Beyond Being Instinctive: An Inquiry into Incest through Media
Tripathi S and Kaur SP*
School of Languages and Literature, SMVD University, Katra, Jammu and Kashmir, India
- *Corresponding Author:
- Kaur SP
Assistant Professor, School of Languages and Literature
SMVD University, Katra, Jammu and Kashmir, India
Received Date: Apr 26, 2018; Accepted Date: May 02, 2018; Published Date: May 14, 2018
Citation: Tripathi S, Kaur SP. Beyond Being Instinctive: An Inquiry into Incest through Media. Global Media Journal 2018, 16:30.
Copyright: © 2018 Tripathi S, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Visit for more related articles at
Global Media Journal
Incest prohibition is contradictory in itself; despite being considered instinctive in nature, there still exists a wide circulation of societal and political laws against incest. These regulations are perpetuated through the medium of mass communication which assist in reinforcing the values and seemingly creating law and order. The suppressed desires find a vent out through Media as it triggers as well as promulgates incest, putting forth valid reasons to justify actions. The objective of this research is to explore the portrayal of incestuous relationships in Media and the reasons that assist in its propagation. The study claims that sex and/or incest should not be considered as a taboo as it is inherent part of human evolution and that removal of control over libido can lead to an advancement and progression of society.
Prohibition; Laws; Media; Trigger; Evolution;
Incest as a taboo
Society is an emblem of human characteristics and
behaviour that are not genetically inherent. These set of traits;
being acceptable as well as taboos, are social constructs that
are imposed on human beings. Being cultural containers of
these beliefs, humans transmit these sociological conditions
from one generation to another. The transference of
constructed set of traits, which at times are said to be taboos
are time and again taught despite their instinctive nature.
Incest, being considered as a taboo universally, is said to be
instinctive  and its avoidance works as a mechanism to drive
the individual into societal relationships. By calling incest as
“instinctive” and forming rules against it is in itself
contradictory. In cue with this, White in The Definition and
Prohibition of Incest has claimed that “To say that prohibitions
against incest are “instinctive” is of course to declare that there is a natural, inborn and innate feeling of revulsion
towards union with close relatives” .
“Societies have generally condemned sexual relations
between blood relatives as a sort of perversion” (Code of
Canon Law, 1091). The feeling of union is prohibited through
wide circulation of strict laws against it. As a matter of fact, the
strict widespread rules and regulations against incest show
that humans have universal and powerful sexual attraction
towards one’s relatives . Conversely, some societies treat
marriage with first cousin not as an incestuous activity.
Anthropologists have demonstrated the kinship structures or
socially constructed rules of endogamy and exogamy, the
prohibitions on sexual intercourse or marriage between
certain members of a family varies from culture to culture and
from century to century . Should one assume that instinct
varies from community to community? It appears that
explanations like these merely hide our ignorance behind the
cover of our pseudo-knowledge. Further, most of the
communities prohibit marriages within a family. But on the
other hand, sibling marriage had been allowed in “the royal
family (in ancient Egypt, Peru, and Hawaii); in Egypt in the
Graeco-Roman period (300 BC to AD 300) brother–sister
marriages among non-royal citizens were recorded quite
frequently in the census records” .
Further, in the contemporary decade, countries like Japan
abolished incest law in 1881 . Being a reflection of cultural
inheritance, the tradition of incest in Japan holds its
prominence due to the myth of Izanagi and Izanami where in
brother and sister married each other and created the country
of Japan . This myth formulated the basis for acceptance of
widely rejected notion of incest. Moreover, who believed that
lovers from the past life got reincarnated as siblings,
elucidating more reason to believe that there is nothing wrong
in sibling incest.
Society sets certain reasons for the prohibition of incest.
Social theorist such as Lewis H. Morgan has highlighted
incestuous relations lead to “biological degeneration”  and
that the theory is believable and self-explanatory and always
goes without a doubt. Conversely, research reflects that the
“inbreeding as such does not cause degeneration; the
testimony of biologists is conclusive on this point” . Rather
inbreeding only intensifies the traits either good or bad. If the child with the union of sister and brother is inferior it is not
because he is born by the union of brother and sister rather
because the parents were of inferior stock . Superior traits
or inferior traits both get intensified by inbreeding. If the
offspring of brother-sister or father-daughter unions in our
own society are often weak-minded or inferior it is because
these individuals are more likely to break the incest taboo that
normal men and women never thought of and hence are more
likely to cause degeneration . Conversely, there exists
reflection of no prohibition regarding brother-sister marriages
in some societies like the ancient ruling families of Egypt,
where in one can trace an insight of incest in case of Cleopatra,
child born out of brother-sister marriages that continued for
several generations within the ruling family and she was “not
only handsome, vigorous, intellectual, but also prolific… as
perfect a specimen of the human race as could be found in any
age or class of society” .
Likewise, another prominent reason for incest avoidance
can be traced in Leslie’s “The Definition and Prohibition of
Incest” where in the researcher quotes Freud’s hypothesis as
to how human society evolved through incestuous relationship
between father and daughter which soon diminished after the
death of the father . Later on, this pledge was passed on
from generation to generation and through this process the
institution of marriage outside the family as well as incest
being a taboo, both were established. It can also be suggested
that man-made culture and the traditional societal set-up are
the reasons for the prohibition of incest. These cultures act as
a rule book for people to show them the ways that are
acceptable in society and any disobedience towards these
rules is considered as crime .
Digressing from such futile claims, the research proposes
that incest has never been relegated as a taboo rather it is
claimed that it lead to the creation of the world. Hindu, Biblical
or Greek mythologies impinge upon the necessity of incest in
the formation of the world. In Hindu mythology, incest holds a
paramount reflection and is considered to be the reason for
the formation of the universe . In accordance with the
myths in Matsya Purana, one of the eighteen major Mahapurana and among the oldest preserved in the Puranic
genre of Sanskrit literature in Hinduism , Lord Brahma
existed alone in the world and decided to split himself in two
parts, creating a feminine counterpart Saraswati, considered
to be Brahma’s daughter. The result of this incestuous
relationship of daughter and father is their creation, Manu, the
demigod . This mythological reference attests to the fact
the universe was formed as a result of incest, claiming that it
was done for a good cause.
Moreover, in Bible, Abraham, who is a common patriarch of
the three religions; Christianity, Islamic and Judaism, is also
known as the symbol of the covenant. God promises Abraham
a child with his own sister Sarai and God fulfils his promise by
giving them a son Isaac who was born when Sarai was ninety
years old (Genesis 20:12, Genesis 17:17). The biblical reference
clearly is an evidence of how God himself supported incest, he
promised to give them a child and it didn’t matter whether it
was through incest. Moreover, if one looks at Adam and Eve, both of them were the only human beings on the earth so
their children had no other choice but to marry and reproduce
within their family (Genesis 4).
Further, the Greek Mythology is a vast corpus of incest
between Gods; Zeus and Hera were both brother-sister and a
husband-wife, their parents Cronus and Rhea were also
siblings. Moreover, Cronus and Rhea were again the children of
Uranus and Gaia who were involved in mother-son incestuous
relationship . Moreover, according to Greek mythology,
Gaia, the goddess of earth also known as mother earth created
the universe by giving birth to both gods and humans.
Delving into literary narratives, which in itself are reflections
of society, incest has been one of the popular themes.
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, one of the Greek classic, talks about
the mother-son incest and how one cannot ever escape the
fate . Oedipus was fated to kill his own father and marry
his own mother. So it doesn’t matter how much he tried to
avoid, he eventually ended up doing it. Moreover, peeping into
the inception of English literature, Chaucer, the Father of
English Poetry, is amongst the first to write about the incest in
The Canterbury Tales. He talks about the incest through The
Squire's Tale in which Canace and her brothers have
committed incest . Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower in Confessio Amantis Book VIII emphasizes upon the theme of
incest in the story of “Apollonius of Tyre”. Further, history of
English literature is also testimony to the first play on incest,
Tis Pity She's a Whore, where in there exists incestuous
relationship between a brother and a sister. Authors of such
texts, “consciously or unconsciously replicates the dominant
ideology in his/her work and thus “spreads” it among the
readers” , thereby, suggesting that those who commit such
heinous crime meet a devastating end. In a way, incest being a
socially constructed ‘taboo’ is taught to us rather than being
an inbuilt trait or maybe it is merely a circulation of ideology of
the dominant class. Keeping in cue with the aforesaid, the
study traces this shift in perspective regarding incest
prohibition where at one end it is relegated as taboo and
conversely, is a widely accepted notion as well; where one art
form perpetuates the ideology of the dominant class whereas
the other art form triggers suppressed human desires.
Incest and media: A reflection of the cultural
Media is a very important part of human culture  and
members of every age group are attached to it and get
influenced by it. The media is generally treated as the
reflection of the society; it displays things which are happening
in the society. Likewise, society also gets affected by the things
that are displayed in the television. In other words, one can
say that media is altering or modifying the definitions
associated with the word taboo by displaying it from different
perspectives. Media plays a vital role in removing the word
‘taboo’ from incest. Winnail, said, “Television, movies and the
Internet are having an effect on mankind that would have
been unimaginable even a century ago. The media—print and
electronic—shape our lives and our minds in ways that most
fail to realize, and with sobering effects!” . “Incest is supposed to be awful”  but the ways in which media
represents it, gives entirely a new direction to the incestuous
Incest is the inherent part of the human evolution and its
reflection in present day media is actually triggering the
suppressed human desires. The projection of such censored
activity is accompanied by some valid reasons; such as will to
power, insecurity in the social realm, lack of trust, unhappy
marriage, so that it becomes an acceptable notion when
portrayed in media. Film makers try to blend it in the storyline
and provide some solid reasons for displaying it so that the
audience can understand the character and can also
understand his or her reasons for doing so. But such
representations can change society’s rules and regulations and
affect their ways of thinking. Media being the topmost mass of
communication plays a vital role in propagating taboos and
even fostering it at the same time. Displaying all kinds of
incest, media, specifically in the recent decades, has projected
it in a positive light reflecting that incest happens due to the
sense of trust and safety that opposite sex feels within the
family. In the light of this argument, the paper purports to
explore the theme of incest in the most widespread television
series, Game of Thrones.
Reasons for disappearance of taboo: A critical
insight into game of thrones
Cersei-Jamie: An emblem of incest: Incest, being very
common in Game of Thrones, be it at House Lannister or at
House Targaryen, is justified by giving the name of love
amongst brother-sister who claim that “we shared a womb,
came into this world together, we belong together”  or for
the sake of keeping the bloodline pure in order to control the
dragons and maintaining Valyrian legacy “The Targaryens wed
brothers and sisters for three hundred years to keep bloodlines
pure” . Cersei and her twin brother Jamie are involved in
an illicit romance since childhood. Amid the conflicting
ambiance, the incestuous relationship between siblings is
justified through the sense of trust and reliability that family
members have for each other.
When all the elders in the family are involved in the political
activities, these twins and the only one for each other, start
developing a stronger association which later turns in form of
love and leads to incest. The reason for incest in their case is
the trust they have for each other and for them, people
outside their family are dangerous. They cannot trust any
other because they live amidst their enemies so the only place
where they can show trust is for each other. Even when Cersei
becomes the queen of Seven Kingdoms, Jamie is always
besides her. The trust that she shows for her brother, is never
the same for her husband. The bond that she forms after
marriage with her husband Robert Barithan can never replace
her childhood bond. Moreover, their marriage has a political
agendas rather than being a product of love.
Likewise, focussing upon the character of Robert Barithan,
he never stands on what can be called a ‘good husband’, who
shares a bonding and a level of understanding with his wife and also has leaves his past relationship. Robert, even after his
marriage, laments his past relationship with Lyaana Stark and
never shares the same feeling with his own wife Cersei.
Further, he never projects any interest in his kingdom or his
family. Being a worthless king and an emotionless husband, he
enjoys his personal life without doing anything productive to
support the common people of his kingdom. On the other
hand Cersei is always shown as a very strong character; she
can never let such man to be the father of her children. So, the
distorted relationship which she has with her husband and the
emotional attachment that she has for her brother can be
considered to be the two prominent reasons why Cersei
prefers him over her husband.
In a sexual intercourse, partners are chosen on the basis of
trust, love and admiration  and all these qualities are
generally seen strongly within family members rather than
outsiders. If we look things from Cersei’s perspective her love
for her brother in true and pure, their bond is stronger than
any other bond and choosing him as a father for her child is a
very ideal situation. Living in the castle full of enemies in which
she can’t trust anyone and having a husband who is madly in
love with someone else; who else she can trust in these kinds
of situations. Jamie, her brother in that kind of situation aptly
fits in the roles of a husband, a brother, a lover and a friend for
her sister. Living in the world full of enemies supporting each
other is the only way through which they have survived this
far. Cersei’s love for Jamie is so strong that she never hides it,
while living in a conservative society. She even faces a walk of
atonement which was a public ritual of punishment and
penance in the Faith of the Seven (a kind of church). It forces a
confessed sinner to walk some distance stripped of all
clothing, exposed to the eyes and jeers of the population. She
suffers this insane punishment because she confesses that she
is involved in adulterous relationship with her twin brother Ser
Jamie Lannister. She suffers such a serious punishment not
because of incest rather because of the society in which she
lives. For them the only word synonymous to incest is taboo,
they never try to find the reasons why she involves in such
activities. The following conversation between Jaime and
Cersei reflect their helplessness for not calling their children
their own :
Cersei Lannister: "Our daughter's in danger and you're
worried I'm speaking too loudly.”
Jaime Lannister: "The world can't know she's our daughter."
Cersei Lannister: "Then don't call her your daughter! You've
never been a father to her."
Jaime Lannister: "If I was a father to any of my children,
they'd be stoned in the streets."
Incest has never been approved and it does not matter in
which century we are living in. Society raises voice against it. If
in their opinion incest is a taboo then there is nothing in the
world that can change their ideas, in the following
conversation from Game of Thrones one can see people’s way
of thinking which is a product of their society and is also
formed under its influence.
"True, we don't tie ourselves in knots over a discreet bit of
buggery, but... brothers and sisters? Where I come from, that
stain would be very difficult to wash out."
―Olenna Tyrell to Tywin Lannister .
It can be highlighted that incest in Game of Thrones is not a
result of random choice rather a result of trust and emotional
security that a sister feels for her brother and also the lack of
understanding between husband and wife. Further,
relationships are usually based on trust and love and in
Cersei’s case she finds all these kinds of bonds with her
Individuality and self-surveillance in Cersei: Ulrich Beck, in
“Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social
and Political Consequences” defines individualization as,
“individuals are compelled now to make agonistic choices
throughout their life-course… they are required to take sole
responsibility for the consequences of choices made or,
indeed, not made” . Women in the past, according to him,
lived their life for others; they had to face the social inequality,
had no individuality and had to live in the shadows of others.
But with the passage of time, the identity of women has
transited from being a passive or submissive agent towards
active agents who are self-surveillent. They live their lives for
themselves and not for others . In the similar vein, Game
of Thrones being a fictional story has some associations with
the trends or traits of medieval era. Cersei Lannister as one of
the main characters of the series is displayed as the woman of
the middle age but her characteristics are totally different. She
is a queen totally different from the queens of the medieval
era, portrayed as a very strong woman who doesn’t follow
others blindly rather forces others to follow her.
“A queen ought to be chaste, wise of honest people, well
mannered, and not curious” . They were supposed to
follow their husband in every possible way. They should never
defy their husband and always live in the back and never
comes forefront. Tracing the qualities of a good queen from
the mirror of medieval era, the basic function of a good queen
is to provide a male heir for the kingdom. Queens from the
middle ages were forced to give birth to male child despite the
fact that shaping the gender of the child is out of their control.
If they were unable to give birth to a male heir then that
reason could be enough for dissolving their marriage. If one
looks at the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of
France, their marriage was dissolved as Eleanor was unable to
give son to Louis even after fifteen years of their marriage .
In Game of Thrones, queens are also expected to give birth to
a male heir but queens in this series are not shown weak to
follow the rules blindly. Queen Cersei Lannister too has to give
an heir, but she doesn’t want her children to be like her
husband moreover her love for her brother is stronger than
her duty towards her husband so she conceives through her
brother Jamie but projects that they belonged to her husband,
Robert Barithan due to social obligations.
In the medieval era, queens were supposed to be faithful
towards their husband. It was obvious that kings were
committing adultery but a queen can never involve herself in such activities, if any queen ever found guilty for committing
adultery then she suffered severe punishment, mostly they
were beheaded. But in Game of Thrones Cersei finds her
happiness with her brother so rather than going for husband
she chooses her brother and stays with him, she even
confesses her disloyalty in her marriage to her father. She
doesn’t care what others think about her rather prefers to be
true to herself.
Medieval queens were never considered rational because of
their ‘feminine’ qualities and because of the claim that they
are emotional beings. Masculine appearance and attributes,
on the contrary, provided a platform to women like Empress
Matilda who ruled for short duration as her cousin Stephen
was captured during the Anarchy. During her short reign, she
attempted to copy her father King Henry I’s . In other
words, she, following her father’s footsteps, displayed her
capabilities as a good queen. In Game of Thrones “queens
often struggle to maintain their power despite their royal role
given to their sex” . Characters like Cersei and Daenerys
are the best examples for maintaining both of their feminine
and masculine qualities. They maintain their feminine qualities
through their beautiful appearance and soft voices but they
are also able to display their ‘masculine’ side by controlling the
whole army and dragons.
Germaine Greer, in her thesis “The Female Eunuch” talks
about the libido and says that the societal set up and their
culture are the reasons for women’s separation from their
libido. So, women have to liberate themselves from all these
set ups so that they can act freely and for doing that they need
to give up chastity and marriage. In other words, she is trying
to say that the sex with someone other than husband is not a
taboo anymore. Likewise, a parallel can be drawn between
Greer’s notion and the depiction of Cersei in Game of Thrones.
She lives her life the way she wants, without following any
restriction imposed by the society. She gives up her marriage,
her chastity and only focuses upon her happiness. For her
what matters the most is her own happiness and society
comes at secondary level.
Unhappy marriage: Subverting social order in game of
thrones: Another prominent reason which leads to incest in
Game of Thrones can be unhappy marriage. Cersei never gets
love from Robert, the love that a woman expects from her
husband in a marital relationship. Further, Robert Barithan can
never be considered as the ideal husband; he loves Lyaana
Stark and never cares about his kingdom or his wife. Moreover,
the reason for the marital association is political not love or
any sort of emotional bond.
Furthermore, the concept of the marriage as an institute is
not brought together to fulfil someone’s sexual desires, it is
not a medium through which one can satisfy their sexual
hunger rather it is the need of the society for their survival and
prosperity. Marriage as an institute has a socio-cultural
importance rather than individual psychology . To quote,
King Henry VIII, known for his six marriages, was the first one
to go against the church and remarry in order to bear a son
who could ascend the throne. With his first wife he had a girl
and later she died. In his second marriage again his wife gave birth to a girl and because of witch she was beheaded, his
third wife died, fourth wife died fifth beheaded and sixth
survived as Henry VIII himself died . In cue with the
aforesaid, if he actually desired for sexual gratification, he
could not have married six times. Being a King, acquiring all
the powers, he could have fulfilled his sexual desires by any
means for which marriage is not a compulsion.
Marriage as a compulsory institution for bearing a male heir
to ascend the throne can be said to be a reason why Cersei
and Robert Barithan marry despite the fact that they don’t
lead a happy married life. Robert never wins her trust and
never gives her any happiness and Jamie becomes the outlet
of these two prominent human needs.
Ralph Fevre in The Demoralization of Western Culture
comments upon how there exists a shift from unhappy
marriages towards divorce in contemporary era, as he claims,
“unhappy marriages increasingly replaced with divorces as
people go off to try their luck a second, third or fourth time in
the hope of finding someone who thinks in the right way” .
In Game of Thrones the backdrop of the series is the medieval
era where in divorce has zero per cent reflection. One can
suggest that since divorce doesn’t find any trace in the
medieval era, so the queen here opts for incest due to her
unhappy marriage. Rather than staying with Robert Barithan
unhappily, she chooses her happiness and her desires which
she attains from her brother, Jamie. In her conversation with
Ned Stark, she justifies her stance as she avers:
Cersei Lannister: "My brother is worth a thousand of your
Ned Stark: "Your brother… or your lover?"
Cersei Lannister: "The Targaryens wed brothers and sisters
for three hundred years to keep bloodlines pure. Jaime and I
are more than brother and sister, we shared a womb, came
into this world together, we belong together."
— Cersei Lannister to Ned Stark .
Her happiness with her brother is beyond the worldly
taboos or the morals that society puts forth. Being a strong
character of the series, she is an active agent who acts
autonomously despite constricting social sanctions. Promoting
a rethinking of agency in terms of subversion of social order,
her character gives prominence to happiness rather than
supporting an unhappy marriage.
Incest is undoubtedly a taboo but its wide eminence in
myths, literature as well as in the contemporary visual media
surely needs an inquisitive study. The research investigated the
fostering of incest in Game of Thrones and claimed that
unhappy marriage, childhood love, individuality and selfsurveillance
were the harbingers for incestuous relationship
between brother and sister. Further, as an emblem of
individuality and freedom of libido, Cersei reflects the
conception that creativity is possible once libido is free and
once there is no control on libido then there are possibilities that society will advance, liberating itself from taboos and
prejudiced mental constructs. Contemporary media, by
presenting the earlier ‘unpresentable’; accepting the
‘unacceptable’, is in a way altering viewer’s perspective
- Lowie RH (1920) Primitive Society. New York.
- White LA (1948) The Definition and Prohibition of Incest. USA: Wiley Online Library.
- Goldenweiser A (1937) Anthropology: An Introduction to Primitive Culture. New York.
- Archibald E (2001) Incest and the Medieval Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press (1969). The Canons of the Church of England. London.
- Raphael T (1955) The Law of Greco-Roman Egypt in the Light of the Papyri 332BC–640AD, (2ndedn).
- Vieira ND, Busuttill A, Cusack D, Beth P (2010) Acta Medicinae Legalis et Socialis. Portugal: Coimbra.
- Maguire SL (2018) The Story of Izanagi and Izanami: A Japanese Creation Myth.
- Morgan LH (1877) Ancient Society. New York.
- Mahaffy JP (1915) Cleopatra VI. Egypt: Archeol.
- Linton R (1963) The Study of Man. New York.
- Dwivedi AV (2018) Adultery (Hinduism). Australia, Australia: Encyclopedia of Indian Religions, Hinduism, and Tribal Religions, Springer Nature
- Dalal R (2014) The Vedas: An Introduction to Hinduism’s Sacred Text. UK: Penguin Books Limited.
- Mukherjee B (2013) Goddess saraswati, wife or daughter of brahma??.
- Briggs K (2015) Greek God Family Tree.
- Turner JH, Maryanski A (2005) Incest: Origins of Taboo. USA: Paradigm Publishers.
- Fyler JM (2013) Domesticating the Exotic. Chaucer's Cultural Geography. UK: Routledge.
- Nayar KP (2006) Literary Theory Today. New Delhi, ND: Prestige Books
- Ward ML, Friedman K (2006) Using TV as a guide: Associations between television viewing and adolescents’ sexual attitudes and behavior. Journal of Research on Adolescence.
- Winnail DS (2003) How the media mold the world. Tomorrow’s World.
- Munkittrick K (2015) Is the Lannister’s incest immoral?.
- Weiss DB, Minahan D (2011) You Win or You Die. In D. Benioff, Game of Thrones. America: HBO.
- Jones DL (2003) The African-American Woman's Guide to Great Sex, Happiness & Marital Bliss. Amber Books.
- Weiss DB, Slovis M (2015) The House of Black and White. In D. Benioff, Game of Thrones. America: HBO.
- Weiss DB, Sakharov A (2013) The Climb. In D. Benioff, Game of Thrones. America: HBO.
- Beck U, Gernsheim EB (2002) Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and Its Social and Political Consequences. London: Sage Publication.
- Caxton W (1474) The Game and Playe of the Chesse. USA: Kessinger Publishing.
- Hilton L (2008) Queen’s Consort: England’s Medieval Queens. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
- Bucholz R (2009) Queens & Power in Medieval and Early Modern England. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Rolko S (2015). Women in power: challenges faced by queens in the world of game of thrones and their medieval parallels.
- Pollard AF (2008) King Henry VIII. Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Fevre RW (2000) The Demoralization of Western Culture. Bloomsbury Academic.