A primitive social system in which members of a clan reckoned kinship through their mothers, and worshiped some animal or plant which they regarded as their ancestor and the image of which they bore tattooed on their persons. It was suggested by J. S. Maclennan (in "The Fortnightly Review," 1870, i. 207) that this system existed among the early Hebrews; and his view was taken up by Robertson Smith (in "The Journal of Philology," 1880), who based his theories upon the researches of J. G. Frazer on totemism. Robertson Smith later connected this view with his theory of sacrifice, which he regarded as originally a method of restoring the blood covenant between the members of a clan and its totem. The following are the chief arguments in favor of the existence of totem clans among the ancient Israelites:

I. Animal and Plant Names: Arguments in Favor of Totemism.

A considerable number of persons and places in the Old Testament have names derived from animals or plants. Jacobs ("Studies in Biblical Archæology," pp. 94-103) has given a list of over 160 such names, including Oreb (the raven) and Zeeb (the wolf), princes of the Midianites; Caleb (the dog), Tola (the worm), Shual (the fox), Zimri (the chamois), Jonah (the dove), Huldah (the weasel), Jael (the ibex), Nahash (the serpent), Kezia (the cassia), Shaphan (the rock-badger), Ajalon (the great stag), and Zeboim (the hyena). Many of these, however, are personal names; but among the Israelitish tribes mentioned in Num. xxvi. are the Shualites, or fox clan of Asher; the Shuphamites, or serpent clan of Benjamin; the Bachrites, or camel clan; and the Arelites, or lion clan of Gad. Other tribes having similar names are the Zimrites, or hornet clan, and the Calebites, or dog tribe. In the genealogy of the Horites (Gen. xxxvi.) several animal names occur, such as Shobal (the young lion), Zibeon (the hyena), Anah (the wild ass), Dishan (the gazel), Akan (the roe), Aiah (the kite), Aran (the ass), and Cheran (the lamb). The occurrence of such a large number of animal names in one set of clan names suggests the possibility that the Horites, who were nomads, were organized on the totem-clan system.

II. Exogamy

is the system under which any member of a clan may not marry within his own clan, but must marry a member of a kindred clan. Smith deduces the existence of such clans among the Horites from the mention of Anah clans and Dishan clans in the list. He also draws attention to Shimeis among the Levites, Reubenites, and Benjamites. Female descent is the only means of tracing kinship in exogamous clans; and Smith sees a survival of this in the case of the marriage of Abraham and Sarah, who were not of the same mother, while Abimelech appealed to his mother's clan as being of his flesh (Judges viii. 19), and Naomi told Ruth to return to her mother's house (Ruth i. 8).

III. Ancestor and Animal Worship:

Smith attributes the friendship between David and Nahash, King of the Ammonites, to the fact that they were both members of a serpent clan spread throughout Canaan. That animals were worshiped among the Hebrews is well known, as is shown by the legends of the golden calf and the brazen serpent. The second commandment prohibits this. Smith draws attention to the case of animal worship in Ezek. viii. 7-11, where Ezekiel sees "every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed upon the wall round about," and in the midst of them stood Jaazaniah ben Shaphan (the rock-badger), "with every man his censer in his hand, and a thick cloud of incense went up." Here there is animal worship connected with the name of a person who appears to be connected with an unclean beast, the "shaphan." See also Ancestor Worship.

IV. Forbidden Food:

Members of a totem clan did not eat the totem animal. As such totems gradually spread throughout the nation, a list of forbidden animals would arise which might be analogous to the list of forbidden animals given in Lev. xi. and Deut. xv. Jacobs, however, has shown that in the list of animal names given by him forty-three are clean as against forty-two unclean.

V. Tattooing and Clan Crests: Absence of Historic Connection.

A totem is tattooed on the skin of the totem worshiper; and there is evidence in Lev. xix. 28 that the Israelites were forbidden to make tattoo-marks, while an allusion to this practise may be contained in Isa. xliv. 5 and in Ezek. ix. 4. The mark of Cain may perhaps have been a tattoo-mark. In none of these instances, however, are there indications that the tattoo-marks were in an animal form or connected with animal worship. The tribes of Israel when on the marchhad standards (Num. i. 52, ii. 2 et seq.); and rabbinic literature gives details of the crests (see Flag), which were derived from the blessings of Jacob (Gen. xlix.) and Moses (Deut. xxxiii.). In these most of the tribes are compared to an animal: Judah to a lion; Issachar to an ass; Dan to a serpent; etc. In Moses' blessing, however, Dan is compared to a lion's whelp, which seems to show that the tribes were not arranged on a totemic system.

VI. Blood Feud:

The practical side of the totem system insured the existence of relatives scattered throughout a tribe, who would guarantee the taking up of the blood feud in case one of the members of the totem clan was injured or killed. The existence of the blood feud can be recognized in Israel (see Go'el), but there is no evidence of a connection with totemism. Altogether, while traces and survivals are found of institutions similar to those of the totem clan, there is not sufficient evidence to show that it existed in Israel during historic times, though it is possible that some such system was found among the Edomites.

  • W. Robertson Smith, Animal Worship and Animal Tribes Among the Ancient Arabs and in the Old Testament, in Journal of Philology, ix. 75-100;
  • Jacobs, Studies in Biblical Archœology, pp. 64-103;
  • J. S. Cook, in J. Q. R. 1903;
  • Zlapetal, Totemismus im Alten Testamente, Freiburg, 1903;
  • I. Lévi, La Famille chez les Anciens Hébreux, Paris, 1903;
  • S. Reinach, Cultes, Mythes et Religions, Paris, 1904.
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