Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Totemism - 2 Major Categories  

All these totemic forms can be classified into 2 categories - social  & ritual or cult.

Social totemism has an emphasis on the social dimension, totemic affiliation depends on membership in a particular social unit defining a person's totemic relationship to everyone in that social unit. Social totemism is usually of matrilineal descent and is concerned with the ordering of things like marriage and sexual relations. There are sanctions against marrying a person from the same totem, the rule of totemic exogamy being supported by stories from the Dreamtime. A person may not be allowed to kill or eat the totem animal, because it is of the same flesh as that person. It can be considered an elder brother or sister, or even a guardian, of the person in question. The closeness of the association is demonstrated by the use of the term flesh.

In ritual totemism or cult totemism, the totem is not regarded as 'flesh' or 'meat', so there are no prohibitions on killing or eating it. This variety of totemism was widespread across Aboriginal Australia. Matrilineal cult totemism was observed in Cape York, but in most cases it was patrilineal. Totem exogamy is not considered important. In parts of the Western Desert it may actually be preferred by a man, to have a wife of the same totem as him. There are sacred sites in the territories of all the tribes that are connected with beings from the Dreamtime. These can be waterholes, rocks, hills, trees, or caves in which there are paintings in ochre or blood. A number of fully initiated men are responsible for the care of the sacred site. The birth or conception totems of these men gives them the right to this position. These men are responsible for the myth and ritual connected with the site, leading or performing the rites associated with the site.

Totems are not always exogamous, when social totemism, not cult totemism, is involved they are more likely to be exogamous. In cult totemism, and to a lesser extent in other forms, even when a man identifies with a totem he can still eat it casually without sacramental intent.

Nearly every Aboriginal society there had some form of food taboos, and many them are not connected with totemism. A person's relationship with the totem should not be viewed in isolation, A totem represents a wider range of  associations, a person and his/her totem share what can be called a sacred quality because their relationship is part of a broader relationship with the totemic ancestral beings from the Dreamtime. The totem serves as a link between the human world and that of the Dreamtime, so that the person is, in a sense, one with the ancestral beings. The totem also symbolises the concept that these Dreamtime beings are sometimes reincarnated through human beings.

Sources & Further reading

  1. R. M & C. H. Berndt, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd, 1964




Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 20/10/2012

Journey Back Through Time
Experience Australia
Aboriginal Australia
National Parks
Photo Galleries
Site Map
                                                                                           Author: M.H.Monroe  Email:     Sources & Further reading