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Totems

Durkheim And Freud

Émile Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), emphatically rejected Frazer's claim that totemism did not constitute a religion. On the contrary, he used totemism as a case of "the simplest and most primitive religion that observation can make known to us" (1995 ed., p. 21), basing his assertion on Australian ethnography (especially Spencer and Gillen) but resorting to examples from North America and elsewhere at critical junctures of his argument. Durkheim used his analysis of totemism to demonstrate the social origins of knowledge and the underlying unity of religious, philosophical, and scientific thought. Australian social organization was quite complicated, with tribes divided and subdivided into exogamous moieties ("halves"), classes, and clans, each associated with different species, in a system that incorporated all natural phenomena. "[These] facts illuminate the manner in which the idea of genus or class took form among humans.… It was the phratries [i.e., moieties] that served as genera and the clans as species. It is because men formed groups that they were able to group things" (p. 145).

Totemism was not just a way of thinking but also of acting and feeling, organized around the separation of the domains of "sacred" and "profane" that, for Durkheim, constituted the essence of religion itself. More sacred than the totem animals themselves were the churinga, bull roarers of wood or stone with schematic representations of the totemic ancestors painted upon them. Uninitiated women and children were forbidden to see them on pain of death, and loss or destruction of one of them was considered catastrophic. But totemism was no more the literal worship of churinga than of animals and plants; rather, these were merely the symbolic representations of a force, which Durkheim called mana, that was simultaneously external and internal to the worshiper. For Durkheim, the totem was the flag of the clan, a concrete object on which the individual's allegiance was projected: ultimately, it was nothing other than society's representation of itself to its members. In this sense, religion in general and totemism in particular did not "rest upon error and falsehood" but was indeed "grounded in and express[ed] the real" (p. 2). Unlike his predecessors, Durkheim stressed the fundamental comparability of "primitive" and "modern" religious thought rather than their essential dissimilarity.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Thallophyta to ToxicologyTotems - Evolutionary Theories, Durkheim And Freud, Totem And Taboo., Critique And Elaboration, The Structural Study Of Totemism