Skip to main content
Select Source:

Taboos

TABOOS

TABOOS. A food taboo is a prohibition against consuming certain foods. The word "taboo" (also spelled "tabu") is Polynesian and means 'sacred' or 'forbidden'; it has a quasi-magical or religious overtone. The term was introduced in the anthropological literature in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the field of food and nutrition, food taboos are not necessarily connected with magical-religious practices, and some nutritionists prefer to speak of "food avoidance." In this article these terms are used interchangeably.

Food is a culturally specific concept. In general, anything can function as food if it is not immediately toxic. But what is edible in one culture may not be in another. The concept of food is determined by three factors: biology, geography, and culture. Certain plants and animals are not consumed because they are indigestible. Geography also plays a role. For example, dairy products are not part of the food culture of the humid tropical regions since the geographical conditions for keeping cattle are unfavorable. Milk is often a taboo food in such cultures. Insects are not considered food in Europe and most of the United States despite attempts to introduce them in the late twentieth century. This is because there are few edible insects in regions with temperate climates. In Mexico, by contrast, insects are packaged in plastic sachets, cans, or jars for sale. Cultural reasons for food taboos often have a geographical basisunknown or exotic foods will be rejected as unfit for consumption.

It is of interest to note that food avoidance most frequently relates to animal meat, since in most cultures human beings have an emotional relationship with animals they have to kill to eat. One of the few taboos of a food of vegetable origin is the prohibition against alcohol for Muslims and some Christian denominations.

Food may establish a cultural identity of an ethnic group, religion, or nation. Food taboos in a society function also as a means to show differences between various groups and strengthen their cultural identity. Refraining from eating pork is not only a question of religious identity but is likewise an indication of whether or not one belongs to the Jewish or Muslim cultural community. In order to better understand the range of food taboos, it is useful to distinguish between permanent and temporary food taboos or food avoidances.

Permanent Food Taboos

Foods that are permanent taboos or avoidances are always prohibited for a specific group. The classic example of a permanent food taboo is the prohibition against pork by Jews and Muslims. The Jewish prohibition against pork is found in Leviticus 11:1. Some anthropologists point out that food taboos are based on the failure of these foods to fit into the usual systems of classification. Foods that do not fit into these classifications are unsuitable for consumption, or unclean. According to the Qurʾan (2, 168), Muslims should not only avoid pork, but also blood, non-ritually slaughtered animals, and cadavers and alcohol. In the case of both Jewish and Muslim food taboos, the foods themselves are considered unclean. A different concept of food avoidance is found in Hinduism. Hindus abstain from eating beef because cows are considered sacred. Various arguments have been used to explain the origins of such food taboos or food avoidance including religion, culture, and hygiene.

Marvin Harris has rightly pointed out that when people reject certain foods, there must be a logical and economical reason for doing so. The pig is an animal of sedentary farmers and unfit for a pastoral way of life because pigs cannot be herded over long distances without suffering a high rate of mortality. Herdsmen generally despise the lifestyle of sedentary farming communities.

In Western society cats and dogs are not consumed because of the emotional relationships developed with these pets. Increasingly pets are being "humanized" in such a way that eating them is seen as an act of anthropophagy or cannibalism. The feeling of closeness to certain animals can also be found in the savannah regions of West Africa. Certain West African clans consider dogs clan animals, based on the fact that they have been beneficial to the clan in the past; as clan animals they are unfit for consumption. Hippocrates (460377 B.C.E.) regarded dog meat favorably as a light meal, but in later antiquity, dogs were considered unclean and unfit to eat. This is still the case in the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. By contrast, dog meat is popular in China and the mountainous regions of the Philippines. From a nutritional point of view, dog meat is an excellent source of animal protein, and dogs do not require the grazing area demanded by cattle or other large ruminants.

Temporary Food Taboos or Avoidances

Some foods are avoided for certain periods of time. These restrictions often apply to women and relate to the reproduction cycle.

The times of temporary food avoidances related to particular periods of the life cycle include:

  • Pregnancy
  • Birth
  • Lactation
  • Infancy
  • Initiation
  • Periods of illness or sickness

From a nutritional point of view, temporary food avoidances are of great importance as they concern vulnerable groups: pregnant women, breast-feeding women, and infants and children during the period of weaning and growth. Food regulations and avoidances during these periods often deprive the individual of nutritionally valuable foods such as meat, fish, eggs, or vegetables. In a number of African countries pregnant women avoid green vegetables. They also do not consume fish. When asked why, women say the unborn child might develop a head shaped like that of a fish. Some of these avoidances may seem odd from a scientific point of view, but there is often an unnoticed logic behind it. In the first place, women are aware of the critical period and know that much has to be done to ensure the successful delivery of a healthy child. Observing the rules of avoidance will give her the strength of knowing that everything possible has been done for the benefit of the child.

In Central Africa nutritionists observed that young children did not eat eggs. They were worried that a nutritious food was not available for this vulnerable group. The village elders gave a convincing explanation of why eggs should be avoided by children. In the past the wise ancestors were much concerned about young children roaming around the villages searching for eggs and even chasing the brood hens away from their eggs. In order to avoid a depletion of the poultry stock, the elderly decided that eggs were harmful to young children and should be avoided.

A different form of temporary food avoidances involves the rules of fasting. In medieval Christianity the most important period of fasting was Lent (the period from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday), during which meat and animal products were forbidden. There were also other days (Ember Days, Fridays, etc.) on which people were required to abstain from eating meat. The Reformation broke the tradition of fasting to a large extent. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a wide and complicated system of dietary rules and fasting, as does the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the Muslim world, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, means strict fasting, even from beverages, from sunrise to sunset (Sakr).

Do Food Taboos Change and Disappear?

Food taboos may seem rather stable, but they are often under pressure because the society is changing. Migration is a powerful factor in the process of changing food culture. In Europe and North America, most Muslim migrants from the Middle East and South Asia try to maintain their food habits, but some cannot fully resist the food culture of their new home country. A substantial number of Muslims begin drinking beer, wine, and even stronger spirits. Women tend to be less inclined to give up the avoidance of alcohol. The fear of pollution from pork often remains strong, however. In some European countries Muslims refrain from eating in factory canteens out of fear that meals may be polluted with pork fat or pork meat. In contrast, many Jewish Europeans and Americans eat pork from time to time, or even on a regular basis.

Nutrition and health education have reduced the temporary food avoidances of the vulnerable groups in a great number of countries. In the humid tropical countries of Africa and Asia, where the raising of dairy animals is unfavorable, the rejection of milk as a food is diminishing. Despite the occurrence of lactose intolerance among the population, the use of milk and milk products has extended since colonial times. Primary lactose intolerance occurs from an apparent decrease in the intestinal enzyme lactase and can occur between the ages of two and five years. This condition is present in about 75 percent of the world population. However, small but significant quantities of milk consumed throughout the day can be tolerated among ethnic groups known to be lactose intolerant. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, milk products and a little fresh milk are available for the upper and middle classes. This availability seems to have increased due to dairy exports from Western countries and dairy food aid during the 1950s through the 1970s. In a country without a dairy tradition such as Indonesia, the importation of canned sweetened condensed milk can be traced back to around 1883. In the high lands of Java, the Dutch introduced dairy farming on a small scale in the nineteenth century. From the colonists, a modest use of milk spread gradually among the emerging Indonesian upper and middle classes.

In the United States and other countries with Anglo-Saxon traditions, horsemeat is not part of the food culture. This is in contrast to continental Europe, in particular France, where horsemeat is a well-known and appreciated food. The history of horsemeat gives insight into how attitudes toward food avoidance change over the course of time. In Europe it started with a decree by Pope Gregory III (d. 714) that the Christian communities of Germany and the Low Countries refrain from eating horsemeat because the horse played an important role in pagan rituals. The purpose of the decree was that the Christian community should distinguish itself from the pagans by avoiding a typical pagan symbol, horsemeat. Gradually the consumption of horseflesh disappeared. The meat was considered to be unfit for consumption. In the nineteenth century the attitude toward horsemeat changed dramatically. Food emergencies connected with war and promotion of horsemeat as a food were the driving forces for change. During the Napoleonic Wars, hungry soldiers were forced to eat their horses. To their surprise, the meat was fit to eat and even had a reasonably good taste. French pharmacists promoted the idea that horsemeat was suitable for consumption, and from a scientific point of view no threat at all to health. Discarded workhorses became a source of good and cheap meat for the growing working classes in urban France. The concept of horsemeat as food spread to other European countries, but not to the United Kingdom, where the horse remained a noble animal, and the idea of eating horsemeat was viewed with disgust.

In periods of emergency, dietary rules including food avoidances can be temporarily ended. The West African Fulani pastoralists avoid the consumption of fish. During the dry season the herdsmen have to move with their cattle from the northern savannahs to the land along the Niger River in the south. Because of the seasonal food shortage, herdsmen are more or less forced to turn to eating fish. In rural areas with a dry and a rainy season, people will collect in the period of seasonal food shortage the so-called hungry foods. Hungry foods are mainly wild foods, often not very attractive and tasty and as such normally avoided. They are consumed only in an emergency.

See also Africa ; Anthropology and Food ; Christianity ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts ; Hippocrates ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Judaism ; Lent ; Middle Ages, European ; Ramadan ; Religion and Food ; Shrove Tuesday .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brothwell, Don, and Patricia Brothwell. Food in Antiquity. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.

De Garine, Igor. "The Socio-cultural Aspects of Nutrition." Ecology of Nutrition 1 (1972): 143163.

Den Hartog, Adel P. "Acceptance of Milk Products in Southeast Asia. The Case of Indonesia as a Traditional Nondairying Region." In Asian Food. The Global and the Local, edited by Katarzyna Cwiertka and Boudewijn Walraven. Richmond, Va.: Curzon Press, 2002.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboos. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1966.

Gade, Daniel W. "Horsemeat as Human Food in France." Ecology of Food and Nutrition 5 (1976): 111.

Grivetti, Louis E., and R. M. Pangborn. "Origin of Selected Old Testament Dietary Prohibitions." Journal of the American Dietatic Association 65 (1974): 634638.

Harris, Marvin. Good to Eat. Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Kilara, A., and K. K. Iya. "Food and Dietary Habits of the Hindu." Food Technology 46 (1992): 94104.

Sakr, A. H. "Fasting in Islam." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 67 (1971): 1721.

Shack, William A. "Anthropology and the Diet of Man." In Diet of Man, Needs and Wants, edited by John Yudkin. London: Applied Sciences Publishers, 1978.

Simoons, Frederick J. Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to Present. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Adel P. den Hartog

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Taboos." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Taboos." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboos

"Taboos." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboos

taboos

taboos The word ‘taboo’ passed into English from its Polynesian origin with remarkable rapidity. It was barely seven years from Captain Cook recording it in his journal of the South Seas to its being included in the New English Dictionary of 1791, with the simple meaning of ‘forbidden’. The Polynesian concept is more complex. It is said to be derived from the two roots, ta, to mark and pu, an adverb of intensity — something marked thoroughly, as opposed to noa, things not so singled out. In these stratified societies, the persons of chiefs and priests were marked out by their being taboo. They were thus to be avoided by those of lower rank, and must subject themselves to numerous personal restrictions. A measure of their rank and power was also given in their ability to impose taboos on other persons, places, and objects, restricting access to them and making them also into a source of dangerous power. Yet, such ‘marked out’ things applied not only to the elevated and auspicious but also to the unpropitious and unclean, such as corpses and the new-born.

At one level, taboos shade into other rules of law, custom, or morality; they indicate membership of a given community, just as they support the dominant social system. In Polynesia, infractions of taboo were subject to punishment by the chiefly and priestly hierarchies. But one aspect often considered characteristic of taboo rules is that punishment is automatic, triggered by the infraction itself without further intervention by earthly authorities. Often this takes the form of a disease. Nineteenth-century scholars were perplexed by the combination of ideas involved. Interested in the odd ‘dos’, they were equally fascinated by the odder ‘do nots’ of what they took to be primitive religion. Why, for example, should the person of the mother-in-law in many African societies be so utterly revered by a man that he must scrupulously avoid all contact, even sight, of her? And why should even inadvertent breaking of such distance plunge both parties into a state of pollution, contaminating to other persons and bringing in train the threat of direct mystical retribution unless and until the pollution be cleansed? The apparent lack of ethical content, the contagious nature of the fear, the apparent confusion of holy with unclean, could all be seen as the mark of primitive.

It was not until the 1960s, with Mary Douglas's justly famed book, Purity and danger, that a new and decisive mode of interpretation was brought to bear on the subject. Adamant that primitive and modern are subject to similar forms of understanding, she begins with our own attitudes to dirt and hygiene, arguing that pollution beliefs are a by-product of the way people strive to create order in their lives. Dirt, she argues, taking a clue from Lord Chesterfield, is matter out-of-place. Thus, the concept is always relative to a system of classification; shoes are not dirty in themselves, but only when placed on the dining room table. It follows from this that ideas of dirt or pollution cling to things or behaviour which transgress the dominant schemas of society. From this perspective, dirt appears as a residual category, clinging to the margins and boundaries of things. However, she goes further, in arguing that, far from being solely unfortunate by-products of a system of classification, ideas about pollution are absolutely essential to it. Any system of classification is arbitrary and thus frail, subject to the contradictions of experience. Thus the categories we erect are all-important, because it is only by exaggerating the differences — above/below, inside/outside, male/female, marriageable/unmarriageable — that any semblance of order is created at all. It is here that taboos play their part, for the ambiguity which is perceived at the boundaries of categories can by its very nature be used as a means for demarcating and giving them added force.

With ideas as to the conceptual function of hygienic precepts, she turns to an examination of the abominations of Leviticus, pouring scorn on those who have seen Moses as an enlightened public health administrator, protecting the ancient Israelis against the dangers of eating pork or shellfish. A more literal reading relates us directly to the pattern of the cosmos, with its insistence on the separation of categories. Thus, she argues that pork is forbidden for exactly the reasons given in the dietary laws, which recognize as meat only those animals, like the sheep and cattle of their herds, which chew the cud and are cloven-footed. The pig, which is hoofed but does not chew the cud, is anomalous in this classification and is thus regarded as inedible. So also are other animals such as the camel, hare, and rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof. In all such cases, materialist interpretations give way to conceptual ones, to the variable way in which the cosmos is structured.

With this approach, some unity is given to the subject of taboos. The frequency of taboo attitudes surrounding food and things ingested becomes immediately interpretable; as do those concerning bodily waste products such as faeces, urine, sexual emissions, spittle, sweat, hair, and nail clippings. All can be seen to threaten the inviolability of the body's boundaries, the divide between self and not-self.

Again, life passages, such as birth, death, and initiations, which involve the negotiation of social and physical boundaries, are prime sites for such danger beliefs. To take another example, separation is a key idea in Rom Gypsy cosmology, where male and female, upper and lower body, inside and outside, things ingested (through the upper body) and things excreted (from the lower body) must be held rigidly apart. Thus, in Rom communities, the household washing is strictly divided into male and female items, and these in turn divided into those belonging to the top half of the body and those belonging to the bottom. Ideally, these should all be washed in different bowls, and a further bowl is required for food preparation and for washing kitchen utensils. Any breakdown in these prescriptions risks serious pollution, bringing danger to those affected and outcast status to the perpetrator.

Yet the subject in a sense only begins here, for Douglas also wants to explain the culturally variable way in which societies recognize taboos. For Douglas, pollution ideas work at two levels in society: in the first place they carry a symbolic load, making taxonomic schemas that relate to animals and the natural world as well as those that relate to the body metaphors for society. If these operate as part of the tacit, taken-for-granted assumptions of a social world, the second aspect relates them to current and manifest social concerns. Concepts become tactics; metaphysical and practical issues run together as people call down the powers of the cosmos in debates about membership and accountability for misfortune. Insofar as pollution beliefs guard social definitions and distinctions, she suggests they are likely to be strongest in societies in which these are most valued and subject to threat. For example, among the Gypsy, the rules of purity reinforce not only divisions within Rom society itself but also its divide from the wider world of which it forms a part. The fear of wrong-mixing metaphorically reflects the problems experienced by the Rom in maintaining a moral divide between themselves and non-Gypsy outsiders, with whom they must engage on a daily basis for survival.

Yet cultural attitudes to the anomalous and unclassifiable are not always so rejecting. Not only do cultures vary in the strictness of their purity rules, but she suggests that there are limits to the search for purity. This is often apparent in religious contexts, when the normally unclean is transformed into a positive source of potency and power. Liminal phases of rites of passage, carnivals, and fetes are often pervaded by images of chaos and misrule. Through displays of sacrilege and sedition, incest, or cannibalism, the normally abhorred becomes a source for world renewal. Again, in the ascetic traditions of both Christianity and Hinduism, defiling contact with the unclean on the part of its saints and sadhus is seen as a mark of holiness, a sign of freedom from the constraints of this world. In such situations, the arbitrary structuring of the social world, in its cosmological as well as social forms, is recognized and confronted.

Suzette Heald

Bibliography

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger. Routledge, London.


See also body contact; initiation rites; rites of passage.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboos." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboos." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboos

"taboos." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboos

Taboo

TABOO

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 meaningssimultaneously 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 similaritytouch for the Unconsciousis 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 thoughtin 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 changea 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.

MichÈle Porte

See also: Abel, Carl; Animistic thought; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Childhood; Isolation (defense mechanism); Narcissism of minor differences; Obsessional neurosis; Rite and ritual; Smell, sense of; Structural theories; "Taboo of Virginity, The"; Totem/totemism; Totem and Taboo ; Transgression.

Bibliography

Frazer, James G. (1951). The golden bough; a study in comparative religion. London: Macmillan. (Original work published 1890-1915)

Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.

. (1910e). The antithetical meaning of primal words. SE, 11: 153-161.

. (1911d). The significance of sequences of vowels. SE, 12: 341.

. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1918a [1917]). The taboo of virginity. SE, 11: 191-208.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Taboo." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Taboo." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

"Taboo." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

Taboos

Taboos

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The term taboo is derived from a Micronesian word that means reserved and originally alluded to objects or things that contained so much supernatural power that only trained religious specialists could handle them safely. The word taboo was first mentioned as a native term in Captain James Cooks (17281779) accounts of his voyages to the Pacific islands. It quickly entered English popular usage and has been used in comparative anthropology since then. This conception of taboo is illustrated in Old Testament accounts of laypersons who were afflicted with disease or even killed on the spot after touching the sacred Ark of the Covenant. More generally, however, the term is used to describe a wide range of vernacular beliefs that forbid certain actions for fear that they will lead to a catastrophe afflicting the surrounding community. The seeming disparity between the apparent triviality of the forbidden actions and the extent of the feared consequences distinguishes taboos from the more pragmatic magical beliefs describing contraindicated actions with certain consequences. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (18561939), in his influential collection of essays Totem and Taboo (1912 1913), also adapted taboo to refer to a form of compulsive behavior among modern-day persons.

The most common and best-studied taboos deal with sexual and dietary precautions and may well derive from pragmatic experience. One of the most widespread categories of taboos concerns limiting marriage to partners outside of ones family or clan. The myths explaining these taboos tend to portray the associated disaster in terms of a divine punishment, as in a Zuni myth that associates a catastrophic flood with inbreeding within clans, or the well-known Greek myth of Oedipus, whose unwitting marriage with his mother was the cause of a decimating plague. However, given the ubiquity of such taboos, it is clear that they were based on prescientific observations linking genuinely risky actions to cultural misfortunes that occurred later. It took no knowledge of genetics to recognize that inbreeding among family or clan members was associated with a higher rate of lethal birth defects and genetic illnesses.

Similarly, many dietary restrictions may be based on a recognition that close contact with certain food animals, especially pigs, was associated with a wide variety of diseases, some (like trichinosis) parasitic in nature, others (like influenza) communicated directly from live animals to susceptible humans. However, as Mary Douglas (1966) noted, such food taboos are often associated with images of the cultures own identity. Thus a meal such as the kid seethed in its mothers milk (the basis of the kosher division between dairy and meat products), may have been in origin a ritual meal of a rival culture. Hence both marriage and dietary taboos became, in practice, ways of maintaining the boundaries of a cultures membership.

Taboos are often enforced by institutional religions, frequently through dominating secular institutions. In Islamic cultures, religious taboos against the consumption of alcohol and indiscreet behavior by females are strongly enforced by secular authorities, even among non-Islamic visitors. Similarly, restrictions on certain forms of incestuous marriage are normally written into legal codes. But many cultures add to these codes prescriptions against other forms of marriage, such as interracial or same-sex unions, which involve no risk to the partners or their cultures but which are seen as irreligious and so dangerous to the safety of the commonwealth.

However, many taboos are privately enforced, especially among those practicing professions with high degrees of danger or risk, particularly sailors and miners. Violating such a taboo may lead to a spontaneous work stoppage by coworkers, who fear risking a serious accident. A number of these taboos reflect vernacular understanding of religious practices. The Jewish restriction on work during the Sabbath clearly underlies the common superstition tabooing the start of any major project (such as a ships voyage) on a Friday because the work involved would usually stretch past sundown and so into the forbidden time. The proscription on speaking the sacred names of God, particularly in private rituals of magic, is commonly extended to purely mundane uses of divine words in trivial oaths and exclamations. However, many other words, such as pig (often forbidden in mariners conversations) may show an extension of the dietary taboos into the realm of language. Other taboos, such as miners refusing to work on a day when their hands or feet were unusually cold on rising (the origin of the proverbial phrase got cold feet) may reflect popular psychology. The common taboo on allowing women to participate in such risky professions, or even to be present onboard ship or in a mine shaft, is probably linked to the common practice of soldiers and male athletes avoiding sex before action, originally a religious act of renunciation in return for divine favor and increased strength.

An especially widespread class of taboos reflects cultural attitudes toward death. Many such practices forbid the explicit mention of dying or overly free use of objects associated with funerals. Hence, in Japan the number four (pronounced shi, which also means death) is a common taboo, being omitted in hospital rooms and flight numbers. Similarly, in Italy, the number seventeen is often skipped because it could be expressed in Roman numerals as XVII, which is an anagram of the Latin past perfective verb VIXI, which literally means I have ceased to be alive, or, more bluntly, I died. Flowers associated with funerals, such as lilies (in North America) or chrysanthemums (in Asian countries), should not be given to the living for fear of putting them at risk. Common legends assert that wearing an article of clothing worn by a corpse may lead to ones own death, and buildings or even automobiles in which death occurred may become too contaminated for the living to use. Behind all of these taboos is the belief, especially strong in Western cultures, that the living need to be insulated from the concept of mortality.

Overall, taboos are best understood as parallel to magic: magical actions are ways of managing ones perception of risk or danger by doing something, whereas observing taboos minimizes risk by not doing something. Of course, refraining from a tabooed action often involves choosing actions with religious and magical overtones (such as the preparation of kosher meals).

SEE ALSO Cultural Relativism; Disease; Freud, Sigmund; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Kinship; Magic; Norms; Religion; Rituals; Sanitation; Sin; Totemism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Diamond, Jared M. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger.

Freud, Sigmund. [19121913] 1950. Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton.

Iwasaka, Michiko, and Barre Toelken. 1994. Ghosts and the Japanese: Cultural Experience in Japanese Death Legends. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Mullen, Patrick. 1978. I Heard the Old Fishermen Say: Folklore of the Texas Gulf Coast. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Poggie, John J., Jr., Richard B. Pollnac, and Carl Gersuny. 1976. Risk as a Basis for Taboos among Fishermen in Southern New England. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 15 (3): 257262.

Bill Ellis

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Taboos." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Taboos." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/taboos

"Taboos." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/taboos

Taboo (or Tabu or Tapu)

Taboo (or Tabu or Tapu)

A Polynesian word meaning "prohibited" and signifying a prohibition enforced by religious or magical power, which has come to be applied to similar usages among primitive peoples all over the world. It also has parallels in the religious codes of sophisticated societies, as in the early Hebrew term Kherem ("set apart" or prohibited), and in the highly developed social etiquette of modern society.

Taboo, or prohibition, was enforced in the cases of sacred things and unclean things. In the first instance, the taboo was placed on the object because of the possession by it of inherent mysterious power. But taboo might be imposed by a chief or priest. It would be used for the protection of important individuals, the safeguarding of the weak, women, children, and slaves from the magical influence of more highly-placed individuals, against danger incurred by handling or coming in contact with corpses, or eating certain foods, and the securing of human beings against the power of supernatural agencies, or the depredations of thieves.

Taboo could be sanctioned by social use or instinct. The violation of a taboo made the offender taboo; taboos, like various kinds of social uncleanliness, were transmissible, but the taboo could be thrown off by magical or purificatory ceremonies. It might last for a short period, or be imposed for eternity.

It may be said that the practice of taboo was instituted through human instinct for human convenience. This applies of course merely to the most simple type of taboo. It was, for example, forbidden to reap or steal the patch of corn dedicated to an agricultural deity, for the simple reason that his wrath would be incurred by so doing. Similarly it was taboo to devour the flesh of the totem animal of the tribe, except in special circumstances with the object of achieving communion with him. It was taboo to interfere in any manner with the affairs of the shamans or medicine men, also a type of the imposed taboo for the convenience of a certain caste. It was prohibited to marry a woman of the same totem as oneself, because all the members of a totemic band are supposed to be consanguineous; such a union might incur the wrath of the patron deity. A very strict taboo was put upon the witnessing of certain ritual instruments belonging to some primitive tribes, but this only applied to women and uninitiated men. It was considered a degradation for women to behold sacred implements.

If taboo does not spring directly from the system known as totemism, it was strongly influenced by itthat is, many intricate taboos arose from the totemic system. There was also the taboo of the sorcerer; it in effect was merely a spell placed upon a certain object, which makes it become useless to others. Taboo, or its remains, can still be found even in modernized communities. From its use the feeling of reverence for ancient institutions and those who represent them is undoubtedly derived.

Sources:

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough. Vol. 3 of Taboo and the Perils of the Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Ganzfried, Rabbi Solomon. Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Schulchan Aruch). New York: Hebrew Publishing, 1927.

Mead, Margaret. Inquiry Into the Question of Cultural Stability in Polynesia. New York: Columbia University, 1928. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1981.

Webster, Hutton. Taboo: A Sociological Study. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1942. Reprint, London: Octagon, 1981.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Taboo (or Tabu or Tapu)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Taboo (or Tabu or Tapu)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo-or-tabu-or-tapu

"Taboo (or Tabu or Tapu)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo-or-tabu-or-tapu

TABOO

TABOO. In language terms, something taboo is not to be mentioned, because it is ineffably holy or unspeakably vulgar. English Puritanism caused such words as God to be banned on the stage during the early 17c and references to Hell have also often been reproved. Sex and excrement are, or have been, taboo topics in English and other languages, and many of the words relating to these topics have been stigmatized as bad language, foul language, or four-letter words. They have been in effect banned in polite conversation, in writing, and especially in print; though occasionally recorded in earlier dictionaries, they were not entered in such works c.1760–1960. When taboo subjects must be broached, the techniques for doing so include:

Truncation

Taboo words can be amended both in writing (by a dash as in G–d and asterisks as in f**k) and in speech (by using the letter p, usually spelt pee, for piss).

Adaptation

Because of a combination of the sense of taboo and the need for expletives, taboo words when used as exclamations have been adapted and softened so as to be less direct, sacrilegious, and offensive: (by) God! becomes (by) Gosh! Jesus! is shortened to Gee! Christ! becomes Crikey!, Jesus Christ! becomes Jeepers Creepers! Damn (it)! becomes Darn (it)!, Damnation! becomes Tarnation!, Hell! becomes Heck!, and Fucking hell! becomes Flipping heck! See MINCED OATH.

Substitution

Taboo expressions can be replaced with other words through EUPHEMISM, as with make love for ‘have sex’, and through the use of elevated technical terms, such as coitus/coition and sexual intercourse. In dealing with smuttier topics, users of English often find that there is no neutral phraseology available. Furthermore, the substitute for a taboo word can itself become socially awkward if its referent remains taboo: intercourse is avoided by some people in any of its other uses because of its sexual use. See ELLIPSIS, SWEARING.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"TABOO." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"TABOO." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo

"TABOO." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo

taboo

taboo or tabu (both: tăbōō´, tə–), prohibition of an act or the use of an object or word under pain of punishment. Originally a Polynesian word, taboo can apply to the sacred or consecrated or to the dangerous, unclean, and forbidden. A taboo can be placed on an object, person, place, or word that is believed to have inherent power above the ordinary. This power, called mana, can only be approached by special priests. To give distinction to special moments in the life cycle, taboos are often declared at births, deaths, initiations, and marriages. Taboos are commonly placed on a clan's ancestral guardian, called the totem. The breaking of a taboo usually requires extermination of the offender or some sort of ceremonial purification in order to remove the taint from the community. Often the mana of a taboo is so great that the offender will suffer punishment, even death, merely through fear of its powers.

See J. G. Frazer, Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (3d ed. 1955); S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1960, orig. 1918); M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (1970).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo

"taboo." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo

taboo

taboo The term taboo derives from the Tongan ‘tabu’, meaning ‘sacred’ or ‘inviolable’. However, its contemporary use is broader, most generally meaning a social and often sacred prohibition put upon certain things, people, or acts, which render them untouchable or unmentionable. The most famous taboo is the near-universal incest taboo, prohibiting sexual or marriage relations between particular categories of kin. According to both Sigmund Freud (Totem and Taboo, 1938) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (The Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1969), society itself originated with the incest taboo. Other authors have stressed the function performed by taboos in society. Raymond Firth (in Symbols Public and Private, 1973) interpreted taboo as a mechanism of social control. In Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas drew attention to the way in which the taboo serves as a social marker, creating and maintaining social classifications.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboo." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboo." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

"taboo." A Dictionary of Sociology. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

taboo

ta·boo / təˈboō; ta-/ (also ta·bu) • n. (pl. -boos also -bus / təˈboōz/ ) a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing. • adj. prohibited or restricted by social custom: sex was a taboo subject. ∎  designated as sacred and prohibited: the burial ground was seen as a taboo place. • v. (-boos, -booed / -ˈboōd/ or -bus, -bued) [tr.] place under such prohibition: traditional societies taboo female handling of food during this period.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboo." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboo." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo-1

"taboo." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo-1

Taboo

Taboo or tabu (Polynesian, tapu, ‘marked off’). A power in relation to particular people, places, or objects which, if it is negative, marks them off as dangerous; it is thus related to mana (see MAGIC). More colloquially, the word has come to mean a prohibition against conduct which would invade the marked-off areas and thus disrupt the prevailing and desirable structures of life and society; hence the expression, ‘taboos against …’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Taboo." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Taboo." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

"Taboo." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

taboo

taboo a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing. The word comes (in the late 18th century) from Tongan tabu ‘set apart, forbidden’, and was introduced into English by Captain Cook in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (1784).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboo." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboo." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

"taboo." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo

taboo

taboo (tabu) Prohibition of a form of behaviour, object, or word. A thing may be regarded as taboo if it is unclean or if it is sacred. Breaking a taboo is believed to bring supernatural retribution and often brings social ostracism or other punishment. The term originates in Tonga.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboo." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboo." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo

"taboo." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taboo

taboo

taboo, tabu consecrated or restricted to a special use; prohibited, inviolable. XVIII. Tongan tabu.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboo." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboo." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo-2

"taboo." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo-2

taboo

tabooaccrue, adieu, ado, anew, Anjou, aperçu, askew, ballyhoo, bamboo, bedew, bestrew, billet-doux, blew, blue, boo, boohoo, brew, buckaroo, canoe, chew, clew, clou, clue, cock-a-doodle-doo, cockatoo, construe, coo, Corfu, coup, crew, Crewe, cru, cue, déjà vu, derring-do, dew, didgeridoo, do, drew, due, endue, ensue, eschew, feu, few, flew, flu, flue, foreknew, glue, gnu, goo, grew, halloo, hereto, hew, Hindu, hitherto, how-do-you-do, hue, Hugh, hullabaloo, imbrue, imbue, jackaroo, Jew, kangaroo, Karroo, Kathmandu, kazoo, Kiangsu, knew, Kru, K2, kung fu, Lahu, Lanzhou, Lao-tzu, lasso, lieu, loo, Lou, Manchu, mangetout, mew, misconstrue, miscue, moo, moue, mu, nardoo, new, non-U, nu, ooh, outdo, outflew, outgrew, peekaboo, Peru, pew, plew, Poitou, pooh, pooh-pooh, potoroo, pursue, queue, revue, roo, roux, rue, screw, Selous, set-to, shampoo, shih-tzu, shoe, shoo, shrew, Sioux, skean dhu, skew, skidoo, slew, smew, snafu, sou, spew, sprue, stew, strew, subdue, sue, switcheroo, taboo, tattoo, thereto, thew, threw, thro, through, thru, tickety-boo, Timbuktu, tiramisu, to, to-do, too, toodle-oo, true, true-blue, tu-whit tu-whoo, two, vendue, view, vindaloo, virtu, wahoo, wallaroo, Waterloo, well-to-do, whereto, whew, who, withdrew, woo, Wu, yew, you, zoo

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"taboo." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"taboo." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo-0

"taboo." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/taboo-0