04/14/2024, 13:35, Vienna  DEUTSCH / ENGLISH

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THE VIENNA PSYCHOANALYST wants to give not only already internationally established psychoanalysts, but also still unknown psychoanalysts the opportunity to post a self-written and not yet published article on the FrontPage of our online magazine!

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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)


Author: Silvia Prosquill (TVP)


In his book, „Totem and Taboo” (1913), Freud deemed any attempt to etymologically explain the term as difficult. The word taboo is Polynesian in origin but lacks the idea which it connotes. The search for the term’s origins in ancient languages such as Roman (“sacer” -sacred, cursed), Greek άγος [hagos] – horrifying, ἅγιος [hagios] – sacred) and Hebrew resulted in ambiguous meanings. The word can mean either „sacred and consecrated“ or „prohibited and dangerous“, which Freud compared to the occidental term „sacred shyness”.

For Freud, these contradicting meanings mark the term’s uniqueness. A taboo is not comparable to ordinary restraints:

“The taboo restrictions are different from religious or moral prohibitions. They are not traced to a commandment of god but really they themselves impose their own prohibitions; they are differentiated from moral prohibitions by failing to be included in a system which declares abstinences in general to be necessary and gives reasons for this necessity. The taboo prohibitions lack all justification and are of unknown origin. Through incomprehensible to us they are taken as a matter if course by those who are under their dominance” (Freud, 1918).

To objectively define the term, Freud points out the definition of the anthropologist W. Thomas Northcote (1910) published in the „Encyclopedia Britannica“:

“Properly speaking taboo includes only (a) the sacred (or unclean) character of a person or things, (b) the kind of prohibition which results from his character, and (c) the sanctity (or uncleanness) which results from a violation of the prohibition” (Northcote, 1910).

In addition, Freud refers to Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of academic psychology and the author of “Ethnopsychology” who understands the taboo as a kind of indigenous belief in demonic beings, thus representing the oldest legislative that had already existed before any religion.

Freud’s personal experience with taboos

Freud was frequently referred to as “taboo breaker”. After he and his family had left Mähren to move to Vienna, he was met with society’s rigid taboos as well as the well-hidden double standard of the Fin de siècle. Arthur Schnitzler, author and coeval with Freud, dealt with socio-critical topics such as sexual double standards and the breaking of taboos that laid the foundation for his plays. He portrayed what lay beyond the glamour of the passing monarchy and the magic of its dazzling uniforms. The catholic church’s moral order had a strong influence and significantly shaped the personal as well as civic life. These restrictions took a toll on Sigmund Freud’s relationship with his fiancée Martha Bernay who he was only allowed to see during short visits. For many years, Freud had to respect the “taboo” of his fiancée’s innocence and provide a financial basis for a potential marriage.

Taboo and the fear of incest

In his book, “Totem and Taboo”, Freud draws an ethnological comparison between our society and indigenous people. He addresses the fear of incest and introduces us to the aborigines’ customs who had to adhere to the incest prohibitions. A totem can be an animal, a plant or a force of nature # community members have a special relationship. Even members of a totem family who are not related to each other adhere to this incest law. The exogamy was strictly complied with and heavily sanctioned in marked contrast to the customs in 20th century Europe where it was common among nobility to marry family members – even first-degree relatives – without any restrictions nor prohibitions.

Freud uses many examples to explains this prohibition law in various cultures on different continents and connects them to psychoanalytical insights. He compares the fear of incest to the incestuous desire for a forbidden love object in early childhood. Psychoanalysis explains how adolescents either free themselves of this incestuous desire or remain at this psychosexual stage. If overcome, the adolescents head towards a mature and healthy sexuality but, if not, Freud identifies two different types of development. The incestuous desire can either lead to an impaired development hindering further development towards sexual maturity or regression back to an immature psychosexual stage. According to Freud, these developments are linked to the development of neuroses. The incestuous desire towards the parents marks the neurosis’ central complex. This theory was met with heavy resistance and indignation that can be interpreted as defense mechanism and avoidance of emotions perceived as threatening – a taboo.

The taboo’s three-part structure

Gerhard Kubik, psychoanalyst and cultural anthropologist, managed to define a three-part structure of the taboo in 1966 – the naming of the taboo, the threat of sanction and the “exit-clause” explaining how to avoid the sanctions. He emphasizes the relation between the taboo and compulsion postulated by Freud. He understands the taboo as an internalized and apt intra-psychic censorship whose origin can’t be verified. From a psychoanalytic point of view, the taboo represents a “deferred ban” that suppresses (sexual) drives and forbidden wishes. During his associative conversations with natives Kubik applied a guided psychoanalytic conversation technique to reach unconscious contents and emotional burdens. After his expedition to Angola in 1965, he depicts a taboo where the father is not allowed to enter his son’s and daughter-in-law’s house to prevent him from looking at the bed they share – This taboo portrays the avoidance of forbidden wishes and drives, in this case the danger of Oedipal transgression since the father could wish to take his son’s place. Unlike prohibitions that repress and push secret affinities into the unconscious, taboos – like the Oedipal wishes in Kubik’s example - are openly regulated by society. Moreover, Kubik’s report about Angola depicts an extension of the incest prohibition that included the daughter-in-law to prevent incestuous thoughts. To avoid the wishes, the taboo circle is extended by banning the father from the house.

Today’s taboos

Claudia Benthien and Ortrud Ortjahr discuss the „leading taboos and their cultural significance” and the “removal of the taboo in art and pop culture”. They point out the social consequences for taboo breakers experienced by the affected person in addition to the superego’s harsh punishment and call attention to the fact that a culture’s set of values is defined by its taboos. This is evidenced by regulated religion that try to exert power through confessions, confidentiality, purity laws, prohibition of sins, sanctions and directives concerning food and faith. Religious taboos concerning sexuality related to homosexuality, incest, transsexuality as well as violence – murder, suicide, rape and cannibalism - are outlined. In the last century, homosexuality was a major taboo that could end a career or lead to suicide as was frequently the case during the k.u.k. monarchy.

The taboo’s wave-like cycle first leads to tabooing, followed by the removal of the taboo and the eventual re-tabooing. The taboo’s dynamic progression isn’t linear. In a scientific-historical context, a taboo can be defined as a code of conduct with transcultural importance and cultural-specific consequences. It was primarily missionaries who introduced us to the taboo. However, the end of the 19th century experienced a wave of cultural anthropological research that brought about the analysis of the taboo in relation to religion and ethics.  

Taboos regarding the issue of fertility have their roots in narcissism. To this day, a man’s impotence or a woman’s infertility represents a taboo since in our society it is obligatory to be a capable lover and raise children. Therefore, medicinal impotence treatment and use of extrauterine fertilization are one of the best-kept secrets of our time. The genital imperfection represents one of humanity’s biggest narcissistic wounds since it is linked to the emotionally loaded generational progression, drive satisfaction and the coital execution between lovers.

In the 21st century, issues such as promiscuity, abortion, masturbation and sexuality in old age. Even today’s term “political correctness” can be interpreted as a type of modern taboo where any kind of exclusion based on nationality, skin color, sex, ethnicity and religious beliefs is frowned upon. According to the authors, this is the consequence of creating a stereotype which was blonde, strong, loyal, patriotic and subordinate. Those who didn’t match this stereotype were excluded based on the prevailing racial laws. In this context, penance and purity laws are often applied to make peace with the wounded taboo. According to the author’s understanding, the punishment for transgressing a taboo comes from within, the wounded taboo takes revenge:

“The violation of a taboo makes the offender himself taboo.”

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