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The Structural Study Of Totemism

Paradoxically, Claude Lévi-Strauss began his short book Totemism (1962) with the contention that totemism as such did not really exist, comparing it to the concept of hysteria that emerged in psychology at about the same period: "once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation" (1963 ed., p. 1). Even more damning than Goldenweiser, he suggested that the very concept of "totemism" served as a mechanism for establishing a gulf between "primitive" and "civilized" humanity. Ostensibly, totemistic primitives were those who confused the boundaries between "nature" and "culture," if not worshiping animals and plants at least positing bonds of kinship between humans and nonhuman species.

In one sense, the book was an obituary, the history of an illusion. However, it ironically recouped the value of the very concept it pretended to dismiss, as can be seen in the book's most oft-cited phrase, a rejoinder to functionalist approaches: "natural species are chosen [as "totems"] not because they are 'good to eat' but because they are 'good to think'" (p. 89). Examples of so-called totemism were really instances of universal features of human thought, a theme to which Lévi-Strauss returned in The Savage Mind (1962), several chapters of which were also devoted to totems and totemism. Seen in this light, "totemism" was simply a variety of metaphorical thought—with the proviso that metaphor was an indispensable feature of human thought in general. What is more, the metaphor rested, not on the perception of intrinsic similarities, but rather on the recognition of systematic differences. In other words, if there were a Kangaroo clan and an Emu clan, this was not because members of the first clan considered themselves like kangaroos and the second clan like emus. Rather, the difference between species served as a metaphor for the difference between human groups, Nature as a metaphor for Culture.

Animal symbolism and classificatory schemes.

In a radical way, Lévi-Strauss changed the terms in which problems were phrased. (To the extent that his book sealed the death knell of the concept of "totemism," there ceased to be a single problem.) Whereas Lévi-Strauss's particular concerns were with uncovering the abstract properties of human thought lurking behind concrete instances of its application, British anthropologists were able to combine his approach with an enduring preoccupation with the dynamics of specific societies. In particular, they examined the social implications of the ways in which different cultures classified animals.

Undoubtedly the best-known example is Mary Douglas's analysis of the dietary prohibitions detailed in Leviticus Robertson Smith had suggested that the pig, along with the dog, the horse, the mouse, the dove, and some varieties of fish were offered as totemic sacrifices in early Semitic religion. Douglas suggested instead that the distinction between clean and unclean (and forbidden) animals was an artifact of a system of classification made very clear in the text, and that distinguished between the normal and the anomalous. Mammals that had cloven hooves and that chewed their cud were the typical food of pastoralists like the ancient Hebrews, a criterion that excluded the pig, just as the notion that creatures who live in the water should typically possess scales and fins excluded eels, sharks, or shrimp. But such concerns with alimentary purity accompanied a preoccupation with social purity, and especially with the maintenance of a clear boundary between Jews and Gentiles, expressed in terms of separation of the clean from the unclean.

Ralph Bulmer's analysis of the classification of the cassowary by the Karam of New Guinea took a similar approach. The cassowary, a relative of the ostrich and the emu, was not classed as a bird by the Karam. There were special rules for hunting cassowaries, who could not be shot with spear or arrow but had to be snared and bludgeoned. Live cassowaries had to be kept away from the village and fields, and usually they were cooked and eaten in the forest. Indeed, a person who killed a cassowary was ritually dangerous, and had to avoid the taro crops for a month. This attitude toward the cassowary simultaneously assimilated cassowaries to quasi-human status while highlighting the symbolic separation of the domains of the forest and the cultivated fields, a separation that in turn paralleled ambivalent relations between brother and sister. Sisters left the home village at marriage, but their children held residual rights in land; however, the brother's sons tended to view these rights ambivalently at best. This attitude was captured by the symbolism of the cassowary, which was equated with the father's sister's children.

Other work along similar lines included S. J. Tambiah's analysis of food prohibitions in Thailand and Edmund Leach's comparison of the sexual commutations of animal names in English and in highland Burma. Ultimately, such analyses represent the very antithesis of the aims of the early writing on totemism, which sought to demonstrate the illogical nature of "primitive" as opposed to modern European thought. Instead, modern anthropologists have insisted, not only on the logical nature of non-European thought, but on its deep affinities with our own modes of thinking and speaking.


Bulmer, Ralph. "Why Is the Cassowary Not a Bird? A Problem of Zoological Taxonomy among the Karam of the New Guinea Highlands." Man, n.s., 2 (1967): 5–25.

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Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen E. Fields. New York: Free Press, 1995. Originally published in 1912.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

Frazer, J. G. Totemism and Exogamy: A Treatise on Certain Early Forms of Superstition and Society. 4 vols. London: Macmillan, 1910.

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Translated by A. A. Brill. New York: Vintage, 1946. Originally published in 1913.

Goldenweiser, A. A. "Totemism: An Analytical Study." Journal of American Folk-lore 23 (1910): 179–293.

Leach, Edmund R. "Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse." In his New Directions in the Study of Language, edited by Eric H. Lenneberg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1964.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1966.

——. Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press. 1963.

Lowie, Robert. Primitive Society. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1948.

McLennan, John. "The Worship of Animals and Plants." Reprinted in his Studies in Ancient History. The Second Series: Comprising an Inquiry into the Origin of Exogamy. London and New York: Macmillan, 1896. Originally published in 1869–1870.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. Structure and Function in Primitive Society. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1952.

Smith, W. Robertson. The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions. Reprint, New York: Schocken Books, 1972. Originally published in 1889.

Spencer, Baldwin, and F. J. Gillen. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1968. Originally published in 1899.

Tambiah, S. J. "Animals Are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit." Ethnology 8 (1969): 424–459.

Robert Launay

Additional topics

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