Totem and Taboo

[Notes – Totem and Taboo. Lindsay, J.  Marxism Today, 15.7.1965].

Totemism – greatest importance – whole problem of social development. Fist investigated as a north American tribal system phenomenon. Totem is an Ojibwa word. Thus late 18th century Trader Long. Generalised by McLennan in 1869 – 1870. Taboo discovered as South Seas phenomenon and noted by Captain Cook. Modern view of taboo in Steiner, F. in Taboo (1965).

McLennan saw totemism as a stage through which mankind everywhere had passed. A belief that became general amongst anthropologists. Thus – Frazer (Totem and Exogamy) 1910, and in Anthropos (papers) 1914-18. Also A. van Gennep (L’Etat Actuel du Probleme Totemique). 1920. Tylor (1889) – too wide a term.  Goldenweiser (1910) stated totemism comprised three unrelated phenomena. This expanded by Boas and Lowie. G. Levi-Strauss (Totemism) in 1964 – approached from new angle. Based on A. P> Elkin’s Australian totemism of 1930’s. Totemism – working definition = W. H. R. Rivers (1914) is a coalescence of three elements.

Social element = connection – animal/plant (or inanimate object) – with group defined by society of class = typically linked – exogamous group or clan. Psychological element = belief – relation of kinship members of group and animal/plant. Often expressed as descent. Ritual element  = respect – animal/plant = manifested as prohibition against using/eating except on certain conditions.

Understanding the question (Lindsay) = the “…search for a consistent and complete totemic system must be made in Australia alone.”  Forms elsewhere (America, Africa, South Seas) = disintegrating totemism expected with their social bases.

Totemic system in Australia – natives = genuine Palaeolithics. Arrival = at least 8th millennium BP. Not static – despite failure to move from hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural one. Their culture = integrally Palaeolithic.

Those cultures = uniformity; inner consistency. Basic organisation = moieties plus subdivisions = tribes – organised in symmetrical sections of dual groups (simultaneously linked and opposed). Tribes – divided – matrilinear plus patrilinear systems of descent. Matrilinear = East Australia – Queensland; New South Wales; West Victoria; Eastern South Australia, plus small coastal area in south west.  Patrilinear = north west (desert to coast); north east (Queensland parts); throughout central region.

All moieties = strict marriage rules. Compel moiety member – seek spouse – another moiety. Dual organisation = taboo – against marriage in own group. A positive injunction – to marry link in opposing segment or group.

All clans = normally totemic. Thus – special relation – plant/animal. Explained by myths plus taboo against eating totem. Totemic rites – aim of multiplying totemic species. Clan = bund together by rites and beliefs. Thus totemic thinking – pervades every aspect of tribal activity. Thus – all three aspects of Rivers definition are present.

Matrilineal and Patrilineal clans = Clan – may have secondary or tertiary elements (a hierarchical scheme). Aranda = over 400 totems (60 categories). Such extension – does not affect the central significance of the main totem. Thus – Ngenmba tribe = two phatries = Ngurrawun and Mumbun. Sub-totems = subdivision of universe between White and Black Cockatoo.

Matrilineal clans = role of father is minimalized, thus “What matters is the concentration of thought and feeling on the mother”. [Lindsay, 1965]. Such clans are “…of one flesh.” Some languages – flesh (word) is same word for totem.

Patrilinear clans = do not show such intensity of union. Totem then becomes spirit or dream. Tribes totem links expressed through sites in territory. Patrilinear totemism = conceptional method of determining the totem. This is done by reference to place of conception or birth. Matrilinear totemism = earlier form. In patrilinear forms – notion of territoriality displaces that of unity in the “flesh” of mother and totem. Various forms of totemism in Australia result of – strains on systems as mother descent gives way to father descent.

Divergence of forms = As a result of territorial settlement – patrilocal forms of marriage develop into patrilinear systems – with breakdown of the original unity of mother, totem, group. Hence – regard matrilinear forms as primary. Others as deviations or expressions of disintegration. However – disintegration – not gone far, impress of original system still strong.

Agriculture has been devised = emergence of chiefs, warfare, privileged fraternities, hierarchical systems, property distinctions. Result = totem becomes crest, private property, animal familiar.

Clan to Class Society = Transitional phases – totemic matrilinear clans proper – towards the advent of class society plus full grown religion. Totemic breakdown = Polynesia. Taboo system – sanctifies individual appropriation to glorify chiefs. Totemic thinking – on verge of civilisation = animal standards, animal/half-animal gods (Egyptians); plus totemic survivals (echoes?) = Greeks?

Similarly – exogamous systems carry on in tribal societies up to the verge of city-life. Popular cults – communion by means of eating the divine animal in special circumstances (ritual protection). E.g., Dionysos the Bull and Christ the Lamb.

Summary of Totemism. Totemism = proper – only appears in Australia. Two major divisions of Australian manifestation = matrilinear and patrilinear. Tribal systems of Polynesia, North America = sub-totemic. In civilised life = totemic survivals. problems = how did the totem originate? Essential link = food supply.

Levi-Strauss = why are certain creatures chosen instead of others? Also – follows hint of Radcliffe-Brown = notion of unity of opposites – heart of totemist universe = dual organisation; exogamy etc. Primitive thinking is essentially dialectical [Lindsay, J. Short History of Culture (1962) = unity of totemic and incest taboos]. Guilt sense of shedding blood is fused with the fear of menstrual blood.

Thus – abstinence of totem eating = ritual safeguard enabling men to carry on eating or hunting other creatures. Similarly – incest taboos = exogamy, entering other women. Thus – totem and mother merge as life centres, food sources.

Completion of definition = Rivers incomplete. Must add 3 more elements = belief in group unity, totem,  mother ancestors. Dynamic, intensely felt sense of guilt – connected with blood – gives force to taboos. Method of dialectical thinking, concept of unity of opposites plus dual organisation = man and totem; group and ancestors; ancestors and nature. It follows – “Unless we thus realise the origin and nature of the totemic system, we cannot understand with any coherence the cultural phases that follow on and carry right into the phases of civilised life.” [Lindsay, 1965].


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