Animals with a human head, humans with an animal head… a practice associated to witchcraft or zoolatry for a lay person. Indeed animals are inferior beings which could not be deities, according to the present African thoughts, influenced by the European and Semitic world. Totemism triggers the most upsetting fantasies. But like virtually everything in Kamita (Africa), totemism has a very concrete meaning. We will try to tell you about it…
To understand totemism, it is important to enter the fundaments of the world’s creation according to the Kamit (Black) philosophy. According to Kamit cosmogonies, the primordial Ancestor (God) is the Energy at the origin of the world’s creation.
At the beginning, He-She created air and water that He united to give birth to the sky and Earth, and separate them. She-He fertilized the earth through the sky (sunlight and rain), and then begot vegetation. This conception can be found in the Iunu cosmogony in Ancient Egypt where Nuté (the sky) and Goba (the earth) are Usiré (Osiris)’s parents. Usiré, symbolizes among other things vegetation. Hence the fact that Usiré is often represented in green.
Then, the presence of vegetation allowed the emergence of the animal kingdom. And it is after that era that the human being appeared. Plants as well as animals and humans are endowed with one part of the initial Energy that allowed life. The human being could only exist because there were vegetation and animals before him. From there, humankind has therefore a vegetal and animal essence. Humankind is somehow the daughter of vegetable and animal kingdoms.
Totemism reveals the idea according to which humans and animals are God’s creatures and share the same condition and divine essence through the Energy that impregnates them all. The human being therefore can stand on the deep bond between him and the animal to identify himself to it. Animals through the divine force they carry are bonded to the Creator Himself and His principles (deities). Example: representation of Amen (God) under the animal traits of a ram in the pharaoh’s civilization.
Totemism is then the association between the plant’s or animal’s forces and the one of the human being in order to gain some vital Energy, some divine character. Totemism is most of all the research of the relation of animal, a little less vegetal, of human or divinity. But how to determine which animal corresponds to a deity or a group of humans?
How to determine one’s totem?
Totemism by observation
Let us take the example of the Egyptian deity Horo (Horus) who is represented by a falcon’s head. The ancient Egyptians had noticed that the falcon has a very sharp and overall sight on everything that occurs. Hence up to date, people talk about “falcon eye” to emphasize on the sharpness of that sight. The king also must have that meticulous sight to scrutinize the application of Maât (order). The falcon is therefore the totemic animal of power. It is also a great bird which represented power in the Somali, the Yoruba and in Mali’s civilizations.
It is this Kamit concept that obviously is found in USA where the power emblem is another bird of prey, the sea eagle. This was probably done through Native Americains. Almost every animal has a representative function, a feature defined by God that makes it a principle’s totem.
The snake for example due to the terror that it inspires is a chaos totem (Apopi). But the terror it inspires is necessary when enemies must be defeated. That is why Yoruba kings like their Egyptian ancestors were bearing a snake on their helmets. It is this comprehension of the animal kingdom that has allowed Africans to master Nature and live globally in harmony with her. Whereas according to the Europeans and Semites, animals are a permanent threat that one does not understand and which must be dominated or exterminated. Coexistence becomes impossible.
Totemism by history
Let us take the example of the Bassa people of Cameroon whose totemic animal is the spider. According to the Bassas’ memory, some centuries ago, they were living in the North of present Cameroon before being chased after by some armies likely coming to Islamize them by force. As they were running towards the South under the direction of Nanga their chief, they found a cave inside which they took shelter.
That cave bears the name of Ngog Lituba (pierced stone). A spider came to spin a huge net at the entrance. The pursuers arrived in front of the cave and when they saw the net, they thought the cave was uninhabited and carried on their way. The spider has therefore saved the Bassas’ lives and since then it has been their totemic animal. So, a totemic animal is determined by historical events.
Who is represented by the totem?
The totem can represent a deity, an individual or a group of individuals. The well-known King Béhanzin of Danhomé (present Benin), was having the shark as totemic animal, probably to associate the destructive force of that animal to his personality, and show his determination to defend his kingdom. Many African people were organized in totemic clans. One clan could have a cat, crocodile… as a totem. And often, all the members of the same clan were bearing the same name. That could be observed a lot at the beginning of the last century in Africa.
According to the researcher Cheikh M’backé Diop, eldest son of Cheick Anta Diop, the totemic animal of the Diops’ Wolof clan is a bird: the crane precisely. That crane bears a crest on its head. That same bird is an Egyptian hieroglyphic sign which is pronounced “Djb”. And it is “Djub” that progressively turned into “Diop” in Senegal.
Diop is therefore a totemic name with an Egyptian origin designating the crane. And as a consequence the Diops were wearing a hairstyle looking like that animal’s crest. Hence, all the magnificent and original totemic hairstyles have existed in Ancient Africa. Very often, people were styling their hair to resemble their tribe’s totem or to show their membership in a clan.
The ancient Egyptian people comprised 42 totemic clans. And each clan was forbidding itself to eat its totemic animal. The Banyarwanda people of Rwanda were from the beginning divided into 15 totemic clans. The Abashambo clan has Intare (the lion) as their totem. The Ababandas have Impyisi (the hyena) as their totem, etc.
The totemism developed by the Amerindians also has African roots, introduced by the first black inhabitants of America , and enriched 2700 years ago by the Egyptian-Sudanese and 700 years ago by the Mandingos .
Our research shows that totemism is a perfectly sensible practice as a result of the scientific study of the world’s creation. Totemism is the search of animal or vegetal relation to gain more divine feature. The totem is defined from the observation of animals’ behavior and the relation between that behavior and daily life. Totem is also defined by historical events. It can be representative of a deity, a human being or a group of human beings. Totemism had the advantage to ensure the harmonious coexistence between Nature and human being in Ancient Africa.
By : Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)
Bibliography and sources:
- Antériorité des civilisations nègres (Anteriority of Negro civilizations), Cheikh Anta Diop, pages 88 to 91.
- Cheikh Anta Diop : l’homme et l’œuvre (Cheikh Anta Diop : the man and the work) ; Cheikh M’Backé Diop, page 249
- Les organisations socioprofessionnelles de l’ancien Rwanda (Socio-professional organizations of ancient Rwanda), Alexis Kagame
-  The first Americans were Africans, David Imhotep
-  They Came before colombus : African presence in ancient America, Ivan van Sertima, chapters 6 and 9