Totem and Taboo: An Origin of Fetish and Leather

Totem and Taboo: An Origin of Fetish and Leather

from Recon News

16 August 2021

By Brew Hunter

Ask most kink men today how they would define 'Fetish', and they would probably talk about their interest in leather/rubber/boots/gloves/sneakers/ scally/pupwear/smoking etc. The dictionary describes this as:

FETISH: A form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc.

But as we explore deeper, we find a more intense and original concept of Fetishism, which was introduced to Europe in the 18th century by the Portugese, characterising certain practices of West African tribes. (The contemporary Portuguese feitiço may refer to a charm, a hex, a spell, enchantment, or abracadabra, or (more potentially offensive) juju, witchcraft, conjuration or bewitchment.)

A Fetish was a magical or religious object; it could be an amulet or talisman, a statue or a covering, worn for protection against the forces of evil or the supernatural, or to confer power upon the wearer. These are found worldwide and over the centuries, from Prehistoric times, to the Ancient Egyptians, and up to our own societies and times.

It was Magic meeting Nature – the earth and creation becoming something divine; a fantastical and flexible approach to nature, life and creation, where man becomes as one with his environment and desires, with a respect and love and admiration for what surrounds us all.

As in Native American theology, a Fetish contained the 'Manitou' - a spiritual and fundamental life force, which could be used to see the future, change the weather, and heal illness. Hence:

FETISH: An object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency, eliciting unquestioning reverence, respect, or devotion.


In this day and age, 'coverings' are how many people identify in the homoerotic (and also straight) fetish world – rubber, pup, furry, sportswear, skin etc. But Leather remains the original and archetypal fetish of hyper-masculinity and hard-playing sexuality, remaining inexorably intertwined, both in imagination and in reality, with the dark and shadowy underworld of Leather BDSM.

It is not only the texture and colour of (predominantly) black leather that holds a fascination, but also that it was once the skin of a beast …

And Man becoming Beast has been part of tribal, shamanic and fetishistic practice for millennia. Rock art figures from the dawn of history have shown humans in animal hides, and even today, tribal societies from Australian Aboriginals to Native Americans to indigenous Amazonians, Papua New Guineans and Alaskan Inuits use animal hides in ceremonies that take the Shaman into another 'being' and another 'spirituality', preparing with music, smoke, drugs and ceremony to confront the 'Beast' that lurks out with the tribe, in the forest, in the dark … a threat and a fascination.

And this is where the genesis and heritage of some of the most profound and intense aspects of Leather Life, and its attendant BDSM preferences, have their deep and intrinsic roots.

One buzzword in today's gay fetish scene is 'Tribe', and this – indeed - comes close to the kinship and fraternalism that is implied and celebrated by many Leather Men. The shamanistic tribal rites of many cultures celebrated deep and often-unfathomable aspects of human behaviour that are sacred to man's link to, and encounters with, the ecstatic.

Rites of initiation draw upon trance, pain/pleasure, smoke, piercing, hallucinogens, power- and role-play and even scatalogical and urological episodes.

It is known that the Shamens of the Sami people of Finland ate hallucinogenic mushrooms, and then drank their affected urine, giving them visions of flying reindeer. (So… Rudolph! Ho, ho, ho!)

Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew is used in shamanic ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. Piercing plays a large part in many shamanic and initiation ceremonies, including the First Nations' Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi Sun Dance Ceremonies.

Flagellation – or 'the mortification of the flesh' – has been used in Christian and monastic denominations since the great Schism in 1054. Whipping certainly played a part in ancient Roman festivals, the Lupercalia and the Dies Sanguinis. Ritual flagellation, apparently showing initiation into the Dionysian Mysteries, is depicted in the famous Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii.

There are parallels to all these 'initiations', still being re-played and re-lived in our 21st Century dungeons, cages and darkrooms of Leather Sex. Initiations of pain, courage and bravery prepares the novice and/or the submissive, for the challenge of a new life and existence; a rite of passage; an admission and a confirmation into a secret community or society. Modern street gangs may inflict physical beatings on an initiate (a beat in or jump in) or demand sexual activity (a sex-in).

These equivalent experiences are an integral, forceful and spirituous component of much of the darker side of Leather play, sex and submissive 'slavery'. An offering up of a submissive soul to aggression, servitude, humility, transformation.

Initiates are often bestowed with a new name, or choose their own. In our day-to-day society, and in Fetish chat rooms, Twitter, Insta etc, this rechristening exists in the 'handles' and 'usernames' we choose to present ourselves with online.

These new names may reflect an identity in a tribal or clan totem; totems playing their vital roles as well - as spirit beings or emblems and symbols of a tribe – bears, wolves, cubs etc… symbols which are still invoked today in today's Leather lives. Predators or prey; devil or divine.

The term totem is derived from the Ojibwa (Chippewa) word ototeman, meaning "one's brother kin." In English, the word totem was introduced in 1791 – a belief that it designated the guardian spirit of an individual, who appeared in the form of an animal - an idea that the Ojibwa clans did indeed portray by their wearing of animal skins.

Many animal totems carried many taboos (the word introduced to the west by Captain Cook from the Tongan tabu – 'set apart, forbidden'), as they carry conceptions and ideas about the human soul and the simultaneous existence between animal, shaman and alter ego.

And so, still today, the wearing of hardcore Leather and the longstanding perception of its attendant brutish sexuality carries a taboo, and a fear in those not initiated into the 'totem' – the society, the group, the family - with all their concomitant secrecies, rituals, symbols and collective consciousnesses.

It is the acknowledgement, embracing and subsequent breaking of many of society's sexual taboos that recognises, and then accedes to, the psychological link to the animal instincts within man's psyche.

Ceremony and ritual play an important part in Leather spaces, Leather 'cruising' and in setting-up a sex and/or BDSM scene. And, as in ceremonies inducting and initiating young men into adulthood and into tribal secret societies, utter commitment is required by any true Leather player/initiate, as he bares his soul and body to the territory, stalking grounds and spirituality of 'tribal' ownership and acceptance, with the symbolic use of dominance and submission.

Like the shaman, we reconcile our human and our animal natures, and reach out - and into - a vision of the darkest sexual part of our souls. Both a warning and a protection. Deep and unthought-of possibilities, experiences, offerings and consequences.

The Fetish of BDSM Leather – although considered debauched and barbaric by society - for us, the Tribe that share in its rituals, pain, power and pleasure, is indeed both Totem and Taboo; a necessity and reality, reaching our deepest souls and our truest humanity.

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