The concept of totemism as a form of religion was first formulated by John McLennan, one of the most prominent Victorian anthropologists, in an article entitled "The Worship of Animals and Plants" (1869–1870). McLennan based his concept on similarities between the beliefs and practices of native Australians on one hand, and native North Americans, especially from the northeastern United States, on the other. McLennan summarized his conclusions:
There are tribes of men (called primitive) now existing on the earth in the totem stage, each named after some animal or plant, which is its symbol or ensign, and which by the tribesmen is religiously regarded; having kinship through mothers only, and exogamy as their marriage law. In several cases, we have seen, the tribesmen believe themselves to be descended from the totem, and in every case to be, nominally at least, of its breed or species. We have seen a relation existing between the tribesmen and their totem … that might well grow into that of worshipper and god, leading to the establishment of religious ceremonials to allay the totem's just anger, or secure his continued protection. (p. 518)
McLennan had earlier theorized that the earliest stages of human kinship and marriage, once humanity had evolved out of primeval hordes, were characterized by matrilineal descent and by exogamy—a term he coined and that was arguably his most lasting contribution to anthropology—the rule that states that one must marry outside one's own kin group. Totemism, he suggested, was the earliest stage of religion, the logical companion to matrilineal descent and exogamy. The rest of his essay attempted to demonstrate that the Greek and Roman deities were anthropomorphized versions of earlier totemic animal and plant spirits.
The thesis that the worship of animals and plants was the earliest form of religion was not original to McLennan. It had been formulated over one hundred years earlier in 1760 by the French Enlightenment thinker Charles de Brosses, in a book entitled Du culte des dieux fétiches (Of the cult of the fetish gods), in which he attempted to establish parallels between ancient Egyptian religion and the contemporary religious practices of sub-Saharan Africans. However, McLennan considered fetishism to be a more general concept than totemism, which he argued was its most primitive form.
From Robertson Smith to Spencer and Gillen.
In 1889 William Robertson Smith constructed a more elaborate scenario for the origin of religion around the idea of totemism. In The Religion of the Semites, he theorized that the original form of Semitic religion (and by implication all religions) revolved around the notion of kinship between a human community, its totem species, and its god. Under normal circumstances, precisely because of such conceptions of kinship, men were forbidden to eat their totems. However, on specific ritual occasions, the totem animals were sacrificed and shared among members of the community and with their god, in an act where commensality—eating together—was literally a form of communion.
Robertson Smith's theories were a direct inspiration to those of Émile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud, but they were based on no concrete evidence and were entirely speculative. However, ten years later, the detailed ethnographic research of Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen in The Native Tribes of Central Australia appeared to lend credence to his hypothesis. Spencer and Gillen described important ceremonies called Intichiuma, which members of the clan performed in order to ensure the natural increase of particular species of animal or plant. At the end of the ceremony, initiates (women and children were rigorously excluded) consumed small portions of the sacred species. Spencer and Gillen's work also included elaborate descriptions of initiation ceremonies and of the churinga—the sacred paraphernalia of totemic groups. They also contradicted McLennan's hypothesis that totems were associated with matrilineal descent. In fact, a child did not derive his totem directly from either his mother or father, but from the spot where his mother believed him to have been conceived.
Sir James Frazer's Totemism and Exogamy (1910) was a massive, four-volume compendium of instances of totemism throughout the world. Frazer rejected MacLennan's contention that totemism was the earliest form of religion: "If religion implies, as it seems to do, an acknowledgment of the part of the worshipper that the object of his worship is superior to himself, then pure totemism cannot properly be called a religion at all, since a man looks upon his totem as his equal and friend, not at all as his superior, still less as his god" (vol. 4, p. 5). Rather, he considered totemic practices to be a form of magic, historically prior to the emergence of religion per se. The title of his book notwithstanding, Frazer also disagreed with MacLennan's contention that totemism was necessarily associated with exogamy. Although Frazer conceded that this was frequently the case, he correctly noted that later ethnographers had amassed ample cases of cultures where totemism existed without exogamy, or vice versa, and he provided different speculative explanations for the origins of both phenomena.