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Totem and Taboo

By: Sigmund Freud

Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, or Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics is a 1913 book by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, in which the author applies his work to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. It is a collection of four essays inspired by the work of Wilhelm Wundt and Carl Jung and first published in the journal Imago (1912–13): "The Horror of Incest", "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence", "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts", and "The Return of Totemism in Childhood".

Chapter 1

"The Horror of Incest" concerns incest taboos adopted by societies believing in totemism.

 

Freud examines the system of Totemism among the Australian Aborigines. Every clan has a totem (usually an animal, sometimes a plant or force of nature) and people are not allowed to marry those with the same totem as themselves. Freud examines this practice as preventing against incest. The totem is passed down hereditarily, either through the father or the mother. The relationship of father is also not just his father, but every man in the clan that, hypothetically, could have been his father. He relates this to the idea of young children calling all of their parents' friends as aunts and uncles. There are also further marriage classes, sometimes as many as eight, that group the totems together, and therefore limit a man's choice of partners. He also talks about the widespread practices amongst the cultures of the Pacific Islands and Africa of avoidance. Many cultures do not allow brothers and sisters to interact in any way, generally after puberty. Men are not allowed to be alone with their mothers-in-law or say each other's names. He explains this by saying that after a certain age parents often live through their children to endure their marriage and that mothers-in-law may become overly attached to their son-in-law. Similar restrictions exist between a father and daughter, but they only exist from puberty until engagement.

 

Chapter 2

In "Taboo and emotional ambivalence," Freud considers the relationship of taboos to totemism. Freud uses his concepts projection and ambivalence, developed during his work with neurotic patients in Vienna, to discuss the relationship between taboo and totemism.

 

Like neurotics, 'primitive' people feel ambivalent about most people in their lives, but will not admit this consciously to themselves. They will not admit that, as much as they love their mother, there are things about her that they hate. The suppressed part of this ambivalence (the hate parts) are projected onto others. In the case of natives, the hateful parts are projected onto the totem, as in: 'I did not want my mother to die; the totem wanted her to die.'

 

Freud expands this idea of ambivalence to include the relationship of citizens to their ruler. In ceremonies surrounding kings, which are often quite violent (such as the king starving himself in the woods for a few weeks), he considers two levels that are functioning to be the "ostensible" (i.e., the king is being honored) and the "actual" (i.e., the king is being tortured). He uses examples to illustrate the taboos on rulers. He says that the kings of Ireland were subject to restrictions such as not being able to go to certain towns or on certain days of the week.

 

Chapter 3

In "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thought" Freud examines the animism and narcissistic phase associated with a primitive understanding of the universe and early libidinal development. A belief in magic and sorcery derives from an overvaluation of psychical acts, whereby the structural conditions of mind are transposed onto the world: this overvaluation survives in both primitive men and neurotics. The animistic mode of thinking is governed by an "omnipotence of thoughts", a projection of inner mental life onto the external world. This imaginary construction of reality is also discernible in obsessive thinking, delusional disorders and phobias. Freud comments that the omnipotence of thoughts has been retained in the magical realm of art. The last part of the essay concludes the relationship between magic (paranormal), superstition and taboo, arguing that the practices of animism are merely a cover up of instinctual repression (Freud).

 

Chapter 4

In "The Return of Totemism in Childhood" Freud combines one of Charles Darwin's more speculative theories about the arrangements of early human societies (a single alpha-male surrounded by a harem of females, similar to the arrangement of gorilla groupings) with the theory of the sacrifice ritual taken from William Robertson Smith to conclude that the origins of totemism lie in a singular event, when a band of prehistoric brothers expelled from the alpha-male group returned to kill their father, whom they both feared and respected. In this respect, Freud located the beginnings of the Oedipus complex at the origins of human society, and postulated that all religion was in effect an extended and collective form of guilt and ambivalence to cope with the killing of the father figure (which he saw as the true original sin).

Book Details

Language

English

Original Language

German

Published In

1913

Author

Sigmund Freud

Austrian Empire

Sigmund Freud ; born Sigismund Schlomo Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psyc...

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