Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Relics 'n' Cultures - The Totem

Here we go again with Relics ‘n’ Cultures, Discovering something about mystical object from all over the world. Today’s object is very well known around the globe and has a lot of meanings, some more special than others.  And personally, I think these particular symbols have a very intriguing design. Be ready to discover the many faces of the Totem.

First of all, what actually is a Totem? A totem is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that used to represent a family, a clan, a lineage, or, most commonly, a tribe. This mystical symbol was used as a reminder of the ancestry or past histories of the clan. While the term "totem" is Ojibwe in origin, belief in guide spirits and objectified gods is not limited to indigenous peoples of the North Americas,  but common to a huge variety of cultures worldwide. Totems can be found in regions of Africa, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Europe, and even the Arctic.

Let’s start from the Native North Americans. As we just said, the word totem comes from the Ojibwe word “dodaem” and means "brother/sister kin". It is the archetypal symbol, animal or plant of hereditary clan affiliations. People from the same clan have the same clan totem and are considered part of the same family. The Ojibwe expert  Basil H. Johnston defines dodaem as:

The bonds that united the Ojibwe-speaking people. The feeling of oneness among people that occupy a vast territory is based not on political, economic, or religious considerations but on totemic symbols that made those born under the signs one in function, birth, and purpose. This means that men and women belonging to the same totem regarded one another as brothers and sisters having kinship obligations to each other.

The extraordinary thing is precisely the profound significance of this object . The mere fact of being born under a totem made other people with the same one to treat you like a real blood relative. This is an ancient prelude to what we nowadays call the “community”. Like brothers of different mothers.

So, in North America, there is a deep relationship between a kin group and its totem. There are severe rules against killing the totem animals, as humans are related with the animals represented on the pole. In some cases, totem spirits (generally the animals but also human forms) are the clan protectors, crests or chiefs and the center of religious worshiping. All the different designs (bears, birds, frogs, people, and various supernatural beings and aquatic creatures) recount old stories owned by those families, and commemorated in special occasions. Carvings an eagle, for example,  should mean pride in the tribe.

Carving artworks into totem poles was a very expressive work for many Native American Indians. But you would say that all Indian tribes carved totem poles, but this is not completely true.  In fact, Indians living in the Southwest, the plains and Inuit Indians didn’t have any mighty trees to carve. Long ago totem poles were found to stand 40 feet tall. Today Indian artists continue to carve trees but some are short and used in homes, and many people think these are a very fantastic decorations . An actual Indian carved totem pole take quite a bit of work, craftsmanship and time to be produced. So it comes to no surprise that a well-made one is quite expensive.

And be careful if you had one. Totem poles may held hidden messages by those that carved them. Carvings were symbols that may tell a story of the carver. Many totem poles no longer exist because of decay and rot. Today these poles are still being carved and enjoyed by collectors. Among the Indian tribe, even raising a totem pole is a big and amazing celebration. First, a hole is dug to stand the pole in. The pole is carried to the site in a ceremony,  attended by hundreds of people. A series of  ropes are used to raise the pole in place. Singing and dancing to drums accompanies the ceremony. And then the carving begins.

But the totems real main characters are certainly animals. There are hidden qualities and natural forces around us.  The animals are the perfect example of expressing the spirit nature of every species and qualities we can learn from. They are psychological and spiritual symbols that convey to us qualities we are needing or lacking in our lives. They are a mirror of us reflecting our own innate qualities to help ourselves better understand our connection to all things. Animal wisdom helps connect to our innate being. In the distant past there was no separation between man and animal. This view is reemerging as we awaken to the knowledge of the animals. We were and are inextricably linked as one. Animals, regardless of culture and location, teach us everything. And this is why they’re so important to the ancient cultures creators of the Totems. 

Totem animals can be seen as different  frequencies with many levels of understanding. Animal teachers will become noticeable when it is time. According to the ancient beliefs,  animals speak to us in many ways; by their numbers, how they act along with the natural actions and reactions to their surroundings. The keys to understanding this language is learning about the animal and discovering those qualities you need to pay attention to. One needs to be perceptive and aware when you see animals that catch your attention and stand out above the perceived norm.  So, this process of understanding is very difficult. And since there are plenty of species of animals, the amount of possible totems is incredible: Earth Animals, Water Animals, Air Animals, Reptiles, Amphibians, Insects and even fantastical or legendary creatures.

But there are not just these kind of totems. There are many others, coming from some of the most unthinkable places on Earth:
The Sanxingdui Culture in southern China, dating back more than 5000 years, probably placed bronze and gold heads on totems. Chinese transliterates totem as tuteng (圖騰). Sanxingdui bronze masks and heads appear to have been mounted on wooden poles. Some experts have suggested that totemic culture spread from ancient Asian populations to the rest of the world. Others conclude that totemism arose separately in numerous cultures; but, according to historical studies, totemic cultures in North America are estimated to have been more than 10,000 years old.

Another kind of totem-like object is the Jangseung or village guardian. This is a Korean carving, usually made of wood and bearing a resemblance to the totem poles of North America. Jangseungs were traditionally placed at the edges of villages to mark village boundaries and frighten away demons or welcome people in. They were also worshipped as village protector gods. Jangseungs were usually carved in the images of janguns (equivalent to admirals or generals) and their wives. Many Jangseungs were also carved laughing, but in a frightening way. Many of the villages felt that the frightening laughter of the Jangseungs would frighten away the demons because the Jangseungs have no fear.

dzi beads
In the Himalayan region, as well as on the whole Tibetan plateau area and adjacent areas, certain jewelry is believed to have totemistic capabilities. Tibetans in particular give much importance to heirloom beads such as dzi beads. Though dzi beads were not produced in ancient Tibet, but by an unknown culture, most ancient dzi beads are owned by Tibetans. Different protective qualities depend on design, number of eyes, damage, color, shine and other characteristics. 

The Polish rodnidze known among the pre-Christian ancestors of the Poles is considered to have been roughly similar to the totem as mentioned above. In historical times, researchers considered that the animals and birds represented on the coats-of-arms of various Polish aristocratic clans may have been remnants of such totems (examples can be seen in Ślepowron coat of arms and Korwin coat of arms, possible remnants of a raven-rodnidze).

But now let’s talk about the deep meanings of these objects in religions. The actual “ Totemism” is a religious belief that is frequently associated with animistic religions, and it was  a key element of study in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of Indigenous religion, especially for thinkers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated their study on such societies. Durkheim said, while he was studying the correlation between social groups and spiritual totems in Australian aboriginal tribes:

All human religious expression was intrinsically founded in the relationship to a group.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his essay "Le Totémisme aujourd’hui" (Totemism Today), argued that human cognition, which is based on analogical thought (the thought of correlation based on analogies), is independent of social context. And totemism, between times in which the religious and universal value was both recognized and  denied, is a perfect example of this thought. At times it was considered typical of a phase of cultural progress, other times it was lacking the most primitive populations. The critical analysis which Claude Lévi-Strauss gives in his essay portraits the phenomenon with a new light, saying that :

Totemism participates in knowledge. The needs it aswers to, the ways it tries to satisfy them , are primarily intellectual . In this sense, it  has nothing archaic or far away from modern cultures 

Even  the father of psychoanalysis  Sigmund Freud, in his book, called Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, wrote about employing the application of psychoanalysis to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. He developed it in four different chapters :

  • "The Horror of Incest"
  • "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence"
  • "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts"
  • "The Return of Totemism in Childhood"

Each one is linked with details of totemism which were particularly concerning him. It is now considered one of the great landmarks in the history of anthropology. So, these wooden poles have something to do with psychoanalysis studies. 

Last but not least, also the founder  of analytical psychology, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung, in a particular chapter of his last work Man and His Symbols (The Importance of Dreams), Jung wrote of the  “resistance to the idea of an unknown part of the human psyche", saying:

the individual's psyche is far from being safely synthesized; on the contrary, it threatens to fragment too easily under the onslaught of unchecked emotions.... We too can become dissociated and lose our identity. 

Jung also describes cultures who hold totemic beliefs (as he sees them) as primitive.
So, some of the greatest geniuses of history tried to explain their ideas about this beliefs, each one different from the others. 

You’ve always thought totems where just amazing decorations and nothing more. You were absolutely wrong. Totems are much more than that. Maybe now you’re interested to know how your personal totem would be like. Let me know how would it be like… and Never Stop Snooping Around.


  1. I'm actually scared of some of these relics. They look like some props on a thriller movie about cannibals. :/

    The term totem reminds me of Inception. One of the best movies I've seen so far. :)

  2. Well, some of them were supposed to be scary. So the enemies were frightened to attack the tribe :)
    I have loved Inception too... Of course there is no connection between real totems, loaded dice or eternal spinning tops, but this would be a fantastic topic to talk about :)

  3. That makes perfect sense for the tribes. :)

    Please do discuss Inception. Haha. I would love to read about it. :)

    1. If the opportunity arises, I'll gladly do it dear ;)

  4. I do love reading you post. It's kinda a new info for me about different relics. Thanks. :)

    1. Thanks so much. And don't worry, there'll be many more coming out ;)


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