Freud on Animism

Academia and western culture in general is extremely critical of animism and its associated mindset. In this article I challenge the beliefs that are the foundation of modern psychology and discuss what western society can learn from the animist mindset.

A major aspect of shamanism is concerned with our place on the Earth and our connection with its animal and plant life. Shamanic traditions throughout the world identify with certain animals that they believe empower them in various ways. Believing themselves to be either possessed or protected by the spirit of the animal. Although this identification is generally a means of experiencing the animal representative of energy beyond rational understanding. To the mind of the majority of westerners, this belief seems insane, but when looking at the environmental damage done by our material outlook we can perhaps learn something from their mindset. The archaic animist belief system enabled people to live in greater harmony with nature, rather than separate themselves from it or have domination over it.

Film and TV has frequently focused on animistic societies but usually presents them as demonic ‘savages’, such as in ‘King Kong’ (1933), more recently there has been a more informed approach to the presentation of animist societies, such as in ‘Dances With Wolves’ (1990), although they are often over-romantic in there portrayals.

The ‘savage’ perception of animist societies can be best understood by the work of Freud, who had an academic interest in animism within tribal cultures, theorising about the reasons for their totemistic structure. His pragmatic outlook could never accept actual spiritual connection and possession, but it is interesting to consider his theories relating to animism. He never actually experienced animist cultures; therefore he based his theories on the observations of various anthropologists. One was Reinach who saw the totem ‘as the visible representation of social religion among the races concerned: it embodies the community, which is the true object of their worship.’ Another was Haddon who associated animism with an increased efficiency in hunting. He believed that tribes would specialise in the hunting of one animal and therefore become good at this, trading this one product with other tribes who specialise in another product.

His main focus was on the work of Frazer who originally based his theory on animism, to a belief in an external soul. ‘The totem according to this view, represented a safe place of refuge in which the soul could be deposited and so escape the dangers that threatened it.’

He later abandoned this theory, much to the approval of Freud, after hearing the sociological observations of Spencer and Gillen. ‘Frazer came to believe that prohibition against one’s own totem had blinded people to the more important element in the situation, namely the injunction to produce as much as possible of an edible totem to meet the needs of the people.’ Frazer later concluded that this argument was too rational for ‘savages’, it implied a social organisation that was too complicated for how he perceived ‘primitive’ people. He subsequently developed a third theory, that it was ‘the sick fancies of pregnant women.’

Freud also considered, but ignored, the opinions of many other ethnologists including Franz Boas and C. Hill Tout. They believed that the Totem was originally the guardian spirit of an ancestor, who acquired it in a dream and transmitted it to his ancestors.

Having considered many varying opinions to the origin and function of animism, Freud concluded that, predictably, it was related to an oedipal fear of incest, the mono-myth of Freud’s patriarchy. This belief was based on Frazer’s inability to accept that there is an instinctive dislike of incest, which Freud unsurprisingly agreed with. His insufficient and elitist argument was based on the observation that incest is common within modern society. He also noted that incest was prevalent in ancient civilisations such as amongst the royalty of Egypt; therefore his basic argument was if there is immorality now, there must have been amongst the ‘savages’ of animist cultures.

When considering instincts it is interesting to observe the actions of animals, who although they frequently break modern taboos such as homosexuality will very rarely commit incest. It must be a strong instinctual force that drives animals to leave the safety of their family group and find other non – blood related companions. Fleeing the nest is a natural instinct, which as genetics has shown leads to a wider gene pool and therefore stronger genetic make-up and resistance to disease.

Therefore one can conclude that incest is more a product of consciousness and civilisation than an instinctual drive. Within animist society there usually exists some form of hierarchy, but there is generally a greater sense of co-operation and equality. Often the men will be apart from the women for long periods of time, the women looking after the children; indeed, amongst the Mohawk tribes the word for mother means all the women in the group. Living together in family groups is not as it is today; the whole tribe is the family. Freud cites observations that tribal societies are unaware how babies are made; but tribal art shows much symbolism that exhibits an awareness of the connection between sex and procreation. This material act does not explain to them the magic of creation, a spiritual dimension to the gift of children. Like modern society, there is often a libertine attitude towards sex, often the only taboo being that of the totem, which I believe is a natural instinct anyway.

Civilisations, such as ancient Egypt, saw a greater separation between hierarchies, introducing the concept of master and servant. The distribution of power and resources became more uneven, if you were in a position of power you want to preserve it. To keep power within the family, you would take partners from within it. A greater focus on sex and blood relations and creation of an ‘other ‘ made you protective. Thus the sanctuary of the family became tighter and more paranoid, the world outside its walls becoming terrifying, thus creating a desire to remain that was greater than the instinct to leave.

Incest was the product of greed, lust for power, manipulation and control, all products of human consciousness. Within the wild you never see an animal that is fat and greedy, an animal is content taking what it needs. A predator will be unable to hunt effectively if it is fat and unfit, prey will be unable to run away and soon become dinner.