Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Evolution of Belief: Totemism

Did the emergence of animism go hand-in-hand with the developing brain of the human animal and its emerging tool culture? It is a reasonable question to ask. After all, humans used stone for tools and trees for shelters and boats; believing the spirits of their ancestors inhabited the tools and raw materials they used allowed them to feel closer to those who had died before. How comforting it must have been to feel that loved ones were still there, guiding the tools, helping them shape the objects they were creating …

However, it is wrong to consider early animism as ‘just a belief’. To early animists, spirits were not something that inhabited a separate spirit world, spirits were as solid as the trees and rocks they inhabited.

The next step in the evolution of belief, totemism, is more difficult to explain. But first I want to dispel a common misconception. Totem poles have nothing to do with beliefs or religions. Totem poles are a social phenomenon associated with the next stage of society – groups of families and, eventually, tribes.

Why the development of groups of families? To understand the implications we must consider what would have happened when young adults within families mated and gave birth. It is now an established fact that inbreeding causes still births, deformities and other genetic maladies. Early humans had no books or sets of rules to tell them what others had learned; learning came from trial and error. The meeting of families allowed young adults to leave their birth families and join other families in which to find a mate. This confused the issue. Humans had to observe and learn from repeated meeting of families that deformities would be less likely to appear among those who had moved on to mate with other families.

Over time, the penny dropped. It was inbreeding that caused so many still births and genetic abnormalities. In a very clever development, humans designed a means of ensuring that related humans did not mate. It was based on maternal lineage. Any children born to a mother could not mate with each other and nor could they mate with their mother. By joining together, groups of families could ensure that they retained the security of belonging to a family but could mate with those from other family groups. But how could they tell which members of which family they could or could not mate with? The answer early humans invented was the totem.

Every family within a group had a different totem and every totem was based on the mother of each family. But … stop for a moment and consider the sheer brilliance of this early development in human society. It was an enormous step to first recognise the cause of still births and deformities and then to develop a system to ensure that, as far as possible, these were eradicated. Whoever, whether a suggestion by an individual or a joint decision by one or more families within a group, first came up with the idea was a genius! And genius of this magnitude, to recognise the cause of such a monumental problem and then to invent a system to combat the problem, required a large brain. Early humans had brains like ours, they just had to learn how to use them.

Another problem soon arose from the emergence of the totem system of identifying families within a group: only so many families could claim their totem as a tree or a rock. They therefore needed a much wider base on which to claim their totems. Luckily, alternatives were in plentiful supply: the animals, birds and fish existing within the environment in which the family groups travelled. It is possible that the drawings of animals, etc. seen in caves and on rocks represents the early totems of families within a group.

Over time, there developed two types of totem, family totems and personal totems. Family totems defined the identity of the family within the group or tribe. Personal totems were used to distinguish individuals within the family. Individuals were often named after significant personality traits. For instance, a baby may be nervous and cautious like a deer or be big built like a bear or possess the ferociousness of a wolf.

With the development of these social totems came the belief that spirits could reside within animals, birds or fish. It would be comforting to think that the spirits of ancestors were still there, resident in the creature chosen as the family totem. As the family groups gradually merged into tribes, in some parts of the world the tribes also claimed an animal as representing the spirit of the tribe as a whole. However, the important thing to remember is that totems were essentially social in origin; the transference of belief in spirits inhabiting the raw materials used for tools implements into those inhabiting social totems followed later.

There are a number of commonly held misconceptions associated with totems which I wish to dispel:

  1. Totemism is not a religion. It may have led to the evolution of belief systems but totemism is essentially social.
  2. Totemism is nothing to do with worship, especially religious worship. Worship was an alien concept to those early humans.
  3. Totems have nothing to do with magic or guardian angels. The spirits associated with totems were strictly those of ancestors.

The development and evolution of totemism can be difficult to understand for those who are used to religions having an important role in modern society. In fact, the emergence of totemism seems to have little to do with belief systems at all except to show how early humans adapted their beliefs from spirits resident in raw materials, tools and implements to spirits resident in other living creatures. It is in the context of that adaptation that totemism has an important place in the evolution of belief.


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