The word totem is of Ojibwe origin. It derives from the word dodaem meaning "brother/sister/kin" and refers to an ancestral or tutelary spirit, usually in the form of a plant or animal, that protects a family, clan or tribe. Everyone with the same totem is considered a family member with kinship obligations and the animal or plant archetype that the totem represents is also family with similar obligations. It is taboo to marry a person born under your totem and also taboo to kill your totem animal.
The totem is an ancestral spirit that is usually associated with a mythic family origin story. It is literally part of the family and acts as a teacher and guardian to all members of the clan. They also act as a reminder of an individual's past, ancestry and ties to the community.
There are similar beliefs in other Native American cultures as well as those in Asia, Australia and Africa and evidence that they existed in pre-Christian Europe.
The word "totem" can also refer to an artistic representation of the totem spirit.
This is quite different from totem poles.
In common vernacular, the word totem is often used to refer to any object or person that represents an idea. For example, the American Flag represents the USA and all the ideas that go along with it. The bald eagle also a totem for the United States, or the office of the US President.
In the modern Pagan community, the word totem is often used to describe an archetypal animal spirit guide that comes to a person on an astral level to help a person learn important spiritual lessons and perform magic on an astral level. This may also be referred to as a power animal or a familiar. It is not always an animal, however. A plant spirit may also serve as a totem in this way.
In some cases, a practitioner has only one spirit animal that stays with them through life, helping and guiding them. But must practitioners claim more than one. Sometimes several spirit animals will stay with the practitioner throughout their lifetime, but often they will drift in and out, appearing during phases of life when their energy will be most helpful.
Some who have multiple totems subscribe to the belief that each rules over a certain element or realm. For example, someone may have four totems, one of each of the classical elements, each animal somehow corresponding to that element. Others may have a totem for each realm or plane of existence.
These spirits may come unbidden, or may be summoned by the practitioner, depending on the tradition. In some cases, the totem spirit is assigned to a working group, rather than an individual.
Totems: The Transformative Power of Your Personal Animal Totem by Brad Steiger
New Paths to Animal Totems and
Plant and Fungus Totems by Lupa
Totemism 201; Why Totem Dictionaries May be Hazardous to Your Spiritual Growth at The Green Wolf
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