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Animal Totemism and Naming Taboo

Penglin Wang


Published: 2013/12/01


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 taboonaming 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.

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