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Dictionaries :: Totemism

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Below are articles from the following dictionary:
International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia


to'-tem-iz'-m: How far the belief in totems and totemistic relationships existed in early Israel cannot be discussed at length here. Evidence of the belief in deified animal ancestors is supposed by some writers to be found in the tribal names Leah ("wild cow"?), Rachel ("ewe"), Simeon (synonymous with the Arabic sim‘u, which denotes a cross between a wolf and a hyena), Hamor ("ass"), Caleb ("dog"), Zibiah ("gazelle"), etc. But these names in themselves "do not prove a totem stage in the development of Israel" (HPN, 114); philologically, the view has a shaky foundation (see, e.g. article "Leah" in 1-vol HDB).

Again, it is true that, as a rule, in totemic communities the individual may not kill or eat the name-giving object of his kin, these animals being regarded as sacred in totem worship and therefore "unclean" (taboo) as food. But the attempt to connect such personal names as Shaphan ("rock-badger"), Achbor ("mouse"), Huldah ("weasel")-all from the time of Josiah (2Ki 22:3,12,14; compare Deborah ("bee"), Gaal ("beetle"?), Told ("crimson worm," "cochineal"), Nabash ("serpent"))-with the list of unclean animals in Le 11 (see 11:5 (margin), 29) and De 14 is beset with difficulties (compare, however, Isa 66:17; Eze 8:10 f), since all the names cannot possibly be explained on this ground.

See also SACRIFICE, II, 2, (4); VI, 1.

Robertson Smith (followed by Stade and Benzinger) strongly advocated the view "that clear traces of totemism can be found in early Israel" (see HDB, III, 100). G. B. Gray also seems inclined to favor the view that some of these names may be "indirectly derivative from a totem stage of society" (HDB, III, 483 f), while at the same time he recognizes that "the only question is whether other explanations are not equally satisfactory" (HPN, 105).

Other writers, such as Wellhausen, Noldeke (ZDMG, 157 f, 1886), Marti (Gesch. der israelit. Religion, 4th edition, 24), Addis (Hebrew Rel., 33 f), have opposed or abandoned theory as applied to Israel.

"Upon the whole we must conclude once more that, while it is certainly possible that Totemism once prevailed in Israel, its prevalence cannot be proved; and, above all, we must hold that the religion of Israel as it presents itself in the Old Testament has not retained the very slightest recollection of such a state of things" (Kautzsch, HDB, extra vol, 614 f; compare p. 623).

The theory is also opposed by Job. Jacobs (article "Are there Totem-Clans in the Old Testament?" in Archaeol. Review, III (1889), number 3, 145 ff); F.V. Zapletal, Der Totemismus u. die Religion Israels; and S. A. Cook, in JQR, XIV, number 55.

The evidence on either side is inconclusive, but the weight of authority is opposed to the view that totemism ever existed in Israel. What is certain is that totemism was never a potent factor, either in the early religion of Israel as an organized people, or in any of the dominant cults of the historical period as a whole (see articles "Family" in HDB, I, 850 (Bennett); "Sacrifice," HDB, IV, 331 (Paterson], and DEFILEMENT (Crannell), IMAGES, 3, 6 (Cobern), and ISRAEL, RELIGION OF, II, 1, (4) (Orelli), in this Encyclopedia).


In addition to the works cited in the text, see, for theory of the prevalence of totemism in early Israel, W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites (2nd edition, 1894), Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia (1903); A. F. Scot, Offering and Sacrifice (1900); and I. Benzinger, Hebraische Archaol. (1907); against, Eric Brit, 11th edition, XIII, 177, article "Hebrew Religion" (Whitehouse); Standard BD, 782; Temple DB, article "Shaphan." For a general account and discussion of totemism, see Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy (1910) and The Golden Bough (3rd edition, 1907-13); Westermarck, History of Human Marriage (1891); Deans, Tales from the Totems of Hidery (1898); Lang, Myth, Ritual, Religion (new edition, 1899), The Secret of the Totem (1905), and article "Totemism" in Encyclopedia Brit, 11th edition, XXVII, with extensive bibliography; HDB, extra vol, 115; and Cymru, 1892-93, p. 137; 1893-94, p. 7.

Written by M. O. Evans


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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