The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1

Author: Charles Hose

Suggested Theory of the Origin of Totemism

Before bringing this chapter to an end, we would point out that among the facts we have described there are some which seem to suggest a possible and, indeed, as it seems to us, a very natural and probable mode of origin of totem-worship. We refer to the varieties of the NGARONG of the Ibans and sporadic analogous cases among the other tribes. We have seen that the NGARONG may assume the form of some curious natural object, or of some one animal distinguished from its fellows by some slight peculiarity, which receives the attentions of some one man only. In such cases the NGARONG is hardly distinguishable from a fetish. In other cases the man, being unable to distinguish the particular animal which he believes to be animated by his NGARONG, extends his regard and gratitude to the whole species. In such a case it seems difficult to deny the name "individual totem" to the species, if the term is to be used at all. In other cases, again, all the members of a man’s family and all his descendants, and, if he be a chief, all the members of the community over which he rules, may come to share in the benefits conferred by his NGARONG, and in the feeling of respect for it and in the performance of rites in honour of the species of animal in one individual of which it is supposed to reside. In such cases the species approaches very closely the clan-totem in some of its varieties. (In speaking of the "Kobong" of certain natives of Western Australia, Sir G. Grey[148] says, "This arises from the family belief that some one individual of the species is their nearest friend, to kill whom would be a great crime, and to be carefully avoided.")

Of similar cases among other tribes of guardian-animals appearing to men in dreams and claiming their respect and gratitude, we must mention the case of Aban Jau, a powerful chief of the Sebops, a Klemantan sub-tribe. He had hunted and eaten the wild pig freely like all his fellow-tribesmen, until once in a dream a wild boar appeared to him, and told him that he had always helped him in his fighting. Thereafter Aban Jau refused, until the day of his death, to kill or eat either the wild or the domestic pig, although he would still consult for omens the livers of pigs killed by others.[149]

We have described above (vol. ii., p. 76) how a Kayan may become blood-brother to a crocodile in a dream, and may thereafter be called Baya (crocodile), and how in this way one Kayan chief had come to regard himself as both son and nephew to crocodiles, and how he believed that they brought him success in hunting and carried him ashore when (in a dream) he had fallen into the river. The cousin of this chief, too, regarded himself as specially befriended by crocodiles because his great-grandfather had become blood-brother to one in a dream. So it is clear that the members of the family to which these young men belong are likely to continue to regard themselves as related by blood to the crocodiles, and bound to them by special ties of gratitude.

In another case we saw how all the people of one household regard themselves as related to the crocodiles and specially favoured by them, explaining the relation as due to one of their ancestors having become a crocodile. In another case we saw that some ill-defined relation to the gibbon is claimed by a community of Kenyahs whose house is decorated with carvings of the form of the gibbon, and whose members will not kill the gibbon. And in yet another case we saw that a Kayan house is decorated with conventionalised carvings of some animal whose species has been forgotten by the community. In each of these last three cases, it seems highly probable that the special relation to the animal was established by some such process as we see going on in the preceding case; so that we seem to have in this series one case of incipient totemism and others illustrating various stages of decay of abortive beginnings of totemism. And it is easy to imagine how in the absence of unfavourable conditions such beginnings might grow to a fully developed totem-system. For suppose that in any one community there happened to be at one time two or more prosperous families, each claiming to be related with and protected by some species of animal as the result of friendly overtures made by the animals to members of the families in their dreams. It would then be highly probable that members of other families, envious of the good fortune of these, would have similar dream experiences, and so come to claim a similar protection; until very soon the members of any family that could claim no such protection would come to be regarded as unfortunate and even somewhat disreputable beings, while the faith of one family in its guardian-animal would react upon and strengthen the faith of others in theirs. So a system of clan-totems would be established, around which would grow up various myths of origin, various magical practices, and various religious rites.

It is well known that such dreams as convince the Iban, the Kayan, and the Kenyah of the reality of his special relation to some animal, and lead him to respect all animals of some one species, produce similar results in other parts of the world. We quote the following passages from Mr. Frazer’s remarks on individual totems in his book on totemism: — "An Australian seems usually to get his individual totem by dreaming that he has been transformed into an animal of that species." "In America the individual totem is usually the first animal of which a youth dreams during the long and generally solitary fast which American Indians observe at puberty." Such dream experiences are then the VERA CAUSA of the inception of faith in individual totems among the peoples in which totemism is most highly developed; and among the tribes of Sarawak we find cases which illustrate how a similar faith, strengthened by further dreams and by the good fortune of its possessor, may spread to all the members of his family or of his household and to his descendants, until in some cases the guardian animal becomes almost, though not quite, a clan-totem. The further development of such incipient totems among these tribes is probably prevented at the present time, not only by their agricultural habits, but also by their passionate addiction to war and fighting and head-hunting; for these pursuits necessitate the strict subordination of each community to its chief, and compel all families to unite in the cult of the hawk to the detriment of all other animal-cults, because the hawk is, by its habits, so much better suited than any other animal to be a guide to them on warlike expeditions.[150]

The prevalence of the belief in a Supreme Being must also tend to prevent the development of totemism.


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Chicago: Charles Hose, "Suggested Theory of the Origin of Totemism," The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, ed. Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945 and trans. Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853- in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues)), Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2022,

MLA: Hose, Charles. "Suggested Theory of the Origin of Totemism." The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, edited by Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945, and translated by Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853-, in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1, Vol. Volume One, London, Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Hose, C, 'Suggested Theory of the Origin of Totemism' in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1, Smith, Elder & Co., London. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2022, from