The concept of totemism has not been satisfactorily defined. However, it could be said that according to the theory of ‘totemism’, a tribe is supposed to be related to an object-mainly animal or plant towards which they behave in a reverent manner by adopting its name and offering sacrifices or adoring it.
The totems usually belong to the animal world-real or imaginary-and a few belong to the vegetable world. Durkheim found 460 of 500 totemic names in South Eastern Australia to be names for animals and plants. Only 40 were for inanimate objects such as the moon, sun, stars, fire, smoke and water.
Members of the tribal group affiliate themselves with the totem. The totem is a collective religious object having supernatural or mysterious powers for the group. Totem is associated with tribal organisation, and it becomes the name of the tribe, an image of the totemic spirit, and animal or plant with which the tribe identifies. The tribe—the spirit and the animal—are united in a trinity which cannot be separated into parts.
Totemism appeared to be important to those societies in which it was found, by observers. It seemed to be associated with the rule of exogamy between totemic groups. The relation that exists between the totem and the people is sometimes taken to be one of blood relationship. Hence the totem has to be crossed in marriage.
The killing or eating the group’s totem or insulting it, or using it for some purpose other than worshipping is tabooed. The totemic emblems are evoked at with religious attitude and the descent is traced through the totemic line.
Totem may be a wolf, bear, turtle, hawk, fox, etc. It has to be admitted that none of the traits mentioned above are invariable features of totemic societies. Though totemism is universally found it exhibits considerable variations. It is not found among Veddas of Ceylon, Punnan of Borneo, the Andaman Islanders, Pygmies of Congo, the Bushmen of South Africa.