See those? Those are what we call “totem poles”. You can read more about totem poles over at Wikipedia. They’re a distinctive idea lodged into the mind of our popular culture.
But they have nothing at all to do with totemism! Totemism and totem poles are about as related as, say, chairs and apples. Sometimes totems and totem poles do coincide, but only in the same way that you may sit on a chair eating an apple or carve a chair into the shape of an apple for kicks (or, well, for sitting on).
So are totems in World of Warcraft related to totem poles or totemism? I think it’s the latter, influenced a little by (mistaken) ideas about the former which have passed into pop culture. Let me explain.
What is a totem?
Do you support a sports team like the Lions or the Springboks? Maybe you have an ornament or keyring with your national flower or symbol, or you play in a WoW guild called <Dragons> or <Eagles> or something of that sort. Perhaps you have a nickname like Bob “The Weasel” or you know someone who does?
All of these are examples of Western forms of totemism! Quite simply, totemism is the association of something with something else. It’s a phenomenon that’s widespread throughout the world and particularly in primal cultures, where it can have varying degrees of significance. Like shamanism, totemism is generally similar-but-not-the-same when found in different cultures, and the differences from one area to the next can be major enough that it’s worth questioning the propriety of using a common appellation.
We get our word “totem” from the North American Ojibwa people, who use the word dotem (also written doodem) to mean clan membership. The story goes that six great beings emerged from the ocean to mingle with humans. Five stayed with the Ojibwa to help them. From this arose the five great totems or clans: Catfish, Crane, Loon, Bear and Marten. The Crane clan was the most vocal while the Bear was the largest, and so on.
The Ojibwa totem differentiations are used for government and organisation, as well as to divide labour. And at one extreme, totemism can be nothing more than a social demarcation or societal organisation – like how two different sports teams are named after two different animals, or how we sometimes refer to the “ruling classes” and the “working classes”. In this sense there’s not much connection to the totem spells that WoW shamans use.
But from the example of the Ojibwa we do see another aspect of totemism: for example, the bear clan shares some of the attributes of a bear, like its largeness, and the crane clan shares some attributes of the crane, such as it’s loudness. Thus an anthropologist would say that these animals are the clans’ totems.
In that sense a “totem” is simply what we call the thing that something or someone is associated with. For example the South African rugby team’s totem is the springbok. It’s used in their logo and seems intended to embody something of the speed and grace they hope for in their game. While in one sense it’s just a symbol, in another sense it carries a very real meaning and deeper associations with the nation, the land, and nature itself.
Societies, nations, individuals, objects or places can all have their own totem, and the reasons for the association can vary dramatically. For example there is a story that some people from the central African Nuer tribe were on a journey and could not find any water. They saw a monitor lizard and chased after it. As it ran from them, it led them to a pool of water and they were able to quench their thirsts, saving them from death. Thus the clan respect the monitor lizard and regard it as their totem.
Totem can be associated with different degrees or kinds of supernatural power. A couple of weeks ago we looked at the concepts of mana and taboo. Like mana, a totem can be a powerful force that helps a person or people – sometimes inspiring, protecting or guiding them. Someone who has a beautiful singing voice may have a bird as their totem, whereas a strong warrior may have a snake totem, and so on.
Such totems are often protected by strong taboos, and may be involved in rituals intended to preserve or honour the association. For example, it may be that it would be taboo for the Nuer tribe to harm a lizard – and if anyone broke this taboo, they could be expected to die, or to suffer in some way. But the lizard could also be eaten as part of a sacred holiday, perhaps leading to temporary ecstatic experiences and spiritual power. Totems may also be carefully guarded secrets, as revealing your totem to someone else could break the taboo and offend the source of your power.
Totems can be received in various ways. They can be inherited, or passed on from parents to children. They can be revealed incidentally as in the story of the Nuer above. Or an animal spirit may approach someone and offer a sort of deal, where the person receives special power from that spirit while agreeing to have a special relationship of honour and loyalty with the animal.
The notion that there are idols called “totems” which are meant to be sort of beacons of the totem effect is a bit squiffy. It originally arose from the misconceptions of European explorers and settlers who saw totem poles and assumed that they were idols which were worshipped by the locals, when in reality the poles were simply monuments or ornaments (and, as I have said, almost entirely unrelated to totemism).
However, symbols – say, carvings or pictures or artefacts – of a totem can be thought of as sometimes embodying or invoking the power and influence of the real totem. If your sports team is the Tigers and you wear a tiger pendant, you may be subconciously invoking the spirit of your team with you for your daily life, or at least be expressing your support of them – that is, the special relationship between you and your team. Similarly if your clan’s totem is a bear, images of bears may feature strongly in your religious rites (though it is actually more likely that such images would be taboo, but anyway) and may be perceived to strengthen the totem relationship and thus enhance its power.
In World of Warcraft
This brings us almost to a point where totems in World of Warcraft are almost recognisable. See, real world totems can be many things – although I’ve mostly talked about animals, they can also be things like elements (e.g. water, sky, earth), or weather conditions, or can even represent states of being like hot/cold or large/small.
As such, the idea of the elemental totems is actually not that strange; they could be ritually empowered symbols, gained from communion with the elemental spirits themselves (remember your totem quests?), which are imbued and displayed to invoke some aspects of these elemental spirits’ powers or attributes to help or to hinder.
The tricky thing is that they’re little pieces of wood or … er, spacewood or whatever, stuck into the ground with a limited radius of effect, because real totems are generally bound to a person or place rather than to a crafted object. Perhaps we should therefore think of the shamans themselves as the centre to whom the totems are bound, and that the setting down of little wooden posts is meant to enhance and focus into that area the specific aspect of elemental power desired – much as the totemic religious festivals described earlier may do. The shaman’s “totems” are used to call upon the power of their real totems, who are the elemental spirits themselves.
So, that’s totemism. And that’s also the last of this series of posts – at least for now – as nothing else about the shaman class brings to mind any such interesting but obscure real world connections. I hope it’s been an interesting journey. I admit to having struggled somewhat to describe things in a simple yet accurate way while focusing on those details which are relevant to World of Warcraft rather than anthropology. But if anything remains unclear, you can ask me questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to explain a bit better!