Saturday, April 2, 2016

Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud

Picked this one up on a whim at my favorite used book store in Door County, Wisconsin, and it’s my first exposure to the actual writings of Sigmund Freud.

The subtitle of the work, Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, is absolutely key to understanding Freud’s intentions with the four essays that he compiled into this volume. He wants to show, or at least explore the idea, that the totems and taboos of “savage” human culture spring from the same source as the superstitions and avoidance practices of modern “neurotics.”

Freud further explains his intentions in a short preface to the work:

The four essays collected in these pages aim at arousing the interest of a fairly wide circle of educated readers, but they cannot in fact be understood and appreciated except by those few who are no longer strangers to the essential nature of psycho-analysis. They seek to bridge the gap between students of such subjects as social anthropology, philology and folklore on the one hand, and psycho-analysts on the other. Yet they cannot offer to either side what each lacks--to the former an adequate initiation into the new psychological technique or to the latter a sufficient grasp of the material that awaits treatment. They must therefore rest content with attracting the attention of the two parties and with encouraging a belief that occasional co-operation between them could not fail to be of benefit to research.

It’s quite a challenge to the casual reader. Nowhere near a student of “the essential nature of psycho-analysis” and only but the most enthusiastic of enthusiastic amateurs in the realm of “social anthropology, philology and folklore,” I should confess that much of Freud’s writing in this volume felt like it was aimed over my head.

I did, however, appreciate his forthright approach. For example, in discussing the work of others in the field, especially that of Wilhelm Wundt, who believed that the taboo phenomena among primitive people could be explained by a fear of “demonic” power, Freud makes this refreshing observation:

I believe I shall be expressing the thoughts of many readers when I say that Wundt’s explanation comes as something of a disappointment. This is surely not tracing back the concept of taboo to its sources or revealing its earliest roots. Neither fear nor demons can be regarded by psychology as ‘earliest’ things, impervious to any attempt at discovering their antecedents. It would be another matter if demons really existed. But we know that, like gods, they are creations of the human mind: they were made by something and out of something.

A truly scientific approach. Freud evidently knows that you can’t explain one culturally-constructed belief system (taboo) with another (demons). Not if you want to truly understand the workings of the human mind.

As for Freud’s own understanding of the origins of primitive taboos--and, by extension, remember, the origins of modern neurotic avoidance practices--I can’t say that I ever came to fully understand it. I know that it has something to do with something Freud calls “emotional ambivalence,” where a subject feels both an attraction and a repulsion from the same object or practice. And this dualism, if I can call it that, is, in Freud’s opinion as easily assimilated in the mind of the primitive as it is in the mind of the modern.

It seems plausible to explain the complicated and contradictory attitude of primitive peoples to their rulers in some such way as the following. For superstitious and other reasons, a variety of different impulses find expression in relation to kings; and each of these impulses is developed to an extreme point without regard to the others. This gives rise to contradictions--by which, incidentally, a savage intellect is as little disturbed as is a highly civilized one when it comes to such matters as religion or ‘loyalty.’

More on that religion angle in a moment. Here, Freud is talking about the “sacrificial king” practices perhaps most famously detailed in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. And he’ll return to that example after comparing it to the impulses in the minds of the neurotics he was psycho-analyzing in Vienna.

So far so good; but the technique of psycho-analysis allows us to go into the question further and to enter more into the details of these various impulses. If we submit the recorded facts to analysis, as though they formed part of the symptoms presented by a neurosis, our starting-point must be the excessive apprehensiveness and solicitude which is put forward as the reason for the taboo ceremonials. The occurrence of excessive solicitude of this kind is very common in neuroses, and especially in obsessional neuroses, with which our comparison is chiefly drawn. We have come to understand its origin quite clearly. It appears wherever, in addition to a predominant feeling of affection, there is also a contrary, but unconscious, current of hostility--a state of affairs which represents a typical instance of an ambivalent emotional attitude. The hostility is then shouted down, as it were, by an excessive intensification of the affection, which is expressed as solicitude and becomes compulsive, because it might otherwise be inadequate to perform its task of keeping the unconscious contrary current of feeling under repression. Every psycho-analyst knows from experience with what certainty this explanation of solicitous over-affection is found to apply even in the most unlikely circumstances--in cases, for instance, of attachments between mother and child or between a devoted married couple. If we now apply this to the case of privileged persons, we shall realize that alongside of the veneration, and indeed idolization, felt towards them, there is in the unconscious an opposing current of intense hostility; that, in fact, as we expected, we are faced by a situation of emotional ambivalence.

Get that? Neurosis (and what we would now also call obsessive-compulsive disorder) begins when something that is to be cherished (a child, a married partner) is actually loathed (due, in part, to the thing’s power over the neurotic’s emotions), and, horrified, the neurotic internally shouts the loathing down in order to bathe the things in even more love and affection. That’s the modern example. Now, let’s have Freud turn it back to the primitive.

The distrust which provides one of the unmistakable elements in kingly taboos would thus be another, more direct, expression of the same unconscious hostility. Indeed, owing to the variety of outcomes of a conflict of this kind which are reached among different peoples, we are not at a loss for examples in which the existence of this hostility is still more obviously shown. ‘The savage Timmes of Sierra Leone,’ we learn from Frazer, ‘who elect their king, reserve to themselves the right of beating him on the eve of his coronation; and they avail themselves of this constitutional privilege with such hearty goodwill that sometimes the unhappy monarch does not long survive his elevation to the throne. Hence when the leading chiefs have a spite at a man and wish to rid themselves of him, they elect him king.’ Even in glaring instances like this, however, the hostility is not admitted as such, but masquerades as ceremonial.

These, then--these subconscious hostile feelings--are the progenitors of the demons that Freud accuses Wundt of ending his analysis with.

At the beginning of this essay disagreement was expressed with Wundt’s opinion that the essence of taboo was a fear of demons. Yet we have now assented to an explanation that derives the taboo upon the dead from a fear of the soul of the dead person transformed into a demon. The apparent contradiction can easily be resolved. It is true that we have accepted the presence of demons, but not as something ultimate and psychologically unanalysable. We have succeeded, as it were, in getting behind the demons, for we have explained them as projections of hostile feelings harbored by the survivors against the dead.

As his subtitle implies, Freud will do this a lot in these essays--tying the psychology of the primitive mind to the psychology of the modern to show, of course, that they arise from the same human impulses. And indeed, just as he said that the modern is capable of holding the contradictory (or ambivalent) emotional views in his mind in matters of religion, mimicking the way the primitive acts with regard to his taboos, it is little surprise that Freud, like Frazer, sees modern religion actually arising out of the primitive taboos.

To do so, he relies heavily on Frazer’s studies of the cultural practices of very primitive human societies, theoretically stringing several together in a developmental chain. He begins with something called the totem meal, in which a band of primitive humans ritualistically kill and devour an animal held to have life-sustaining and protective powers within their culture.

Let us call up the spectacle of a totem meal of the kind we have been discussing, amplified by a few probable features which we have not yet been able to consider. The clan is celebrating the ceremonial occasion by the cruel slaughter of its totem animal and is devouring it raw--blood, flesh and bones. The clansmen are there, dressed in the likeness of the totem and imitating it in sound and movement, as though they are seeking to stress their identity with it. Each man is conscious that he is performing an act forbidden to the individual and justifiable only through the participation of the whole clan; nor may anyone absent himself from the killing and the meal. When the deed is done, the slaughtered animal is lamented and bewailed. The mourning is obligatory, imposed by dread of a threatened retribution.

Which leads to something called the primal or patriarchal horde, in which young males are kept from procreating by the strength and power of an alpha male. And who, able to shout down their hostile feelings for the patriarch they are supposed to revere for only so long, eventually lash out in a similar fashion to the totem meal.

One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeeded in doing what would have been impossible for them individually. (Some cultural advance, perhaps, command over some new weapon, had given them a sense of superior strength.) Cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victims as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things--of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion.

Are you with me so far? Ancient man came to view certain animals as totems of their primitive clans, animals that they then developed ambivalent feelings for and created taboos around. They were revered, could not be harmed or killed, and eventually they were secretly feared and despised for the power these restrictions had over the freedom of the people in the clan. These hostile feelings (or demons) were purged in the ritualistic killing and eating of these totem animals, something done only rarely and in the spirit of the entire community. This practice, widespread in these primitive cultures, was adopted also by primitives living in patriarchal horde and cannibalistic societies, who came to fear and loathe their chief in much the same way as a totem animal, and who, in some cases, came to ritualistically kill and eat them to purge their own demons and to keep their culture alive and growing.

Freud enlists Frazer to help him telegraph the next step up this developmental chain, and perhaps you can already see it coming.

In his great work, The Golden Bough, Frazer puts forward the view that the earliest kings of the Latin tribes were foreigners who played the part of a god and were solemnly executed at a particular festival. The annual sacrifice (or, as a variant, self-sacrifice) of a god seems to have been an essential element in the Semitic religions. The ceremonials of human sacrifice, performed in the most different parts of the inhabited globe, leave very little doubt that the victims met their end as representatives of the deity; and these sacrificial rites can be traced into late times, with an inanimate effigy or puppet taking the place of the living human being. The theanthropic sacrifice of the god, into which it is unfortunately impossible for me to enter here as fully as into animal sacrifice, throws a searching retrospective light upon the meaning of the older forms of sacrifice. It confesses, with a frankness that could hardly be excelled, to the fact that the object of the act of sacrifice has always been the same--namely what is now worshipped as God, that is to say, the father.

The totem animal, the alpha patriarch, the god-king; they all arise essentially out of the same ambivalent human impulses that Freud attempts to dissect and elucidate in these essays. And they lead, somewhat logically, first to the “harvest” religions of the ancient world…

The son’s efforts to put himself in the place of the father-god became ever more obvious. The introduction of agriculture increased the son’s importance in the patriarchal family. He ventured upon new demonstrations of his incestuous libido, which found symbolic satisfaction in his cultivation of Mother Earth. Divine figures such as Attis, Adonis and Tammuz emerged, spirits of vegetation and at the same time youthful divinities enjoying the favours of mother goddesses and committing incest with their mother in defiance of their father. But the sense of guilt, which was not allayed by the creations, found expression in myths which granted only short lives to these youthful favourites of the mother-goddesses and decreed their punishment by emasculation or by the wrath of the father in the form of an animal. Adonis was killed by a wild boar, the sacred animal of Aphrodite; Attis, beloved of Cybele, perished by castration. The mourning for these gods and the rejoicings over their resurrection passed over into the ritual of another son-deity who was destined to lasting success.

...and then to Christianity itself.

There can be no doubt that in the Christian myth the original sin was one against God the Father. If, however, Christ redeemed mankind from the burden of original sin by the sacrifice of his own life, we are driven to conclude that the sin was a murder. The law of talion, which is so deeply rooted in human feelings, lays it down that a murder can only be expiated by the sacrifice of another life: self-sacrifice points back to blood-guilt. And if this sacrifice of a life brought about atonement with God the Father, the crime to be expiated can only have been the murder of the father.

In the Christian doctrine, therefore, men were acknowledging in the most undisguised manner the guilty primaeval deed, since they found the fullest atonement for it in the sacrifice of this one son. Atonement with the father was all the more complete since the sacrifice was accompanied by a total renunciation of the women on whose account the rebellion against the father was started. But at that point the inexorable psychological law of ambivalence stepped in. The very deed in which the son offered the greatest possible atonement to the father brought him at the same time to the attainment of his wishes against the father. He himself became God, beside, or, more correctly, in place of, the father. A son-religion displaced the father-religion. As a sign of this substitution the ancient totem meal was revived in the form of communion, in which the company of brothers consumed the flesh and blood of the son--no longer the father--obtained sanctity thereby and identified themselves with him. Thus we can trace through the ages the identity of the totem meal with animal sacrifice, with theanthropic human sacrifice and with the Christian Eucharist, and we can recognize in all these rituals the effect of the crime by which men were so deeply weighed down but of which they must none the less feel so proud. The Christian communion, however, is essentially a fresh elimination of the father, a repetition of the guilty deed. We can see the full justice of Frazer’s pronouncement that ‘the Christian communion has absorbed within itself a sacrament which is doubtless far older than Christianity.’

So there it is. A sometimes twisted but unbroken cord, woven from the strands of ambivalent adulation and hostility in a thousand thousand generations of the human heart, connecting the primitive’s observance of totems and taboos with the modern’s observance of Christian rituals and sacraments.

Does it hold together? The parallels are all there, but even after studying it--both here and in Frazer’s The Golden Bough that Freud leans so heavily on--I’m left questioning whether it truly hangs together as the explanation. Going back to the audiences Freud mentioned in his preface, I’d wager a guess that the folklorist and the psycho-analyst might be convinced, but I wonder if the social anthropologist--especially any born after 1913--might have a few more relevant questions to ask.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. I can't help but get sidetracked by your first sentence about Door County, Wisconsin. You must know of the late Norbert Blei? Door County author and occasional hellraiser?

    I've wanted to visit Door County for years to visit some of the places Blei writes about.

    1. I regret that I am not familiar with Blei, but am very familiar with Door County. What were some of the places he wrote about?