The Elementary Forms of Religious Life Summary

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

''The Elementary Forms of Religious Life'' is a book written by Emile Durkheim in 1912. It was a sociological perspective on primitive religion from our earliest history.

Early Religion

Emile Durkheim wrote this book to assess the primitive form of the Aborigine religion, believing that the root was easier to understand than our religions of today. Durkheim believed that a religion could be determined the very root of a system if it can't be compared to a religion that came before, and that nothing in the religion came from a previous belief system. Think of it like this: the root of a system is like a grilled cheese sandwich. As it evolves, things like ham and tomato gets added, along with tastier cheeses and breads. This sandwich may look very different from how it started. So too with a religion. He addresses subjects such as totemic belief, animism, naturism, and the origins of the soul.


Totemic Belief

In totemic belief, every person is tied to an object, be it animal or plant. This system is most associated with Native Americans and Aborigines. Durkheim describes this belief system in detail, discussing how the object or totem brings groups together, creating their own families or sects. He also goes over how people gained their totems and why. This totem would be the powerful side of this symbiotic relationship. They would watch over the human, give them strength and give them the power needed in their life. Similar to the belief that voodoo dolls have power over a person, so does a totem have this direct connection to their human counterpart.

Durkheim comes to the conclusion that totemic belief is not a belief in totems and objects as such, but in the force of the world and how it is symbolized by these objects.


This belief is even more simple, and states that objects in the natural world, whether plants, animals, or rocks, has a special power and should be seen as sacred. Animism brought in the idea of the soul, because if all natural things have an essence, then people do as well. This soul is like a another being within us that can travel in a dream state, or watch over us like an guardian.

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