One of the later books written by our second favorite cigar-smoking personage (you know, besides that funny bearded guy south of Florida).

Totem and Taboo was published by Sigmund Freud in 1913, but first appeared as a series of four essays in Imago between 1912 and 1913. The book itself is Freud's first attempt at applying psychoanalysis to cultural theory. It's also known as Freud's most speculative work, and this is a man known for his gross conjecture and wild conclusions.1

To be honest, you could probably skip the first 150 pages and still get the tenants of this book. The beginning is mostly Sigi rambling on about "primitive" cultures and their individual totems and taboos and how they each transgress these taboos. The funny part is that his account is, for the most part, completely inaccurate. But what do you expect from a structuralist writing about South Pacific cultures from his living room in Vienna?

The meat2 of the book is in the last 40 pages where Freud states that civilization was created, *ahem* historically created, when a group of brothers grew tired of their father hoarding all the best food, drink, and women for himself. However, no single brother could defeat the father and take his place. Hence they got together, made a pact, and killed and ate him as a group. This is known as the "totem meal," and it's the birth of civilization - patricide and cannibalism.3

Feel free to take a moment and call Freud a "sick fuck." Go ahead, say it out loud. You'll feel better.
I did.

Anyway, the brothers feel immensely guilty for axing their dad, after all they did love him, it was just a classic love/hate relationship, another Freudian darling he labels "ambiguity." So to deal with their guilt, they decide to make their father a god. Hence the real father (now dead) becomes the symbolic father (a tribal god). This they represent as a totem animal4, which they revere above all other animals as sacred…except one day a year when they reenact their crime by killing it and throwing a giant party where they "devour it raw - blood, flesh and bones."

Why you ask?

Because the act of killing the totem animal is a communal act, it is the transgression of a prohibition that every individual normally must obey. The only time it's allowed is when the entire community gets together - just like no single brother could take down the father himself, they had to conspire together for the strength to pull it off. Hence killing and eating the totem animal represents the original social pact, and ritualistically allows society to deal with the guilt of its origins - killing the father.

One last (and probably unnecessary) note: This "historical act" has been laughed at by every serious anthropologist from Freud's time onward. Hence the book's value lies in that fact that it was Freud's first attempt at cultural theory, as well as his first treatment of ambiguity, an important Freudian concept in latter works. 5


1For example, this is the man who first formulated the wonderful " no means yes" doctrine that's led to more date rapes than rohypnol.

2Come on now, who doesn't love puns about cannibalism?

3 You can also see how this act is reminiscent of the Oedipus complex. Kill the father, keep the women for yourself.

4 Ever see/read Clan of the Cavebear? The bear is a totem animal, which the young men get together and kill at the clan meeting.

5 He does get much better at the cultural game. See Civilization and Its Discontents, his next book. It's much more plausible than Totem and Taboo.

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