Freud Resources
> 1912-13

Totem and Taboo

Freud, Sigmund 1912-13, Totem and Taboo, SE 13: 1-161, trs. from Totem und Tabu, GW 9.

(Original title, when published in four parts in Imago, 1912-13: 'Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics'; 'Über einige Übereinstimmungen im Seelenleben der Wilden und der Neurotiker.')

[Freud 1921c:] In 1912 I took up a conjecture of Darwin's to the effect that the primitive form of human society was that of a horde ruled over despotically by a powerful male. I attempted to show that the fortunes of this horde have left indestructible traces upon the history of human descent; and, especially, that the development of totemism, which comprises in itself the beginnings of religion, morality, and social organization, is connected with the killing of the chief by violence and the transformation of the paternal horde into a community of brothers. To be sure, this is only a hypothesis, like so many others with which archaeologists endeavour to lighten the darkness of prehistoric times—a 'Just-So Story,' as it was amusingly called by a not unkind English critic; but I think it is creditable to such a hypothesis if it proves able to bring coherence and understanding to more and more new regions. 122 (Freud, Sigmund 1921c, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, SE 18: 65‑143; this quotation: 122.)

[Holquist: 176] 'The Brothers Karamazov is about four young men, each of whom, before he is confronted by problems of metaphysics or theology, and the distances they imply, must first overcome the dilemma of his status as son, must cross the mine field between that condition and its opposite state, fatherhood. The end of biography in this last novel is not a transcendent ego or God, but fatherhood. … Behind Girard's biographical myth stands St Augustine, behind Lukács['s], Hegel. It should come as no surprise that the figure who might be invoked as source for an alternative biographical structure more appropriate to a novel so singlemindedly about sons taking (or failing to take) the place of the father is Freud. I have in mind particularly his "just so story" as he [177 (Holquist's reference here is to the Bantam edition of Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1960: 86.  Holquist, Michael 1977, Dostoevsky and the Novel, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois: 176-178.)] came to call it, "the scientific myth of the father of the primal horde." (Group Psychology, Bantam: 69.)

Freud first told the story in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913) but came back to it many times, ([Holquist's reference:] Especially in the following texts: On Narcissism (1914); Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921); The Future of an Illusion (1927); and Moses and Monotheism (1937)) … 177 In what follows, we will use successive versions of the legend as biographical templates for examining the careers of the different brothers.
The simplest account is the first. It was inspired by Darwin and such anthropologists as Robertson Smith and is Freud's attempt to make the dynamics of the Œdipus complex into the engine of history. At the beginning of time there was a primal horde, composed of a despotic father who held absolute sway over his sons and the females of the tribe. One day (eines Tages, a German fairytale formula) the sons, angered by their father's control of the women, rose up, killed the father and ate him. ([Holquist's footnote.] The impulse to add "all up" has been stifled in my account, but would not let itself off without at least getting into a footnote.) But "the tumultuous mob of brothers were filled with the same contradictory feelings which we can see in … our children … and … our neurotic patients. They hated their father, who presented such a formidable obstacle to their craving for power and their sexual desires; but they loved and admired him, too. After they had got rid of him, had satisfied their hatred and had put into effect their wish to identify with him, the affection which had all this time been pushed under was bound to make itself felt. A sense of guilt made its appearance, which in this instance coincided with the remorse of the whole group." (Totem and Taboo: 143.) In order to propitiate the dead father, who "became stronger than the living one had [178] been … they revoked this deed by forbidding the killing of the totem, the substitute for their father; and they renounced its fruits by resigning their claim to the women who had now been set free. They thus created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism [against murder and incest] which … corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Œdipus complex.'

[Creed:] Overcome by guilt, they later attempted to revoke the deed by setting up a totem as a substitute for the father and by renouncing the women whom they had liberated. The sons were forced to give up the women, whom they all wanted to possess, in order to preserve the group which otherwise would have been destroyed as the sons fought amongst themselves. In Totem and Taboo, Freud suggests that here 'the germ of the institution of matriarchy'(1912-13, SE 13: 144 [Freud, Sigmund 1985, Totem and Taboo, in The Origins of Religion, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 13: 206], as cited in Creed, Barbara 1990, 'Alien and the monstrous-feminine,' in Kuhn, Annette (ed.) 1990, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, Verso, London & New York: 128-141; this quotation 132.  Cf. [Freud 1921c: 135]: 'The male became once more the chief of a family, and broke down the prerogatives of the gynaecocracy which had become established during the fatherless period.') may have originated. Eventually, however, this new form of social organization, constructed upon the taboo against murder and incest, was replaced by the re-establishment of a patriarchal order. He pointed out that the sons had: 'thus created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which for that very reason inevitably corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Œdipus complex.' (1912-13, SE 13: 143 [Freud 1985: 205], as cited in Creed, Barbara 1990, 'Alien and the monstrous-feminine,' in Kuhn, Annette (ed.) 1990, Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, Verso, London & New York: 128-141; this quotation 132.)

[Freud:] In Totem and Taboo [1912-13] I have tried to show how the way led from this family to the succeeding stage of communal life in the form of bands of brothers. … [101] The taboo-observances were the first 'right' or 'law'. 1930a: 99-100

'the emotional relation involved includes sharply contrasted components' 14

In a fascinating modern (sociological) insertion into his anthropological discussion, he suggests that is because 'the emotional relation involved includes sharply contrasted components', in the terms discussed immediately above. 14

We have arrived at the point of regarding a child's relation to his [sic] parents, dominated as it is by incestuous longings, as the nuclear complex of neurosis. 17

The punishment for the violation of a taboo was no doubt originally left to an internal, automatic agency: the violated taboo itself took vengeance. When, at a later stage, idea of gods and spirits arose, with whom taboo became associated, the penalty was expected to follow automatically from the divine power. 20 [Cf. this passage from Civilization and its Discontents.]

And here at last an idea comes in which belongs entirely to psychoanalysis and which is foreign to people's ordinary way of thinking. ... it tells us that conscience ... is indeed the cause of instinctual renunciation to begin with, but that later the relationship is reversed. Every renunciation of instinct now becomes a dynamic source of conscience and every fresh renunciation increases the latter's severity and intolerance. [129] conscience is the result of instinctual renunciation, or that instinctual renunciation ... creates conscience, which then demands further instinctual renunciation. 1930a, SE 21: 128-9

belief in ghosts and spirits which is characteristic of these low levels of culture. 22

moral and conventional prohibitions by which we ourselves are governed may have some essential relationship with these primitive taboos … 22

primitive conditions of the Australian savages rather than in the higher culture of the Polynesian peoples. 23

richer culture of Polynesia and the Malay Archipelago… 23

I believe I shall be expressing the thoughts of many readers when I say that Wundt's explanation comes as something of a disappointment. 24

Neither fear nor demons can be regarded by psychology as "earliest" things [as Wundt had suggested], 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. 24

the double significance of taboo 24

It is precisely this neutral and intermediate meaning—"demonic" or "what may not be touched"—that is appropriately expressed by the word "taboo", since it stresses a characteristic which remains common for all time both to what is sacred and to what is unclean: the dread of contact with it. 25 [Cf. Mary Douglas; also the abject in Kristeva, Powers of Horror, etc.]

Ambivalence (for which read condensation/displacement) is central to Freud's continuing discussion, as he opens up the topic of the taboo, pointing out its bilateral nature, indicating, as it does, both the sacred and the dangerous, corresponding to the two forms of primal fear: veneration and horror. 25

The similarity between taboo and obsessional sickness may be no more than a matter of externals; it may apply only to the forms in which they are manifested and not extend to their essential character. Nature delights in making use of the same forms in the most various biological connections: as it does, for instance, in the appearance of branch-like structures both in coral and in plants, and indeed in some forms of crystal and in certain chemical precipitates. 26 [A structuralist moment in Freud. Cf. structuralism in general and Lévi-Strauss in particular, and the last page of Tristes Tropiques specifically.]

It would obviously be hasty and unprofitable to infer the existence of any internal relationship from such points of agreement as these, which merely derive from the operation of the same mechanical causes. 26

Obsessional prohibitions are extremely liable to displacement. 27

I will now put side by side two instances of the transference (or, as it is better to say, the displacement) of a prohibition. 27

Let us now summarize the points in which agreement between taboo usages and obsessional symptoms is most clearly shown: (1) the fact that the prohibitions lack any assignable motive; (2) the fact that they are maintained by an internal necessity; (3) the fact that they are easily displaceable and that there is a risk of infection from the prohibited object; and (4) the fact that they give rise to injunctions for the performance of ceremonial acts. 28-9

… the prohibition does not succeed in abolishing the instinct. Its only result is to repress the instinct (the desire to touch) and banish it into the unconscious. 29

When Freud moves on to situate these ambivalences in his model of the mind, he discloses a reason why it can tolerate such irrational ambiguities: each of the two impulses may be in a different part of the mind—the conscious and the unconscious. In discussing 'touching phobia', which he sees as related to taboos against touching (in the 'primitive' context), Freud suggests that the ambivalence (both desiring and prohibiting touching—specifically of the genitals) springs from the fact that the 'two currents … are localized in the subjects' mind in such a manner that they cannot come up against each other. The prohibition is noisily conscious, while the persistent desire to touch is unconscious …' 29-30

The instinctual desire is constantly shifting in order to escape from the impasse and endeavours to find substitutes—substitute objects and substitute acts—in place of the prohibited ones. 30

The mutual inhibition of the two conflicting forces produces a need for discharge … 30

Moreover, the differences between the situation of a savage and of a neurotic are no doubt of sufficient importance to make any exact agreement impossible and to prevent our carrying the comparison to the point of identity in every detail. 31

in the first place, then it must be said that there is no sense in asking savages to tell us the real reason for their prohibitions—the origin of taboo. It follows from our postulates that they cannot answer, since their real reason must be 'unconscious'. 31

In their unconscious there is nothing they would like more than to violate them, but they are afraid to do so; they are afraid precisely because they would like to, and the fear is stronger than the desire. The desire is unconscious, however, in every individual member of the tribe just as it is in neurotics. 31

…two basic laws of totemism: not to kill the totem animal and to avoid sexual intercourse with members of the totem clan of the opposite sex. 32

… a single unity … the basis of taboo is a prohibited action, for performing which a strong inclination exists in the unconscious. 32

Dead men, new-born babies and women menstruating or in labour stimulate desires by their special helplessness; … 33

Our attention is thus directed to the fact that the dangerous magical force of mana corresponds to two powers of a more realistic sort: the power of reminding a man of his own prohibited wishes and the apparently more important one of inducing him to transgress the prohibition in obedience to those wishes. These two functions can be reduced to one, however, if we suppose that in a primitive mind the awakening of the memory of a forbidden action is naturally linked with the awakening of an impulse to put that action into effect. 34

I will now sum up the respects in which light has been thrown on the nature of taboo by comparing it with the obsessional prohibitions of neurotics. … 34-5

How did we arrive at our knowledge of these psychological factors in the case of the neurosis? Through the analytical study of its symptoms, and particularly of obsessional acts, defensive measures and obsessional commands. We found that they showed every sign of being derived from ambivalent [36] impulses, either corresponding simultaneously to both a wish and a counter-wish or operating predominantly on behalf of one of the two opposing trends. If now, we could succeed in demonstrating that ambivalence, that is, the ascendancy of opposing trends, is also to be found in the observances of taboo, or if we could point to some of them which , like obsessional acts, give simultaneous expression to both currents, we should have established the psychological agreement between taboo and obsessional neurosis in what is perhaps their most important feature. 35-6

We, on the other hand, can lay stress on the unity of our view, which derives all of these observances from emotional ambivalence towards the enemy. 41
GMG: this sounds like a paradox: unity based on ambivalence … ?

… contact like an electric charge … 41

If we submit the recorded facts to analysis, as though they formed part of the symptoms presented [49] by a neurosis, … 48-9

The model upon which paranoiacs base their delusions of persecution is the relation of a child to his father. A son's picture of his father is habitually clothed with excessive powers of this kind, and it is found that distrust of the father is intimately linked with admiration for him. 50

The obsessional act is ostensibly a protection against the prohibited act; but actually, in our view, it is a repetition of it. The "ostensibly" applies to the conscious part of the [51] mind, and the "actually" to the unconscious part. 50-1

The taboo upon names will seem less puzzling if we bear in mind the fact that savages regard a name as an essential part of a man's personality and as an important possession: they treat words in every sense as things. As I have pointed out elsewhere [Freud 1905c, ch. 4] , our own children do the same. 56

60 deals with mourning, "obsessive self-reproaches", … responsible for the death … wish that was unconscious to herself … behind the tender love there is a concealed hostility in the unconscious … ambivalence … 60

The defence against it takes the form of displacing it on to the object of the hostility, on to the dead themselves. … "projection" … 61

Accordingly, there follow the repression of the unconscious hostility by the method of projection and the construction of the ceremonial which gives expression to the fear of being punished by the demons. When in course of time the mourning runs its course, the conflict grows less acute, so that the taboo upon the dead is able to diminish in severity or sink into oblivion. 63

It was not until a language of abstract thought had been developed, that is to say, not until the sensory residues of verbal presentations had been linked to the internal processes, that the latter themselves gradually became capable of being perceived. Before that, owing to the projection outwards of internal perceptions, primitive men arrived at a picture of the external world which we, with our intensified conscious perception, have now to translate back into psychology. 64

Neurotics … may be said to have inherited an archaic constitution as an atavistic vestige … 66

… conscience … guilt … 67 Cf. 1930a. … conscience … conscious … 67

… unconscious impulse … displacement … may have survived from very early times … growth of civilization … 70-1

… when the neurosis appears to be so tenderly altruistic, it is merely compensating for an underlying contrary attitude of brutal egoism. … over-compensation … 72

Thus the fact which is characteristic of the neurosis is the preponderance of the sexual over the social instinctual elements. 73

The neuroses exhibit on the one hand striking and far-reading points of agreement with those great social institutions, art, religion and philosophy. But on the other hand they seem like distortions [caricatures] of them. It might be maintained that a case of hysteria is a caricature of a work of art, that an obsessional neurosis is a caricature of a religion and that a paranoic delusion is a caricature of a philosophical system. The divergence resolves itself ultimately into the fact that the neuroses are social structures; they endeavour to achieve by private means what is effected in society by collective effort. If we analyse the [73] instincts at work in the neuroses, we find that the determining influence in them is exercised by instinctual forces of sexual origin; the corresponding cultural formations, on the other hand, are based upon social instincts, originating from the combination of egoistic and erotic elements. Sexual needs are not capable of uniting men in the same way as are the demands of self-preservation. Sexual satisfaction is essentially the private affair of each individual.
The asocial nature of neuroses has its genetic origin in their most fundamental purpose, which is to take flight from an unsatisfying reality into a more pleasurable world of phantasy. The real world, which is avoided in this way by neurotics, is under the sway of human society and of the institutions collectively created by it. To turn away from reality is at the same time to withdraw from the community of man. 73-4

The last group of instances exemplify what Frazer distinguishes [83] from "imitative" magic under the name of "contagious" magic. What is believed to be their effective principle is no longer similarity but spacial connection, contiguity, or at least imagined contiguity—the recollection of it. Since, however, similarity and contiguity are the two essential principles of processes of association, it appears that the true explanation of all the folly of magical observances is the domination of the association of ideas. 82 3

The associative theory of magic merely explains the paths along which magic proceeds; it does not explain its true essence, namely the misunderstanding which leads it to replace the laws of nature by psychological ones. 83

Children … satisfy their wishes in an hallucinatory manner … 83

… will … representation … motives for the magical act on to the measures … 84

It thus comes to appear as though it is the magical act itself which, owing to its similarity with the desired result, alone determines the occurrence of that result. 84

A general over-valuation has thus come about of all mental processes … 85

Things become less important than ideas of things: whatever is done to the later will inevitably also occur to the former. Relations which hold between the ideas of things are assumed to hold equally between the things themselves. Since distance is of no importance in thinking—since what lies furthest apart both in time and space can without difficulty be comprehended in a single act of consciousness—so, too, the world of magic has a telepathic disregard for spacial distance and treats past situations as though they were present. 85

… neurotics … hysterics … 86

the expected disaster was death. 87

It is difficult to judge whether the obsessive or protective acts performed by obsessional neurotics follow the law of similarity (or, as the case may be, of contrast); for as a rule, owing to the prevailing conditions of the neurosis, they have been distorted by being displaced on to some detail, on to some action which is in itself of the greatest triviality. 87

… "narcissism" … 89

comparison between the phases in the development of men's view of the universe and the stages of an individual's libidinal development. The animistic phase would correspond to narcissism both chronologically and in its content; the religious phase would correspond to the stage of object-choice of which the characteristic is a child's attachment to his parents; while the scientific phase … 90

We are thus prepared to find that primitive man transposed the structural conditions of his own mind into the external world … 91

animism is a system of thought, the first complete theory of the universe … dreams … 94

it scarcely ever succeeds so completely as to leave no absurdity, no rift in its texture visible. 94

secondary revision 95 good stuff

Thus a system is best characterized by the fact that at least two reasons can be discovered for each of its products: a reason based upon the premises [96] of the system (a reason, then, which may be delusional) and a concealed reason, which we must judge to be the truly operative and the real one. 96

over-determined 100

In the first place, those who collect he observations are not the same as those who examine and discuss them. 102n

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. 141

… Some cultural advance, perhaps, command over some new weapon, had given them a sense [142] of superior 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 or religion.
[Long footnote at this point, beginning with an appeal to an authority (Atkinson), including and ending with the following paragraph:]
The lack of precision in what I have written in the text above, its abbreviation of the time factor and its compression of the whole subject-matter, may be attributed to the reserve necessitated by the nature of the topic. It would be as foolish to aim at exactitude in such questions as it would be unfair to insist upon certainty. 142n.

GMG. Note that 'reserve' is a synonym for 'repression'.
Vagueness of the 'nature of the topic'. Special pleading?
Rhetorical figure of balance in last sentence.

They revoked their deed by forbidding the killing of the totem, the substitute for their father; and they renounced its fruits by resigning their claim to the women who had now been set free. They thus created out of their filial sense of guilt the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which for that very reason inevitably corresponded to the two repressed wishes of the Œdipus complex. Whoever contravened those taboos became guilty of the only two crimes with which primitive society concerned itself. 143

In this way they rescued the organization which had made them strong—and which may have been based on homosexual feelings and acts … 144
GMG. Is this a confession?

All later religions are seen to be attempts at solving the same problem. 145
GMG. 'Seen' by whom?

Phases in the development of religion from the totemic meal: 146-52

1. totem meal 146 totem is the first form of father-surrogate 148
2. original form of sacrifice—to clan deity 147 god is later; father has regained human shape 148 attempt at atonement 149 (mother-goddesses? 149)
3. sacrifice now simple offering to deity; God distant; priests; divine kings; authority at its climax; god himself kills the animal 150
4. modern religions 151-2
If psycho-analysis deserves any attention, then—without prejudice to any other sources of meanings of the concept of God, upon which psycho-analysis can throw no light—the paternal element in that concept must be a most important one. 147
Thus after a long lapse of time their bitterness against their father, which had driven them to their deed, grew less … 148
GMG. Cf. 'One day …' What kind of time are we dealing with here? Historical, psychical, mythological … ?
As a result of decisive cultural changes … 148
forget its historical stratification … two chronologically successive meanings of the scene. 149
GMG. Does this deal with the problem I raised re p. 148?
divine kings … patriarchal system …revenge … dominance of authority was at its climax … phase … denial of the great crime … 150
The original animal sacrifice was already a substitute for a human sacrifice—for the ceremonial killing of the father; so that, when the father-surrogate once more resumed its human shape, the animal sacrifice too could be changed back into a human sacrifice. 151
An event such as the elimination of the primal father by the company of his sons must inevitably have left ineradicable traces in the history of humanity; and the less it itself was recollected, the more numerous must have been the substitutes to which it gave rise. [Freud's footnote at this point quotes Shakespeare: Ariel in The Tempest, singing of the 'sea-change' that has happened to Ferdinand's father: 'into something rich and strange.'] I shall resist the temptation of pointing out these traces in mythology, where they are not hard to find, … 155
Hero of tragedy. 156
In the remote reality … 156
… the Chorus, the company of brothers … 156

At the conclusion, then, of this exceedingly condensed inquiry, I should like to insist that its outcome shows that the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Œdipus complex. This is in complete agreement with the [157] psychoanalytical finding that the same complex constitutes the nucleus of all neuroses, so far as our present knowledge goes. It seems to me a most surprising discovery that the problems of social psychology, too should prove soluble on the basis of one single concrete point—man's [sic] relation to his father. It is even possible that yet another psychological problem belongs in the same connection. I have often had occasion to point out that emotional ambivalence in the proper sense of the term—that is, the simultaneous existence of love and hate towards the same object—lies at the root of many important cultural institutions. We know nothing of the origin of this ambivalence. One possible assumption is that is a fundamental phenomenon of our emotional life. But it seems to me quite worth considering another possibility, namely that originally it formed no part of our emotional life but was acquired by the human race in connection with their father-complex, precisely where the psycho-analytic examination of modern individuals still finds it revealed at its strongest.

[Freud's footnote: ] Since I am used to being misunderstood, I think it worth while to insist explicitly that the derivations which I have proposed in these pages do not in the least overlook the complexity of the phenomena under review. All that they claim is to have added a new factor to the sources, known or still unknown, of religion, morality and society—a factor based on a consideration of the implications of psycho-analysis. I must leave to others the task of synthesizing the explanation into a unity. It does, however, follow from the nature of the new contribution that it could not play any other than central part in such a synthesis, even though powerful emotional resistances might have to be overcome before its great importance was recognized. 157n.

No one can have failed to observe, in the first place, that I have taken as the basis of my whole position the existence of a collective mind, in which mental processes occur just as they do in the mind of an individual. In particular, I have supposed [158] that the sense of guilt for an action has persisted for many thousands of years and has remained operative in generations which can have had no knowledge of that action. I have supposed that an emotional process, such as might have developed in generations of sons who were ill-treated by their father, has extended to new generations which were exempt from such treatment for the very reason that their father had been eliminated. It must be admitted that these are grave difficulties; and any explanation that could avoid presumptions of such a kind would seem to be preferable. 157-8

not alone in the responsibility for this bold procedure 158
'social psychology in general cannot exist' 158
GMG. In tricky situation, he falls back on Goethe. 158

Accordingly the mere hostile impulse [160] against the father, the mere existence of a wishful phantasy of killing and devouring him, would have been enough to produce the moral reaction that created totemism and taboo. 159-60
GMG. So they didn't do it after all!

The analogy between primitive men and neurotics will therefore be far more fully established if we suppose that in the former instance, too, psychical reality—as to the form taken by which we are in no doubt—coincided at the beginning with factual reality: that primitive men actually did what all the evidence shows that they intended to do. 161
GMG. So they did do it after all!

In concluding that primitive men did in fact do the deed of patricide (because they were/are 'uninhibited: thought passes directly into action'), Freud substitutes for the Gospel of St John ('In the beginning was the Word…') the Gospel according to St Johann: 'in the beginning was the Deed'." (1912-13, SE 13: 161.)


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