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Freudian Dictionary

Taboo is a Polynesian word, the translation of which provides difficulties for us because we no longer possess the idea which it connotes. It was still current with the ancient Romans: their word "sacer" was the same as the taboo of the Polynesians. The «YOC; of the Greeks and the Kodaush of the Hebrews must also have signified the same thing which the Polynesians express through their word taboo and what many races in America, Africa (Madagascar), North and Central Asia express through analogous designations.
For us the meaning of taboo branches off into two opposite directions. On the one hand it means to us, sacred, consecrated: but on the other hand it means, uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean. The oposite for taboo is designated in Polynesian by the word noa and signifies something accessible. Thus something like the concept of reserve inheres in taboo; taboo expresses itself essentially in prohibitions and restrictions. Our combination of "holy dread" would often express the meaning of taboo.[1]

Let us summarize what understanding we have gained of taboo through its comparison with the compulsive prohibition of the neurotic. Taboo is a very primitive prohibition imposed from without (by an authority) and directed against the strongest desires of man. The desire to violate it continues in the unconscious; persons who obey the taboo have an ambivalent feeling toward what is affected by the taboo. The magic power attributed to taboo goes back to its ability to lead man into temptation: it behaves like a contagion, because the example is contagious, and because the prohibited desire becomes displaced in the unconscious upon something else. The expiation for the violation of a taboo through a renunciation proves that a renunciation is at the basis of the observance of the taboo.[2]

Taboo and Compulsion Neurosis

He who approaches the problem of taboo from the field of psychoanalysis, which is concerned with the study of the unconscious part of the indi­vidual's psychic life, needs but a moment's reflection to realize that these phenomena are by no means foreign to him. He knows people who have individually created such taboo prohibitions for themselves, which they follow as strictly as savages observe the taboos common to their tribe or society. If he were not accustomed to call these individuals "compul­sion neurotics" he would find the term "taboo disease" quite appropriate for their malady. Psychoanalytic investigation has taught him the clinical etiology and the essential part of the psychological mechanism of this compulsion disease, so that he cannot resist applying what he has learned there to explain corresponding manifestations in folk psychology.

There is one warning to which we shall have to give heed in making this attempt. The similarity between taboo and com­pulsion disease may be purely superficial, holding good only for the manifestations of both without extending into their deeper characteristics .... The first and most striking corre­spondence between the compulsion prohobitions of neurotics and taboo lies in the fact that the origin of these prohibitions is just as unmotivated and enigmatic. They have appeared at some time or other and must now be retained on account of an unconquerable anxiety. An external threat of punishment is superfluous, because an inner certainty (a conscience) exists that violation will be followed by unbearable disaster. The very most that compulsion patients can tell us is the vague premoni­tion that some person of their environment will suffer harm if they should violate the prohibition. Of what the harm is to con­sist is not known, and this inadequate information is more likely to be obtained during the later discussions of the expia­tory and defensive actions than when the prohibitions them­selves are being discussed .... Compulsion prohibitions, like taboo prohibitions, entail the most extraordinary renunciations and restrictions of life, but a part of these can be removed by carrying out certain acts which now also must be done because they have acquired a compulsive character (obsessive acts); there is no doubt that these acts are in the nature of penances, expiations, defence reactions, and purifications. The most com­mon of these obsessive acts is washing with water (washing obsession). A part of the taboo prohibitions can also be re­placed in this way, that is to say, their violation can be made good through such a "ceremonial," and here too lustration through water is the preferred way.

Let us now summarize the points in which the correspondence between taboo customs and the symptoms of compulsion neurosis are most ("early manifested: 1. In the lack of motivation of the commandments, 2. in their enforcement through an inner need, 3. in their capacity for displacement and in the danger of contagion from what is prohibited, 4. and in the causation of ceremonial actions and commandments which emanate from the forbidden.[3]

Taboo and Touching

In its attempt to prevent associations from occurring, to obstruct the forming of connections in thought, the ego is complying with one of the oldest and most fundamental commandments of the compulsion ne:.Irosis, the taboo on touching. To the question why the avoidance of touching, contact or contagion plays so large a role in the neurosis and is made the content of so complicated a system, the answer is that touching, physical contact, is the most immediate aim of aggressive no less than of tender object-cathexes. Eros desires contact, for it strives for union, for the annihilation of spatial boundaries between ego and loved object. But destruction, too, which before the invention of longrange weapons could be effected only through proximity, necessarily presupposes physical contact, the use of the hands. To touch a woman has become in ordinary parlance a euphemism for her use as a sexual object. Not to touch the genital is the usual wording of the prohibition against autoerotic gratification. Since the compulsion neurosis sought to effect erotic contact in the first place, and then, subsequent to regression, the same contact disguised as aggression, nothing was taboo to it in such intense degree as this very contact, nothing was so fitted to become the keystone of a system of prohibitions.[4]


The word taboo was borrowed by Captain Cook, in 1769, from the Polynesian language spoken in the Hawaiian Islands. A report of his voyage was published in 1884 but the word appeared earlier in Europe in the narratives of expeditions by Adam J. von Krusenstern, 1802, and by Otto von Kotzebue, 1817. They reported on the number and variety of prohibitions the word taboo refers to. Cook further specified that taboo was applied to anything forbidden to the touch. British anthropology took over the term, subsequently reworked by the German schools on the psychologies of various peoples, and the French schools of sociology. Freud later made use of this work to define taboo as an adjective with opposite meanings—simultaneously sacred and consecrated, as well as dangerous, forbidden, impure. Taboo was the name for prohibitions that were self-imposed along with their sanctions in the event of transgression, and which lacked meaning or any obvious referent. Anyone who violated a taboo was also taboo, which illustrates the taboo's power of contagion. The term taboo appears in a short text of Freud's entitled "The Significance of Sequences of Vowels" (1911d), which discusses the names of God in Hebrew. "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence," the second chapter of Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), was published in 1912. This work continues an earlier investigation into obsessional neurosis, the analogy between its symptoms and religious rites, and the psychology of religion ("Obsessive Actions and Religious Rites," 1907b). Freud also published "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words" (1910e), with taboo being one such example. Thus Freud's studies on taboo are limited in scope, inserted into a broader investigation that was to be further elaborated in Freud's larger works on collecitve psychology, especially The Future of an Illusion (1927c), Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), and Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-38]). Freud associated taboo with ambivalence from the start. As early as the preface to Totem and Taboo, he writes that "the analysis of taboos is put forward as an assured and exhaustive attempt at the solution of the problem" (1912-13a, p. xiv) (as opposed to the totem), whose differences with taboo he goes on to point out. "The difference is related to the fact that taboos still exist among us. . . . They do not differ in their psychological nature from Kant's 'categorical imperative,' which operates in a compulsive fashion and rejects any conscious motives" (p. xiv). However Freud introduces fresh complications into this idea by postulating for the first time, in the chapter "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence," the existence of a primal ambivalence of emotions which the taboo's prohibitions express. Freud then relates their existence to totemism: "The most ancient and important taboo prohibitions are the two basic laws of totemism: not to kill the totem animal and to avoid sexual intercourse with members of the totem clan of the opposite sex" (p. 31-32). Still this ambivalence becomes apparent as totemism only after the murder of the primal father, in the first acts of mourning and the transition to the totemic clan. The hypothesis of life and death drives could be used to make the taboo autonomous, which Freud does not do. Therefore, the taboo's existence is secondary, and follows upon that of the totem: given the thesis of totemism and the persistence of unconscious wishes, the "must not" is really a form of "must no longer." "The basis of taboo is a prohibited action,

the performing of which a strong inclination exists in the unconscious. . . . There is no need to prohibit what no one desires to do" (p. 32). The analogy with obsessional neurosis enabled Freud to clarify the dynamics of conflict and the topographical structure that gives rise to the existence of taboos: "I will now sum up the respects in which light has been thrown on the nature of taboo by comparing it with the obsessional prohibitions of neurotics. Taboo is a primaeval prohibition 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; those who obey the taboo have an ambivalent attitude to what the taboo prohibits. The magical power that is attributed to taboo is based on the capacity for arousing temptation; and it acts like a contagion because examples are contagious and because the prohibited desire in the unconscious shifts from one thing to another. 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" (pp. 34-35). Therefore, "taboo conscience is probably the earliest form in which the phenomenon of conscience is met with" (p. 67). The analysis of taboos touches on a number of themes. As psychic formations actualizing a dynamic of unconscious conflict amongst drive-impulses, they make use of primary processes; the propagation of this dynamism based on representations of contiguity and similarity—touch for the Unconscious—is clear and further elucidates the contagion, the "mana" of taboo as well as "delusions of touching." At the same time these psychic formations attribute hatred and dangerousness to taboo objects and enable us to analyze projection. Moreover the conviction the taboo entails, owing to its dependence on the Unconscious, points toward animism, magic, and the omnipotence of thought—in short, to a study of narcissism. And the analogy, almost the identity, between the forms and dynamics of individual rites and rituals and those associated with taboos makes them a key element in the connection Freud creates between individual and collective psychology. The primal conflict of ambivalence that taboo allows us to postulate relates it to the hypothesis of the life and death drives, and the troubles encountered by moral conscience: anxiety, guilt, the superego, as well as their genesis via the primal murder. Even if Totem and Taboo "exhausts the problem" of taboo, Freud's later work modified our viewpoint of it. Freud's proposed analysis of the feminine in "The Taboo of Virginity" (1918a) transforms the concept of taboo. Whereas the ambivalence of those subject to the taboo was in general the cause for prohibitions and prescriptions; in the case of the young girl to be deflowered, it is the real danger she represents (penis envy, revenge) that makes her taboo for others. When anthropologists rejected the universalist perspective Freud invoked, the concept of taboo became subject to criticism. The structuralist viewpoint interpreted all taboos for each society as a single global symbolic system of classification, organization, and interpretation of the real, independently of any possibility for dynamic change—a claim taken up by the structuralist movement in psychoanalysis. The renewal of studies into dynamic change in the exact sciences may renew interest in Freud's works on this subject.


A taboo is a strong social prohibition (or ban) relating to any area of human activity or social custom declared as sacred and forbidden; breaking of the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society. The term was borrowed from the Tongan language and appears in many Polynesian cultures. In those cultures, a tabu (or tapu or kapu) often has specific religious associations. Its first use in English was recorded by James Cook in 1777.

When an activity or custom is classified as taboo it is forbidden and interdictions are implemented concerning the topic, such as the ground set apart as a sanctuary for criminals. Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited under law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. Other taboos result in embarrassment, shame, and rudeness.

Taboos can include dietary restrictions (halal and kosher diets, religious vegetarianism, and the prohibition of cannibalism), restrictions on sexual activities and relationships (intermarriage, miscegenation, sex between people of the same sex, incest, animal-human sex, adult-child sex, sex with the dead), restrictions of bodily functions (burping, flatulence), restrictions on the use of psychoactive drugs, restrictions on state of genitalia (circumcision, sex reassignment), exposure of body parts (ankles in the Victorian British Empire, women's faces in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, nudity in the US), and restrictions on the use of offensive language.

No taboo is known to be universal, but some (such as the cannibalism and incest taboos) occur in the majority of societies. Taboos may serve many functions, and often remain in effect after the original reason behind them has expired. Some have argued that taboos therefore reveal the history of societies when other records are lacking.

Taboos often extend to cover discussion of taboo topics. This can result in taboo deformation (euphemism) or replacement of taboo words. Marvin Harris, a leading figure in cultural materialism, endeavoured to explain taboos as a consequence of the ecologic and economic conditions of their societies.

Also, Sigmund Freud provided an analysis of taboo behaviours, highlighting strong unconscious motivations driving such prohibitions. In this system, described in his collections of essays Totem and Taboo, Freud postulates a link between forbidden behaviours and the sanctification of objects to certain kinship groups. Freud also states here that the only two "universal" taboos are that of incest and patricide, which formed the eventual basis of modern society.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.
  2. ——. (1910e). The antithetical meaning of primal words. SE, 11: 153-161.
  3. ——. (1911d). The significance of sequences of vowels. SE, 12: 341.
  4. ——. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  5. ——. (1918a [1917]). The taboo of virginity. SE, 11: 191-208.