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Totem and Taboo

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Totem and Taboo is Sigmund Freud's first work on group psychology.


The work presents an analogy between two terms: on the one hand, savages, on the other, neurotics and children.


The analogy unfolds in three parts, starting in the first essay where the resemblance between the two is related to the horror of incest that Freud identified in savages by analyzing totemic systems as laws of exogamy. The second essay interprets taboo as a manifestation of the ambivalence of emotions. Freud postulates the primal existence of emotional currents, distinguishes between savages and the rest of us based on the intensity of emotion, and provides the first in-depth investigation of this conception of emotion. The third essay, cutting across similarities and differences, offers, among other things, the first detailed investigation of narcissism (animism). But there is more to the analogy, which Freud develops at the end of the third essay and in the fourth. He establishes the existence of the concepts he examines, the dynamic that governs them, as well as their bearing on his own work, on the following hypotheses: the existence of a primitive horde whose father is omnipotent; the murder of the father by the group of brothers, leading to the growth of the totemic clan, and the conditions for this possibility of thought.


Totem and Taboo was the basis for Freud's work on group psychology. Like most of his work, it is more frequently reduced to a simple formula (the murder of the father by the horde) than studied or understood as a whole. The only valid criticism concerns the hypothesis of the phylogenetic transmission of precise memory traces. But the forms assumed by the primal horde and the totemic clan, as well as the foundational moment of rupture that they share, remain pertinent. The libidinal dynamics that constitute such groups were later elaborated in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), along with the status of the "poet" who invents the myth of origin.


See also: Act/action; Ambivalence; Animistic thought; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Castration complex; Cultural transmission; Darwin, Darwinism and psychoanalysis; Ethics; Father complex; Gift; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; Heredity of acquired characters; Identification; Incest; Magical thinking; Myth of origins; Mythology and psychoanalysis; Oedipus complex; Omnipotence of thoughts; Organic repression; ; Phylogenesis; Phylogenetic Fantasy, A: Overview of the Transference Neuroses; Primitive; Primitive horde; Projection; Taboo; Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality; Totem/totemism; "Uncanny, The." Source Citation

   * Freud, Sigmund (1912-13a), Totem und Tabu. EinigeÜbereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker, Leipzig-Vienna, Hugo Heller; GW, IX; appeared with the title "Über einigeÜbereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker" as a series of four essays in Imago; first essay: "Die Inzestscheu," I, 1, Vienna, 1912, 17-33; second essay: "Das Tabu und die Ambivalenz der Gefühlsregungen," I, 3, Vienna, 1912, 213-227, I, 4, 301-333; third essay: "Animismus, Magie und Allmacht der Gedanken," II, 1, Vienna, 1913, 1-21; fourth essay: "Die infantile Widerkehr des Totemismus," II, 4, Vienna, 1913, 357-408; Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  • Freud, Sigmund. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.
  • Freud, Sigmund, and Ferenczi, Sandor. (1993-2000). The correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi (Eds. Eva Brabant, Ernst Falzeder, and Patrizia Giampieri-Deutsch, Peter T. Hoffer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

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Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics was a book written by Sigmund Freud published in German as Totem und Tabu: Einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker in 1913. It was a collection of four essays which had been published in the journal Imago from 1912-1913 as an application of psychoanalysis to the fields of archeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. Of the four essays — "The Horror of Incest", "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence", "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts", and "The Return of Totemism in Childhood" — the last was the most unique and wide-ranging in its argument.

The Horror of Incest

The first and shortest of the four essays concerns totemism and creation of family structures and thus incest taboos. Freud uses examples mostly from the Aboriginal Australians peoples as gathered and discussed by anthropologist J.G. Frazer.

Freud discusses various ways in which the exogamy of the totem system prevents incest not only among the nuclear family, but among extended families as well. In addition, the totem system prevents 'incest' among members of the same totem clan who are not related by blood and considers as incest relations between clan members which could not produce children (i.e. looking at one another). From this, Freud concludes that the taboos are not set up for a totally 'practical nature' and thus must have some psychoanalytical justification.

He concludes the essay with a discussion of the mother-in-law taboo, and concludes that the incestuous wishes which are repressed to the unconscious among civilized peoples are still a conscious peril to the uncivilized people in Frazer's studies.

Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence

In this essay, 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' peoples 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).

Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thought

The third essay examines the animism and naricissistic phase associated with a primitive understanding of the universe and early libidinal development. A belief in magic and sorcery derives from an overvaluation of physical 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 discernable 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 animistic system are cree behind which lies instinctual repression.

The Return of Totemism in Childhood

In the final essay, Freud argues that combining 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 located the origins of totemism in a singular event, whereby 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).

Translation into English

The English translation was published in 1918; it met with an initially chilly reception from the anthropological community, reflective of a change in scholarship towards ethnography and away from the more speculative "theoretical anthropology". However in later years, Freud's approach, if not the specific theory advanced, would become much more prominent within anthropological literature as incorporated into the post-structuralist approach.

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