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Totem And Taboo

In Totem and Taboo, Freud Sigmund explain the origin of religion of different
tribe found around the world. Although related, the two words have quite
distinct meanings. According to Compton’s Encyclopedia, “totemism is a term
of Ojibwa American Indian origin that refers to an animal or plant associated
either with a group of blood-related persons such as a family or with part of a
tribe”. The plant or animal is a totem. As such, totemism is a word used to
define relationships. A taboo implies something forbidden or to be avoided. The
term is of Polynesian origin. It was first recorded by explorer James Cook in
1771, when he found it used by the natives of the Tonga Islands in the South
Pacific. Both terms have their modern counterparts. People frequently discuss
their astrological signs and comment that they are, for example, Leos (lions),
Pisces (fish), or Aries (rams). Such animal associations with groups of
individuals are comparable to totemism. The most common taboo seen today is a
“No Smoking” sign in public places. In chapter 1, Freud explain the
stage of development of the primitive man: the inanimate monuments and
implements which he has left behind for us through our knowledge of his art, his
religion and his attitude toward life, which we have received either directly or
through the medium of legends, myth and fairy tales. To show that this
supposition is correct, Freud chooses to compare the “psychology of primitive
races” with the psychology of the neurotic. For different reasons he choose to
take the aborigines of the youngest continent: Australia. According to Freud,
the aborigines of Australia are “look upon as a peculiar race”. They don’t
build houses or huts, do not cultivate soil or keep domestic animals. They only
live of flesh of animals that they kill. There is no chief, the decision are
maid by the assembly. These primitive tribes have a system of Totemism that
divided them into separate and smaller clan with each taking and choosing the
name of its totem. According to Freud, a totem is “a plant or a force of
nature (rain, water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan”.


Every member of a totem is under sacred obligation not to kill their totem
member, to eat its meat or from any other enjoyment of it. If those rules are
violated a punishment is given. A totem is not limited to a neighborhood or an
area. The members of each totem may live separated from one another. They can
also live with people from another totem. Every totem has sexual laws that
forbid members of the same totem to have sexual relation with each other and
also cannot marry each other. If those rules are broken, the whole tribe avenges
a punishment as if it were a question of warding off a danger that threatens the
community as a whole or a guilt that weighs upon all. Some severe punishment is
also given when a temporary love affair has not resulted in childbirth. Those
tribes are called “consanguineous”(they are one family with the same blood)
because totem is hereditary through the maternal or paternal line. So any sexual
relation with someone of the same totem is incest. The totem exogamy or
prohibition of sexual relation between member of the same clan, is probably the
most appropriate means for the prevention of group incest. Marriage is a very
complicated subject. Some tribes are so organized that they fall into two
divisions of marriage classes or “Phratries”. Each of these marriage groups
is exogenous and includes a majority of totem groups. Each marriage group is
also divided into two subclasses. So the whole tribe is then divided into four
classes. (Every division is exogenous). There is also a rule against the
relation of boys with their mother and sisters. The boy leaves home at a
specific age to move to the clubhouse where he sleep and take meals. He can
still visit home to ask for food, but his sister is at home, he must go away
before he has eaten. If she is not about to eat, he may seat down to eat near to
the door. If by chance they meet each other, she has to turn away and conceal
himself. He is not allowed to say her name or use any current word if it forms
part of her name. On the other hand the reserve between mother and son increase
with age and is more obligatory on the mother’s side. For example if she
brings him something to eat, she must put it down before him, and she is also no
allowed to address him in any familiar manners. In some other tribe like the
Gazelle peninsula, when the sister get married, she may no longer speak to her
brother or mention his name. In New-Mecklenburg, they are not allowed to
approach each other, shake hands, or give each other present. However, they are
allowed to talk to each other to a distance of several paces. Just like every
tribe, the penalty of incest with your sister is death. The Barongos in Delagoa,
in Africa, the precautions are directed toward the sister in law, the wife of
the brother of one’s wife. If the man meets one of those people, he must avoid
them. He is not allowed to eat at the same table as her, or dare to enter her
hut. In the Akamba tribe in British East Africa, a girl must avoid her own
father between her puberty and her marriage. If she meets him on the street she
should avoid him and never sit down next to him. However, after the marriage
nothing can stop her from having sexual intercourse with her father. On the
other hand there is also a prohibition in almost every tribe of intercourse of a
wife with her father in law but these laws are not so constant and serious. For
example on the Bank Islands these prohibition are very severe. A man will avoid
hi smother in law. If by chance they met, the woman must step aside and turn her
back until he passed or he does the same. In Vanna Lava, a man will not even
walk behind his mother in law along the beach until the traces of her footstep
are watched away. Among the Basogas, a Negro tribe that lives in a region of the
Nile, a man may talk to his mother in law only if she is in another room of the
house and is not visible to him. According to Freud, he don’t understand why”all these races should manifest such great fear of temptation on the part of
the man for an elderly woman, old enough to be his mother.” Freud explains
that psychoanalysis has taught us that the first object selection of the boy in
of an incestuous nature and that he is attracted to everything that is
forbidden: The mother, the sister. He also explains that psychoanalysis taught
him the mature individual try to free himself from this attraction. In chapter
2, Freud explains the meaning of the word taboo. Taboo is a Polynesian word,
which means “sacer” for the ancient Romans and must have had the same
meaning for the Greeks and the Hebrews. According to Freud, the meaning of taboo
brake into two opposite directions. On one hand it means sacred and consecrated:
on the other hand it means uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean. The
opposite for taboo is the Polynesian word “Noa” that means something
ordinary and generally accessible. The taboo restrictions are different from the
religious and normal constraint. They are not imposed by god but by themselves.


To explain the meaning of taboo, Freud gives the interpretation of W.Wundt.


Wundt says that taboo is the oldest unwritten code of law, assuming that taboo
is older than the Gods and goes back to the pre-religious age. According to
Wundt, taboo “includes all customs which express dread of particular objects
connected with cultic ideas on of actions having reference to them”. Wundt
also shows why he finds more practical to study the nature of taboo of the
Australian savages, instead of the Polynesian races. For the Australians tribe,
he divides taboo into three classes: animals, persons or other object. The
animal taboo consists of the taboo against killing and eating. The taboo of
persons, explain that tools, clothes and weapons are a permanent taboo for
everybody else. The taboo of object that apply to trees, plants, house, and
localities are more variable and seem only to follow the rules that anything
which for any reason arouse dread or is mysterious, becomes subject to taboo.


The animal, person or place, on which there is a taboo is demonic, it is sacred
and therefore “not clean”. Taboo also prohibits the act of touching. It
prohibit not only the direct contact with the body but also to the figurative
use of the phrase as “to come into contact” or “be in touch with someone
or something”. Anyone who ha s violated a taboo by touching something which is
a taboo become taboo himself, and no one may come into contact with him. For
example: ” Maori chief would not blow on fire with his mouth; for his sacred
breath would communicate its sanctity to the fire, which would pass it on to the
man who ate the meat which was in the pot, which stood on the fire, which was
breathed on by the chief; so that the eater, infected by the chief’s convoyed
through these intermediaries, would surely die”. The oldest and probably most
important taboo prohibition are the two basic laws of totemism: namely not to
kill the totem animal, and to avoid sexual intercourse with totem companions of
the other sex. As we know, an individual who has violated a taboo, becomes
himself taboo because he has the dangerous property of tempting others to follow
his exemple. He is therefore really contagious and then he must be avoided. But
a person may become permanently or temporarily taboo without having violated any
taboos, for the simple reason that “he is in a condition which has the
property of inciting the forbidden desires of others and awakening the
ambivalent conflict in them.” It is clear that the violation of certain taboo
becomes a social danger that must be punished by all the members of society. If
they did not punish the violator, they would therefore become aware that they
want to imitate evil. Among these races, taboo has become the general form of
law imposed by chiefs and priests to insure their property and privileges. Freud
explains they’re still remains a large group of laws related to enemies,
chiefs, and the dead. First, let’s talk about enemies. The punishment when you
kill an enemy is different in every tribe. For example, in Timor the leader of
the expedition cannot return to his house under any circumstances. A special hut
is given for him in whom he spent two month engaged in various rules of
purification. During this period, he may not see his wife or nourish himself:
another person must put his food in his mouth. In the Dayak tribe, warriors
returning from a successful expedition must remain sequestered for several days
and abstain from certain food. They may not touch iron and must remain away from
their wives. The behavior of primitive races toward their chiefs, kings, and
priest, is controlled by two principles. They must both be guarded and be
guarded against. They must be guarded against ruler, because they are the
bearers of that mysterious and dangerous magic power which communicates itself
by contact, like an electric charge, bringing death and destruction to any one
not protected by similar charge. All direct or indirect contact with this
dangerous sacredness is therefore avoided, and when it cannot be avoided, a
ceremonial has been found to prevent the consequences. For example, the Nubas in
East Africa, for instance, believe that they must die if they enter the house of
their priest king, but that they escape his danger if, on entering, they bare
the left shoulder and induce the king to touch it with his hand. The necessity
of guarding the king from every danger arises from his great importance for the
weal and woe of his subjects. He is a person who regulate the “course of the
world”. His people have to thank him not only for the rain and sunshine but
also for the wind that brings the ships to their shore and for the solid ground
on which they set their feet. Every king just like his subject is tempted by
taboo. For example, on “Shark Point at Cape Padron in Lower Guinea (West
Africa), a priest called Kululu lives alone in a woods. He is not allowed to
touch a woman or to leave his house and cannot even rise out of his chair, in
which he must sleep in a sitting position. The honor of being a priest or a king
ceased to be desirable; the person in line for the succession often used every
means to escape it. On Niue a coral island in the Pacific Ocean, monarchy
actually ended because nobody was willing to take responsibility. In some part
of West Africa, a general council is held after the death of the king to
determine upon the successor. The man that is chosen is seized and kept in
custody in a “fetish house” until he is willing to accept the crown. Among
most primitive people, the taboo of the dead is the most important. The taboo
customs after bodily contact with the dead are the same all over Polynesia,
Melanesia and in part of Africa. Anyone who had touched a corpse or who had
taken part in its interment became extremely unclean and was cut from
intercourse with his fellow beings; he could not enter a house, or approach
persons or objects without infecting them with the same properties. He could not
even touch his food with his own hands. His food was put on the ground and he
had no alternative except to seize it as best he could with his lips and teeth
while his hand were behind his back. Among the Shuswap in British-Columbia
widows and widowers have to remain segregated during their period of mourning;
they must not use their hands to touch the body or the head and all utensils
used by them not be used by anyone else. Among the Agutainos, who live in
Palawan, a widow may not leave her hut for the first seven or eight days after
her husband’s death, except at night. On eof the most surprising taboo customs
of mourning is the prohibition against pronouncing the name of the deceased. In
South American tribes, it is considered the gravest insult to the survivors to
pronounce the name of the deceased in their presence. If the deceased had the
same name as an animal or an object, the animal or object names must be changed
to new ones in order no to be reminded of the deceased when they mentioned them.


In chapter three, Freud talks about animism, magic and the omnipotence of
thought. According to Freud, animism is the theory of psychic concepts and in
the wider sense, of spiritual beings in general. Animism is a system of thought;
it gives not only the explanation of a single phenomenon, but makes it possible
to understand the totality of the world from one point, as continuity. According
to Freud, sorcery is essentially the art of influencing spirits by treating them
like people under the same circumstances. Magic however, is something else; it
does not essentially concern itself with spirits, and uses special means, not
the ordinary psychological method. Magic serve the most the most varied
purposes. It is subject to the process of nature to the will of man, protect the
individual against enemies and dangers, and give him power to injure his
enemies. One of the most widespread magic procedures for injuring an enemy
consists of making a duplicate of him out of any kind of material. This magic
thecnique, instead of being used for private enmity can also be employed for
pious purposes and can thus be used to aid the gods against evil demons. Other
method can be used to injure enemies. One other method that is used to injure
your enemies is to get a hold of his hair, his nails, anything that he has
discarded and do something hostile to these things. This is just as effective as
if you had dominated the person himself. Freud explain that there is a great
mass of magic actions which show a similar motivation, but Freud only stress
upon only two: the art of causing rain is produced by magic means, by imitating
it and by imitating the clouds and storm which produce it. For example, the
Ainos of Japan make rain by pouring out water through a big sieve, while others
fir out a big bowl with sails and oars as if it were a ship, which is then
dragged about the village and gardens. Freud adopted the term “omnipotence of
thought” from an intelligent man, “a former sufferer from compulsion
neurosis, who, after being cured through psychoanalytic treatment, was able to
demonstrate his efficiency and good sense. He had coined this phrase to
designate all those peculiar and uncanny occurrences which seemed to pursue him
just as they pursue others afflicted with his malady”. This means that if he
happened to think of a person, he was actually confronted with this person as if
he had conjured him up. In this last chapter, Freud decides to empathize the
meaning of totemism. Totemism is a religious as well as a social system. On its
religious side it consist of the relations of mutual respect and consideration
between a person and his totem, and on its social side it is composed of
obligations of the members of the clan towards each other and towards other
tribes. Freud also brings up the origin of totemism. To explain the origin of
theory of totemism, he divided into three groups: The nomalistic theories, the
sociological theories, and the psychological theories. According to Herbert
Spencer, “the origin of totemism was to be found in the giving of the
names.” The attributes of certain individuals had brought about their being
named after animals so that they had come to have names of honor or nicknames
that continued in their descendants. To explain the sociological theories, Freud
affirms that “the totem is the visible representative of the social religion
of these races. It embodies the community, which is the real object of
veneration.” To explain the psychological theories, Freud says that the totem
was meant to represent a safe place of refuge where the soul is deposited in
order to avoid the dangers that threaten it. After primitive man had housed his
soul in his totem he became invulnerable and he naturally took care of himself
not to harm the bearer of his soul. To also explain the origin of totemism,
Freud explains the relation between human and animals. At first the child
attribute full equality to the animals; he feels more closely related to the
animal that to the adult that is still mysterious to him. At a part of his
adolescence, the child suddenly begins to fear certain animal species and to
protect himself against seeing or touching any individual of this species. Also
one of the oldest form of sacrifice, older than the use of fire and the
knowledge of agriculture, was the sacrifice of animals, whose flesh and blood
was eaten by the God. According to Freud, “psychoanalysis has revealed to us
that the totem animal is really a substitute for the father, and this really
explains the contradiction that it is usually forbidden to kill the totem
animal, that the killing of it results in a holiday and that the animal is
killed and yet mourned.” In this book, the attempt was to find the original
meaning of totemism through its infantile traces. Both totem and taboo are”
held to have their roots in the Oedipus complex, which lies at the basis of
all neurosis” and, as Freud argued, it was also “the origin of religion,
ethics, society, and art”