I started my discussion on the origins of the totem in a previous article. In the second part of my discussion, I will shed some light on a related topic: the question of the taboo, a notion that is closely connected with the first primitive human’s reaction towards fatal natural phenomena.
Let us first cast a quick glance at the process of individual inference which is then abstracted into a widespread and sweeping firm statement.
We know that these individual inferences are the sum of cognitive images stuck in the long memory. These images are fraught with the same sentiments and affects experienced back when the inferences were made. In a later stage, the brain reorganizes images with similar attributes in the latent memory which subsequently resurface in the form of actual behaviour.
There is no doubt that each one of us experiences reality through the means of our individual imagination with a variable degree of rich or poor experiences. But what differentiates a conscious individual who seeks to enrich his or her knowledge and experience, from another individual stuck under the dictate of imposed experiences is this desire to enrich one’s imagination through science and knowledge instead of surrendering to the results of experiences born out of ignorance and generalizations.
Primitive humans prohibited that which they were ignorant about in order to avoid danger. This should make perfect sense. The taboo was not motivated by individual or collective desire to organize their social life. This is why the taboo was not linked in the beginning with punishment inflicted on those who transgress the laws of prohibition defined by the group. It was believed that the taboo itself can put to death anyone who touches it whether deliberately or by mistake. The taboo does not reflect an act because it connotes prohibition in the sense that rather than being a motivation to act, the taboo stops or curbs action. This is the main distinction between the taboo and religious laws subsequently born out of the radical transformation of this original meaning of the taboo. Affects and psychological states associated with terror and fear inform the emergence of the taboo which was a general and uniform explanation of all recurrent incidents caused by natural phenomena.
Let us come back to the link between primitive humans and nature. Although this lineage may sound like an advanced achievement to contemporary ears, the truth is that back then it was not informed by a conscious realization that humans are an integral part of nature, and neither does it show that they were attuned to all living creatures. The connection between the primitive humans and nature was grounded in psychological states mingled with a feeling of impotency and lack of mastery over nature.
There is no doubt that the need of human societies for many old myths and fables has diminished with time. Perhaps humankind got tired of repeating experiences which have always led to failure when they realized that beliefs and rituals built around sorcery and shamanism have failed to master the external world (or what is called external experience). When this external experience collides with inner consciousness, a confused mind unable to resolve the complex consequences of this encounter of internal and external forces and drives will always resort to supernatural explanations.
When we read some history books, we find many examples on how in many cultures across the world animals were used by humans in the post-agricultural and farming stage of evolution to alert them about danger or to discover sources of water. Perhaps these early humans realized that animals have acute senses. Roman historian Tacitus, for instance, noticed how ancient Jews venerated donkeys after a horde of an ancient variant of this species led Moses to a water spring. In the same account, Tacitus gives us a clear idea on one of the reasons behind the sacrifice of the calf as revenge against the ancient Egyptians who used to worship the sacred bull Apis.
We can then identify the origins of the totemic system in that part of the world where Abrahamic religions emerged and developed. The totemic system paralleled each stage of human evolution, from the stage of hunter gatherer to that of farming and agriculture.
Let us come back to the notion of the taboo which is linked with the totemic system and explain its great influence on Abrahamic religions. The taboo is defined in terms of the prohibition to touch the sacred totem. A woman who has given birth in some old tribes and according to Durkheim was defined as object of taboo for forty days because of the taboo of blood. Blood was believed to be the spirit of life. There is here a connection with the idea of blood relation which informs tribal sentiments and allegiances. The connection between the taboo and blood gives us an important clue on the notion of the primitive god. After birth and menstrual blood are still considered elements of prohibition in Muslim cultures, and women are not allowed to pray or fast in such conditions. As explained in the first part of the article, the sentiment of disgust and corruption originally associated with the taboo in all its forms is a psychological reaction against the disappearance of the sacred dimension of the taboo. This unconscious connection is not easy to establish or work through and yet it is very powerful and can be observed in many cultural and religious practices across the world.
And since I am talking about women, the whipping of women with rods in the old roman pagan tradition which lasted at least until the 5th century (and in our modern times coincides with Valentine’s Day) is another interesting example worth mentioning. On the 15th day of the second month of each year, initially young men (in Ancient Rome) and later priests, roam the streets of the city with their rods and flog women they encounter on their way. It was believed that flagellation helps women conceive. But this practice is not limited to the Roman festival of Lupercalia and is somewhat reminiscent of some old practices recorded by anthropologists such as Thompson, Frazer and Reinach whereby the flogging of animals was believed to increase their fertility.
Since the taboo was deeply rooted in social organization, we have to warn against its changing meaning throughout centuries and uncover its omnipresence in laws of punishment observed by the group. It was believed that the person who transgresses the taboo was contaminated and the punishment was thought to prevent the spread of that contamination to the rest of the group.
This fear of contamination was then the principle instigator and fomenter of the feeling of guilt among human societies and is linked with the idea of purification to wash away sins. Sinners in the African tribe Akakios observe strict rituals to cleanse themselves of their sins. They confess to the tribe’s sorcerer who organizes a special ceremony where the sinner begins by throwing up. This link between the emptying of the stomach and the washing of the body from sin shows the same pattern or logic that the feeling of guilt is located in the body rather than in the psyche or conscience. Here too we can establish a similar connection with the notion of the ‘scapegoat’. Instead of punishing the one who committed the crime, an innocent animal is slaughtered to redeem the sinner.
The notion of the scapegoat can be found in many societies which preceded the emergence of Abrahamic religions. Plutarch tells a story about a public punishment in the city of Chaeronea where a slave’s genitals were whipped while his executioners were shouting: ‘depart from our city, oh famine and come to us, oh health and plenty.’
These traditions and practices, ridiculous as they may sound to us today, were born in the stage of agriculture and farming in the course of human evolution. Totemic residual practices managed to transform themselves into spiritual beliefs, to the principle of divine punishment and reward, and to religious rituals from the scapegoat to organized prayers to ask for rain. The climate played a key role in preserving these totemic practices. But more than that, we find to this day that the cultural and natural environment reinforces these beliefs. In a social and physical environment where the needs and desires of individuals are satisfied, the desire for deeper knowledge and understanding usually follows. The satisfaction of biological needs is usually conducive to a healthier and more productive life of the mind.