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Observations placeholder

Watson, Lyall - African totem groups



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Lyall Watson – Lightning Bird

There is in African custom an essential harmony, an equilibrium with the land which seems to be lacking in our lives.

The people show this most clearly in the strength and propriety of their beliefs about, and their understanding of, the natural world.  Many even identify themselves with a particular plant or animal, believing that there is a group spirit or soul, a collective identity that is equated in some way with this totem.

Each clan has its siboko, around which it is united and which distinguishes it from all other clans.  The attributes of the totem become those of the clan and may be embodied in its ritual.


Originally each chiefdom had its own totem.  Among the Sotho, for instance, the Ngwaketse chose kwena – the crocodile; the Twana venerate phuti, the duiker; the Malete are identified with nare – the buffalo; the Tlokkwa with thakadu – the aardvark; and the Kgatla with kgabo – the baboon.


 ‘What do you dance?’ the villagers asked when Boshier became a part of their lives.  At first he did not understand, but later learned that this is what people in Africa say when they want to know the origins of a stranger. The reply ‘I dance owl’ for instance, means that the visitor comes from a community that recognises the owl as its totem and is related not only to the bird, but historically to all other clans which know the same siboko.. When a group broke away from its original locale, it retained its original totem so that it is possible even today, when chiefdoms are confused by constant intermingling to determine affinities simply by asking ‘O Binang – what do you dance?’

Totems help reinforce incest taboos.  It is normally forbidden for people of the same clan to marry… for [a community without written genealogies] the total system provides a convenient shorthand for blood lines.  It is also possible that totemism provides a simple effective form of conservation.  If each clan regards certain species as taboo, this guarantees that those plants and animals will have an area in which they are protected.

[But the primary importance of the totem is spiritual]

There  is an implicit connection between the name of a thing and the thing itself.  A man and his name are often regarded as identical and a personal .. name is a thing of power and significance… it is a person’s spirit.

The totem is also a thing of the spirit and so a man and his name and his spirit and his totem are all one.

And – arguing on the basis that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to one another -  if a man and a bird are called by the same name they must belong to the same species

A natural consequence of this belief is that the totem becomes taboo for the clan.  Boshier learned that the killing of an owl by a man called ‘Owl’ is regarded as equivalent to the murder of a clan member, and is treated as such.…

The source of the experience

Watson, Lyall

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Communing with nature