Totemism is therefore a complex of varied ideas and ways of behaviour based on a worldview drawn from nature. There are ideological, emotional, reverential, and genealogical relationships of social groups or specific persons with animals or natural objects, the totems. Taboos direct the society and instil fear into people’s minds, and had their own consequences on whoever treated it with levity. The violation was not only seen as a crime against the gods and the society, but also against the traditional institution, regarded as the representative of the god the institution was saddled with the responsibility of ensuring peace, orderliness, and development of the society. This work shall examine totems and taboos in the African traditional religion and life (Freud 8).

Totem; the definition

According to Merriam Webster online dictionary totem is from Ojibwa, the most basic form of the word in Ojibwa is believed to be “ote” but 18th century English speakers encountered it as “ototeman” which became our word totem. According to Merriam Webster online dictionary, totem refers to an emblematic depiction of an animal or plant that gives a family or clan its name and that often serves as a reminder of its ancestry. Totem according to Wikipedia the online encyclopaedia, is a spirit being, sacred object, or symbol that serves as an emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, lineage, or tribe. While it has an Ojibwa origin, however it is not indigenous to the Americas alone but to a number of other cultures worldwide. Here we shall focus on African worldview (Hopkins 146).

Totem in the African worldview

Now what is a totem? As a rule it is an animal, either edible and harmless, or dangerous and feared; more rarely the totem is a plant or a force of nature (rain, water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan. The totem is first the tribal ancestor of the clan, as well as its tutelary spirit and protector; it sends oracles and, though otherwise dangerous, the totem knows and spares its children. The members of a totem are therefore under a sacred obligation not to kill (destroy) their totem, to abstain from eating its meat or from any other enjoyment of it. Any violation of these prohibitions is automatically punished. The character of a totem is inherent not only in a single animal or a single being but in all the members of the species. From time to time festivals are held at which the members of a totem represent or imitate, in ceremonial dances, the movements, and characteristics of their totems. The totem is hereditary through either the maternal or the paternal line; (maternal transmission probably always preceded and was only later supplanted by the paternal) (Freud 9).

People generally view a totem as a companion, relative, protector, progenitor, or helper, and ascribe to it superhuman powers and abilities, and offer it some combination of respect, veneration, awe, and fear. Most cultures use special names and emblems to refer to the totem, and those it sponsors engage in partial identification with the totem or symbolic assimilation to it. In Africa, wives praise their husbands using the name of their Totem, for example, a wife may call her husband ‘the great lion of the forest’ that is, if the husband’s totem is a lion. There is usually a prohibition or taboo against killing, eating, or touching the totem (ibid)

The African Concept of Taboo

The word “taboo” traces its roots to Polynesia, and was first used in English by the great explorer, Captain Cook. In the context of traditional Africa, taboos have being embedded in the African traditional religion. However, before one can undertake any careful study of taboos, one must really understand the meaning of taboos as well as their impact on the society (Joseph 1990).

Etymologically speaking, “taboo” in its Polynesian rendering means, “forbidden.” It is similar to the sacer in the Greek, Kadesh in Hebrew and Nso in Igbo language of Nigeria. In the Akan parlance, a taboo can be termed as an “Akyiwade,” that which is forbidden or prohibited. It is also related to “Mmusu” which is a prohibition against very grievous evils like incest, murder, and suicide. Thus, all taboos are “Akyiwade,” however, not all taboos are “Mmusu.” Ackah (1988) commenting on taboos referred to them as prohibitions such as certain wrong acts and consequences of which are believed to be automatic, though not necessarily immediate. Thus, one cannot escape the punishment that comes with breaking a taboo, although this punishment is not time-bound. The three aforementioned definitions of the term “taboo” tend to agree on a particular point: taboos are prohibitions and non-adherence to them comes along with a punishment for the individual who commits the act or for the entire community, of which he is a member (Dagba et al 145).

Taboo may be used in two senses. The narrower sense represents the cultic or purely religious usage, while the broader sense represents its usage in socio-economic and political contexts. Therefore, cultic or religious taboos represent a subset of taboos, but not taboos as a whole set. For the same reason, religion is useful, but not a necessary condition for the existence and existential application of taboos.

Given the nature of the African society which is religious, ‘taboos’ are religious and its violation often linked to the ontological order of the universe, as it can upset the relationship between God and human beings (ibid).

Taboos in traditional African societies vary from one place to another. As such, what may be regarded, as a taboo in one part of Africa may not be in another. It is from this understanding that Kanu (2015), in his book stated, A Hermeneutic Approach to African traditional Religion, approximately ten (10) obtainable taboos in the African ontology.

First is Incest, which ensures that people did not have canal knowledge of their mother, sister or daughter, this taboo. Every clan has a totem (usually an animal, sometimes a plant, or force of nature) and people are not allowed to marry those with the same totem as themselves.

Secondly, Adultery which taboo is meant to protect the integrity of the marriage institution, which Onyeidu (1976) maintains is a holy sacrament. Both families to cement the relationship equally regard marriage as a covenant that is consummated by a woman’s dowry and sealed by the blood of a victim that is slaughter and consumed.

In addition, Murder is another taboo in African existence, which is aimed at protecting citizens of the society. Murder according to Ore (1999) is an abomination in traditional Igbo society. It is a punishable offence by death by the cult of Ancestors popularly known as Alekwu among the Otukpa-Idoma people.

Furthermore, we have Suicide, which is an abomination to commit, especially by hanging. In Igbo traditional society, such persons were not buried with the full traditional rites. No sympathy, or crying or mourning is done for them.

Fifthly, killing a sacred Animal, some animals are considered sacred because of their relationship with divinities and some are totems belonging to a particular clan or tribe or community. Sometimes, they have been sacrificed to the gods and allowed to roam about. It is a taboo to kill them. Bestiality is also a taboo and even unheard of to have sexual relationship with animals such as goats, cattle, etc.

In addition, Pregnancy Taboos exist in African communities this is aimed at protecting the baby in the womb of the woman. She is forbidden by this taboo from eating certain kinds of meal like snail, monkey, egg, rat, etc

Also, hunting taboos where, especially in Igbo traditional society, men were not allowed to go for hunting while their wives were a baby. Their wives are also expected to be chaste and to keep away from meat while their husbands are out in the field hunting.

Additionally, there is also taboo associated with Kings and Chief since, they are considered sacred persons and, thus, had taboos that were associated with their offices, which they must observe. For instance, it was a taboo for the Alaafin to leave the palace after his coronation

Lastly, there is Stream Taboo that prohibits fighting in a stream. The main purpose is to avoid stirring the stream and, thus, polluting the water. To see that it is adhered to, a religious consequence is attached to it (185).


Totem is sacred animal, plant or force selected by a clan or tribe which its members cannot eat, kill or touch unless on certain special ritual. Totem in relation to taboo refers to the symbolic representation of a clan or tribe in the African world. The totem system structures the tribe, clan, group, or community. It in turn informs taboos as laws and prohibition for the common good.

Every moral system requires the existence of guiding principles, source(s) of motivation, and some grounds for objectivity. Additionally, some moral systems also provide moral transformation. Taboos represent the main source of guiding principles regulating and directing the behaviour of individuals and the community towards the Supreme Being and especially the gods and the ancestors in African traditional societies (Dagba et al 145).



  1. Hopkins, E.W.. (1918). the Background of Totemism. Journal of the American oriental society 38. American oriental society: 154-59.
  2. Freud, S… (1946). Totem and Taboo: Resemblance between the Psychic Lives. New York. Alfred A. Knopt.
  3. Dagba, B. I., Sambe, L. N, and Shomkegh S. A… (2013). Totemic Beliefs and Biodiversity Conservation among the Tiv People of Benue State, Nigeria. Journal of natural science Vol 3. No 8. P. 145.
  4. Joseph O. (1990) The Value of African Taboos for Biodiversity and Sustainable Development. Arc.
  5. ACKAH, A. C. Akan (1988) Ethics: A Study of the Moral Ideas and the Moral Behaviour of the Akan Tribes of Ghana, Accra. Ghana University Press.
  6. Kanu, I. A. (2015) A Hermeneutic Approach to African Traditional Religion. Fab Anieh Nigeria Limited. Jos.



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