Animal Totemism and Naming Taboo1

By Wang, Penglin | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Animal Totemism and Naming Taboo1


Wang, Penglin, Mankind Quarterly


Throughout history, Altaic-speaking herders and hunters in Inner Asia have lived a traditional subsistence life in dealing with animals. They have accumulated rich experience in protecting themselves, both physically and spiritually, from being attacked by animals. According to the Inner Asian shamanism of which animism is an important part, certain animals can be endowed with ong?on - an indigenous Mongolian concept meaning 'the spirit inhabiting a material object'. The onggon is capable of taking the human soul away from the human body, leading to sickness. As a result, the Altaic-speaking people adopted a cultural habit of taboo-naming with regard to powerful animals. When a tabooed name, accompanied by honorifics, occurs in several adjacent languages, it reveals the same underlying animistic and totemistic praxis. In this article, three facets of taboo-naming will be discussed: how large animals come to enjoy a status as ancestral symbols; how taboo is an intermittent phenomenon; and how language about taboos becomes diffused from one language to another. Before examining these features, we will review the ancient Chinese literature relating to the use of animal names.

Key Words: Taboo-naming; Mongolian animism; Animistic concept of onggon; Altaic-speakers in Inner Asia; Historical sources of animal names as official titles; Animal names as ancestral symbols; Ancient Chinese use of animal names; Turkish wolf myth; Totems in modern ethnographies.

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1. Historical Sources of Animal Names as Official Titles and of Animals as Ancestral Symbols.

Throughout history, Altaic-speaking herders and hunters in Inner Asia living a traditional subsistence life in the steppes, forests, gobies, and mountains have secured their food supplies from animal sources. They have accumulated rich experience raising and hunting animals, protecting themselves both physically and spiritually from being attacked by wild animals. Appreciative animal-naming became important in their eyes for their survival. Linguistic devices of this sort are part of their culture, and affect the nomenclature they adopt.

Dating back as far as two millennia, ancient Chinese dynastic histories provide us with information on how government officials were appointed by using the names for six breeds of livestock. According to the annotations added to Hou Han shu (2482), the six breeds of livestock refer to horse, cattle, sheep, pig, dog, and chicken. Hou Han shu (2811) observed that: The eastern foreign group Fuyu (...) has well-known horses, red jades, and martens. The people are big, strong, and honest, not engaged in banditry and looting. They title their officials with the names for six breeds of livestock such as horses, oxen, and dogs. The appointed officials own and administer all the settlements. In describing the same people, San guo zhi (841) has similar records, with an addition of pigs to the previous list of animals as regnal titles. In both Hou Han shu and San guo zhi, the livestock names are presented in Chinese such as ma 'horse', niu 'ox', gou 'dog', and zhu 'pig'. Yet, these Chinese animal names are immediately followed by a suffixal morpheme represented by the Chinese character jia (...) forming the regnal titles majia, niujia, goujia, and zhujia. I think that the morpheme jia, which was most probably pronounced ... at that time, was a native Fuyu word instead of Chinese. In addition to its function as a suffix attached to animal names, the morpheme jia could stand alone as a regnal title. Hou Han shu (2811) used the Chinese plural-denoting prefix-word zhu 'all, multitude, various' to pluralize the official title jia, yielding the notion zhujia by saying that all the villages and settlements were ruled and owned by the (individual) jias. This usage continued down to San guo zhi (841), in which we have more detailed information on the jias on the following two points. First, the jias were appointed by the monarch and dispatched in four directions. …

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