According to old school anthropology, a totem is a symbol that represents a spiritual ancestor for a group in aboriginal Australia and North America. The totem usually takes the form of an animal or sacred plant. Normally there are taboos against slaying or eating the totem.
More recently, definitions of the totem have broadened to include the entire globe. Wikipedia says:
A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. The totemic symbol may serve as a reminder of the kin group’s ancestry or mythic past. While the term “totem” is Ojibwe in origin, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to cultures worldwide.¹
Not to be confused with the totem pole, most thinkers probably project their own ideas onto the meaning of the totem. For instance, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim said the totem is nothing more than an emblematic center for a social group. For Durkheim, the aboriginal’s belief in ancestral spirits is spurious but the totem plays a crucial role in ensuring the social cohesion of the clan. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to know if the belief in ancestral spirits is somewhat misguided or genuine. But to dismiss it outright seems arrogant.
Sigmund Freud used the idea of totem to create a fanciful history of mankind that apparently supports his theories about the Oedipus Complex and the development of the superego. Today, Freud’s history isn’t taken too seriously, except, perhaps, by ardent Freudian psychoanalysists.
Anthropologists have advanced so many different ideas about the totem that one leading anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, questions the validity of the term.
However, the many and conflicting interpretations of the totem have raised some important questions:
- Can one cultural system really understand another?
- Do all members of a given culture hold the same beliefs?
- What is a cultural system?
- Could a researcher answer the above questions with any kind of certainty?