The word totem is a word derived from Todam used by North American Indian tribes. A totem was originally an animal or plant considered to have a particular symbolic significance for a group. It is a sacred object regarded with veneration and surrounded by various ritual activities.
It refers to phenomenon among primitive societies where groups, usually clans are associated with some animal or plant species the members have mystic relationship with them. They regard these animals or plant species as their common ancestors and these animal or plant as their Totems and refrain from killing or destroying their totem. They tend to express their relation and concern with their totems by a variety of cultural practices such as periodic collective worship of the totem, artistic representation of the totem by painting or engraving their figures on the walls and the gates of their houses etc. They may also at times organize cultural ceremonies when they take part in dances, putting on the masks of their totem, faces and wrapping leaves or skins of the totem animals around their bodies. According to Goldenweiser (1910) a tribe has a social organization usually of the clan pattern that is associated with a form of super naturalism consisting of certain typical attitudes towards species of animals or plants or classes of natural objects. Although killing or eating of the totemic plant or animal species may be taboo but may take place on ceremonial occasions and the death of the totemic animal may be ceremonially mourned. The totem and totemites may be supposed to share physical and psychical trail and totem may be looked upon as a sort of guardian angel of the totemites. Totemic emblem may be worn as charms. Special ceremonies may be performed to pray for the increase of the totemic species.
According to Frazer, totemism represented a sort of cooperative division of labor in certain groups raising and protecting one kind of edible animal or plant food and protecting others. Durkheim based his work upon a study of totemism as practiced by Australian aboriginal societies and wrote that totemism represents religion in its most elementary or simple form. Durkheim saw in it an emblem or symbol of the collective representation of the social mind. Totem is sacred because it is the symbol of the group itself, it stands for the values central to the group or community. The reverence that people feel for the totem actually derives from the respect they hold for central social values.
According to Meyer Fortes, among the Tallensi of West Africa, people are quite unemotional about their totems, about taboo on consuming the totemic animal or plant species prevalent among them. Radcliffe Brown emphasized on food value in totemism and man’s dependence on them attracts ritual value.