According to Chet Raymo in When God is Gone Everything is Holy, among the ancients, Mother Nature was more than a metaphor. The veiled goddess was invented at a time when animism and anthropomorphism were the prevailing ways of understanding the world. Every brook, every stone, every heavenly body was thought to have a human-like spirit … But we no longer understand nature animistically or anthropomorphically. New metaphors now instruct our imaginations … The universe, however, sings beyond any metaphor we employ to understand it. We are enchanted by the veiled goddess, teased, seduced [but] we expect no consummation. We would in fact be rather shattered if somehow we were allowed to know the ultimate secrets if the universe.
These are the threads that draw the concepts of animism and the ‘bush soul’ together with one of the oldest beliefs on the planet. Totemism is some mystic relationship between a group of humans and a particular species of animal or plant. But, as T C Lethbridge observed, the exact relationship has defied scholarly definition, and well it might do so. ‘It seems to be a kind of hangover from much earlier times when men are thought to have believed that they were really physically related to animals. Totemism was an indefinable magico-religious idea and the totem animal was in a sense worshipped because it could give help to men belonging to its own particular tribe and which they must not kill without permission.’
Many scholars have noted evidence for totemic beliefs in the Upper Palaeolithic period of at least 12,000 years ago, proving this totem concept was very strong and widespread. It probably went at one time to every corner of the inhabited world. And, as Lethbridge points out, when we find ancient European tribes called Chatti, or Epidii, we can be reasonably certain that their totem animals were once cats or horses respectively. It is highly probable that many of the animals which later appeared as heraldic blazons on the shields of medieval knights were once the totems of the families which bore these images on their arms. This is not a fanciful suggestion: neither is it disregarded by some of the experts of the College of Heralds.
As civilization slowly developed and spread over wider areas, totemism began to be replaced by beliefs of a different kind. Gods and goddesses came to be imagined in human form and in this anthropomorphism, mankind conceived gods to be made in his image and not vice versa. Forces of nature and celestial bodies were gods and they were like men. All that was necessary was to explain to simple people why their totem animal was being replaced by something less easily seen, but more human. This changing of totem animal into deity was found throughout the old world: in India, Egypt; Assyria; Greece; Italy; the Celtic lands and in the mythology and art of the North American first nation.
Since myths appear to be the oral counterparts of religious rites, we can surely assume that wherever we find a myth of this shape-changing nature, there was once a religious performance in which men, or women, dressed up in the skins of the former totem animal and went through the performance which the myth describes. This surely brings us a little nearer to the reason why such curious rites survived for such a long time. The witch-cult seems to have originated at a time when the belief in totemism was on the wane and was being superseded by the belief in gods of human form. When it was begun it was still necessary to explain to the people in general the relationship between the two beliefs in a ritual performance.
‘Since it is generally, the male priest who is dressed up, it is surely the ‘Great Mother’ who represents the new idea. She is taking the place of the old totem animal and is the more important figure. Since it is the kings who are killed and not their consorts, the same conditions hold good. We can then, I feel, be reasonably certain that the [witch]cult came into being when the female principle was recognized as being the most important thing in tribal belief. That is, males had not yet asserted their right to order the doings of the tribe, or their right to succeed to the rulership of it. The organization was matriarchal and matrilineal – which had vanished from Homeric Greece about a thousand years before the birth of Christ – but there is ample evidence from the Greek myths that it had once existed there.’
[Witches: Investigating an Ancient Religion]
A belief in and acceptance of totem animals runs like a vein of iridescent silver through witchcraft lore and is a system of belief in which humans are said to have kinship or a mystical relationship with a spirit-being, contained within a particular animal or plant. The entity, or totem, is believed to interact with a given kin-group or individual, and to serve as their emblem or symbol. The term totemism has been used to characterize a cluster of traits in the religion and social organization of many different peoples. Totemism is manifested in various forms and types in different contexts, and is most often found among populations whose traditional economies once relied on mixed farming with hunting and gathering, or emphasized the raising of cattle.
The term totem is actually derived from the Ojibwa word ototeman, meaning ‘one’s brother-sister kin’ with the grammatical root, ote, signifying a blood relationship between brothers and sisters who have the same mother and who may not marry each other. In English, the word totem was introduced in 1791 by a British merchant and translator who gave it a false meaning in the belief that it designated the guardian spirit of an individual, who appeared in the form of an animal – an idea that the Ojibwa clans did indeed portray by their wearing of animal skins. It was reported at the end of the 18th century that the Ojibwa named their clans after those animals that lived in the area and appeared to be either friendly or fearful.
Similarly, the idea of the ‘sacred’ in African society is as old as the African people. Faced with the puzzles, wonders and mysteries in nature, they had no choice than to consider certain objects and plants as sacred and seen from the perspective of the divine. And as such, they are not to be toyed with; they are given special reverence especially as objects of worship. The African people believe that spirits inhabit these sacred objects and places – and this understanding also gave rise to the reality of totems in African ontology. For sure, belief in totems is an existential fact among African people.
Certain trees, animals, places and individuals are regarded as totems. They are seen as sacred objects that symbolize something real for the people who entertain such belief. Totems are also believed to possess some spiritual and supernatural powers. The thrust of this study is to expose the belief and practice of totemism in Africa and also to ascertain the significance of such belief and practice in a world of change. The focus of this study is on Igbo – African society where the notion of totem is associated with the idea of kinship between certain animals, animate or inanimate beings, and a particular individual or group of individuals in a given society showing that there is a spiritual link between a totemic object and the person or persons concern. [The Background of Totemism]
Totemism has to do with the veneration of some natural objects, namely, animals, plants and other physical objects that are believed to have some spiritual or supernatural powers. In this regard, the mishandling or killing of totemic animals is considered taboo in most African cultures. Belief in totems is a common practice in traditional African society with people having a deep sense of reverence for either their personal or group totems. The reality of totems is not something that is new to the African, who is well known for its belief and practice. Available in paperback and e-book format
BUSH SOUL: Setting it free by Melusine Draco – published by ignotus books uk : ISBN 978 1 80302 584 1 : Price £6.85 : 104 pages : Order direct from https://www.feedaread.com/books/BUSH-SOUL.aspx