, stars, rain, wind. Their origin is concentrated in plants and animals. The link is the edible origin of the food supply.

Ceremonies of propagation – of the totem species – occur at the opening of the breeding season at the totem centre (hunting ground of clan). The totem centre is the actual breeding ground [Spencer & Gillen; Frazer in Totemica (1937)].

Forbidden to eat but not kill. Some exceptions – clan headman in central Australia – eats a little to get totem inside. Derived from clan ancestors habitually eating totem.

Totemism – antiquity thus rudimentary hunting techniques, therefore restrictions on quest food. This means specialised diet. Totemic clan – origin – small nomadic bands travelling to breeding grounds of a particular species. Thence transformation into its opposite.

Increase ceremony – a dramatic representation of totem growth. Involves ritual practices. Mimicking practices have thus a magical essence. Magic – based – that creates illusion that actually controls. Thus “…the ideology of magic embodies the valuable truth that the external world can in fact be changed by man’s subjective attitude towards it.” [Thomson. 39].

Clan members have strong sense of affinity and identity with their own totem species [Spencer & Gillen. The Arunta]. They are their own totem thus the rise of ancestor worship in the form of the totem. [Landtman, G. Origin of the Inequality of Social Classes. 1938]. Evolution of totemism derived from the segmentation of the primitive horde. Division to gain access to other food supplies, resources.

No loss of touch – but a quantitative change. Loss of touch and a qualitative change. Hence the rise of interdependent clans. Food distribution between is cooperative. Cooperation means a taboo on appropriation of totem species. Each group or totemic clan sharing with other clans. Improvements in production leads to the loss of the totem system economic basis.

Thence – development of magical increase practices. For community benefit (Spencer & Gillen. Northern Tribes of Central Australia]. Thus “Each group became a totemic clan, sharing its products with the other clan.” [Thomson. 39]. The taboo on totem species means the cut off from the economic origin is absolute.

Then – ceremonies modified. Developed – celebrations of life events of clan ancestors (see in Central Australia. Spencer & Gillen. Northern Tribes of Central Australia]. Ceremonies to with ancestral fertilisation and transmission of clan traditions to next generation. [cultural? social heredity?]. [see Landtman; also H. Webster in Primitive Secret Societies (1932)]. Hence development of  the magico-religious system which sanctions the social structure that grew out of it.

Australian totemism – expanded to become a comprehensive theory of the natural world. Clan and world reflects the totemic model. Thus – trees, and the birds who nest in them. Water and the water-fowl and fish. [See Howitt, A. W. (1904). Native Tribes of SE Australia; A. R. Radcliffe Brown (1931), The Social Organisation of the Australian Tribes. Oceania, 1.]. [Also – R. B> Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria (1878); E. Durkheim in FPC – the world order is a reflection of the social order; Radin, P. (1942),  Indians of South America.]

In other parts of the world where society not arrested at this stage the system collapsed. Thence – survival in form of kinship sense of common descent plus exogamy and ancestor cults, and totemic myths.


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