Totem and Taboo

Chapter 2

Taboo and the Ambivalence Feeling (Part 2)

The comparison of anything is of no value until and unless it gives us certain valuable results. In the third part of the essay Freud proclaims the comparison held in the investigation and psychological basis in primitive society and relevance of taboo. The comparison made here does come out as useful but more detailing about the taboo prohibition and custom are required in order to form a better understanding.

Making “The Golden Bough” by J. G. Frazer as his basis of his investigation he stress his investigation in three direction –

1.the enemy

2. the chiefs

3. the dead

(A) The treatment of enemies.

In the primitive society a man on war with an enemy was a man on duty and that duty included certain taboos with it. The killing of a person compels the observation of a series of rules which are associated with taboo customs. These rules are easily brought under four groups; they demand

1. Reconciliation with the slain enemy

2. Restrictions

3. Acts of expiation, and purifications of the manslayer

4. Certain ceremonial rites

For instance in the Island of Timor the warriors used to bring the head of the enemy home and would present it to their lord and appease them, mourn the demise of the enemy and ask for the forgiveness for the deed and thank for making them lucky enough that their heads aren’t with the enemies’ village. The leader of the expedition cannot return to his house under any circumstances. A special hut is erected for him in which he spends two months engaged in the observance of various rules of purification. During this period he may not see his wife or nourish himself; another person must put his food in his mouth.

At the Logea: An Island near New Guinea, men who have killed an enemy or have taken part in the killing, lock themselves in their houses for a week. They avoided any intercourse with their wives and friends; they did not touch their victuals with their hands and live on nothing but vegetable foods which are cooked for them in special dishes. As a reason for this last restriction it is alleged that they must smell the blood of the slain, otherwise they would sicken and die. And many such ceremonies has been observed all around the world.

All these used to take place in the name of the extension of the taboo of the dead to everything that has come into contact with him, and the fear of the spirit of the slain. But if we see the psychological phenomena here, and compare it with the neurotic man then the case of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and Panic Attacks are the two reasons for the isolation after the killing.

As a person might get the flashes of the event and in the pattern of events it can happen that the person would have lost the rationality of his judgment then this could lead to uncertain events in the society. One might get carried away and take decisions as if he is in the war and not a society and to live in a society one has to be rational and stable so to abide by the rules of society. More to that many a time he could he harmful to the people around him that’s why necessary measures are taken and the isolation and meditation is mandatory that was done in the form of all the rites and ceremony of purification in the primitive society.

(B) The Taboo of Rulers

Chiefs, kings and priests were the people falling under the category of rulers and these were the people who were guarded in two ways. Firstly, guarded from the people and enemy that is the higher order protection for the rulers and secondary, for the people as they were the highest level totem that was supposed to be not touched and abided under the rules of society. Why one must guard against the rulers? Well it was believed that they are bestowed with certain mysterious and dangerous power which communicates itself by contact which could bring death and destruction. All direct or indirect contact with this dangerous sacredness is therefore avoided, and where it cannot be avoided a ceremonial practise has been found to ward off the dreaded consequences.

For instance The Nubas in East Africa believe that they must die if they enter the house of their priest-king, but that they could escape this danger if, on entering, they bare the left shoulder and induce the king to touch it with his hand. Thus, we have the remarkable case of the king’s touch becoming the healing and protective measure against the very dangers that arise from contact with the king; but it is probably a question of the healing power of the intentional touching on the king’s part in contradistinction to the danger of touching him. In other words, the opposition between passivity and activity towards the king is foreseen. Many cases of priest kings touch has been called from all over the world describing and proving the consequences and dreadfulness of the contact.

On the other hand the high priest kings were protected because it was said that they are graced with powers by god himself and they are the providers. As it has been stated in the book that “his great importance is for the weal and woe of his subjects and he is a person who could regulate the course of the world; his people have to thank him not only for rain and sunshine, which allow the fruits of the earth to grow, but also for the wind which brings the ships to their shores and for the solid ground on which they set their feet.”

These savage kings are endowed with the wealth of power and an ability to bestow happiness which only gods possess in him and at that time this is what people believed to be the case. And if we see it in contrast with the present age of neurotic men then it very well sums itself with a phrase that is very common in India that “na inki dosti achi na inki dusmani” that is neither the friendship nor the enmity is good of powerful men (politicians and policemen’s). In the primitive times being a ruler wasn’t easy at all instead it was a responsibility which used to take away all the life one has on the individual and personal basis and it was one hell of a job to do. Thus, people avoided being the successor. As there were certain ritual and ceremonies and rules to be followed by the ruler which was way more dreadful and difficult for an individual.

About everything that was followed, if seen on the terms of psychoanalysis, neurosis and compulsive behavior is reasoned here. As the tenderness and hostility are the two key terms attached with ambivalent feeling here. Where there is ambivalent feeling tenderness is shown and hostility is repressed and guides one through its passage of survival with the object or person. In the case of rulers in certain places a person against whom grudges are present is elected as king and under the ceremonies is beaten and if he doesn’t abide by the rulers and duties even killed. They presented there hostility towards the king in those ceremonies and this way there unconscious desires that is hostility towards an individual was displaced. Frazer in his book has described all such ceremonies and practices very aptly but he wasn’t sure that his work was convincing enough.

(C) The Taboo of Death

Death is an ironic concept as people don’t wish to die but had to go through it eventually and plus at some point of life one wishes to end it also. In primitive times also death was feared, being a general human tendency and this fear carried with itself some taboos. Thus, people’s actions and behavior in some or the other way were driven by this fear of them. Along with the shared fear of death one other thing that was shared was mourning. Every death is mourned by people who cared about him/her and those mourning have a certain way of showing itself.

In primitive society, one’s a person was dead he/she was feared. No matter how loving and great person he/she would have been when alive but after death the person was feared by its own people. It would say that virulence results from the contact with the dead and in the treatment of the mourners for the dead.

1.One who helped or was present in the last rites of the deceased had to quarantine in order to get away from the taboo of death.

2.Widow and widowers of the dead had certain strict rules to follow such as they would sleep on thorn bushes surrounded by thorn bushes, no one would enter their hut, and they could only come out at night hours to avoid bumping into people and so on.

3.Name of the deceased was changed and people who shared the same name shall also do so in order to avoid calling of spirits as now the dread is attached to the name he/she died with. Even if the dead shared the named with animals/object then that would also change.

4.A river distance was to be put in between the dead and living to avoid the spirits hunting them.

5.All the materials like food, utensils, clothes used by dead or its mourners were supposed to be burned.

And many such taboos were followed in order to avoid the coming of dead spirit to the living. To all these Freud would say that in compulsion neurotic people behaves just like the savages in certain regards. For example in context of name he said that compulsion neurotics shows the same kind of complex sensitivity as name is part of one’s personality and they don’t wish to share it or want anyone to have it.

Wundt on the taboo of the death said that it’s the fear of the soul that has turned into demon due to death. It simply is fear of demon that rules over these savages and thus they act in the way they do. On the other hand, Westermarck said that dead are more frequently regarded as enemies than as friends. According to R. Kleinpaul, the dead were all vampires, who bore ill-will to the living, and strove to harm them and deprive them of life. It was the corpse that first furnished the conception of an evil spirit.

But why dead was considered a dread? This question arises all the time what made primitives believe that dead one’s are harmful? To that Westermarck said that death was the worst calamity to take place and by whatever means it had happened its bad and the dead would envy the survivor and haunt. A further explanation of the malevolence ascribed to souls lies in the instinctive fear of them, which is itself the result of the fear of death.

Other psychoanalytic explanation that came through was the obsessive reproaches that is feeling of guilt that in times better care would have helped or any thought as such that would have crossed the mind wouldn’t have in the fraction of a irritable and frustrating moment. This could be because of the unconscious hostility behind the tenderness in other words, the ambivalence feeling.

Further in the essay Freud tries to explain the hostility and the ambivalence feeling towards death through the concept of projection. The concept of projection creates a contradiction in the words of Wundt and Westermarck said above on the taboo of death. So he clears the air pertaining to the contradiction and elaborates it in terms of obsessive neurotics and the unconscious mind. He adds that taboo of death arises from the opposition between the conscious grief and unconscious satisfaction of death. And fear of temptation has as always regulated the prohibition. And we talk of the dead then he is driven by the hostility in one’s unconscious which has turned him/her into a demon. With this he ends this part of the essay saying that with the termination of the period of mourning, the conflict also loses its acuteness so that the taboo of the dead can be abated or sink into oblivion.

Article by:- Jagjeet Kaur

© Copyright reserved Jagjeet Kaur

© Copyright reserved Alysane Society

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