Ch1 L35: Beliefs – part IX (totems)

  1. To pick up where we left off, our terrified primitive ancestors who were trying to understand their environment, concluded that natural disasters are indices [1] of nature’s anger which is caused by hunger. Thus it must be fed [2]. Since natural disasters happen once in a while, they thought that their solution worked which strengthened their belief in sacrificing. Unfortunately, the reoccurrence of the disasters didn’t work as a counterexample [3] to make them doubt. They thought that nature was hungry again which turned sacrificing into a ritual.
  2. The fable of “The lion and the rabbit” [4] has depicted this ritual. The animals went to the lion and offered him the deal in which every day one animal would go to the lion’s lair as the meal. So the lion wouldn’t need to bother to prey on them.
  3. The advantage of the deal for the animals was the peace of mind. They wouldn’t live under constant terror of the lion’s prowl. So, imagine from a very selfish point of view, how sacrificing could be an exhilarating experience if you believed that the disaster struck someone but you even one day earlier.
  4. In the 13th post, we discussed that concepts are abstract therefore they need the dress of language to be conceived [5]. Think about any concept in your mind and you’ll see you’re thinking about something objective or less abstract to understand them. Let’s start with a simple example: a tree. It would most likely light up the image of a tree in your mind which is one of its extensions. Each concept consists of an intension (meaning/definition) and extensions (the examples which can be defined by it) [6]. The important part is we try to understand the intension of a concept through its extensions.
  5. Take love as another example. Most likely you must be thinking of something more objective. Either it reminds you of the moments you were in love or sentences to define it verbally. As we know language is a system of signs to convey meanings [7] and words are symbols. So you’re breaking down the concept of love to simpler and more tangible concepts. For example, you might say that love needs passion, commitment, friendship. These concepts are less abstract than love.
  6. One way of misunderstanding happens when people have different extensions for the same concepts. When two people find themselves in love with each other, they can hurt one another simply because they have different (and in some cases opposite) ways to express it.
  7. That’s how politicians actually manipulate the masses. Their speeches contain very vague concepts that we collectively believe in but their objectives might be totally different. They always talk about change, improvement, dream, hope to connect with people and we rarely ask them to dismantle them and to talk about their objectives and plans. Or if we ask, they’d normally dodge the question or talk about some big vague terms like changing the healthcare or tax system and so on and so forth.
  8. It’s very important to know that nature is an abstract concept, so the primitive people needed to have a symbol to think about it. So, they thought of an animal or plant which possessed all the power/spirit of nature and they called it “totem” [8]. In the last post, we discussed how early humankind created the concept of animism [9]. We can say that totemism is its outcome.
  9. Gradually the role of totem developed in the early tribes. Its first and foremost role was being the group identity. In the 20th post, we discussed why we needed the language to gather more people together and create a community bigger than of apes [10]. Totems served this purpose very well. Believing in the same totem strengthened the bond between the members of a tribe or across tribes. It also created one of the first games [11] in the history of evolution. Protecting the totem meant protecting the tribe and the primitive people deadly believed in it. Because they felt the power of group heartwarming and encouraging and they believed that without the group, each individual couldn’t survive. Therefore, the survival of the group was prioritized to the survival of each individual.
  10. Imagine that you and your friends formed a circle around a bonfire, holding each other’s hands. Then you’d feel something special. The love hormones would run through your body and would make you feel protected and safe. If we amplify the scale of the fear and safety by a large number to understand the fear of a primitive person, we realize how much more they needed to be part of a group and why their belief in the group and its totem was stronger since the fear of isolation or solitude was fatal.
  11. So, the totem was sacred and it needed to be protected [12]. Besides, the totem created another important taboo: the taboo of incest: not only the kins but also the people who believed in the same totem were prohibited to have sexual relations with each other. The fear of this taboo was so severe that brothers and sisters had to avoid staying in the same room [13].
  12. That’s how totemic brotherhood and sisterhood was developed and we see its reminiscence in the current religions that the believers of the same god call each other brothers and sisters.
  13. In the next post, we’ll explore the human sacrifice more deeply and see how the beliefs merged to create a conglomerate of ideas and actions to perform a ritual.


[1] We talked about indices as signs which signify causal relationships in the 19th post. Link

[2] Link to the previous post.

[3] Link to the post about counterexamples.

[4] Link to the full story of the lion and the rabbit.

[5] Link to the 13th post.

[6] Link to the definition of intension and extension by Britannica.

[7] Link to the post about languages

[8] Link to the wiki page about totem

[9] We discussed the concept of animism in the previous post. Link

[10] Link to the post on the advent of language

[11] Link to the post about games. We saw that games are activities that develop our skills through solving artificial or imaginary problems to face real problems.

[12] In the 27th post we discussed taboos which prohibited the people to endanger sacred things. Link

[13] Refer to “Totem and Taboo” by Sigmund Freud


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