Totem And Taboo


Chapter 2
Taboo And The Ambivalence Of Emotions (Part-1)

The second essay in the book by Dr. Freud talks of taboo in particular. He has segregated the essay in 4 parts. The first part is meant to deal precisely with taboo: its meaning, its nature and the thoughts and ideas that follow it. He has used Wilhelm Wundt’s take on the specifics of taboo to keep his argument. The essay opens with the literal meaning and derivation of the Polynesian term taboo. He says here two meanings of taboo are prevalent, first is sacred or consecrated and second is uncanny, dangerous, forbidden and unclean. And highlighted the Polynesian term ‘noa’ which means something ordinary or general as the opposite of the term taboo. To which he concluded that ‘holy dread’ would express the correct meaning for the term taboo.


Getting more candid on taboo he said that the prohibitions made by taboo are unjustified and don’t have much significance to claim. It was just a belief coming from some dread which made primitive people to have faith in it. Wundt said that taboo is the oldest unwritten code of law of humanity. Taboo was considered to be older than the Gods and goes back to the pre-religious age. The violation of any prohibition was supposedly punishable. He added that the basis of taboo is a forbidden action for which there exists a strong inclination in the unconcious.In most cases it was left for the sacred power to punish it, as taboo would avenge itself. For instance, the innocent offender who had eaten from a forbidden animal became deeply depressed, expected his death and then actually died but latter after sometimes men took it in their hands to make sure punishment was served.

Well, if this is to be explained scientifically and mainly from the Freudian psychology the explanation that follows is that the whole punishment and its fear thing is been rooted so deep in unconscious mind of the subject that after committing it, he went through it because of the whole dreadfulness instead of some sacred power avenging him for that matter of fact. Instead it’s the fear of death that was eating him up which became the cause of depression and resulted in slow death.

According to an anthropologist Northcote W. Thomas taboo included 3 elements that is:

•The sacredness,

•The Prohibition,

• Sanctity.

It was said that there was a mysterious power that people at certain times inherited called as ‘Mana’ which would communicate directly or indirectly and intermediate. And all such beliefs were present back in primitive time which sounds a bit strange and not very easy to gobble up. But they do make good stories to tell. Anyways, the thing of concern here is that the literal meaning of taboo is everything that is sacred, above the ordinary, and at the same time dangerous, unclean and mysterious. To that Wundt said that taboo was signified in a plant, an animal or a person and that particular thing was supposed to be protected and was kept untouched, many stories would follow it and there were consequences on abiding to the rules. Some demonic fear was attached to it and people used to reciprocate and would fall in line.

But if we see it from the other angle it was a way of protection, that demonic fear would help the extinction of that particular thing which was considered as taboo. For instance a plant or animal which would be taken as a taboo won’t be harmed thus, protected and a person that would be taboo would be set as an symbol and it was temporary basically would protect females and kids. So was their psychic working which helped the primitive men to make a society and help things work for them. Otherwise a proper settlement wouldn’t have formed and clans won’t have been established neither would have society and law of conduct and rules. In some or the other way it helped in building the whole humanity and morality thing in the primitive races. Thus, the objectified fear in the name of awe and aversion was formed Wundt stated.

In the second part of the essay Freud went on to compare the taboo prohibition with the compulsive act of neurotic men. He compared the concept of obsessive compulsion with the taboo prohibition in order to make better understanding and give a rational argument on his stand. In his comparison he pointed that both correspond to each other in certain points, that is the reason behind both the acts are unmotivated and enigmatic and they fear an external threat which is a punishment which fall on them and others as per the consequences of the violated act. They follow the suit of prohibition in order to prevent the consequences though they know that certain prohibitions are incomprehensible, foolish and senseless. And further the act of transgression or displacement is also present in which they believe and act.

He said that a person is inclined by certain desires and impulses but certain prohibitions doesn’t allow the acts of desire like touching oneself and those desired are repressed in unconscious mind of the person and fear of the prohibition and its consequences clouds ones rationality. But that impulse which isn’t properly deceased reverts back and as thus the case of fixation occurs. Now to be clear fixation occurs in the stages of psychosexual development. It occurs when any stage isn’t resolved, which leaves the individual focused onto that particular stage and makes him unable to move on to next. As each stage has its different libido and if any libido isn’t resolved then it gets fixated and goes into the unconscious mind.

In the presence of certain prohibitions one is unable to fulfil the desires and those unfulfilled desires and impulses create conflict with the prohibitions. But as the prohibition works with fear and carries the consequences thus one gets into the phase of obsessive compulsion. He is obsessive about the impulse but is compelled by the prohibition to not act as per desire. This conflict puts the individual through hard time and thus he either gives in to the desire and impulses or fights the obsession. In case of giving in, in the primitive society who used to get tempted with his desire and would go against his prohibition was considered as taboo. And any person who would come in contact with tabooed person in any way would also be considered as taboo and thus the society won’t accept him as one of them instead he’ll be a taboo and everyone shall fear him because he can get others tempted to their desires too. On the other hand, who obeys the taboo and his prohibition would carry an ambivalent feeling for the attacked desire of his and would be tried to be tempted now and then with time.

As it said the taboo is contagious thus, the process of displacement is performed. One used to get a substitute for his desires in order to control the temptation and this way the person who could get tabooed won’t have to. Because if every other person would be taken under as taboo by giving in for by coming in contact then everyone at a point would have to be killed in order to protect otherwise leaving them would be considered as evil-doer. Thus, they look for a substitute for the impulse or desire one has. This transferability of the taboo reflects what is found in the neurosis, namely, the constant tendency of the unconscious impulse to become displaced through associative channels upon new objects.

Article by:- Jagjeet Kaur

© Copyright reserved Alysane Society

© Copyright reserved Jagjeet Kaur

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