Totem and Taboo

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Totem and Taboo
Freud Totem und Tabu 1913.jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Sigmund Freud
Original title Totem und Tabu: Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker
Language German
Subject Totemism
Publisher Beacon Press
Publication date
Media type Print
Totem and Taboo
Click to open full book (English)

Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (German: Totem und Tabu: Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker) is a 1913 book by Sigmund Freud, in which Freud applies psychoanalysis to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. It is a collection of four essays 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". Though Totem and Taboo has been seen as one of the classics of anthropology, comparable to Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871) and Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890), the work is now almost universally regarded as discredited by anthropologists. Cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber was an early critic of Totem and Taboo. Some authors, such as René Girard, have seen redeeming value in the work despite its failings.


Chapter 1[edit]

"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 aren't 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 aren't 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[edit]

In "Taboo and emotional ambivalence," Freud considers the relationship of taboos to totemism. Freud uses his concepts projection and ambivalence he 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 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 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.[1]

Chapter 3[edit]

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[edit]

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).


Carl Furtmüller, a former member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, reviewed Totem and Taboo in 1914. Furtmüller wrote that Freud ignored critics and misused the work of Charles Darwin. In Furtmüller's view, while Freud showed wit and astuteness, he also employed "the free play of fantasy" in place of logic. Furtmüller compared the Oedipus Complex to the "original sin of the human race."[2] Psychoanalyst and anthropologist Géza Róheim considered Totem and Taboo one of the great landmarks in the history of anthropology, comparable only to Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871) and Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890).[3] Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss criticized Totem and Taboo in his The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1948).[4] Feminist Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949) that Freud is forced to "invent strange fictions" to explain the passage from "the individual to the society"; she sees the inability to explain this transition as a failing of psychoanalysis.[5]

Classicist Norman O. Brown wrote in Life Against Death (1959) that in Totem and Taboo Freud correlates psycho-sexual stages of development with stages of history and thereby sees history as a "process of growing up". Brown sees this view as a "residue of eighteenth-century optimism and rationalism", and finds it inadequate as both history and psychoanalysis.[6] Anthropologist Peter Farb wrote that Totem and Taboo "demonstrates the lengths to which a theorist will go to find an explanation" for totemism, adding that, "Anthropologists today regard it as totally discredited - which may be the one thing about totemism they are able to agree upon." Farb noted that cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber was an early critic of Totem and Taboo, having published a critique of the work in 1920.[7] Historian and literary critic René Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred (1972) that, "Contemporary criticism is almost unanimous in finding unacceptable the theories set forth in Totem and Taboo," and that, "Everyone seems intent on covering Totem and Taboo with obloquy and condemning it to oblivion." Girard, in contrast, noted that Freud's concept of collective murder is close to the themes of his own work.[8]

Anthony Elliott wrote that Freud's account of social and cultural organization suffers from grave limitations, and that because of anthropological knowledge that became available subsequent to Totem and Taboo the theories Freud proposed there now have few advocates. Elliott argued that, "Freud's attempt to anchor the Oedipus complex in a foundational event displaces his crucial insights into the radically creative power of the human imagination", ascribing to real events "what are in fact products of fantasy, the life of the mind." Elliott nevertheless added that "there are still elements of considerable interest" in Totem and Taboo, crediting Freud with showing that "reality is not pre-given or natural", but rather structured by the social and technical frameworks fashioned by human beings, and that "individual subjectivity and society presuppose one another."[9]

According to D. Bourdin "Totem and Taboo develops an idea that clearly embarrasses the current psychoanalysts, but that is essential to the logic of Freudian thought: that of Phylogenetics".[10] Philosopher Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and psychologist Sonu Shamdasani wrote that in Totem and Taboo Freud applied to history "the same method of interpretation that he used in the privacy of his office to 'reconstruct' his patients' forgotten and repressed memories."[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Freud, Sigmund Totem and Taboo London WW Norton 1989 page 59
  2. ^ Lieberman, E. James; Kramer, Robert (2012). The Letters of Sigmund Freud & Otto Rank: Inside Psychoanalysis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 37–8. ISBN 978-1-4214-0354-0. 
  3. ^ Robinson, Paul (1990). The Freudian Left. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. p. 89. ISBN 0-8014-9716-7. 
  4. ^ concluding chapter of Claude Levi-Strauss, 562-563-564 pages of the edition by Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin, 2002, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), Needham, Rodney, ed
  5. ^ Beauvoir, Simone de (2009). The Second Sex. London: Vintage Books. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-099-49938-1. 
  6. ^ Brown, Norman O. (1985). Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of Human History. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press. p. 14. ISBN 0-8195-6144-4. 
  7. ^ Farb, Peter (1978). Man's Rise to Civilization: The Cultural Ascent of the Indians of North America. New York: E. P. Dutton. pp. 67–68. ISBN 0-525-15270-9. 
  8. ^ Girard, Réne (2005). Violence and the Sacred. New York: Continuum. p. 204. ISBN 0-8264-7718-6. 
  9. ^ Elliott, Anthony (2002). Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction. Palgrave. p. 43. ISBN 0-333-91912-2. 
  10. ^ D. Bourdin, La psychanalyse de Freud à aujourd'hui: Histoire, concepts, pratique, Bréal, Paris, 2007, p.89. It is recalled in the same book that "Freud wrote in a kind of emergency and polemical intent" with Jung (p.86)
  11. ^ Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel; Shamdasani, Sonu (2012). The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 179–180. ISBN 978-0-521-72978-9. 

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