Monday, 12 October 2009

Totem and Taboo Two

We've established, then, that Freud thinks that by looking at 'primitive' tribes we can gain important insights about the origins of human culture. In particular, he's interested in societies which are structured by systems of totem because he thinks that these societies are the most primitive and exemplify a stage of culture which all other societies have gone through at some point. Within totemic societies, the rule tends to be that you can't marry anyone within your own tribe. This is particularly interesting to Freud, because the 'prohibition on incest' (The rule that says you can't sleep with your mum/sister/brother/dad/cousin' etc.) is one of the most universal human laws: different societies have different ideas about who you can and can't sleep with, but they all have some sort of prohibition on incest.

It's easy to assume that societies ban incest because it's fundamentally wrong and icky, but Freud points out the problem with this line of reasoning: if it's so essentially repugnant to people, why have laws against it, and punishments for it? Societies make laws against the things that people want to do: killing people, taking their stuff; not so much about doing things that no one would want to do in the first place: find me the society that severely sanctions those people who eat their own poo or refuse to go to sleep, and I shall be surprised, to say the least.

Anyway, totems. In totemic societies, people belong to tribes which each have a 'totem', their tribal symbol. It's usually an animal, but sometimes a plant or a force of nature, like the wind. Here are twelve characteristics of totemic societies:
  1. The totem animal is usually not allowed to be killed or eaten, but tribal members will rear and look after animals of the totem species.

  2. Totem animals that die accidentally are mourned and buried as though they were a member of the tribe.

  3. The prohibition on eating sometimes refers only to a certain part of the animal.

  4. If it’s necessary to kill one of the totem animals, there's usually a ritual in which excuses are made to the animal (we're sorry, we were really hungry, we just really like bacon), and attempts are made to try and avoid the punishment which is the inevitable consequence of violating the taboo (look, you're not really dead; I didn't kill you - he did; hey, look, a unicorn!)

  5. If the animal is ritually sacrificed, it is solemnly mourned.

  6. At specified social occasions, people wear the skins of totem animals.

  7. Tribes and individuals assume the names of totem animals.

  8. Many tribes use pictures of animals as coats of arms, or have tattooes of them.

  9. If the totem is a dangerous animal, it’s assumed that it will spare the members of the tribe named after it. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't always quite work out like this, but if someone's killed by a totem animal, it's just assumed that they had done something naughty and Deserved It.

  10. The totem animal protects and warns tribal members (Lassie, anyone?)

  11. The totem animal foretells the future to those faithful to it and serves as their leader.

  12. The members of a totem tribe often believe they’re connected with the totem animal by the bond of common origin: that is to say, the totem animal is the father of the tribe whose totem it is.
Coming soon: what this all means for the origin of human society, religion, and the concept of God.

No comments: