Totem and Taboo is title of Freud’s book, written in 1913, which considers anthropology and examines the origins of culture and civilisation.
The term “totem” refers to what was then thought of as a form of “primitive” religion in which one worshipped the ancestors represented on the totem.
The word “taboo” is of Polynesian origin, and in a general manner designates something religious or socio-cultural that is banned. The prohibition on incest, for example, is a universally present taboo in all cultures, though it manifests in a different form in each one of them.
The two terms are linked by the fact that the ban on incest is determined by the totemic identity of each subject. That is, the taboo normally falls on people who belong to the same taboo as kinship groups. That is, as Freud writes, totemism always implies the existence of a “law against sexual relations of the same totem and, consequently, against their marriage”.
What interests Freud in studying, as he stated, “pre-historic man” is the similarity found within his behaviour, as recorded by anthropology, and the “psychology of the neurotic” in contemporary societies. To the extent of thinking that it was possible to observe a well preserved portrait of a primitive stage of our development in the “mental life” of the savages.
During Freud’s time, which was also the beginning of the then newly formed area of anthropology, totemism was understood as a “religious institution” primarily observed and studied amongst Australian aborigines then described as the “most backward and miserable savages”.
Totemism was then thought to be a system of beliefs associated with the division of societies into kinship groups. The totem, usually but not obligatorily represented by an animal, was known as the common ancestor which required individuals to behave with greater respect and veneration, and there was a strong taboo over this. That is, the individuals belonging to a certain totemic group were forbidden to hunt or eat the totemic animal. This was protected by the strictest taboo.
Belonging to a totemic group was also hereditary. This inheritance occurred through the maternal or paternal line, depending on each case.
There are those who would compare this totemic system to what takes place nowadays, more or less unconsciously, in football clubs. There fans also group together in search of a common identity, emblematically represented in the figure of an animal, whether a lion, an eagle or a dragon.
In the same way as totemism, this club-totemic identity has the tendency to pass down through inheritance from generation to generation.
Just as with violating the ban on incest, the totemic system provides the severest sanctions against those who violate the taboo in any manner, that is, hunting or eating the totemic animal. These sanctions are not necessarily materially imposed by the group. Frequently it is individuals themselves who punishes themselves.
This can happen through the feeling of culpability which is also related to what would nowadays be termed a neurosis.
According to Freud, the force of the taboo is directly proportional to the intensity of the desire to counteract it. The taboo exists and intensifies precisely because of the force of the desire which it seeks to counteract.
It may often be the case that the opposing drives regarding the taboo are unconscious, with individuals not capable of making them present in the spirit.
The ambivalence of feelings regarding what is considered taboo is also reflected in the diverse meanings which this may have: on the one hand the taboo is related to everything “sacred” or “worshipped”, and on the other it invokes what is “dangerous”, “forbidden” or “impure”.
All this ambiguity is present, for example, in taboos relating to a dead person, even that of a great enemy.
Frequently, the dead person is untouchable but the taboo may also express itself indirectly through forbidding the saying of the person’s name.
In some cultures this ban can be explained by the fear that by invoking the name it will make the spirit of the dead present. There is also emotional ambivalence here, upon which the manifestation of the taboo is based. As Freud wrote, this concerns “a hostility against death disguised as self-defence.”
Or furthermore, “the taboo regarding the dead arises, like others, from the existing contrast between the conscious suffering and the unconscious satisfaction for the death which has occurred.”
The psychological behaviour common to the “savage” and the neurotic - a similarity which is present in the notion of taboo - in brought together in what psychoanalysis has called a projection mechanism. What this terms means is the fact that subjects project on to others the feelings of hostility which they bestow on them, seeking to protect themselves, through the taboo, from the feelings which are attributed to the others. “Unconscious projection of hostility” as it is called by Freud.
All these attitudes are recorded in totemism in which the main taboo and the subsequent ambivalence coincide in the totemic animal as a representation of the common ancestor.
As a social system, totemism was also a means of regulating and classifying kinship and banning incest. This taboo, due to the negativity of the banning, is no more that the negative side of a social norm, the positive aspect of which is the exogamic obligation, where one is required to marry outside the totemic kinship group.
The members of the same totem share a common element which comes from their communal past, the totem, frequently represented in the form of an animal.
These are perhaps some of the representations which we can today see in the Foz Côa carvings.
The Freudian interpretation of totemism involves the legendary hypothesis of a primitive horde of young adults who, having killed and devoured their common father, place him on a totem, as a target of veneration stemming from the remorse which instils the feeling of guilt at the basis of all so-called civilised behaviour.
Other anthropologists, questioning this Freudian interpretation, see in totemism more than a form of “primitive” religion, but rather a complex system of savage thought dedicated above all to the classification of groups and kinship rules which determine the make-up of the infrastructure of those societies.