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The Secret of the Totem

The Secret of the Totem: Religion and Society from McLennan to Freud

Robert Alun Jones
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    The Secret of the Totem
    Book Description:

    Though it is now discredited, totemism once captured the imagination of Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, James Frazer, and other prominent Victorian thinkers. In this lively intellectual history, Robert Alun Jones considers the construction of a theory and the divergent ways religious scholars, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and cultural theorists drew on totemism to explore and define primitive and modern societies' religious, cultural, and sexual norms. Combining innovative readings of individual scholars' work and a rich portrait of Victorian intellectual life, Jones brilliantly traces the rise and fall of a powerful idea.

    First used to describe the belief systems of Native American tribes, totemism ultimately encompassed a range of characteristics. Its features included belief in a guardian spirit that assumed the form of an a particular animal; a prohibition against marrying outside the clan combined with a powerful incest taboo; a sacrament in which members of the totemic clan slaughtered a representative of the totemic species; and the tracing of descent through the female rather than the male. These attributes struck a chord with the late Victorian mentality and its obsession with inappropriate sexual relations, evolutionary theory, and gender roles. Totemism represented a set of beliefs that, though utterly primitive and at a great evolutionary distance, reassured Victorians of their own more civilized values and practices.

    Totemism's attraction to Victorian thinkers reflects the ways in which the social sciences construct their objects of study rather than discovering them. In discussing works such as Freud's Totem and Taboo or Frazer's The Golden Bough, Jones considers how theorists used the vocabulary of totemism to suit their intellectual interests and goals. Ultimately, anthropologists such as A. A. Goldenweiser, Franz Boas, and Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that totemism was more a reflection of the concerns of Victorian theorists than of the actual practices and beliefs of "primitive" societies, and by the late twentieth century totemism seemed to have disappeared altogether.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50877-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. 1-10)

    The Notion of writing a book about the study of totemism had its origin in the late 1970s, when I received a grant from the National Science Foundation that allowed me to spend a year at Cambridge University. At the time, I had for several years been teaching the history of social theory in the sociology department at the University of Illinois, and I fancied myself an emerging authority on the works of Émile Durkheim. Inspired by some ideas found in Steven Lukes’s Durkheim, I’d become particularly interested in Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912), Durkheim’s magnum opus...

    (pp. 11-58)

    In The history of religious ideas, the belief that the earliest gods were animals or plants is very old, and it has been persistent, tenacious, and adaptable as well. One of the oldest accounts of such beliefs, for example, was the Phoenician cosmogony of Sanchuniathon, a refugee from Tyre who settled in Berytus in the second quarter of the sixth century bce. At that time, Phoenicia was undergoing a phase of secularization and disenchantment, so that the old polytheistic superstitions seemed less relevant and compelling. Into this context of increasing skepticism, apparently drawing on much older sources (including the Middle...

    (pp. 59-103)

    William Robertson Smith cuts an ambiguous figure in the history of religious ideas. More than any other writer, it was Smith who stimulated the provocative theories of religion advanced by Frazer, Durkheim, and Freud, but Smith himself was not an original scholar and was rather described as “clever at presenting other men’s theories”¹—albeit it within new and frequently hostile contexts. An important contributor to two of the most serious challenges to Christian orthodoxy of the last century (the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible and the comparative study of religion), Smith became the victim of the last successful heresy trial...

    (pp. 104-176)

    Shortly After arriving in Cambridge in October 1883, Smith joined Trinity College where, as a famous polymath, heretic, and raconteur, he soon became a desirable dinner companion. One evening the following January, he noticed that another Scot, the young classicist James Frazer (whose conversational skills were more limited) had made a rare appearance in the Combination Room. “He came and sat beside me,” Frazer later recalled,

    and entered into conversation. It was the beginning of a friendship which lasted till his death. I think that one subject of our talk that evening was the Arabs in Spain, and that, though...

    (pp. 177-232)

    On 4 February 1913, Émile Durkheim rose before the Société francaise de philosophie to defend the “two principal ideas” that “dominate” Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (1912). The first these was the “dynamogenic quality of religion” (a phrase that Durkheim had never used before, even in Les Formes élémentaires), which refers to the power of religion to inspire not just metaphysical speculation but concrete social action. Precisely because of its importance, Durkheim explained, this idea could not be discussed early in the book, appeared only gradually as it advanced, and could be fully developed only in its conclusion....

    (pp. 233-290)

    Even as Les Formes élémentaires appeared, Sigmund Freud was preparing the four essays that would become Totem and Taboo (1913), a book that covered much of the same ground, relied on many of the same sources, and, of course, came to radically different conclusions concerning the nature and significance of Australian totemism. Freud was born on 6 May 1856, about two and a half years after Frazer and less than two years before Durkheim, in the small Moravian town of Freiberg. His father, Jacob, was “a generally impecunious Jewish wool merchant” whose family had lived for a long time in...

    (pp. 291-306)

    A. A. Goldenweiser began his “Analytical Study” with Frazer’s Totemism (1887), which he described as “a little classic,” a work “in which the leading principles of that ethnic phenomenon received their first systematic elaboration. In the light of what subsequent years brought us of good and evil in totemistic research and theory,” he added, “the outline of the subject given by Frazer a quarter of a century ago must be regarded as little short of prophetic.” Following a brief summary of Frazer’s own description of the central features of totemism, Goldenweiser noted that despite their occasional disagreements (and Frazer’s own...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 307-322)
    (pp. 323-332)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 333-348)