Their Origin and Meaning
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 4 - TOTEM SACRAMENTS AND EUCHARISTS | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 5 - Totem-Sacraments and Eucharists

Much has been written on the origin of the Totem-system - the system, that is, of naming a tribe or a portion of a tribe (say a clan) after some animal - or sometimes - also after some plant or tree or Nature-element, like fire or rain or thunder; but at best the subject is a difficult one for us moderns to understand. A careful study has been made of it by Salamon Reinach in his Cultes, Mythes et Religions, (Footnote 1) where he formulates his conclusions in twelve statements or definitions; but even so - though his suggestions are helpful - he throws very little light on the real origin of the system. (Footnote 2)

There are three main difficulties. The first is to understand why primitive Man should name his Tribe after an animal or object of nature at all; the second, to understand on what principle he selected the particular name (a lion, a crocodile, a lady bird, a certain tree); the third, why he should make of the said totem a divinity, and pay honor and worship to it. It may be worth while to pause for a moment over these.

(1) The fact that the Tribe was one of the early things for which Man found it necessary to have a name is interesting, because it shows how early the solidarity and psychological actuality of the tribe was recognized; and as to the selection of a name from some animal or concrete object of Nature, that was inevitable, for the simple reason that there was nothing else for the savage to choose from. Plainly to call his tribe "The Wayfarers" or "The Pioneers" or the "Pacifists" or the "Invincibles," or by any of the thousand and one names which modern associations adopt, would have been impossible, since such abstract terms had little or no existence in his mind. And again to name it after an animal was the most obvious thing to do, simply because the animals were by far the most important features or accompaniments of his own life. As I am dealing in this book largely with certain psychological conditions of human evolution, it has to be pointed out that to primitive man the animal was the nearest and most closely related of all objects. Being of the same order of consciousness as himself, the animal appealed to him very closely as his mate and equal. He made with regard to it little or no distinction from himself. We see this very clearly in the case of children, who of course represent the savage mind, and who regard animals simply as their mates and equals, and come quickly into rapport with them, not differentiating themselves from them.

(2) As to the particular animal or other object selected in order to give a name to the Tribe, this would no doubt be largely accidental. Any unusual incident might superstitiously precipitate a name. We can hardly imagine the Tribe scratching its congregated head in the deliberate effort to think out a suitable emblem for itself. That is not the way in which nicknames are invented in a school or anywhere else to-day. At the same time the heraldic appeal of a certain object of nature, animate or inanimate, would be deeply and widely felt. The strength of the lion, the fleetness of the deer, the food-value of a bear, the flight of a bird, the awful jaws of a crocodile, might easily mesmerize a whole tribe. Reinach points out, with great justice, that many tribes placed themselves under the protection of animals which were supposed (rightly or wrongly) to act as guides and augurs, foretelling the future. "Diodorus," he says, "distinctly states that the hawk, in Egypt, was venerated because it foretold the future." [Birds generally act as weather-prophets.] "In Australia and Samoa the kangaroo, the crow and the owl premonish their fellow clansmen of events to come. At one time the Samoan warriors went so far as to rear owls for their prophetic qualities in war." [The jackal, or 'pathfinder' - whose tracks sometimes lead to the remains of a food-animal slain by a lion, and many birds and insects, have a value of this kind.] "The use of animal totems for purposes of augury is, in all likelihood, of great antiquity. Men must soon have realized that the senses of animals were acuter than their own; nor is it surprising that they should have expected their totems - that is to say, their natural allies - to forewarn them both of unsuspected dangers and of those provisions of nature, wells especially, which animals seem to scent by instinct." (Footnote 3) And again, beyond all this, I have little doubt that there are subconscious affinities which unite certain tribes to certain animals or plants, affinities whose origin we cannot now trace, though they are very real - the same affinities that we recognize as existing between individual persons and certain objects of nature. W. H. Hudson - himself in many respects having this deep and primitive relation to nature - speaks in a very interesting and autobiographical volume (Footnote 4) of the extraordinary fascination exercised upon him as a boy, not only by a snake, but by certain trees, and especially by a particular flowering-plant "not more than a foot in height, with downy soft pale green leaves, and clusters of reddish blossoms, something like valerian." . . . "One of my sacred flowers," he calls it, and insists on the "inexplicable attraction" which it had for him. In various ways of this kind one can perceive how particular totems came to be selected by particular peoples.

(3) As to the tendency to divinize these totems, this arises no doubt partly out of question (2). The animal or other object admired on account of its strength or swiftness, or adopted as guardian of the tribe because of its keen sight or prophetic quality, or infinitely prized on account of its food-value, or felt for any other reason to have a peculiar relation and affinity to the tribe, is by that fact set apart. It becomes taboo. It must not be killed - except under necessity and by sanction of the whole tribe - nor injured; and all dealings with it must be fenced round with regulations. It is out of this taboo or system of taboos that, according to Reinach, religion arose. "I propose (he says) to define religion as: a sum of scruples (taboos) which impede the free exercise of our faculties. (Footnote 5) Obviously this definition is gravely deficient, simply because it is purely negative, and leaves out of account the positive aspect of the subject. In Man, the positive content of religion is the instinctive sense - whether conscious or subconscious - of an inner unity and continuity with the world around. This is the stuff out of which religion is made. The scruples or taboos which "impede the freedom" of this relation are the negative forces which give outline and form to the relation. These are the things which generate the rites and ceremonials of religion; and as far as Reinach means by religion merely rites and ceremonies he is correct; but clearly he only covers half the subject. The tendency to divinize the totem is at least as much dependent on the positive sense of unity with it, as on the negative scruples which limit the relation in each particular case. But I shall return to this subject presently, and more than once, with the view of clarifying it. Just now it will be best to illustrate the nature of Totems generally, and in some detail.

As would be gathered from what I have just said, there is found among all the more primitive peoples, and in all parts of the world, an immense variety of totem-names. The Dinkas, for instance, are a rather intelligent well-grown people inhabiting the upper reaches of the Nile in the vicinity of the great swamps. According to Dr. Seligman their clans have for totems the lion, the elephant, the crocodile, the hippopotamus, the fox, and the hyena, as well as certain birds which infest and damage the corn, some plants and trees, and such things as rain, fire, etc. "Each clan speaks of its totem as its ancestor, and refrains [as a rule] from injuring or eating it." (Footnote 6) The members of the Crocodile clan call themselves "brothers of the crocodile." The tribes of Bechuana-land have a very similar list of totem-names - the buffalo, the fish, the porcupine, the wild vine, etc. They too have a Crocodile clan, but they call the crocodile their father! The tribes of Australia much the same again, with the differences suitable to their country; and the Red Indians of North America the same. Garcilasso, della Vega, the Spanish historian, son of an Inca princess by one of the Spanish conquerors of Peru and author of the well-known book Commentarias Reales, says in that book (i, 57), speaking of the pre-Inca period, "An Indian (of Peru) was not considered honorable unless he was descended from a fountain, river or lake, or even from the sea, or from a wild animal, as a bear, lion, tiger, eagle, or the bird they call cuntur (condor), or some other bird of prey." (Footnote 7) According to Lewis Morgan, the North American Indians of various tribes had for totems the wolf, bear, beaver, turtle, deer, snipe, heron, hawk, crane, loon, turkey, muskrat; pike, catfish, carp; buffalo, elk, reindeer, eagle, hare, rabbit, snake; reed-grass, sand, rock, and tobacco-plant.

So we might go on rather indefinitely. I need hardly say that in more modern and civilized life, relics of the totem system are still to be found in the forms of the heraldic creatures adopted for their crests by different families, and in the bears, lions, eagles, the sun, moon and stars and so forth, which still adorn the flags and are flaunted as the insignia of the various nations. The names may not have been originally adopted from any definite belief in blood-relationship with the animal or other object in question; but when, as Robertson says (Pagan Christs, p. 104), a "savage learned that he was 'a Bear' and that his father and grandfather and forefathers were so before him, it was really impossible, after ages in which totem-names thus passed current, that he should fail to assume that his folk were descended from a bear."

As a rule, as may be imagined, the savage tribesman will on no account eat his tribal totem-animal. Such would naturally be deemed a kind of sacrilege. Also it must be remarked that some totems are hardly suitable for eating. Yet it is important to observe that occasionally, and guarding the ceremony with great precautions, it has been an almost universal custom for the tribal elders to call a feast at which an animal (either the totem or some other) is killed and commonly eaten - and this in order that the tribesmen may absorb some virtue belonging to it, and may confirm their identity with the tribe and with each other. The eating of the bear or other animal, the sprinkling with its blood, and the general ritual in which the participants shared its flesh, or dressed and disguised themselves in its skin, or otherwise identified themselves with it, was to them a symbol of their community of life with each other, and a means of their renewal and salvation in the holy emblem. And this custom, as the reader will perceive, became the origin of the Eucharists and Holy Communions of the later religions.

Professor Robertson-Smith's celebrated Camel affords an instance of this. (Footnote 8) It appears that St. Nilus (fifth century) has left a detailed account of the occasional sacrifice in his time of a spotless white camel among the Arabs of the Sinai region, which closely resembles a totemic communion- feast. The uncooked blood and flesh of the animal had to be entirely consumed by the faithful before daybreak.

"The slaughter of the victim, the sacramental drinking of the blood, and devouring in wild haste of the pieces of still quivering flesh, recall the details of the Dionysiac and other festivals." (Footnote 9)

Robertson-Smith himself says:-

"The plain meaning is that the victim was devoured before its life had left the still warm blood and flesh . . . and that thus in the most literal way, all those who shared in the ceremony absorbed part of the victim's life into themselves. One sees how much more forcibly than any ordinary meal such a rite expresses the establishment or confirmation of a bond of common life between the worshipers, and also, since the blood is shed upon the altar itself, between the worshipers and their god. In this sacrifice, then, the significant factors are two: the conveyance of the living blood to the godhead, and the absorption of the living flesh and blood into the flesh and blood of the worshippers. Each of these is effected in the simplest and most direct manner, so that the meaning of the ritual is perfectly transparent."

It seems strange, of course, that men should eat their totems; and it must not by any means be supposed that this practice is (or was) universal; but it undoubtedly obtains in some cases. As Miss Harrison says (Themis, p. 123); "you do not as a rule eat your relations," and as a rule the eating of a totem is tabu and forbidden, but (Miss Harrison continues) "at certain times and under certain restrictions a man not only may, but must, eat of his totem, though only sparingly, as of a thing sacrosanct." The ceremonial carried out in a communal way by the tribe not only identifies the tribe with the totem (animal), but is held, according to early magical ideas, and when the animal is desired for food, to favor its manipulation. The human tribe partakes of the mana or life-force of the animal, and is strengthened; the animal tribe is sympathetically renewed by the ceremonial and multiplies exceedingly. The slaughter of the sacred animal and (often) the simultaneous outpouring of human blood seals the compact and confirms the magic. This is well illustrated by a ceremony of the 'Emu' tribe referred to by Dr. Frazer:-

"In order to multiply Emus which are an important article of food, the men of the Emu totem in the Arunta tribe proceed as follows: They clear a small spot of level ground, and opening veins in their arms they let the blood stream out until the surface of the ground for a space of about three square yards is soaked with it. When the blood has dried and caked, it forms a hard and fairly impermeable surface, on which they paint the sacred design of the emu totem, especially the parts of the bird which they like best to eat, namely, the fat and the eggs. Round this painting the men sit and sing. Afterwards performers wearing long head-dresses to represent the long neck and small head of the emu, mimic the appearance of the bird as it stands aimlessly peering about in all directions." (Footnote 10)

Thus blood sacrifice comes in; and - (whether this has ever actually happened in the case of the Central Australians I know not) - we can easily imagine a member of the Emu tribe, and disguised as an actual emu, having been ceremonially slaughtered as a firstfruits and promise of the expected and prayed-for emu-crop; just as the same certainly has happened in the case of men wearing beast-masks of Bulls or Rams or Bears being sacrificed in propitiation of Bull-gods, Ram-gods or Bear-gods or simply in pursuance of some kind of magic to favor the multiplication of these food-animals.

"In the light of totemistic ways of thinking we see plainly enough the relation of man to food-animals. You need or at least desire flesh food, yet you shrink from slaughtering 'your brother the ox'; you desire his mana, yet you respect his tabu, for in you and him alike runs the common life-blood. On your own individual responsibility you would never kill him; but for the common weal, on great occasions, and in a fashion conducted with scrupulous care, it is expedient that he die for his people, and that they feast upon his flesh." (Footnote 11)

In her little book Ancient Art and Ritual (Footnote 12) Jane Harrison describes the dedication of a holy Bull, as conducted in Greece at Elis, and at Magnesia and other cities.

"There at the annual fair year by year the stewards of the city bought a Bull 'the finest that could be got,' and at the new moon of the month at the beginning of seed-time [? April] they dedicated it for the city's welfare. . . . The Bull was led in procession at the head of which went the chief priest and priestess of the city. With them went a herald and sacrificer, and two bands of youths and maidens. So holy was the Bull that nothing unlucky might come near him. The herald pronounced aloud a prayer for 'the safety of the city and the land, and the citizens, and the women and children, for peace and wealth, and for the bringing forth of grain and all other fruits, and of cattle.' All this longing for fertility, for food and children, focuses round the holy Bull, whose holiness is his strength and fruitfulness."

The Bull is sacrificed. The flesh is divided in solemn feast among those who take part in the procession.

"The holy flesh is not offered to a god, it is eaten - to every man his portion - by each and every citizen, that he may get his share of the strength of the Bull, of the luck of the State."

But at Athens the Bouphonia, as it was called, was followed by a curious ceremony.

"The hide was stuffed with straw and sewed up, and next the stuffed animal was set on its feet and yoked to a plough as though it were ploughing. The Death is followed by a Resurrection. Now this is all important. We are accustomed to think of sacrifice as the death, the giving up, the renouncing of something. But sacrifice does not mean 'death' at all. It means making holy, sanctifying; and holiness was to primitive man just special strength and life. What they wanted from the Bull was just that special life and strength which all the year long they had put into him, and nourished and fostered. That life was in his blood. They could not eat that flesh nor drink that blood unless they killed him. So he must die. But it was not to give him up to the gods that they killed him, not to 'sacrifice' him in our sense, but to have him, keep him, eat him, live by him and through him, by his grace."

We have already had to deal with instances of the ceremonial eating of the sacred he-Lamb or Ram, immolated in the Spring season of the year, and partaken of in a kind of communal feast - not without reference (at any rate in later times) to a supposed Lamb-god. Among the Ainos in the North of Japan, as also among the Gilyaks in Eastern Siberia, the Bear is the great food-animal, and is worshipped as the supreme giver of health and strength. There also a similar ritual of sacrifice occurs. A perfect Bear is caught and caged. He is fed up and even pampered to the day of his death. "Fish, brandy and other delicacies are offered to him. Some of the people prostrate themselves before him; his coming into a house brings a blessing, and if he sniffs at the food that brings a blessing too." Then he is led out and slain. A great feast takes place, the flesh is divided, cupfuls of the blood are drunk by the men; the tribe is united and strengthened, and the Bear-god blesses the ceremony - the ideal Bear that has given its life for the people. (Footnote 13)

That the eating of the flesh of an animal or a man conveys to you some of the qualities, the life-force, the mana, of that animal or man, is an idea which one often meets with among primitive folk. Hence the common tendency to eat enemy warriors slain in battle against your tribe. By doing so you absorb some of their valor and strength. Even the enemy scalps which an Apache Indian might hang from his belt were something magical to add to the Apache's power. As Gilbert Murray says, (Footnote 14) "you devoured the holy animal to get its mana, its swiftness, its strength, its great endurance, just as the savage now will eat his enemy's brain or heart or hands to get some particular quality residing there." Even - as he explains on the earlier page - mere contact was often considered sufficient - "we have holy pillars whose holiness consists in the fact that they have been touched by the blood of a bull." And in this connection we may note that nearly all the Christian Churches have a great belief in the virtue imparted by the mere 'laying on of hands.'

In quite a different connection - we read (Footnote 15) that among the Spartans a warrior-boy would often beg for the love of the elder warrior whom he admired (i. e. the contact with his body) in order to obtain in that way a portion of the latter's courage and prowess. That through the mediation of the lips one's spirit may be united to the spirit of another person is an idea not unfamiliar to the modern mind; while the exchange of blood, clothes, locks of hair, etc., by lovers is a custom known all over the world. (Footnote 16)

To suppose that by eating another you absorb his or her soul is somewhat naive certainly. Perhaps it is more native, more primitive. Yet there may be some truth even in that idea. Certainly the food that one eats has a psychological effect, and the flesh-eaters among the human race have a different temperament as a rule from the fruit and vegetable eaters, while among the animals (though other causes may come in here) the Carnivora are decidedly more cruel and less gentle than the Herbivora.

To return to the rites of Dionysus, Gilbert Murray, speaking of Orphism - a great wave of religious reform which swept over Greece and South Italy in the sixth century B.C. - says: (Footnote 17)

"A curious relic of primitive superstition and cruelty remained firmly imbedded in Orphism, a doctrine irrational and unintelligible, and for that very reason wrapped in the deepest and most sacred mystery: a belief in the the sacrifice of Dionysus himself, and the purification of man by his blood. It seems possible that the savage Thracians, in the fury of their worship on the mountains, when they were possessed by the god and became 'wild beasts,' actually tore with their teeth and hands any hares, goats, fawns or the like that they came across. . . . The Orphic congregations of later times, in their most holy gatherings, solemnly partook of the blood of a bull, which was by a mystery the blood of Dionysus-Zagreus himself, the Bull of God, slain in sacrifice for the purification of man." (Footnote 18)

Such instances of early communal feasts, which fulfilled the double part of confirming on the one hand the solidarity of the tribe, and on the other of bringing the tribe, by the shedding of the blood of a divine Victim into close relationship with the very source of its life, are plentiful to find. "The sacramental rite," says Professor Robertson- Smith, (Footnote 19) "is also an atoning rite, which brings the community again into harmony with its alienated god - atonement being simply an act of communion designed to wipe out all memory of previous estrangement." With this subject I shall deal more specially in chapter vii below. Meanwhile as instances of early Eucharists we may mention the following cases, remembering always that as the blood is regarded as the Life, the drinking or partaking of, or sprinkling with, blood is always an acknowledgment of the common life; and that the juice of the grape being regarded as the blood of the Vine, wine in the later ceremonials quite easily and naturally takes the place of the blood in the early sacrifices.

Thus P. Andrada La Crozius, a French missionary, and one of the first Christians who went to Nepaul and Thibet, says in his History of India:

"Their Grand Lama celebrates a species of sacrifice with bread and wine, in which, after taking a small quantity himself, he distributes the rest among the Lamas present at this ceremony." (Footnote 20)

"The old Egyptians celebrated the resurrection of Osiris by a sacrament, eating the sacred cake or wafer after it had been consecrated by the priest, and thereby becoming veritable flesh of his flesh." (Footnote 21)

As is well known, the eating of bread or dough sacramentally (sometimes mixed with blood or seed) as an emblem of community of life with the divinity, is an extremely ancient practice or ritual. Dr. Frazer (Footnote 22) says of the Aztecs, that

"twice a year, in May and December, an image of the great god Huitzilopochtli was made of dough, then broken in pieces and solemnly eaten by his worshipers."

And Lord Kingsborough in his Mexican Antiquities (vol. vi, p. 220) gives a record of a "most Holy Supper" in which these people ate the flesh of their god. It was a cake made of certain seeds,

"and having made it, they blessed it in their manner, and broke it into pieces, which the high priest put into certain very clean vessels, and took a thorn of maguey which resembles a very thick needle, with which he took up with the utmost reverence single morsels, which he put into the mouth of each individual in the manner of a communion."

Acostas (Footnote 23) confirms this and similar accounts.

"The Peruvians partook of a sacrament consisting of a pudding of coarsely ground maize, of which a portion had been smeared on the idol. The priest sprinkled it with the blood of the victim before distributing it to the people."

Priest and people then all took their shares in turn

"with great care that no particle should be allowed to fall to the ground - this being looked upon as a great sin." (Footnote 24)

Moving from Peru to China (instead of 'from China to Peru') we find that

"the Chinese pour wine (a very general substitute for blood) on a straw image of Confucius, and then all present drink of it, and taste the sacrificial victim, in order to participate in the grace of Confucius."

[Here again the Corn and Wine are blended in one rite.] And of Tartary Father Grueber thus testifies:

"This only I do affirm, that the devil so mimics the Catholic Church there, that although no European or Christian has ever been there, still in all essential things they agree so completely with the Roman Church, as even to celebrate the Host with bread and wine: with my own eyes I have seen it. (Footnote 25)"

These few instances are sufficient to show the extraordinarily wide diffusion of Totem-sacraments and Eucharistic rites all over the world.


  1. See English translation of certain chapters (published by David Nutt in 1912) entitled Cults, Myths and Religions, pp. 1-25. The French original is in three large volumes. Return
  2. The same may be said of the formulated statement of the subject in Morris Jastrow's Handbooks of the History of Religion, vol. iv. Return
  3. See Reinach, Eng. trans., op. cit., pp. 20, 21. Return
  4. Far away and Long ago (1918) chs. xvi and xvii. Return
  5. See Orpheus by S. Reinach, p. 3. Return
  6. See The Golden Bough, vol. iv, p. 31. Return
  7. See Andrew Lang, Custom and Myth, p. 104, also Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol. i, pp. 71, 76, etc. Return
  8. See his Religion of the Semites, p. 320. Return
  9. They also recall the rites of the Passover - though in this latter the blood was no longer drunk, nor the flesh eaten raw. Return
  10. The Golden Bough i, 85 - with reference to Spencer and Gillen's Native Tribes of Central Australia, pp. 179, 189. Return
  11. Themis, p. 140. Return
  12. Home University Library, p. 87. Return
  13. See Art and Ritual, pp. 92-98; The Golden Bough, ii, 375 seq.; Themis, pp. 140, 141; etc. Return
  14. Four Stages of Greek Religion, p. 36. Return
  15. Aelian VII, iii, 12: autoi goun (oi paides) deontai twn erastwn eispnein autois. See also E. Bethe on "Die Dorische Knabenliebe" in the Rheinisches Museum, vol. 26, iii, 461. Return
  16. See Crawley's Mystic Rose, pp. 238, 242. Return
  17. See Notes to his translation of the Bacchae of Euripides. Return
  18. For a description of this orgy see Theocritus, Idyll xxvi; also for explanations of it, Lang's Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol. ii, pp, 241-260, on Dionysus. The Encyclopaedia Brit., article "Orpheus," says: - "Orpheus, in the manner of his death, was considered to personate the god Dionysus, and was thus representative of the god torn to pieces every year - a ceremony enacted by the Bacchae in the earliest times with a human victim, and afterwards with a bull, to represent the bull-formed god. A distinct feature of this ritual was wmofagia (eating the flesh of the victim raw), whereby the communicants imagined that they consumed and assimilated the god represented by the victim, and thus became filled with the divine ecstasy." Compare also the Hindu doctrine of Prajpati, the dismembered Lord of Creation. Return
  19. Religion of the Semites, p. 302. Return
  20. See Doane's Bible Myths, p. 306. Return
  21. From The Great Law, of religious origins: by W. Williamson (1899), p. 177. Return
  22. The Golden Bough, vol. ii, p. 79. Return
  23. Natural and Moral History of the Indies. London (1604). Return
  24. See Markham's Rites and laws of the Incas, p. 27. Return
  25. For these two quotations see Jevons' Introduction to the History of Religion, pp. 148 and 219. Return

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