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From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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The word totem is derived from the Ojibwa language of North America, where it refers to kinship relations between siblings and the exogamous clan. In the nineteenth century, British anthropologists suggested that totemism, characterized by the existence of a fetish, exogamy, and matrilineal descent, was the fundamental institution of primitive societies and the essential basis of their beliefs, as distinct from the religious and scientific thought of western culture. This universalizing, comparative, and evolutionist attitude reached its apogee in James G. Frazer. It disappeared for methodological reasons. Ethnologists abandoned universalism to conduct local research, emphasizing the differences between cultures. In Freud's work the word totem appears in a supplement (1912a), prepared for the Weimar Congress, September 21 and 22, 1911, describing his analysis of Justice Schreber's book (1911). After working for four months on Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), Freud announced his intentions as follows: "The assumption underlying these trials [proving the authenticity of childrens lineage from a clan's totem] leads us deep into the totemic habits of thought of primitive peoples. The totem . . . spares the members of the tribe as being its own children, just as it itself is honoured by them as being their ancestor and is spared by them. We have here arrived at the considerations of matters which, as it seems to me, may make it possible to arrive at a psycho-analytic explanation of the origins of religion" (1911c, p. 81). Totem and Taboo advanced the thesis that Freud developed in all his writing on group psychology, through Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-38])—and he indicates that he is aware of the criticism of the literature on totemism and undisturbed by it. Initially there was agreement between the two taboo prohibitions of totemism—killing the totem and marrying within the clan—were found to coincide with the two oedipal wishes—killing the father and marrying the mother. Psychoanalysis provided two other findings: childhood phobias showing the animal could function as a paternal substitute, and Ferenczi's observation of a child who identified with a cock (1913), which Freud associated with an "infantile return of totemism." He went on to describe the murder of the archaic father as the nucleus of totemism and point of departure for the formation of religion. The work of William Robertson Smith (1889) analyzing the "totemic meal" confirmed the hypothesis: Once a year the totem animal was sacrificed and consumed by the members of the tribe. This was followed by a period of mourning and feasting. By adding the Darwinian assumption of primitive hordes, each under the domination of a single male who was powerful, violent, and jealous, the following scientific hypothesis or myth was set forth. The all-powerful and "absolutely narcissistic" father of the primal horde seized all the women and killed, subjugated, or chased away the sons. "One day, however, the sons came together and united to overwhelm, kill, and devour their father, who had been their enemy but also their ideal" (1925d [1924], p. 68). Afterward, none of the sons could take the place of the father. "Under the influence of failure and regret . . . they banded themselves into a clan of brothers by the help of the ordinances of totemism, which aimed at preventing a repetition of such a deed, and they jointly undertook to forego the possession of the women on whose account they had killed their father.... this was the origin of the exogamy which is so closely bound up with totemism. The totem-feast was the commemoration of the fearful dead from which sprang man's sense of guilt (or 'original sin') and which was the beginning at once of social organization, of religion, and of ethical restrictions. Now whether we suppose that such a possibility was a historical event or not, it brings the formation of religion within the circle of the father-complex and bases it upon the ambivalence which dominates that complex" (p. 60). By assigning a collective prehistory to the Oedipus complex, while making an intrinsic connection between individual and collective psychology via the family, the totem hypothesis also bases the possibility of human thought on the murder of the father of the horde. The fulfillment of this act (i.e., murder of the father), studied throughout Freud's work on group psychology, is what leads to the formation of distinct psychic agencies—ego, ego ideal, and superego—along with the development of ambivalence and the appearance of the feeling of guilt, including unconscious guilt. The concept of the taboo depends on the thesis of totemism. Freud also attributed the susceptibility to hypnotism to the phylogenetic memory traces of the horde. Likewise, group psychology and religion are based on the premise of totemism. From this Freud deduced three paradigmatic forms and dynamics of group existence: the horde, matriarchy, and the totemic clan, and three paradigmatic forms of religion that are related to them: the worship of mother-goddesses, of the son-hero, and of the father. The latter reveals the return of the repressed created by the murder of the father. Modern ethnology has challenged the universality of Freud's claim and that of the Oedipus complex. The transmission of phylogenetic traces that are valid for the entire human species is problematic, even if Freud defends this idea with a form of Lamarckism. Nonetheless, Freud's arguments have continued to generate interest (Juillerat, 1991). In Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism, Freud explicitly analyzed the libidinal forms and dynamics of western culture, with its monotheistic religions, its customs, its morality, its science, and its social and state institutions.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  2. ——. (1925d [1924]). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.
  3. Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1964). Totemism. (Rodney Needham, Trans.) London: Merlin. (Original work published 1962)