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Totem and Taboo (Routledge Classics) Paperback – 17 May 2001

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 2 edition (17 May 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 041525387X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415253871
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 291,846 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Back Cover

'With Totem and Tabo Freud invented evolutionary psychology. - Oliver James

Widely acknowledged to be one of Freud's greatest cultural works, when Totem and Taboo was first published in 1913, it caused outrage. Thorough and thought-provoking, Totem and Taboo remains the fullest exploration of Freud's most famous themes. Family, society, religion - they're all put on the couch here. Whatever your feelings about psychoanalysis, Freud's theories have influenced every facet of modern life, from film and literature to medicine and art. If you don't know your incest taboo from your Oedipal complex, and you want to understand more about the culture we're living in, then Totem and Taboo is the book to read.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The founding father of psychoanalysis, Freud is one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era.

About the Author

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The founding father of psychoanalysis, Freud is one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era.

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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 26 Mar. 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Freud's 'Totem and Taboo' is a remarkable book, and, like much of Freud's other work, it is exceptional among academic literature in general. Whereas most academic works emphasize wordiness and formal erudition at the expense of real information, 'Totem and Taboo' is the fruit of a man who was really charting new ground. As such, this short book is packed with fascinating information - and Freud cements his position so conclusively that one is left feeling convinced that his conclusions must be true.
The underlying thesis of 'Totem and Taboo' is that 'savages' and 'neurotics' exhibit similar symptoms, that is to say, they exhibit *ambivalent* attitudes to the persons they claim to venerate. The root of civilization, says Freud, lies in a primordial act of rebellion by the sons against the despotic leader of the tribe. (The father-figure of the ancestors of the human race being jealous of the women in his tribe and wishing to deny his sons access to them.) But subsequently this act of murder turned into guilt, and a 'totem' (i.e. an animal as a representative of the clan unit) was found as a substitute father. The veneration of the father-figure is the conscious element, but the feeling of hostility remains unconscious because the brothers of the tribe and their descendents remain aware of their harsh treatment at the hands of the father figure.
Now, since neurotics themselves exhibit ambivalent attitudes towards those they love most (harbouring, for instance, unconscious death-wishes against them: thus the neurotic feeling of guilt, which later turns into a *fear* that loved ones may come to harm), Freud argues that the study of neurotic symptoms yields insight into the origins of primitive man.
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I read this years ago, and having read it again it did not disappoint. It is the foundation for all other works of this nature.
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Must read. Jaw dropping. Good for beginners in psychology.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 18 reviews
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Australian Aborigines and Freud's "Neurotic" Patients 12 Aug. 2003
By Panagiotis Varlagas - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is the first Freud book I have ever read. I am not a trained psychiatrist, or sociologist, or ethnologist, so I am going to review the book from a layman's standpoint.
In this work, Freud draws heavily on observations and theories of ethnology, emphasizing on studies of Australian aborigines and Frazer's work. He draws a parellel with his personal observations from treatment of "neurotic" patients and claims to have found common patterns in these two classes of subjects, which tend to explain certain social and psychological phenomena, as well as the "birth" of religion.
He focuses on the concepts of "Totem" and "Taboo". While familiar with taboo (although our understanding of the term is narrower than Freud's), totem is remote to us. Certain aboriginal peoples were grouped in social groupings, centered on the cult of and belief of descent from a certain animal. So, you are the "Kangaroo tribe", we are the "Ostrich tribe" etc. The topic most interesting Freud, to which he devotes the first essay in the book, is "exogamy", i.e. marriage outside one's group. This practice of exogamy seems to be in contradiction to what is pursued by some ethnic groups in America (Jews and Greeks come to mind) i.e. "endogamy" - a push to have children marry within their parents' ethnic group. This practice of exogamy in Australian aborigines is attributed by Freud to fear of incest, with quite convincing arguments.

What is challening is to concoct a theory that suggests totemism and exogamy are not orthogonal social institutions that just happenned to coexist, but intricately bound together. Freud accomplishes that through intricate reasoning that draws heavily on religion (in his 4th essay). His argumentation may seem far-fetched to many, but is plausible, although it is hard to get convinced that it is the single, or most probable, theory explaining the issue.
Freud makes the analogy that what primitive people are to ethnography, "neurotics" are to psychoanalysis and tries to map patterns from one domain to the other. Another goal is to establish the theory of totemism as the primordial religion from which all known religions and beliefs have spawned over time. The fact that Hinduists rever and never kill cows, seems to me (my example, not Freud's) to support this theory; Hinduists could be considered an outgrowth of a "Cow totem". Also, in modern Judeochristian societies, the totem, for intermarriage avoidance, has been replaced by the blood relatives group. Greek civil law for instance, forbids marrying blood relatives to the 4th degree and relatives through marriage to the 3th degree (i.e. after marriage your also become a member of your spouse's "totem" - for life).
His 2nd essay discusses the concept of taboo. He defines it as "a set of limitations that primitive people apply to themselves". He contends that people who do "taboo things" become taboo themselves (certainly prostitutes would fit that profile). In our modern society, one's car is taboo, such as one's tools and guns were in prehistory.
Deists may have a hard time with Freud, especially since he states "we know well that just like gods, demons too are figments of the human imagination". Freud was an atheist and his train of thought is naturally and instictively atheistic, and this could be challenging for a deist.
Amazing is how some taboos of primitive times, remain alive, even in a degenerate form, in our times. For instance, just as primitives of New Guinea don't eat meat after killing an enemy (a taboo), modern Greek Orthodox people don't eat meat in the lunch following the funeral ceremony (only fish and veggies allowed). Also, the "dirtiness" taboo, where primitives were subjected to purification ceremonies, seems to be alive in the Eastern Orthodox sacrament of baptism where the to-be-christened baby is washed in the baptisery. Female "uncleanliness" during menstruation is also taboo in the Eastern Church; women are never allowed in the santum (blood taboo). It is considered taboo in Greek to say that a woman is menstruating, whereas politeness calls to say that "she feels sick". Also, the death taboo is alive in an incomprehensible to me (but "self-evident" to them as Freud would say) avoidance by many to refer to cancer by its name, opting instead the expressions "the bad thing" or "the cursed disease".
Also, the taboo, Freud mentions, whereby the archpriest of Zeus in Rome, was forbidden to ride horses, seems to be alive, in that the heads of states rarely drive cars themselves, but are rather given a ride by their chauffers. Regarding king-priests, last time I checked the Queen of England was also the head of the Church of England...

The third essay (animism and magic) is also important. Interestingly, Freud considers animism as the only weltanschaung completely and comprehensively (albeit incorrectly) explaining world's nature. He does not believe that subsequent religious and scientific weltanschaungen have achieved this. The animism->religion->science progression of world views discussed is extremely important and core for understanding his work. I guess that were he alive and learned that 90% of Americans are religious (Source: Euronews) he would be rather skeptical of the "progress" of mankind...
In his fourth essay, he returns to totemism, reaching the culmination of this work, in an awe-inspiring scene, where the young brothers kill and devour their own father. This vivid scene of patricide, which he subsequently manages to mitigate, suggesting the possibility that it was perpetrated only in people's minds (temptation), he proclaims as the original sin of mankind, which young males throughout the millenia try to redeem. This theory is highly controversial, albeit very interesting and thought-provoking. This scene is worth the whole book not only for its intensity, but also for the dexterity with which Freud creatively combines and correlates findings from fields so diverse, such as psychiatry, psychology, sociology, ethnology, religion, and philosophy, along with deep understanding of the human psyche, to reach a conclusion of such importance, and arguably impact, regarding who we are, and why we are doing things the way we are.
11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
A perfect exemplar of Freud's central arguments 12 Nov. 2001
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
Totem and Taboo, along with _The Future of an Illusion_, should be necessary reading for any serious student of social science. Of course, there are massive holes in Freud's arguments (such as his tendancy to make sweeping generalizations about other cultures from his armchair in Europe), but people who disagree with him for moral and ethical reasons tend to amplify those holes and simply ridicule Freud the man instead of intelligently approaching his arguments.
The fact is, his suppositions about parental relations (as they relate to "totem" cultures), about religion, and about sexuality are extremely relevant and have proven, over the years, to possess an extraordinary predictive power. Even if one disagrees with this literature, one should read it and know exactly what they disagree with.
By Steven H Propp - Published on
Format: Paperback
Freud published these four essays in 1912 and 1913. He states in the Preface, "It will be found that the two principal themes from which the title of this little book is derived---totems and taboos---have not received the same treatment. The analysis of taboos is put forward as an assured and exhaustive attempt at the solution of the problem. The investigation of totemism does no more than declare that 'here is what psycho-analysis can at the moment contribute towards elicidating the problem of the totem.'"

Here are some representative quotations from the book:

"We have arrived at the point of regarding a child's relation to his parents, dominated as it is by incestuous longings, as the nuclear complex of neuroses."
"Taboo is a primeval prohbition forcibly imposed (by some authority) from outside, and directed against the most powerful longings to which human beings are subject. The desire to violate it persists in their unconscious ... the fact that the violation of a taboo can be atoned for by a renunciation shows that renunciation lies at the basis of obedience to taboo."
"The original animal sacrifice was already a substitute for a human sacrifice---for the ceremonial killing of the father; so that, when the father-surrogate once more resumed its human shape, the animal sacrifice too could be changed back into a human sacrifice. The memory of the first great act of sacrifice thus proved indestructible."
"There was an alternative method of allaying their guilt and this was first adopted by Christ. He sacrified his own life and so redeemed the company of brothers from original sin."
"There can be no doubt that in the Christian myth the original sin was one against God the father. If, however, Christ redeemed mankind from the burden of original sin by the sacrifice of his own life, we are driven to conclude that the sin was a murder."
"I should like to insist that ... the beginnings of religion, morals, society and art converge in the Oedipus complex."
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The unconscious rides again! 24 Mar. 2003
By Roberto P. De Ferraz - Published on
Format: Paperback
And this time trough those primitive manifestations performed by that very primitive peoples like aborigenes from Australia, North and South America indians and many others discovered by colonization european, manifestation that we are used to call by Totem and Taboo. This is the standard Freud's view on the subject and to understand this book is a necessary step to proceed to other important Freud's work like Moses and Monotheism, The Future of an Ilusion and many others, where he approaches with reluctance the idea of religion as an offspring of early animism.
The prior standard way of seeing these types of primitive manifestation was to see them trough the amount of dread the primitive men have against the manifestation of some praeternatural agency, to use a term used by Mr.Thorstein Veblen, a contemporary of Freud, in his magnificent book on the leisure class (The Theory of the Leisure Class). It is worthy to note that nobody can be sure on the origins of this type of tradition and that adds substance to Mr.Freud's arguments.
Sigmund Freud goes a step further to the classical view and says that totemism and taboo as animism are the manifestation of something not outside ourselves but rather inside human minds of the primitive people, where the unconscious played a good part to the forming of this kind of culture manifestation and where there is an intricate and unconscious and almost mathematical calculation in order to attribute to the priest-king, who typifies the carrier of this tradition, both the pleasures and the burden of the function. In Freud's view, both totem and taboo are traditions that have to find their origim in the unconscious of that primitive folks and not in the concurrence of fear to the dead, following the tradition of his many other books on the latent manifestations of the unconscious. The ritual and actual killing of the father by the Horde or Band of Brothers, who are in search of vital space for their development, is the real reason behind all that happens afterwards and, following Freud's hypotheses, are the groundwork of modern and ancient religion.
The concepts here explained will be fundamental to the development of the hypotheses developed latter in Moses and Monotheism.
4 essays on psychology and anthropology. 2 Sept. 2006
By frumiousb - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Totem and Taboo was originally published (from 1912-1913) in the journal Imago as four essays. These essays are "The Horror of Incest", "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence", "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thoughts", and "The Return of Totemism in Childhood".

I am neither a psychologist nor a trained anthropologist. I came to this book after reading Frazer's The Golden Bough-- a friend of my suggested that it made a good counterpoint, both in terms of period and subject. As a lay person, I found it clear and interesting to read. I have enough familiarity with Freud's basic theses that I did not find that I was lost.

I found the last essay, "The Return of Totemism in Childhood" to be the strongest. At least for me, it was the strongest in that it synthesized the ideas from the earlier essays and drew the broadest ideas and conclusions.

The Peter Gay biographical introduction was a nice refresher, particularly for someone who is not a Freud scholar.
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