totem (tōˈtəm) [key], an object, usually an animal or plant (or all animals or plants of that species), that is revered by members of a particular social group because of a mystical or ritual relationship that exists with that group. The totem—or rather, the spirit it embodies—represents the bond of unity within a tribe, a clan, or some similar group. Generally, the members of the group believe that they are descended from a totem ancestor, or that they and the totem are "brothers." The totem may be regarded as a group symbol and as a protector of the members of the group. In most cases the totemic animal or plant is the object of taboo: it may be forbidden to kill or eat the sacred animal. The symbol of the totem may be tattooed on the body, engraved on weapons, pictured in masks, or (among Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest) carved on totem poles. In some cultures males have one totem and females another, but, generally speaking, totemism is associated with clans or blood relatives. Marriage between members of the same totemic group is commonly prohibited.
See J. G. Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (4 vol., 1910; repr. 1968); E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915, repr. 1965); S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1918, repr. 1960); A. Goldenweiser, History, Psychology, and Culture (1933); C. Lévi-Strauss, Totemism (tr. 1963).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.