A Middlesex University resource by Andrew Roberts
Extracts from Sigmund Freud's

Totem and Taboo
Some Points of Agreement Between the
Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (1913)
see Blanche Wittman faint
(or feint?)

Page numbers are from the Penguin Freud

Chapter 1: The Horror of Incest

p.53 [The start]

Prehistoric man.. is known to us though.. monuments.. implements.. left behind.. legends, myths and fairy tales..

But apart from this...There are men still living who.. stand very near to primitive man.. those whom we describe as savages..

..their mental life must have a peculiar interest.. if we are right in seeing in it a well-preserved picture of an early stage of our own development

If that supposition is correct, a comparison between the psychology of primitive peoples.. and.. neurotics


I shall select as the basis of this comparison the tribes which have been described by anthropologists as the most backward and miserable of savages, the aborigines of Australia..

We should certainly not expect that the sexual life of these poor naked cannibals would be moral in our sense or that their sexual instincts would be subjected to any great degree of restriction. Yet we find that they set before themselves with the most scrupulous care and the most painful severity the aims of avoiding incestuous sexual relations. Indeed, their whole social organisation seems to serve that purpose or to have been brought into relation with its attainment.

Among the Australians the place of all the religions and social institutions which they lack is taken by the system of totemism. Australian tribes fall into smaller divisions, or clans, each of which is named after its totem.

What is a totem: It is as a rule an animal (whether edible and harmless or dangerous and feared) and more rarely a plant or a natural phenomenon (such as rain or water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan. Totem

In the first place, the totem is the common ancestor of the clan; at the same time it is their guardian spirit and helper, which sends them oracles and, if dangerous to others, recognises and spares its own children.


Conversely, the clansmen are under a sacred obligation (subject to automatic sanctions) not to kill or destroy their totem and to avoid eating its flesh (or deriving benefit from it in other ways).

The totemic character is inherent not in some individual animal or entity, but in all individuals of a given class. from time to time festivals are celebrated at which the clansmen represent or initiate the motions and attributes of their totem in ceremonial dances.

Chapter 2: Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence

Taboo is a Polynesian word. It is difficult for us to find a translation for it, since the concept connoted by it is one which we no longer possess...

The meaning of taboo, as we see it, diverges in two contrary directions. To us it means, on the one hand, 'sacred', 'consecrated', and on the other 'uncanny', 'dangerous', 'forbidden', 'unclean'. The converse of 'taboo' in Polynesian is noa, which means 'common' or 'generally accessible'.


It may begin to dawn on us the taboos of the savage Polynesians are after all not so remote from us as we were inclined to think at first, that the moral and conventional prohibitions by which we ourselves are governed may have some essential relationship with these primitive taboos and that an explanation of taboo might throw a light upon the obscure origin of our own categorical imperative


p.86 Anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example: why should he be allowed to do what is forbidden to others? Thus he is truly contagious in that every example encourages imitation, and for that reason he himself must be shunned.

But a person who has not violated any taboo may yet be permanently or temporarily taboo because he is in a state which arouses the quality of arousing forbidden desires in others and of awakening a conflict of amibivalence in them... The king or chief arouses envy on account of his priveleges: everyone, perhaps, would like to be a king. Dead men, new-born (page 87) babies and women menstruating or in labour stimulate desires by their special helplessness; a man who has just reached maturity stimulates tham by the promise of new enjoyments. For that reason all of these persons and all of these states are taboo, since temptation must be resisted.

We know that the dead are powerful rulers, but we may perhaps be surprised when we learn that they are treated as enemies.

2.3 (b) par.8] One of the most puzzling, but at the same time instructive, usages in connection with mourning is the prohibition against uttering the name of the dead person...

2.3 (b) par.9] Thus the Masai in East Africa resorts to the device of changing the dead man's name immediately after his death; he may then be mentioned freely under his new name while all the restrictions reman attached to the old one. This seems to presuppose that the dead man's ghost does not know and will not get to know the new name...

2.3 (b) par.15] ... they make no disguise of the fact that they are afraid of the presence or of the return of the dead person's ghost; and they perform a great number of ceremonies to keep him at a distance or drive him off....

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that, in the words of Wundt, they are victims to a fear of "the dead man's soul which has become a demon". Here, then, we seem to have found a confirmation of Wundt's view, which ... considers that the essence of taboo is a fear of demons.


When a wife has lost her husband or a daughter her mother, it not infrequently happens that the survivor is overwhelmed by tormenting doubts (to which we give the name of 'obsessive self-reproaches') as to whether she may not herself have been responsible for the death...

It may be regarded as a pathological form of mourning, and with the passage of time it gradually dies away. The psychoanalytic investigation of such cases has revealed the secret motives of the disorder. We find that in a certain sense these obsessive self-reproaches are justified, and that this is why they are proof against contradictions and protests. It is not that the mourner was really responsible for the death... None the less there was something in her - a wish that was unconscious to herself - which would not have been dissatisfied by the occurrence of death...


We have now discovered a motive which can explain the idea that the souls of those who have just died are transformed into demons and the necessity felt by survivors to protect themselves against their hostility. Let us suppose that the emotional life of primitive peoples is characterized by an amount of ambivalence as great as that which we are led by the findings of psychoanalysis to attribute to obsessional patients. It then becomes easy to understand how after a painful bereavement savages should be obliged to produce a reaction against the hostility latent in their unconscious similar to that expressed as obsessive self-reproach in the case of neurotics. But this hostility, distressingly felt in the unconscious as satisfaction over the death, is differently dealt with amongst primitive peoples. The defence against it takes the form of displacing it on to the object of the hostility, on to the dead themselves.

This defensive procedure, which is a common one both in normal and in pathological mental lief, is known as a projection

Chapter 3: Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts


Spirits and demons, as I have shown in the last essay, are only projections of man's own emotional impulses. He turns his emotional cathexes into persons, he peoples the world with them and meets his internal mental processes again outside himself...

Chapter 4: The Return of Totemism in Childhood


To Frazer's account of totemism one of the earliest in the literature of the subject-I will add a few extracts from one of the most recent ones. In his Elemente der Volkerpsychologie [1912], Wundt writes as follows:

"The totem animal is also usually regarded as the ancestral animal of the group in question. 'Totem' is, on the one hand a group name, and, on the other, a name indicative of ancestry. In the latter connection it has also a mythological significance. These various ideas, however, interplay in numerous ways. Some of the meanings may recede, so that totems have frequently become a mere nomenclature of tribal divisions, while at other time the idea of ancestry, or, perhaps also, the cult significance, predominates..."

The concept of the totem has a decisive influence upon tribal division and tribal organisation, which are subject to certain norms of custom.

"These norms, and their fixed place in the beliefs and feelings of the tribal members, are connected with the fact that originally, at all events, the totem animal was regarded, for the most part, as having not merely given its name to a group of tribal members but as having actually been its forefather - Bound up with this is the further fact that these animal ancestors possessed a cult - Aside from specific ceremonies and ceremonial festivals, this animal cult originally found expression primarily in the relations maintained towards the totem animal. It was not merely a particular animal that was to a certain extent held sacred, but every representative of the species. The totem members were forbidden to eat the flesh of the totem animal, or were allowed to do so only under specific conditions. A significant counter-phenomenon, not irreconcilable with this, is the fact that on certain occasions the eating of the totem flesh constituted a sort of ceremony..."


I recently published (1909) an 'Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy', the material of which was supplied to me by the little patient's father. The boy had a phobia of horses, and as a result he refused to go out in the street. He expressed a fear that the horse would come into the room and bite him; and it turned out that this must be the punishment for a wish that the horse might fall down (that is, die).

After the boy's fear of his father had been removed by reassurances, it became evident that he was struggling against wishes which had as their subject the idea of his father being absent (going away on a journey, dying). He regarded his father (as he made all too clear) as a competitor for the favours of his mother, towards whom the obscure foreshadowing of his budding sexual wishes were aimed.

Thus he was situated in the typical attitude of a male child towards his parents to which we have given the name of the 'Oedipus complex' and which we regard in general as the nuclear complex of the neuroses. The new fact that we have learnt from the analysis of 'little Hans' - a fact with an important bearing upon totemism - is that in such circumstances children displace some of their feelings from their father on to an animal.



... in the case of little Arpád (the subject of Ferenczi's report) his totemic interests did not arise in direct relation with his Oedipus complex but on the basis of his narcissistic precondition, the fear of castration. But any attentive reader of the story of little Hans's will find abundant evidence that he, too, admired his father as possessing a big penis and feared him as threatening his own. The same part is played by the father alike in the Oedipus and the castrations complexes - the part of a dreaded enemy to the sexual interest of childhood. The punishment which he threatens is castration, or its substitute, blinding.

When little Arpád was two and a half years old, he had once, while he was on a summer holiday, tried to micturate into the fowl-house and a fowl had pecked, or pecked at his penis. A year later, when he was back in the same place, he himself turned into a fowl; his one interest was in the fowl-house and in what went on there and he abandoned human speech in favour of cackling and crowing. At the time at which the observation was made (when he was five years old) he had recovered his speech, but his interests and his talk were entirely concerned with chickens and other kinds of poultry. They were his only toys and he only sang songs that had some mention of fowls in them. His attitude towards his totem animal was superlatively ambivalent: he showed both hatred and love to an extravagant degree. His favourite game was playing slaughtering fowls.

"The slaughtering of poultry was a regular festival for him. He would dance round the animals' bodies for hours at a time in a state of intense excitement" [Ferenczi] "

But afterwards he would kiss and stroke the slaughtered animal or would clean and caress the toy fowls that he had himself ill-treated.

Little Arpád himself saw to it that the meaning of his strange behaviour should not remain hidden. From time to he translated his wishes from the totemic language into that of everyday life.

"My father's the cock",

he said on one occasion, and another time:

"Now I'm small, now I'm a chicken. When I get bigger I'll be a fowl. When I'm bigger still I'll be a cock."

pp 192-193

If the totem animal is the father, then the two principal ordinances of totemism, the two taboo prohibitions which constitute its core - not to kill the totem and not to have sexual relations with a woman of the same totem - coincide in their content with the two crimes of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, as well as with the two primal wishes of children, the insufficient repression or the re-awakening of which forms the nucleus of perhaps every psychoneurosis.

If this equation is anything more than a misleading trick of chance, it must enable us to throw a light upon the origin of totemism in the inconceivably remote past. In other words, it would enable us to make it probable that the totemic system - like little Hans's animal phobia and little Arpád's poultry perversion - was a product of the conditions involved in the Oedipus complex.

In order to pursue this possibility, we shall have, in the following pages, to study a feature of the totemic system (or, as we might say, of the totemic religion) which I have hitherto scarcely found an opportunity of mentioning. [Freud goes on to discuss the totem meal]


[The following passages are Freud's description of the theory of William Robertson Smith]


William Robertson Smith...put forward the hypothesis that a peculiar ceremony known as the `totem meal` had from the very first formed an integral part of the totemic system.


The oldest form of sacrifice, then, older than the use of fire or the knowledge of agriculture, was the sacrifice of animals, whose flesh and blood were enjoyed in common by the god and his worshippers. It was essential that each one of the participants should have his share of the meal.

A sacrifice of this kind was a public ceremony, a festival celebrated by the whole clan. Religion in general was an affair of the community and religious duty was a part of social obligation. Everywhere a sacrifice involves a feast and a feast cannot be celebrated without a sacrifice. The sacrificial feast was an occasion on which individuals rose joyously above their own interests and stressed the mutual dependence existing between one another and their god.


But why is this binding force attributed to eating and drinking together? In primitive societies there was only one kind of bond which was absolute and inviolable - that of kinship. The solidarity of such a fellowship was complete.

'A kin was a group of persons whose lives were so bound up together, in what must be called a physical unity, that they could be treated as parts of one common life ... In a case of homicide Arabian tribesmen do not say, "The blood of M. or N. has been spilt", naming the man; they say, "Our blood has been spilt". In Hebrew the phrase by which one claims kinship is "I am your bone and your flesh".' [The quotation is from Smith, W.R. 1889, p.173)
Thus kinship implies participation in a common substance. It is therefore natural that it is not merely based on the fact that a man is a part of his mother's substance, having been born of her and having been nourished by her milk, but that it can be acquired and strengthened by food which a man eats later and with which his body is renewed. If a man shared a meal with his god he was expressing a conviction that they were of one substance; and he would never share a meal with one whom he regarded as a stranger.


[In the following passages Freud summarizes his speculation]


Let us call up the spectacle of the 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.

p.202 Psychoanalysis has revealed that the totem animal is in reality a substitute for the father; and this tallies with the contradictory fact that, though the killing of the animal is as a rule forbidden, yet its killing is a festive occasion - with the fact that it is killed and yet mourned. The ambivalent emotional attitude, which to this day characterizes the father-complex in our children and which often persists into adult-life, seems to extend to the totem animal in its capacity as substitute for the father.

If, now, we bring together the psychoanalytic translation of the totem with the fact of the totem meal and with Darwin's theories of the earliest state of human society, the possibility of a deeper understanding emerges - a glimpse of a hypothesis which may seem fantastic but which offers the advantage of establishing an unsuspected correlation between groups of phenomena that have hitherto been disconnected.

[See horde

There is, of course, no place for the beginnings of totemism in Darwin's primal horde. All that we find there is a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons as they grow up. The earliest state of society has never been an object of observation. The most primitive kind of organisation that we actually come across - and one that is in force to this day in certain tribes - consists of bands of males; these bands are composed of members with equal rights and are subject to the restrictions of the totemic system, including inheritance through the mother. Can this form of organisation have developed out of the other one? and if so along what lines?

p.203 If we call the celebration of the totem meal to our help, we shall be able to find an answer. 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 succeed 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 victim 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 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 - or social organisation, of moral restrictions and of religion.

p.204 In order that these latter consequences may seem plausible, leaving their premises on one side, we need only suppose that the tumultuous mob of brothers were filled with the same contradictory feelings which we can see at work in the ambivalent father-complexes of 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. It did so in the form of remorse. A sense of guilt made its appearance, which in this instance coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group. The dead father became stronger than the living one had been - for events took the course we often see them follow in human affairs to this day. What had up to then been prevented by his actual existence [p.205] was thenceforward prohibited by the sons themselves, in accordance with the psychological procedure so familiar to us in psychoanalysis under the name 'deferred obedience'. 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 Oedipus complex. Whoever contravened those two taboos became guilty of the only two crimes with which primitive society concerned itself.



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 Oedipus complex. This is in complete agreement with the psychoanalytic finding that the same complex constitutes the nucleus of all neurosis, 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 relation to his father.


[Freud sees the following points as "difficulties involved in my conclusions"]

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 that the sense of guilt for an action has persisted for many thousands of years and has remained operative in generations which can have 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.


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the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex.



Boy's Phobia of Horses

collective mind

contagion of taboo

Darwin' primal horde

Freud summarizes his anthropological speculation

forbidden desires

little Arpád

little Hans

obsessive self-reproach

Oedipus complex


William Robertson Smith

spirits and demons

social psychology

Taboo: 2.1

See dictionary: totem

Totem: What is it?

Totem = Father?

Totem Meal

Totem: Wundt's description

Other works

On John Stuart Mill

1900: Interpretation of Dreams

1923: The Ego and the Id

1924: The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex

1926: The Question of Lay Analysis

1930: Civilisation and its Discontents

1933: The Dissection of the Psychical Personality

1933: Femininity

1938: An Outline of Psychoanalysis

L. Leland
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