Psychoanalysis of Myth 3

Sigmund Freud

Freud's Totem and Taboo

Freud was the first of the psychoanalysts to publish a thorough examination of myth and religion using the tools of his own science, with Totem and Taboo in 1912-13. As the title suggests, this text relates more to ritual than to myth, searching for psychological explanations to certain traditions found in what he called 'primitive' society, as well as to some extent in his contemporary world. He compared taboo beliefs with neurosis, seeing both similarities and differences, but expressing the belief in common psychological roots for them.

Archetypes of Mythology. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Archetypes of Mythology
by Stefan Stenudd
This book examines Jungian theories on myth and religion, from Carl G. Jung to Jordan B. Peterson. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).

Psychoanalysis of Mythology. Book by Stefan Stenudd. Psychoanalysis of Mythology
by Stefan Stenudd
This book examines Freudian theories on myth and religion, from Sigmund Freud to Erich Fromm. Click the image to see the book at Amazon (paid link).

       He also had his own radical explanation to the birth of religion, which has mostly met with rejection close to ridicule from historians of religion. Still, he remained convinced of his theory, which he also declared in Moses and Monotheism, published the same year he died, in 1939. On the other hand, he was already at the outset modest about the power of proof in his material. The fourth chapter of Totem and Taboo, where he presents his theory on the origin of religions, starts with the following obvious reservation, which still passed unnoticed among his critics:

The reader need not fear that psychoanalysis, which first revealed the regular over-determination of psychic acts and formations, will be tempted to derive anything so complicated as religion from a single source.

       On the other hand, later on in the same chapter, he claims:

I want to state the conclusion that the beginnings of religion, ethics, society, and art meet in the Oedipus complex. This is in entire accord with the findings of psychoanalysis, namely, that the nucleus of all neuroses as far as our present knowledge of them goes is the Oedipus complex.

A totem.        Freud bases his theory mainly on the above psychoanalytical thesis of the Oedipus complex, and on totemism — to the point that he calls this chapter of the book "The Infantile Recurrence of Totemism". Around the turn of the century 1900, there was a wide-spread fascination among anthropologists and others about totemism. Although the phenomenon — that a family or a clan has a ritualized symbolic relation to a specific animal species, which they claim to be linked or even related to — was known beforehand, it received increased attention through the Scottish researcher John Ferguson McLennan, who did in 1869 present the idea that totemism might lie behind a number of customs, where totemism itself had disappeared.

       What attracted Freud's interest was first and foremost that:

Almost everywhere the totem prevails there also exists 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.

       One would think that the rule against sexual intercourse within the clan was intended as a protection against incest and inbreeding, but to this Freud objects that he doubts such civilized behavior among the primitive people. Also he claims, without presenting support for it, that the damaging effects of inbreeding are not ascertained. He strongly rejects the possibility of such awareness among the primitives of the past:

It sounds almost ridiculous to attribute hygienic and eugenic motives such as have hardly yet found consideration in our culture, to these children of the race who lived without thought of the morrow.

       In a footnote to this statement he takes support in Charles Darwin's words about the savages: "They are not likely to reflect on distant evils to their progeny."

       Instead, Freud connects totemism's sexual restrictions to the Oedipus complex, where the totem is an image of a forefather, who had expelled his sons from the "horde" he ruled, to prevent them from having intercourse with the women of the horde. The sons joined in a severe revenge: "One day the expelled brothers joined forces, slew and ate the father, and thus put an end to the father horde."

       As additional indication of this, Freud refers to the ritual meals documented in totemism, where the totem animal might get served. In a footnote to this passage he refers to known similar behavior among some flock animals, also he claims support from Charles Darwin and from James Jasper Atkinson (-1899). The latter's 1903 book Primal Law is quoted:

A youthful band of brothers living together in forced celibacy, or at most in polyandrous relation with some single female captive. A horde as yet weak in their impubescence they are, but they would, when strength was gained with time, inevitably wrench by combined attacks renewed again and again, both wife and life from the paternal tyrant.

       He refers to Charles Darwin about his theories on primal social state of man:

From the habits of the higher apes Darwin concluded that man, too, lived originally in small hordes in which the jealousy of the oldest and strongest male prevented sexual promiscuity.

       Freud definitely thinks that the father murder had taken place in a distant past, but admits that he may have comprised the development of events, and ends the extensive footnote: "It would be just as meaningless to strive for exactness in this material as it would be unfair to demand certainty here."

       Freud moves on to claim that the guilt of the sons and a wish for some kind of reconciliation, made them start to worship their dead father like a god, in the form of a totem, and to restrain their sexual habits by exogamy. It was also necessary for them, in order to keep their group loyalty and avoid competing to repeat the behavior of their father:

Thus there was nothing left for the brothers, if they wanted to live together, but to erect the incest prohibition — perhaps after many difficult experiences — through which they all equally renounced the women whom they desired, and on account of whom they had removed the father in the first place. Thus they saved the organization which had made them strong and which could be based upon the homosexual feelings and activities which probably manifested themselves among them during the time of their banishment.

       In the guilt triggered glorification of the father, Freud sees the insoluble tension that nourishes religion:

All later religions prove to be attempts to solve the same problem, varying only in accordance with the stage of culture in which they are attempted and according to the paths which they take; they are all, however, reactions aiming at the same great event with which culture began and which ever since has not let mankind come to rest.

       Almost triumphantly, Freud ends his text by stating: "In the beginning was the deed."


Freud's Moses and Monotheism

Psychoanalysis of Myth

  1. Introduction
  2. Sigmund Freud
  3. Freud's Totem and Taboo
  4. Freud's Moses and Monotheism
  5. Carl G. Jung
  6. Jung's Archetypes
  7. Jung's Collective unconscious
  8. Applying Jung to myth
  9. Conclusions: Personal myth

© Stefan Stenudd 2006

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Creation Myths: Emergence and Meanings
Psychoanalysis of Myth: Freud and Jung
Jungian Theories on Myth and Religion
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Archetypes in Myth

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

About me
I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.