Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Totem, a North American Indian term, with the meaning of "family mark," though some tribes have different words with the same signification. When first used as an English word "totem" seems to have had the meaning of some mythic animal-ancestor, from which a North American family or clan claimed descent. It occurs in this sense in the Song of Hiawatha (xiv.), where Hiawatha teaches the people the art of picture-writing. He says of the long-dead warriors and hunters -

"Of what kin they are and kindred,
From what old, ancestral Totem,
Be it Eagle, Bear, or Beaver,
They descended, this we know not."

And he bade his tribesmen adorn their grave-posts with the inverted totems of the dead who slept beneath. It is, of course, well known that this poem is founded chiefly on Schoolcraft's collection of Indian legends. A totem was generally some animal whence the clan was supposed to have descended, and was used as token or emblem by all the members of the clan, its figure being often tattooed on the body. The totem had a religious significance, that is, the totem-animal was in many cases, if not in all, considered as the representative or embodiment of a deity specially favourable to the clan, and a man was prohibited from killing or injuring any animal of the species to which his totem was belonging. Thus to the man whose totem was a bear or a beaver, all bears or beavers were in some way sacred; and thus, as Andrew Lang suggests, animal-worship may have arisen. Totemism also had an important bearing on marriage, for no man might marry a woman of the same totem as himself, and so, perhaps, grew up the practice of exogamy or marriage out of the tribe. Besides clan-totems, there are personal totems peculiar to an individual, the subject of special revelation during the ceremonies of initiation at manhood. Totemism is by no means confined to the Indians of North America; it is still found in Australia and Africa, to a less extent in India, and at one time or other has had a wide range over the globe.