The Cosmological System of Totemism and the Idea of Class

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We are beginning to see that totemism is a much more complex religion than it first appeared to be. We have already distinguished three classes of things which it recognizes as sacred, in varying degrees : the totemic emblem, the animal or plant whose appearance this emblem reproduces, and the members of the clan. However, this list is not yet complete. In fact, a religion is not merely a collection of fragmentary beliefs in regard to special objects like those we have just been discussing. To a greater or less extent, all known religions have been systems of ideas which tend to embrace the universality of things, and to give us a complete representation of the world. If totemism is to be considered as a religion comparable to the others, it too should offer us a conception of the universe. As a matter of fact, it does satisfy this condition.

The fact that this aspect of totemism has generally been neglected is due to the too narrow notion of the clan which has been prevalent. Ordinarily it is regarded as a mere group of human beings. Being a simple subdivision of the tribe, it seems that like this, it is made up of nothing but men. But in reason­ing thus, we substitute our European ideas for those which the primitive has of man and of society. For the Australian, things themselves, everything which is in the universe, are a part of the tribe; they are constituent elements of it and, so to speak, regular members of it; just like men, they have a determined place in the general scheme of organization of the society. " The South Australian savage," says Fison, " looks upon the universe as the Great Tribe, to one of whose divisions he himself belongs; and all things, animate and inanimate, which belong to his class are parts of the body corporate whereof he himself is a part."1 As a consequence of this principle, whenever the tribe is divided into two phratries, all known things are distributed between them.  " All nature," says Palmer, in speaking of the Bellinger River tribe, " is also divided urto class [phratry] names. . .  The sun and moon and stars

are said ... to belong to classes [phratries] just as the blacks themselves."1 The Port Mackay tribe in Queensland has two phratries with the names Yungaroo and Wootaroo, as do the neighbouring tribes. Now as Bridgmann says, " all things, animate and inanimate, are divided by these tribes into two classes, named Yungaroo and Wootaroo.”2 Nor does the classifi­cation stop here. The men of each phratry are distributed among a certain number of clans ; likewise, the things attributed to each phratry are in their turn distributed among the clans of which the phratry is composed. A certain tree, for example, will be assigned to the Kangaroo clan, and to it alone ; then, just like the human members of the clan, it will have the Kangaroo as totem ; another will belong to the Snake clan ; clouds will be placed under one totem, the sun under another, etc. All known things will thus be arranged in a sort of tableau or syste­matic classification embracing the whole of nature.

We have given a certain number of these classifications else­where ;3 at present we shall confine ourselves to repeating a few of these as examples. One of the best known of these is the one found in the Mount Gambier tribe. This tribe includes two phratries, named respectively the Kumite and the Kroki; each of these, in its turn, is subdivided into five clans. Now " every­thing in nature belongs to one or another of these ten clans " ;4 Fison and Howitt say that they are all " included " within it. In fact, they are classified under these ten totems just like species in their respective classes. This is well shown by the following table based on information gathered by Curr and by Fison and Howitt.5





Fish-hawk Pelican . Crow Smoke, honeysuckle, certain trees, etc. Kangaroo, the summer, the sun, wind, the autumn, etc. Details are lacking for the fourth and fifth Kroki clans.



Black cockatoo A non-poisonous snake . Blackwood-trees, dogs,  fire, frost, etc. Rain, thunder, lightning, clouds,

hail, winter, etc.


Tea-tree An edible root

A white crestless cockatoo The stars, the moon, etc. Fish, seal, eel, the stringybark- tree, etc. Duck, crayfish, owls, etc. Bustard, quail, a small kanga­roo, etc.


The list of things attached to each clan is quite incomplete;

Curr himself warns us that he has limited himself to enumerating some of them. But through the work of Mathews and of Howitt1 we have more extended information to-day on the. classification adopted by the Wotjobaluk tribe, which enables us to under­stand better how a system of this kind is able to include the whole universe, as known to the natives. The Wotjobaluk also are divided into two phratries called Gurogity and Gumaty (Kro-kitch and Gamutch according to Howitt2) ; not to prolong this enumeration, we shall content ourselves with indicating, after Mathews, the things classed in some of the clans of the Gurogity phratry.

In the clan of the Yam are classified the plain-turkey, the native cat, the mopoke, the dyim-dyim owl, the mallee hen, the rosella parrot, the peewee.

In the Mussel3 clan are the grey emu, the porcupine, the cur­lew, the white cockatoo, the wood-duck, the mallee lizard, the stinking turtle, the flying squirrel, the ring-tail opossum, the bronze-wing pigeon, the wijuggla.

In the Sun clan are the bandicoot, the moon, the kangaroo-rat, the black and white magpies, the opossum, the ngwt hawk, the gum-tree grub, the wattle-tree grub, the planet Venus.

In the clan of the Warm Wind4 are the grey-headed eagle-hawk, the carpet snake, the smoker parrot, the shell parrot, the mwrakan hawk, the dikkomur snake, the ring-neck parrot, the mirudai snake, the shingle-back lizard.

If we remember that there are many other clans (Howitt names twelve and Mathews fourteen and adds that his list is incomplete5), we will understand how all the things in which the native takes an interest find a natural place in these classifications.

Similar arrangements have been observed in the most diverse

parts of the Australian continent; in South Australia, in Vic­toria, and in New South Wales (among the Euahlayi1) ; very clear traces of it are found in the central tribes.2 In Queensland, where the clans seem to have disappeared and where the matri­monial classes are the only subdivisions of the phratry, things are divided up among these classes. Thus, the Wakelbura are divided into two phratries, Mallera and Wutaru ; the classes of the first are called Kurgilla and Banbe, those of the second, Wungo and Obu. Now to the Banbe belong the opossum, the kangaroo, the dog, honey of little bees, etc. ; to the Wungo are attributed the emu, the bandicoot, the black duck, the black snake, the brown snake ; to the Obu, the carpet snake, the honey of stinging bees, etc. ; to the Kurgilla, the porcupine, the turkey of the plains, water, rain, fire, thunder, etc.3

This same organization is found among the Indians of North America. The Zuni have a system of classification which, in its essential lines, is in all points comparable to the one we have just described. That of the Omaha rests on the same principles as that of the Wotjobaluk.4 An echo of these same ideas sur­vives even into the more advanced societies. Among the Haida, all the gods and mythical beings who are placed in charge of the different phenomena of nature are classified in one or the other of the two phratries which make up the tribe just like men; some are Eagles, the others, Crows.5 Now the gods of things are only another aspect of the things which they govern.6 This mythological classification is therefore merely another form of the preceding one. So we may rest assured that this way of conceiving the world is independent of all ethnic or geographic particularities ; and at the same time it is clearly seen to be closely united to the whole system of totemic beliefs.