Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article is about the Native American term. For the media player, see Totem (media player).
A totem is any natural or supernatural object, being or animal which has personal symbolic meaning to an individual and to whose phenomena and energy one feels closely associated with during one's life.
A simplified dramatic example of this belief in practice is in the Walt Disney Pictures animated film, Brother Bear. In the film, a boy from a proto-Inuit tribe receives a totem of the Bear, which represents Love. Although he initially rejects it, by the end of the story he follows its ideals more literally than anyone ever dreamed possible.
For some tribes, totems can represent larger groups than the individual person, and clans and tribes can have a totem. In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem.
Although the term is of Native American origin, totemistic beliefs are not limited to Native Americans. Similar totemism-like beliefs have been historically found throughout much of the world, including Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Arctic polar region.
In modern times, some individuals, not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion, have chosen to adopt as a personal totem an animal which has some kind of special meaning to them. This practice is prevalent in, but not limited to, the New Age movement. Beliefs regarding totems can vary, from merely adopting one as a whim, to adopting an animal that a person sees representing favorable traits reflected in their own behavior or appearance. A few believe their totem acts as a literal spirit guide. Some Native Americans and other followers of tribal religions take a dim view of New Agers' and others' adoption of totem animals, arguing that a non-adherent cannot truly understand totemism apart from the cultural context, and that at worst, it represents a commercialization of their religious beliefs.
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