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While the term totem is derived from the North American Ojibwe language, belief in tutelary spirits and deities is not limited to indigenous peoples of the Americas but common to a number of cultures worldwide. However, the traditional people of those cultures have words for their guardian spirits in their own languages, and do not call these spirits or symbols "totems".
Contemporary neoshamanic, New Age and mythopoetic men's movements not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion have been seen to use "totem" terminology for the personal identification with a tutelary spirit or guide.
Totem poles of the Pacific Northwest of North America are monumental poles of heraldry. They feature many different designs (bears, birds, frogs, people, and various supernatural beings and aquatic creatures) that function as crests of families or chiefs. They recount stories owned by those families or chiefs, or commemorate special occasions. These stories are known to be read from the bottom of the pole to the top.
Scottish ethnologist John Ferguson McLennan, following the vogue of 19th-century research, addressed totemism in a broad perspective in his study The Worship of Animals and Plants (1869, 1870). McLennan did not seek to explain the specific origin of the totemistic phenomenon but sought to indicate that all of the human race had in ancient times gone through a totemistic stage.
Another Scottish scholar, Andrew Lang, early in the 20th century advocated a nominalistic meaning for totemism, namely that local groups or clans, in selecting a totemistic name from the realm of nature, were reacting to a need to be differentiated. If the origin of the name was forgotten, Lang argued, there followed a mystical relationship between the object -- from which the name was once derived -- and the groups that bore these names. Through nature myths animals and natural objects were considered as the relatives, patrons, or ancestors of the respective social units.
British anthropologist Sir James George Frazer published Totemism and Exogamy in 1910, a four-volume work based largely on his research among Indigenous peoples of Australia and Melanesia, along with a compilation of the work of other writers in the field.
The founder of a French school of sociology, Émile Durkheim, examined totemism from a sociological and theological point of view, attempting to discover a pure religion in very ancient forms and claimed to see the origin of religion in totemism.
The leading representative of British social anthropology, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, took a totally different view of totemism. Like Boas, he was skeptical that totemism could be described in any unified way. In this he opposed the other pioneer of social anthropology in England, Bronis?aw Malinowski, who wanted to confirm the unity of totemism in some way and approached the matter more from a biological and psychological point of view than from an ethnological one. According to Malinowski, totemism was not a cultural phenomenon, but rather the result of trying to satisfy basic human needs within the natural world. As far as Radcliffe-Brown was concerned, totemism was composed of elements that were taken from different areas and institutions, and what they have in common is a general tendency to characterize segments of the community through a connection with a portion of nature. In opposition to Durkheim's theory of sacralization, Radcliffe-Brown took the point of view that nature is introduced into the social order rather than secondary to it. At first, he shared with Malinowski the opinion that an animal becomes totemistic when it is "good to eat." He later came to oppose the usefulness of this viewpoint, since many totems--such as crocodiles and flies--are dangerous and unpleasant.
Poets, and to a lesser extent fiction writers, often use anthropological concepts, including the anthropological understanding of totemism. For this reason literary criticism often resorts to psychoanalytic, anthropological analyses.