Totem and Taboo

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Totem and Taboo is Sigmund Freud's first work on group psychology. The foundation of the work's ideas first appears in 1911, in his correspondence with Sándor Ferenczi, through which it is possible to trace the development of Freud's thought. Two topics appear in the letters: "tragic guilt" and the "libidinal origin of religion." His competition with Carl Jung, who was writing the Metamorphoses of the Soul and its Symbols (1912), is mentioned, and their break in fact occurred while the book was being written.

The work presents a classic and sweeping analogy between two terms: on the one hand, savages, on the other, neurotics and childrenus, in other words. 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.

The work is made difficult because of its complex construction, the manner in which Freud uses analogy, the extreme interpretative power of his analysis, the conceptual richness of the bookprojection, ontogenesis of moral conscience, the reality-ego and pleasure-egoand finally because of the "spiny hedge of literature and reference" included (letter to Ferenczi, May 13, 1913). This work also traces the Oedipus complex to a scientific myth that is found, in modified form, in the work of the majority of later psychoanalysts.

Although schematic and structural, 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.

MichÈle Porte

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; Parricide/murder of the father; 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.


Frazer, James G. (1910). Totemism and exogamy. New York.

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.

Jung, Carl Gustav. (1911-12). Psychology of the unconscious: A study of the transformation and symbolism of the libido: A contribution to the history of the evolution of the thought. Coll. Works, Vol. 5. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Smith, William Robertson. (1889). Lectures on the religion of the Semites. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.

Further Reading

Mead, Margaret. (1963). Totem and taboo reconsidered with respect. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 27, 185-199.

Muensterberger, Warren. (Ed.) (1969). Man and his culture: Psychoanalytic anthropology after Totem and Taboo. London: Rapp and Whiting.

Whiting, J. W. M. (1960). Totem and tabooA reevaluation. Science and Psychoanalysis, 3, 150-154.