Totem and Taboo
was the first book that Sigmund Freud dedicated to religion, considering this topic as a scientific problem. Later, the author would have continued his researches on the psychology of religion, notably with famous books like The Future of an Illusion
and Moses and Monotheismus
But it was Totem and Taboo
which obtained a deep impact on the public and the society, opening new horizons for debates and studies. The success occurred to this book attests his meaning; according to Mircea Eliade's words, it was "one of the minor gospels of three generations of the Western intelligentsia".
The evolutionary anthropologists had already traced parallels between "primitive" peoples and children, and often attempted to explain the behaviour of the former by means of a simple reference to the latter. Freud's starting point in Totem and Taboo
is methodologically similar, and yet different, in that he draws his parallel between the primitive man and the modern neurotic. Both - he explains - exhibit forms of compulsive behaviour, and this makes the parallel look justified.
This parallelim should also make possible to examine the causes of religion in precisely the same way as the psychiatrist examines the causes of a neurosis; and since all neuroses, in Freud's view, have their origin in repressed childhood experiences, entirely of a sexual nature, the origins of that strange form of compulsive behaviour called religion must be bound up with some repressed experience in the childhood of the human race.
The basic experience, from which the devotion phenomenon got derivated, was in freudian conception an event called by the same scientist "Oedipus complex". This complex is caused by a repressed sexual desire of the mother on the part of a male child, and of the father in the case of the female child, with consequent rivalry and jealousy of the other parent's sexual rights and privileges.
The idea of taboo would be at the base of every sort of devotion - in the religious acception - because the primal neurotic form - described by Freud like a "Oedipus complex" - would have originated a primal horrible murder, conducted by a community of primitive men against the chief of the community.
The sense of guilt, consequence of the murder, would have originated the consciousness of the fault, and the sense of guilt would have brough the community to institutionalize the rite which remembered the guilt, in order to instruct the same community about this ancestral fault. The rite would have alimented the consciousness of the devoted community. So, the totem which was erected by the primitive community would have had two functions: to express the object of the cult, and also to indicate that there was a taboo which had to be absolutely respected.
The "taboo" would have been the object which the community would have cancelled from the collective consciousness - in order to keep the social cohesion and maintain united the same society.
But the taboo content survived, in the sub-consciousness of the individuals.
Freudian interpretation has always been considered like a very fascinating hypothesis, but there are no proofs about the reality and the foundation of the opinions here expressed.
Anyway, the worth of this book is suggested by the attention that still nowadays many scholars are dedicating to it; still there are debates in progress, but until now noone seems to be close to any evident truth. So, seems that the destiny of religion and devotion will be to maintain the mystery of their origin and reason that made them develop in the different institutions - which are still living and rooted, as its strong skeleton - in our society, so in every part of our human civilization.