Original Research - Special Collection: Major Theorists of Religion

Durkheim’s totemic principle, shamanism and Southern African San religions

Richard A. Northover
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 77, No 2 | a6709 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v77i2.6709 | © 2021 Richard A. Northover | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 06 April 2021 | Published: 29 July 2021

About the author(s)

Richard A. Northover, Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature, College of Human Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

Abstract

The study reappraised Emile Durkheim’s totemic principle in relation to the origins of religion and culture, using, amongst others, speech act theory and recent southern African epistemologies, especially David Lewis-Williams’ theory of shamanism, potency and altered states of consciousness. The study was text-based, qualitative and interpretive, and used key texts from anthropology, archaeology, history of religion, sociology and philosophy. It outlined Durkheim’s theory of the totemic principle and critiqued it, using performativity, cognitive neuroscience and southern African ethnography. Durkheim’s sociological reduction of God and religion to society and his dismissal of individual psychological experience were criticised. Lewis-Williams’ shamanism, both as a general theory and with particular reference to the San, was explored as an alternative to Durkheim’s totemism, animals playing a central but different function in each system. Although his understanding of performativity and sociopolitical relations in religion was inchoate, Durkheim helped demystify religion and establish social constructionism. He overestimated collective affect and sentiments and underestimated the role played by individual altered states of consciousness in the origin of religion.

Contribution: The study critically evaluates Durkheim’s reduction of religion to society using current concepts of performativity, Matthias Guenther’s New Animism and David Lewis-Williams’ revised shamanism, particularly its ideas of trance dance, potency and altered states of consciousness, and posits shamanism rather than totemism as the probable origin of religion.


Keywords

Emile Durkheim; totemism; mana; David Lewis-Williams; San; shamanism; potency; animism; altered states of consciousness

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