Totem and Taboo, 1913, by Sigmund Freud

Freud attempted to give a psychoanalysis into the minds of people and neurosis. In his book, Totem and Taboo, he proposes that all modern forms of socialization are shaped by the primitive culture of origin. In addition to that, he states that all behaviors of conformity spring from a common primitive form. Generally, a totem is a symbol that is common to a group of people. Typically, members who are of the same totem are prohibited from breeding. In this book, Freud argues that these simplistic societies would simply have had no way of knowing the physiological effects of incest. Instead, Freud argues that these primitive societies are driven by something else. Thus, Freud instigated a study into these groups and came up with conclusions. In the book, he also has something to say about how modern and monotheistic religions came into being. His theories have been heavily criticized, and have been a source of major controversies since they were first put forward. In this light, there is a need for closer examination.

First Chapter

The first chapter of this book concerns the incest taboos of primitive tribes. Specifically, Freud chose to use Aborigines of Australia for his study. He stated that he chose them because their culture was deeply ingrained in use of totems and were very primitive. In this chapter, Freud insinuates that totems only exist as a way to prevent incestuous relations. Freud notes that savage tribes took great care to avoid incestuous relations. In some cases, this behavior was so severe that it led to what he termed as avoidances'. What this meant is that communities took great care so that even walking down the same path was prohibited. In some instances, either the man or woman would have to hide if they encountered someone of the opposite sex on a path. For his explanation, Freud suggests that repression of sexual desire is the cause of such 'avoidances'. However, modern societies have advanced and no longer have to rely on avoidances. However, Freud suggests that even advanced societies must have at one time passed through this stage. Freud argues that neurotic patients have regressed. In essence, they are unable to repress the primitive incestuous feelings.

Second Chapter

This chapter deals with the topic of emotional ambivalence and taboo practices. In this chapter, Freud explains taboo as something, which is prevented by society without reason. He argues that a taboo does not spontaneously exist. At one point, the taboo had meaning but the meaning has since been lost to time. A taboo is seen as something dangerous and having dire consequences, yet further investigation reveals no one knows why. It has been so for such a long time that its original significance is no longer traceable. Since incest and the killing of a totem animal are most prominent taboos, Freud argues at one time, they were the most heinous acts in that clan. In essence, Freud argues that the original lesser males may have killed the father and taken over his females. As a result, he argues this repressed guilt leads them to prohibit these two activities. In order to ensure no one breaks these rules, sever punishment, even death is handed out communally to anyone who violates the taboo.

Third Chapter

This chapter deals with animism and omnipotence. Essentially, this chapter tries to explain the origin of religions. Freud postulates that primitive societies view every object in the universe as possessing a soul. Darwin suggests that these primitive tribes intermingle dreams with the physical world. In essence, they try to explain the existence of the world and how their influence on it. Freud argues that this primitive feeling of human being having control over everything is what leads to narcissism. Primitive tribes believe that whatever they do has a great impact on other objects in the universe. Freud also argues that religion is a form of repressed incest. He postulates the idea that a god stands in place of one's parents and become an object of expressing repressed sexual desires. Freud argues that animism is the first stage of the mental evolution of man. According to Freud, religion and finally science are the second and last stages of man's evolution. Freud argues that religion leads to a lot intolerance and oppression. This is because it is a result of repressed sexual desires. In Freud's view, scientific discovery could put an end to most oppression and conflict in the human race.

Chapter Four

This chapter is concerned with explaining the origin of totems. Freud notes that his studies indicate that exogamy is not innate in man. Primal man at his core has a desire for sexual relations with close family members. However, through social conditioning, it becomes something of a norm. This last chapter is based on the Oedipus complex, a theory that was first proposed by Sigmund Freud. In this theory, Freud talks about a 'primal horde'. This is thought to be one of the earliest attempts by man to live in organized society. In this society, a single male would own all the females, like is seen in gorillas' societies. The rest of the males remain exogamous by default. However, at one point they may have killed their father and taken over his females. However, this leads to feelings of guilt, which are displaced to a totem animal or plant. Thus, killing a totem creature is prohibited except for various ceremonies. In essence, what happens is that these societies feel ambivalent towards their original father figure. By slaughtering the ritual totem animal in groups, they are attempting to console each other by sharing in each other's guilt.


In the last chapter, Freud argues that all cultures, no matter how advanced originate from the Oedipus complex. He also argues it is the basis for all religion. Although he never saw it happen, he predicted that an end to religion would also see an end to all forms of conflict. Although much progress has been made in various advanced societies around the world, there still exist many hurdles in seeing his vision become a reality.