Walking with the Spirits Part 2-A

I wanted to spend a little more time with ideology before I move to archaeology with this series. As such, let’s circle back to Edward Tylor and his contemporaries for the moment.

I find it fascinating how there are greater intellectual “patterns” that color a lot of early anthropological writing. That is why it is so important to remember the context from which this kind of thinking arose. For example, a fair amount of writing such as Tylor’s comes from a a time of colonization, or times immediately after. This means that colony building, and more generalized forms of imperialism and colonialism are ever present in the thoughts of writers at the time.

It is a specter that still somewhat haunts anthropology to this day. In the time of Tylor, anthropology was not yet a fully developed academic discipline, and often had different goals from modern day forms. One of those goals was colonialism, and many early “anthropologists” were sent abroad to learn about the “natives”, so that they might be easier to convert or conquer. This played right into the ideas associated with the Myth of Progress, because if the Empire was the height of civilization, it was also the height of religion; that religion being Christianity. A fair amount of early ethnography comes from missionaries. As such, many early thinkers felt it their “duty” to bring “civilization” to those “unevolved savages.”

We are still trying to deal with the fallout of that kind of thinking.

But more to the point, another big “intellectual pattern” at the time was the Origin of Religion, and several thinkers just like Tylor tried to put forth a theoretical model for such an “origin”. As has already been discussed, Tylor’s model was animism. I would like to touch on another idea that circulates commonly in pagany spheres, and that is the idea of totemism.

Going back to Harvey’s book, another thinker in the 20th century proposed a theory on the “Origin of Religion”, and his name was Emile Durkheim. Here I offer a quote from Harvey’s book concerning Durkheim;

“The founder of French anthropology and sociology, Emile Durkheim, proposed that religion did not originate in animism (as understood by Tylor) or in naturism (e.g. Max Muller’s ‘awe at the extraordinary power of nature’) but in totemism. He dismissed existing theories of of animism and naturism as inadequate explanations for the origins of religion because the facts that they supposedly respond are too ordinary to generate something as extraordinary as religion.”1

Which begs the question of course, of what is “totemism”? Here we turn to Britannica for a brief rundown, because going deeply into the full ideology of the concept would be a lengthy task;

“Totemism is a belief in which either each human, or each group of humans (e.g., a clan or tribe) is thought to have a spiritual connection or a kinship with another physical being, such as an animal or plant, often called a “spirit-being” or “totem.” The totem is thought to interact with a given kin group or an individual and to serve as their emblem or symbol. “ -Wikipedia

It is a complex concept, that has many different facets that we will not discuss here; and can be categorized in both “group” and “individual” forms. As to the group forms, Harvey has this to say concerning Durkheim’s work;

“He (Durkheim) proposed that the priority of social facts over individuals’ embodied experience gave rise to the notion of systemic kinship and other relational identities. Totemism is central to this contextualizing and pervasive relationality. Individuals considered themselves not only related to their ‘blood’ kin, but also to a wider clan identified with a particular symbolic animal, a totem.” 2

As Harvey goes on to point out, the relational nature of individuals to the totem may result in concrete social rules and guidelines for behavior within a society. Some examples are; “do not eat the totem” or “do not marry within the clan”.

However, this does not mean Durkheim was on the mark any more than Tylor. Ultimately, even though Durkheim considered totemism to be rational, he also determined it was an error in thinking, in the same way that Tylor dismissed animism as something belonging to “primitive” people.

But just as animism has “old” and “new” forms, so too does totemism. As with animism, as a concept totemism has gone through many cycles of criticism and revisiting. So this begs the question, how has totemism been revisited in recent thought?

Harvey tackles this question in chapter 11 of his book. In Harvey’s section called ‘Updating the old totemism’, he has this to say about past theories on the concept;

“Scholarly discourses about totemism and animism have been theorised as opposing moves in the engagement of (human) culture and (non-human) nature. Animism has been seen as the projection of human culture onto inanimate nature, while totemism has been seen as the use of nature to categorise human social groups.”3

As Harvey points out, early thinkers such as Tylor and and Durkheim put forwards their ideas as contrasting theories about the “origin” of religions, but these days the thinking has moved towards animism and totemism as complimentary more than contrasting. As Harvey points out;

“Recent discussions have found animism and totemism to be more related than opposed. The neatness of their analytical separation in the old system conceal the fact ‘that the two schemes have fundamental properties in common’…”4

In truth, at least how I understand them, the two constitute in many ways two sides of the same coin, with many points of overlap. As just a brief example, I recently wrote a piece talking a little bit about these things here.

But more to the point, Harvey quotes another scholar by the name of Århem, who summarizes the ideas as “if totemic systems model society after nature, then animic systems model nature after society.” To which Århem adds later in the chapter;

“Experientially they (totemism and animism) form part of totalising eco-cosmologies, integrating practical knowledge and moral values. As holistic cultural constructs, eco-cosmologies engage and motive; they mould perception, inform practice, and supply meaningful guidelines for living.”5

And before we close out , we give the final word to Harvey;

“Totemism, then, is one sociological structure in which animist persons (human and other-than-human) meaningfully, respectfully, morally and intimately engage with one another. The new totemism adds to the new animism by clarifying a way in which some relationships are closer than others while, conversely, not all relationships are equally valued by all persons and groups.”6

The take away I think is this; that between the interconnected concepts of animism and totemism we find conceptual frameworks in which to understand how we relate to one another, as well as to our environment. This is a crucial understanding that will be vital not only to this series of posts, but also to our relationships between ourselves and the natural world. For too long we have tried to build a wall between (human) culture and (non human) nature. I think that animistic/totemistic understanding of our relationships to the planet are one method to start taking that wall apart, one brick at a time.

Both animism and totemism conceived of in this way will also provide the framework for many of my future writings on this project. That is why I choose to explore both old and new versions of these theories, for a good theoretical understanding before we move on to other things.

Thanks for reading!


1Harvey, pg 11

2Harvey Pg 11

3Harvey Pg 166

4Harvey Pg 166

5Harvey pg 166, quoting Århem 1996, 185-6

6Harvey pg 168


“Animism: Respecting the Living World” By Graham Harvey

Britannica (Totemism)

My post on “Reflections/FFA”

About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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