Totem and Taboo – Freud

Totem and Taboo (A. A. Brill trans.)
Sigmund Freud
Dover Thrift Editions, 1998
138 pages

This classic has been on my to-read list for ages; I finally managed to get ahold of a copy not too long ago. I wanted to read it primarily for its historical value; although I’m interested in psychology, I’m more fond of Jung’s theories. Still, Freud is worth reading just to have read his pioneering works, and since this one delves into areas of my interest, it fell prey to my bibliophilia.

It’s about what I expected. On the good side, it was an interesting look at the possible psychology behind the concepts of totemism and taboo in what Freud refers to as “primitive” or “savage” societies. Some more modern examples are cited as well, showing that the mindset behind the concepts may be found in other types of society. It’s a good look into Freud’s head, too, as he systematically explains what source material he’s using, how he came to his conclusions, and some further food for thought for the reader. It’s a pretty complete understanding of totemism and taboos for the time Freud wrote it.

Unfortunately, its validity as a source for modern work is marred by the fact that Freud was still a product of his time. His observations may be painfully Euro-centric, and his occasional notes towards admitting his bias don’t counteract the damage that may be done. The behaviors associated with totemism and taboo are compared largely to the beliefs of neurotics and children in “modern” society. Additionally, his interpretation of the reasons behind these practices is quite narrow; totemism is essentially boiled down to an origin involving a group of brothers overthrowing their father as a way of gaining control of his harem. Additionally, totemism is assumed to *replace* religion in indigenous cultures, not compose part of it.

Read it for historical and background information, but take it with a grain of salt, and use sparingly as source material if you’re researching totemism or paleopagan religious practices. Granted, the value that I have for it may be different from that of a psychotherapist, but while I can appreciate it for its initial contribution, I have little functional use for it other than as a somewhat outdated look at indigenous (and not so indigenous) beliefs.

Three pawprints out of five.

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