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Totem and Taboo
In Totem and Taboo, Freud Sigmund explain the origin of religion of different tribe found around the world. Although related, the two words have quite distinct meanings. According to Compton’s Encyclopedia, “totemism is a term of Ojibwa American Indian origin that refers to an animal or plant associated either with a group of blood-related persons such as a family or with part of a tribe”. The plant or animal is a totem. As such, totemism is a word used to define relationships. A taboo implies something forbidden or to be avoided. The term is of Polynesian origin. It was first recorded by explorer James Cook in 1771, when he found it used by the natives of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific. Both terms have their modern counterparts. People frequently discuss their astrological signs and comment that they are, for example, Leos (lions), Pisces (fish), or Aries (rams). Such animal associations with groups of individuals are comparable to totemism. The most common taboo seen today is a "No Smoking" sign in public places.
In chapter 1, Freud explain the stage of development of the primitive man: the inanimate monuments and implements which he has left behind for us through our knowledge of his art, his religion and his attitude toward life, which we have received either directly or through the medium of legends, myth and fairy tales.
To show that this supposition is correct, Freud chooses to compare the “psychology of primitive races” with the psychology of the neurotic. For different reasons he choose to take the aborigines of the youngest continent: Australia. According to Freud, the
aborigines of Australia are “look upon as a peculiar race”. They don’t build houses or huts, do not cultivate soil or keep domestic animals. They only live of flesh of animals that they kill. There is no chief, the decision are maid by the assembly. These primitive tribes have a system of Totemism that divided them into separate and smaller clan with each taking and choosing the name of its totem. According to Freud, a totem is “a plant or a force of nature (rain, water), which stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan”. Every member of a totem is under sacred obligation not to kill their totem member, to eat its meat or from any other enjoyment of it. If those rules are violated a punishment is given. A totem is not limited to a neighborhood or an area. The members of each totem may live separated from one another. They can also live with people from another totem. Every totem has sexual laws that forbid members of the same totem to have sexual relation with each other and also cannot marry each other. If those rules are broken, the whole tribe avenges a punishment as if it were a question of warding off a danger that threatens the community as a whole or a guilt that weighs upon all.
Some severe punishment is also given when a temporary love affair has not resulted in childbirth. Those tribes are called “consanguineous”(they are one family with the same blood) because totem is hereditary through the maternal or paternal line. So any sexual relation with someone of the same totem is incest.
The totem exogamy or prohibition of sexual relation between member of the same clan, is probably the most appropriate means for the prevention of group incest. Marriage is a
very complicated subject. Some tribes are so organized that they fall into two divisions of marriage classes or “Phratries”. Each of these marriage groups is exogenous and includes a majority of totem groups. Each marriage group is also divided into two subclasses. So the whole tribe is then divided into four classes. (Every division is exogenous).
There is also a rule against the relation of boys with their mother and sisters. The boy leaves home at a specific age to move to the clubhouse where he sleep and take meals. He can still visit home to ask for food, but his sister is at home, he must go away before he has eaten. If she is not about to eat, he may seat down to eat near to the door. If by chance they meet each other, she has to turn away and conceal himself. He is not allowed to say her name or use any current word if it forms part of her name. On the other hand the reserve between mother and son increase with age and is more obligatory on the mother’s side. For example if she brings him something to eat, she must put it down before him, and she is also no allowed to address him in any familiar manners.
In some other tribe like the Gazelle peninsula, when the sister get married, she may no longer speak to her brother or mention his name.
In New-Mecklenburg, they are not allowed to approach each other, shake hands, or give each other present.
However, they are allowed to talk to each other to a distance of several paces. Just like every tribe, the penalty of incest with your sister is death.
The Barongos in Delagoa, in Africa, the precautions are directed toward the sister in law, the wife of the brother of one's wife. If the man meets one of those people, he must avoid
them. He is not allowed to eat at the same table as her, or dare to enter her hut.
In the Akamba tribe in British East Africa, a girl must avoid her own father between her puberty and her marriage. If she meets him on the street she should avoid him and never sit down next to him. However, after the marriage nothing can stop her from having sexual intercourse with her father.
On the other hand there is also a prohibition in almost every tribe of intercourse of a wife with her father in law but these laws are not so constant and serious. For example on the Bank Islands these prohibition are very severe. A man will avoid hi smother in law. If by chance they met, the woman must step aside and turn her back until he passed or he does the same.
In Vanna Lava, a man will not even walk behind his mother in law along the beach until the traces of her footstep are watched away.
Among the Basogas, a Negro tribe that lives in a region of the Nile, a man may talk to his mother in law only if she is in another room of the house and is not visible to him. According to Freud, he don’t understand why “all these races should manifest such great fear of temptation on the part of the man for an elderly woman, old enough to be his mother.”
Freud explains that psychoanalysis has taught us that the first object selection of the boy in of an incestuous nature and that he is attracted to everything that is forbidden: The mother, the sister. He also explains that psychoanalysis taught him the mature individual try to free himself from this attraction.
In chapter 2, Freud explains the meaning of the word taboo. Taboo is a Polynesian word, which means “sacer” for the ancient Romans and must have had the same meaning for the Greeks and the Hebrews. According to Freud, the meaning of taboo brake into two opposite directions. On one hand it means sacred and consecrated: on the other hand it means uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean. The opposite for taboo is the Polynesian word “Noa” that means something ordinary and generally accessible. The taboo restrictions are different from the religious and normal constraint. They are not imposed by god but by themselves.
To explain the meaning of taboo, Freud gives the interpretation of W.Wundt. Wundt says that taboo is the oldest unwritten code of law, assuming that taboo is older than the Gods and goes back to the pre-religious age. According to Wundt, taboo “includes all customs which express dread of particular objects connected with cultic ideas on of actions having reference to them”.
Wundt also shows why he finds more practical to study the nature of taboo of the Australian savages, instead of the Polynesian races.
For the Australians tribe, he divides taboo into three classes: animals, persons or other object. The animal taboo consists of the taboo against killing and eating. The taboo of persons, explain that tools, clothes and weapons are a permanent taboo for everybody else. The taboo of object that apply to trees, plants, house, and localities are more variable and seem only to follow the rules that anything which for any reason arouse
dread or is mysterious, becomes subject to taboo. The animal, person or place, on which there is a taboo is demonic, it is sacred and therefore “not clean”.
Taboo also prohibits the act of touching. It prohibit not only the direct contact with the body but also to the figurative use of the phrase as “to come into contact” or “be in touch with someone or something”. Anyone who ha s violated a taboo by touching something which is a taboo become taboo himself, and no one may come into contact with him. For example: “ Maori chief would not blow on fire with his mouth; for his sacred breath would communicate its sanctity to the fire, which would pass it on to the man who ate the meat which was in the pot, which stood on the fire, which was breathed on by the chief; so that the eater, infected by the chief’s convoyed through these intermediaries, would surely die”.
The oldest and probably most important taboo prohibition are the two basic laws of totemism: namely not to kill the totem animal, and to avoid sexual intercourse with totem companions of the other sex.
As we know, an individual who has violated a taboo, becomes himself taboo because he has the dangerous property of tempting others to follow his exemple. He is therefore really contagious and then he must be avoided. But a person may become permanently or temporarily taboo without having vio
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