Totems: Are they of significance?

BY: Zadok K. Gyesi


What comes to your mind when somebody asks you which clan you are from?  “Ye gye wo sen?” the Twi-speaking would ask. I know you are now responding to the greeting or mentioning your clan or thinking about it.

“I feel very proud when I see my totem which is the crow, but I don’t understand its meaning,” Kwamena said laughing, when I asked him about how he sees the usefulness of  totems as family and clan symbols.

Most of the people I interacted with were clueless about  the meaning and how to respond to traditional family and clan greetings.

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“Yaa obi dehye,” one lady said, trying to respond to her family greeting, wrongly though. She told me that she didn’t really know how to respond to the family greeting.

I therefore decided to ask students of all levels of education and the responses were no different from the ones I had received.

One Junior High School (JHS) student, Richard Appiah, said  totems were the walking sticks of chiefs and linguists.

Ghana as a country is not only unique with its people, geographical location, food, skin type, marriage, funerals, naming ceremonies, chieftaincy, hospitality, way of dressing, language but most importantly, its unparalleled family system distinguishes it from the rest of Africa and the world at large.  

Oyoko, Ekuona (Kona), Bretuo ne Tena (Twidan), Agona Abusua (Eguana in Fante), Asenie Abusua (Atwafo), Asakyiri Abusua (Anona) and Oyokuo (Yokofo or Dehyena) are all Akan clans or families in Ghana. 

These clans are represented with totems known in the Akan language as “akyenaboa”.   

Cultural  diversity in Ghana cannot be over-emphasised. Over the years, Ghanaians have continued to hold on to the traditions handed over to them by their ancestors.

It is therefore not surprising that Ghana has become the pinnacle of the African continent in many aspects due to its monumental cultural heritage. Many people in the diaspora prefer coming to the country to experience what the  African culture is all about.

Totems which are artistically designed by experienced wood carvers and goldsmiths have several implications on one’s ethnic identity.


The word totem or totemic is derived from “Oode or Odoodem” which refers  to anything kinship-related to the Ojibwe language in  North America.

The totem is usually an animal or other natural figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan.

 According to Answers.com, “Using an animal as a symbol to designate a family or individual was a custom native to both Europe and North America. To Europeans, the animal (or plant) painted on a special background was known as a coat of arms. To American Indians, it was a totem”.

Totemism was a key element of study in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religion, especially for thinkers such as Emile Durkheim, who concentrated their study on primitive societies.

Drawing on the identification of social group with spiritual totem in Australian aboriginal tribes, Durkheim theorised that all human religious expression was intrinsically founded in the relationship to a group.

In his essay "Le Totémisme aujourd’hui" (Totemism Today), the anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss argued that human cognition, which is based on analogical thought, is independent of social context. From this, he excludes mathematical thought, which operates primarily through logic.

Lévi-Strauss argues that the use of physical analogies is not an indication of a more primitive mental capacity. It is, rather, a more efficient way to cope with this particular mode of life in which abstractions are rare, and in which the physical environment is in direct friction with the society.

Firth and Fortes in their contribution said that totemism was based on physical or psychological similarities between the clan and the totemic animal.

Finally Evans-Pritchard argued that the reason for totems was metaphoric. 

However, the Ebusuapanyin of the Omanhen of Mankessim, Kwame Ababio, explained the idea behind the use of the totems and its significance in Ghanaian societies.

Ebusuapanyin Ababio said totems could be classified into two main categories – the family totem and the town or king’s totem.

According to him, the purpose of the family totem is for identification, adding that the town totems are proverbial symbols which carry a hidden message, doctrine or powers of a king or the traditional area.

In his explanation, Ebusuapanyin Ababio cited an example where a king in the Central Region used a totem that nearly brought a war between two communities because of the meaning of the totem.

In his response to the significance of the totems, he said the totems were made out of the people’s past history, adding that Mankessim as a town has even made a totem of the three leaders who led the Fantes to their present settlement as a symbol of honour.

As to whether the use of totems is still useful in the current generation, Ebusuapanyin Ababio said the use of totems would forever continue to be important so far as culture plays an integral role in Ghanaian society.

• Linguists carry clan and family totems on poles to public functions


Totems are revered by members of a particular social group because of a mystical or ritual relationship that exists between them.

The totem may be regarded as a group symbol and as a protector of the members of the group. In most cases the totemic animal or plant is considered as an object of taboo.

It is regarded as taboo for killing such animals or mishandling such objects in communities in which they are used, believing that killing or eating them would bring curses or calamities on the people.

Others believe that the totems protect them against their enemies or they are being protected by the powers in such objects.

In some cases, people try to emulate or exhibit the qualities of their totems. For instance, those who have parrots as their totems are believed to be very eloquent when it comes to speech, hence the local saying that “ekoo tse brofo”. The rationale behind this is that, parrots are vocal and could even speak human language with time when reared in the house.

In social gatherings such as festivals, funerals, and other important celebrations, one would see these totems being displayed.  The people who bear the totems are the linguists known locally as “Akyeame”. They are the mouthpiece of the clan, king or the community.

Apart from its unique designs, the totems are communication channels that chiefs, families and communities use to communicate their identity to other people.  In ancient Ghanaian societies, totems were used to summon people to the palace, wars, and funerals. They were also used as a seal or symbol for covenant.

Ghana as a country has a totem which is also called the coat of arms. This coat of arms represents a certain ideology. And pupils at the elementary level of education are taught  the meanings and colours of such totem.  

•The Asona Crow


The historical values of totems in Ghanaian societies cannot be underestimated. The use of totem dates back to centuries.

From the biblical perspective, God used the tree of life as his totem or a seal of covenant between Him and man. Having placed the said tree in the Garden of Eden, God declared the tree as sacred and therefore prevented man from eating from it. Upon breaking the covenant with God, He pronounced a curse on man and man was taken out of the Garden of Eden.

The totems are seen as unifying symbols in most traditional areas which bind the people. For instance, the Golden stool of the Ashantis is one of the unifying symbols of the Ashantis.

Generally, the members of the group believe that they are descendants from a totem ancestor, or that they and the totem are "brothers".

The symbol of the totem may be tattooed on the body, engraved on weapons, pictured in masks. In Ghana, the symbols are usually carved on totem poles.

In some societies, males and females from families or clans using the same totems are not allowed to marry, believing that they are blood relations.


When properly utilised, Ghana can earn foreign exchange from people coming to learn about these historical totems of our clans, communities, kings and chiefs.

• Akroma (the Hawk) Symbolises the Oyoko Clan


The assertion by Claude Levi-Strauss that scientific explanation entails the discovery of an "arrangement" proves wrong those with an opinion that Ghanaians or Africans for that matter were not civilised before the coming of Europeans or colonisation.

This is because "the science of the concrete" is a classificatory system enabling individuals to classify the world in a rational fashion; it is neither more nor less a science than any other in the western world.  

Also, the totems are educational materials in the traditional fraternity that one has to devote his or her time to learn.

These symbols also demonstrate Ghanaians’ ingenuity of literature or semiology where symbols are used to communicate. Anyone who sees these totems is psychologically forced to rack the brains or to make certain inquiries in order to get the meanings of what the designs represent.

I personally had to make some efforts before I was told the meanings of the totems used in the story. For instance, the picture with a head on three heads, a totem of the Eguafo Traditional Area called “Tsi kor mmpam” means two heads are better than one or governance is a collective of ideas.  

In one way or the other, I think that our forefathers were very creative and particular with the choice of the totems because a lot of thinking must be considered before finally selecting a family’s or community’s totem.


In other words, there was rational interest in preserving the species. One can also say that communities, families, clans, chiefs and kings realised the need to protect certain animals and other endangered species of trees thus using such objects as their totems with the application of superstitious beliefs.

Animals like antelopes, eagles, lions, crows, parrots, whales, sharks, elephants, python, and many others are some of the animals which are mostly used as totems and these animals are not many in the ecology.

According to Ebusuapanyin Ababio, most of the current generation do not know the importance of the totems and therefore overlook them when they see them.

He suggested that for the current generation to learn the importance of the totems in our societies, teaching of culture with our local language should be included in the educational curricular.