Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Using Totems to Trace Ancestry and Marriage Ties

Alice C. Linsley

Much has been written about the animal totems of the ancient Israelite clans, but little investigation has been done to show that these totems have antecedents among their Horites ancestors. For the Biblical Anthropologist this is a potentially productive exploration because it can render clues as to how the clans were related and which lines intermarried. This helps to round out the picture provided by analysis of the genealogical data.

Animal totems can be used to trace descent. The animal totem of the clan of Hamor (one of David’s “great men”) was the wild donkey, the totem of the tribe of Issachar. This means that Hamor was a descendant of Jacob by Leah and that he was related to the Horites listed in Genesis 36. There we are told about the association between Anah and the wild donkey (Gen. 36:24).

The Horites listed in Genesis 36
Animal totems are evident in the names of the Horites listed in the Genesis 36 diagram. These include Zibeon (the hyena), who was the father of Anah (the wild donkey), and Aiah (the kite); Dishan (the gazelle), who was the father of Aran (the wild goat); and Akan (the roe), who was the son of Ezer. Other Horites names are Cheran (the lamb) and Shobal (the young lion). Such a large number of animal names among the Horites suggests a totemic organization of the Horite clans (Abraham’s people). It has yet to be demonstrated how the totems played a role in alliances by marriage, but there is evidence that marriages took place between clans that were related by totems.

The Relationship of the Lion and the Serpent

The totem of David’s clan was the lion which appears to have connections to the clan of Nahash. Nahash is the Hebrew word for serpent. Nahash was the father of Shobi, Abigail and Zeruiah, the mother of Joab and Abishai (II Sam. 17:25). David had a sister named Abigail and a wife named Abigail. These may have been the same person, but probably not. The selection of marriage partners involved consideration of totems. The close association between the lion and the serpent suggest that Abigail, David’s wife, was probably a patrilineal cousin and the “daughter of Nahash” (II Sam. 17:25). She is said to have married Nabal of Carmel.

The dog was the totem of Caleb’s clan. This was the symbol of the brave and bold warrior. The Hebrew word for warrior is Gid'on (Gideon). This allusion to the dog clan is found in Judges 7:4-7:

But the Lord said to Gideon, "There are still too many men. Take them down to the water, and I will sift them for you there. If I say, 'This one shall go with you, he shall go; but if I say, this one shall not go with you, he shall not go."  So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, "Separate those who lap the water with their tongues like a dog from those who kneel down to drink." Three hundred men lapped with their hands to their mouths. All the rest got down on their knees to drink.  The Lord said to Gideon, "With the 300 men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place.

Based on this information, it is possible to trace Gideon’s ancestry back to Caleb whose Horite wife was Ephrathah. 1 Chronicles 2:50 tells us that the firstborn son of Caleb and Ephrathah was Hur. Hur’s firstborn son was Shobal, the founder of Kiriath-jearim where the Ark resided until it was moved to Jerusalem in David’s time. As discussed above, Shobal was a Horite chief and his totem was the lion. This makes it possible to trace Gideon’s ancestry back to the Horites of Genesis 36.

Likely Progression in Consideration of Marriage Partners

In the ancient world, animal totems served as symbols of planets, stars or constellations. The relationship of these celestial bodies is likely the pattern for the ties between the clans. This is very old and can be traced back to ancient Nubia. Consider the case of the dog-faced baboon (Papio hamadryas) which was brought to Egypt from Nubia and was trained as a pet in noble households. It was associated with the Sun due to its habit of screeching at the first break of dawn. In ancient Egyptian paintings baboons were shown holding the eye of Horus, a solar symbol and were sometimes shown riding in Re’s solar boat.

The baboon is not a totem of the tribes of Israel as this creature was not a native of Arabia. However, the baboon totem was familiar to the Horites who originated in the Nile Valley. Among the Arabian Horites the equivalent totem was probably the lion’s mane shown as the circle of the sun. This suggests that Judah was the central tribe around which the other totems cycled in a progression that paralleled the celestial bodies.

There is a further suggestion of this in Numbers 2 where each "house" is to camp under its "dgl" which certainly doesn't mean banner, but probably means celestial totem. The verb d-g-l is related to the ancient Akkadian dagalu meaning "to rest eyes upon" or "to look at fixedly." 

Finding Antecedents in Africa

In 1904, A.B. Fisher procured six goat-shaped war horns from the Luo, a Nilo-Saharan people. He wrote, "I then found that each had its own peculiar mark: one resembled most clearly the planet Saturn, another, the Pleiades, others various hieroglyphic designs. Questioning the folk as to the significant meaning of each, they expressed total ignorance beyond that they were intended for ornamentation by their early fathers ….” (A.B. Fisher, 1904, p. 250). Each clan had its own mark, preserved from time immemorial, but the significance of these symbols was not readily apparent.

Antecedents to the celestial totems of the tribes of Israel are evident among the Gusii clans of Nigeria and Kenya. The Abagirango's totem is the leopard (engo); the Ababasi totem is the zebra (enchage); the Abasweta, Abagetutu, Abanyaribari and Abamachoge have the baboon (engoge); and the Abanchari's totem is the hippo (engubo) which corresponds to the constellation Draco.

Ceiling of the tomb of Seti I
Animal totems appear on the astronomical ceilings of the tombs of ruling Egyptians such as Senmut, a favourite courtier of Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC), and Pharaoh Seti I. Seth (Set) is associated with ancient Kush, what is today southern Egypt, eastern Sudan and northern Ethiopia. In Egyptian writings this land was called Ta-Seti, meaning "Land of the Bow," perhaps referring to the weapon used by warriors and hunters. Khaem-wa-set (1302-1290 BC), the brother of King Seti I, was the Chief of the bowmen of Kush. He lived about 600 years after Abraham.


Pharaoh Seti I was likely named for an earlier Seti to whom he was related. While it may not be possible to trace him back to Seth, Kain’s brother, it is possible to trace Seti's Kushite origins. In Genesis 5 we read the list of rulers who descended from Seth. The tenth from Seth is Kush, a son of Ham. 

Related reading:  Totemism in the Old Testament; Who Were the Horites?; The Lines of Ham and Shem Intermarried


  1. Is the sphinx the totem for the great Lion of Judah, or another priestly line? Does this explain the antiquity of the Sphinx, it's ruling and/or priestly line and family that built it, and could it's creation at a point in time be a marker of boundaries or territory for that family? Are there any other totems of this type in the Afro-Asian dominion?

  2. Possible Judah's lion shares a common astronomical or theological principle, but I don't think the Sphinx is the Lion of Judah.

    The vulture, scorpion, horse and lion are found on stone glyphs at the Gobekli Tepe site in Turkey which dates to about 9000 B.C. Here they appear to correspond to constellations at a time when Thuban was the pole star. These are commonly found on African images, which suggests that this shrine in Turkey was influenced by Kushite religion or established by their migrating priests. We know that the ancient Kushites spread across the Levant and Mesopotamia, so this isn’t surprising.

    The great Giza Sphinx is a guardian of the royal tomb and like the pyramids, faces the rising Sun. There are numerous sphinxes in Egypt. Some sphinxes have ram heads. In Egyptian iconography 2 of these creatures are shown facing each other on the opposite banks of the Nile. These are clearly guardians of the Nile.

  3. The father to Pharaoh Remsis (in the movie of The ten commandments) is referred to as the "Crocodile" does it suggest any links with a number of Sotho tribes in South Africa; who use a crocodile as their family totem?

  4. Aggrey, the crocodile is associated with the fertility of the Nile River and the deity Sobek. The Nubians called the crocodile "olom." Many Nilotic rulers took this creature as their totem. There many be a relationship to the Sotho, but I believe that would be much older than the dynasties of Egypt.

  5. Seth, the deified brother of Cain, was immortalized by the red hippo.


Your comments are welcome. Please stay on topic and provide examples to support your point.