Totem And Taboo


Chapter 1

The Savage’s ’s Dread Of Incest.

Dr. Freud’s views have always been intriguing and peril at the same time. The more interesting it is to discover about his ideas, the more are the chances that you’ll be called crazy on the other hand (if you are a believer or Freudian in any nature). Well Dr. Freud himself was called as a madman but then who is a genius without a touch of madness.


In his first essay “The Savage’s Dread Of Incest” Freud talked of peoples fear and with that rule of fear. The title itself says that the people of primitive society (barbarians) feared the act of incest that is sexual relations between any family member and close relative which was usually considered a taboo. On hearing the book’s title ‘Totem and Taboo’ some strange perception used to form, well that’s the beauty of Dr. Freud’s work but when we dig inside of it then the book and the title and the Freudian concepts makes a lot of sense. Thus, to understand it better one must have the insight of the two terms here.

The term Totem is been derived from Algonquian word Ojibwa/odoodem which means kinship group. This language was spoken by American Indian people from the regions around Lake Superior. In 18th century English speakers encountered it as ototeman and made it totem. Totem could be defined as a natural object or animal that is believed by a particular clan to have a spiritual significance and that is adopted by them as an emblem.

On the other hand the term Taboo has a Polynesian origin from the terms tabu/tapu in Tongan language. It was first noted by Captain James Cook during his visit to Tonga in 1771 and then he introduced it as taboo to English. Taboo could be defined as a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place and thing.

So, in the book Totem and Taboo the two terms has a very important say as it has described the boundaries, roles and rules imposed on the primitive man as per the customs of the their native clan they are part of. In order to live a happy and safe life they were supposed to fall in line with the rules otherwise penalty to any sort of disgrace was death.

To make his point clear Dr. Freud used the Aborigines of Australia the major three races called as the Melanesian, Polynesian and Malayan races as an example and went on to describe many other such tribes of Africa and other parts of the world. He stated the rules and regulation of the clans, their beliefs in totem and there practices as taboo. Freud viewed primitive man as our contemporary and some of them as direct descendants of early man. He said that we can recognize in their psychic life a well-preserved, early stage of our own development. If this assumption of Freud is true, then anthropology (culture and folklore) and psychology together has a lot to give us in correspondence that is more or less familiar to us.

As different tribes and their clans were divided by a particular totem of its own kind thus, almost everywhere the totem prevailed. And there also existed the law that the members of the same totem are not allowed to enter into sexual relations with each other; that is, that they cannot marry each other. This represents the exogamy which is associated with the totem. As per the exogamy one is suppose to marry outside a community, clan or tribe (cross-pollination as per biology).


In the Australian culture of that time more than blood relations the social relations mattered as per the taboo. Two people who belonged to different taboo was supposed to marry and their kids were supposed to follow the mother’s totem and the kid had to follow all the taboos of the clan and avoid incest or any other kind of relation or exposure to the forbidden member otherwise the act was punishable by death.

Freud elucidated the prohibition in 4 points:

  • Penalty for sexual intercourse with a forbidden clan is death.
  • Even for temporary love affairs the penalty remains the same.
  • Maternal totem is followed by the kids and laws are honored by a son, as he would treat all the females of the clan as his own blood relation.
  • It prohibits any sexual union with all the women of his group.
    And said that all this is justified by having a same totem that is, all are descended from the same totem and are consanguineous (family). Thus, the result was absolute obstacle of sexual union.
    As the totem exogamy, or prohibition of sexual intercourse between members of the same clan, seemed the most appropriate means for the prevention of group incest; and this totem exogamy then became fixed and long survived its original motivation. Here, observing all these customs Freud drew the concept of avoidance to be the means of following the taboo, as this avoidance wasn’t just limited to the Australian tribes but was well spread.

To look at few-


•New Britain – in Gazella Peninsula, a sister may no longer speak with her brother and nor does she utter his name but designates him by means of a circumlocution from the start of her married life.

• Lepers Island – the boys have to leave their home & move to a ‘clubhouse’ where he lives and eats, he may visit his house only if his sister isn’t home, & if she is he had to return without finishing his meal.
• New Caledonia – if brothers & sisters meet each other, she has to flees into the bushes and he has to pass by without turning his head towards her.
• Africa, Delagoa Bay – there are restrictions against ones sister-in-laws, if one meets his sister-in-law he avoids her, talks timidly around her, doesn’t enter her hut or greet her.
• Banks Island – the prohibitions are more sever here, a man has to avoid any proximity to his mother-in-law and so does she, she turns her back towards him if they come face to face until he passes or the other way round.
• Solomon island – beginning with his marriage a man must neither see nor speak to his mother-in-law and even if he does come face to face he acts as if he doesn’t know her and runs away to hide himself from her view
• Australia (Melanesian, Polynesian) and Negro races of Africa – restricts the social relations between a man and his mother-in-law. (The strictest avoidance that was followed).

And such customs can be seen in many tribes and clans which prohibit any sort of exposure of a man and women which could cause incest. These practices earlier fulfilled its basic motive and if compared to the modern contemporary world where females are sexually exploited in their homes and work space by the men’s in this patriarchal society and where justice is also not served decently. Those were the times who understood the sensitivity of these issues which in today’s world is neglected and is on uprising with each passing minute.


To which Dr. Freud gave an explanation that as we humans has a pleasure principle which Freud named as ID drives us to do certain acts which would satisfy our needs but are highly immoral in nature and even cross the limits of individual choices. On this Freud in his psychoanalytic theory said, we humans are derived by our unconscious motives and repressed desires these desires have a tendency to revert back and to avoid such cases avoidance as a technique was adopted by the primitive man. To this Fison expressed his views and said, these regulations are nothing but a protection against possible incest.

And as there are times when the desires in the phallic stage which were repressed in unconscious mind revert back and become libido in the latter life and certain a times when fixation occurs when the psychosexual stages are not crossed successfully. As he has not been able to free himself of those emotions or he is back to them. One goes through a hard time and here therapy is needed to deal with those repressed feelings and desires otherwise highly immoral acts are performed by the individual to lead a balanced life otherwise the neurotic mind would kill the person by juggling all the emotions at once. Thus, man’s incest wishes are considered dangerous and savage’s dreads are justified as it could create havoc that’s why these totem and taboos are followed.

To this Freud stated that what we can add to the further appreciation of incest dread is the statement that “it is a subtle infantile trait and is in striking agreement with the psychic life of the neurotic.”

Article by:- Jagjeet Kaur

© Copyright reserved Alysane Society
© Copyright reserved Jagjeet Kaur

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