Something I realized last semester working through Totem and Taboo with graduate students runs counter to the usual argument that Freud had no evidence with which to posit totemism as the first form of religion, and to speculate that the origin of totemism lies in the murder of an archaic father by his sons. According to that well trodden story, they killed him because he was an all-powerful power hoarding all the women in the group, that after the parricide they felt guilt for killing the father whom they both hated and loved and hated, and they then recreated him as a god, placing the totem and the eating of totemic animal at the center of the psychic life of the group.
The usual line of argument against Freud’s theory is that it is what Evans-Pritchard in his book on “primitive religion” called a just-so-story. There is no supporting anthropological or archaeological evidence to buttress the theory, or so it is argued. Assuming that leaves one free to assess Freud’s in-credible story one way or the other on the merits of its status as a powerful work of fiction, a work of the imagination, a reflection of its author social position and mental constitution in fin de siècle Vienna.
But consider this alternative interpretation. Freud’s theory is not based upon the imagination as such. Rather, it is based upon knowing, or what the author believed he could know, which is good enough, and the most that any of us have to go on. Relying in Totem and Taboo on the best and most up to date “science” of his day, Freud had very good reason to come to these speculative conclusions about totemism and the origin of religion.
Follow the chain of reference, paying particular attention to two bits of what would have been understood at the time to constitute the empirical science propelling the psychoanalytic leap. The first piece of knowledge is from Darwin, from whom Freud knows about the existence of a primal horde at the starting point of human origins. The existence of the horde enjoys for Freud the status of firmly established knowledge. The second piece of evidence is William Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites from which Freud knows that totemism is the first and original religious form, and that eating the totemic meal is the first religious act.
So Freud believes that he knows for a fact that there was a primal horde and that totemism is the origin of religion. From the one “empirical” fact to the other “empirical” fact, it takes only rudimentary effort to come to the realization, which is the revelation of psychoanalysis. The totem is the symbol of the Father; the totem has be the symbol of the Father and can be nothing else, according to the findings of psychoanalysis, and that “eating” the ritual totemic meal is a violent act of symbolic remembrance to that original act of violence against the Father. Motive is established once one assumes that biological life and sex are irreducible, one to the other.
It takes what for us today is a little antiquarian digging to see how compelling the logic must have seemed. There is no other possible conclusion other than Freud’s once one knows premise “x” and premise “y” while assuming “z.” While from our perspective today it appears otherwise, Freud was not making this up out of whole cloth; he had no reason to think that that was what he was doing. Without that scientific and scholarly apparatus, the whole theory falls apart.