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Totemism (Part 1)

The word totem itself can be etymologically traced back to the Ojibwe word ‘ototem‘, the meaning of which can be roughly translated to “he is a relative of mine.”  Ototem, then is a good way to start with understanding the spiritual beliefs behind the practice of totemism in both its social and personal forms.

In ancient belief it was seen that the distinction between human and animal was one of recent invention – prior the forms had been fluid, subject to change and alteration.  In this manner, it was viewed only as logical that a Clan could trace its lineage back to the Lion or the Crow or any number of various creatures.  The Clan name would be that of the animal, and generally it was seem as simply a surname, a tool to assist in maintaining exogenous relations and keeping track of everyone in the day to day.  The distinction had meaning, and a meaning that was well-established even between the Clans – the meaning, however, was certainly not especially personal.

The personal importance of the totem generally came into being once a person hit puberty.  It was then that they would be sent on a journey to discover the animal that was their own.  Those who had visions, who saw or communed with their animal, were given the higher positions within the group whereas those who did not were not held in such high respect.  The creature the teens would come back seeing in many ways embodied characteristics that they themselves held or desired, whether subconsciously or consciously.  It has been postulated that due to growing up in an environment that immersed itself with stories of these animals, the children were then predisposed towards choosing what creature was closest to them either consciously or subconsciously.  Which leads to the question of what a totem is:

The psychological aspect of a totem is one that has already been lightly touched upon.  People who are prone to totemic beliefs are generally those who have grown up in an environment where they are likely to be exposed to stories about these animals.  The animals, then, take on the psychological role of what the person is seeking to find, either inside or outside themselves.  In relating to the animals, they are then leaving themselves open to the suggestion that the animal is part of the identity that they may hold for themselves.

Joseph Campbell has spoken of totems as being the embodiment of archetypes – something that is easy to see through the traits each animal is supposed to posses.  In the times when totemism arose it was vital to survival to understand the workings of nature itself.  How the predator could ambush the prey.. and what response the prey was likely to use in such a situation.  The invisibility of the fox was something to be witnessed by the animals relative scarcity in the Northern Plains whereas the playfulness of the fox was emphasized in Japan where the fox was fairly present, invisibility still in essence but downplayed heavily.

Another way that the archetypal nature of animal totems can be seen is through the totems that people often find themselves choosing.  Wolves, Bears, and other large prey animals abound and the relation that people hold to these animals can be viewed in part due to what they have come to represent.  In the mindset of the majority of people these animals are seen as the ones that primarily symbolize “the wildness of nature” and “strength” which is what people tend to expect to find within their totems now – as opposed to the personality characteristics which previously were embodied by the animals.