TABOO is a social prohibition or restriction sanctioned by suprasocietal (innate) means or a socially sanctioned injunction alleged to have the force of such a prohibition. Taboo stands at the intersection of human affairs and the forces of the larger universe. Generally it is determined by divine or animistic mandates; but it may involve "punishment" by inherent circumstances as well, for instance, the real, but exaggerated, danger of genetic damage to the offspring of incestuous unions implied in the incest taboo of American folk culture.
The word taboo (from the Tongan tabu, a variant of the more general Polynesian term tapu and the Hawaiian kapu ) reached the West through Captain James Cook's account of his third voyage. He was introduced to the term at Tongatapu, in the Tonga, or Friendly, Islands, and commented that the word had a very comprehensive meaning but generally signified a thing that is forbidden (Webster, 1942, p. 5). In fact, the general Polynesian usage implies that what is tapu is interdicted through its relation to the sacred, or its relation to cosmic forces. Tapu, then, relates the cosmic to human actions, and the realm of tapu amounts to a comprehensive system of religious mandate controlling individual and social life.
In Polynesian religion, tapu has the function of segregating persons, objects, or activities that are divine or sacred, or those that are corrupt or polluting, from the common, everyday realm. Thus chiefs, high-ranking persons, and their lineages were surrounded with tapu ; the heads of all persons, and especially of chiefly persons, were tapu ; but also the clothing and sleeping places of women in their menstrual periods were dangerous to men, who were tapu in relation to them (Best, 1905, p. 212). An "eating tapu " required men and women, and often all classes of persons of unequal status, to eat separately, or even to have their food prepared separately and with different utensils.
Consecrational tapu applied in circumstances of worship and labor performed for the gods and temples, and those involved entered a tapu state, which had to be neutralized later. Life-crises events (birth, marriage, illness, death) involving chiefly persons, wars, and fishing expeditions imposed community-wide restrictions on common activities, including the preparation and eating of food, movement, the lighting of fires, and noisemaking. Tapu could also be invoked through appealing to the gods to enforce a prohibition on some object, crop, or piece of land; in the Marquesas Islands a chief could taboo land in this way by calling it his "head." A temporary taboo laid on crops, trees, or fishing grounds was called a rahui (Handy, 1927, p. 46).
Tapu, as a state of sacred interdiction, stands in contrast to the neutral, or common, state, noa (whatever is free from tapu restriction). Fresh as well as salt water was used throughout Polynesia for the removal and neutralizing of tapu and of polluting influences harmful to one's tapu (Handy, 1927, pp. 51–55). Fire and heat were also used ritually against baneful influences, especially spirits. Many communities maintained a "sacred water" or spring specifically for the removal of tapu.
The cosmic principle or force behind the restrictions and prohibitions of tapu is conveyed in the general Polynesian conception of mana. Mana is invisible and abstract, knowable only through its efficacy and through its manifestation in things, yet it is universal. Like the Arabic barakah, mana combines sacredness with the sense of "luck" or "power" in the most encompassing terms. Chiefs, chiefly persons and their possessions and doings, and rites involving the gods are tapu because they are suffused with mana. The danger of polluting influences is that they may discharge the mana of persons or objects that are more highly endowed; common persons, on the other hand, run the risk of being struck or overcome by mana greater than theirs. Tapu may be seen as the "insulator" between unequal degrees of mana. Thus Handy suggests that electricity may serve as a useful analogy in illustrating the nature of the concept of mana (ibid., p. 28), though of course it is fundamentally a religious rather than a naturalistic concept.
Even modern curers and others who have recourse to its manipulation consider mana distinct in its operation from the world of ordinary life processes, exchanges, and human interaction. Curers who use mana may not accept compensation in money (MacKenzie, 1977). As a universal power, mana is evidenced in every kind of efficacy: a woodcarver manifests mana in his talents and in the tools and circumstances of his work, and canoe makers, gardeners, curers, sorcerers all have their mana, capable of being lost or dispersed unless the proper tapu are observed. Of these examples of mana the chiefly mana is the highest and most concentrated, and it poses a serious danger for the unprotected commoner.
As an abstract and generalized conception of power, mana is analogous to Lakota wakan, Iroquois orenda, and other concepts of power found among indigenous North American groups. The term is by no means universal among Austronesian-speaking peoples, though many have cognate notions. Among the major world religions mana has counterparts, perhaps, in the Islamic notion of barakah, the Hindu notion of sakti, and possibly in the Greco-Christian concept of charisma.
The notion of the "psychic unity of mankind," that is, that human cultures everywhere must pass through certain necessary stages of evolutionary growth, allowed speculative writers around the turn of the twentieth century to draw conspicuous examples of primitive religious concepts from particular ethnographic areas and universalize them. The Polynesian notions of tapu and mana lent themselves extraordinarily well to this search for the epitomizing evolutionary trait, for they were already quite abstract and, in Captain Cook's phrase, "very comprehensive" in their meanings. Early anthropologists deemed taboo noteworthy, for it marked the point where a religious idea (mana ) affected the norms and regulation of everyday life. Breach of a taboo meant divine or other suprasocietal sanctions; hence, taboos, or a system of taboos, outlined the spiritual mandate and boundaries for social existence.
In the evolutionary model for primitive religion that emerged in the decades immediately before and after 1900, taboo played the role of archetypal religious rule, or mandate; as mana did of generalized supernatural force, or power; and as totemism did of collective or individual identification with supernatural (or quasi-natural) entities. Thus emerged the alliterative formula "totem and taboo" as an encompassing rubric for primitive religion, to which Freud turned in seeking socially expressed equivalents for psychological states.
In the writings of Émile Durkheim, and among his followers in the schools of French and British social anthropology, taboo came to have the sense of a largely social restriction, or mandate, through the Durkheimian proposition that the religious and the supernatural were the means by which society took account of its own existence—worshiped itself. If, in other words, the suprasocietal forces of the world around us are nothing more than the reflection of society itself, then taboo, however it may be regarded by the members of a society, is ultimately social in its origin. Even in this understanding of it, however, taboo carries a somewhat stronger connotation than mere "law" or "rule," for taboos are special instances in which social constraints are referred directly to the religious manifestation of the social rather than to a secular authority.
The modern sense of taboo has acquired a certain ambiguity through the widespread acceptance of a socio-centric interpretation. Thus, depending on whether one accepts a formal, cultural, or a sociological understanding of the prohibition, the sanctions upon it will be, respectively, divine and innate, or human and social.
But the issue of the sanctioning force behind a taboo involves only a partial appreciation of the distinctiveness of this kind of prohibition. Taboo differs from abstract, codified law in the degree to which the prohibited object or act is specified and developed into a symbol, or even a fetish, of the prohibition itself. Taboo is not so much a system of regulations as it is a scheme of negative differentiation, in which the fact of prohibition and the prohibited act or object itself obscure the reasons for a prohibition. In this regard, the early theorists who saw "totem and taboo" as interlinked bases of "primitive thought" drew attention to a significant relation between them. For taboo designates items in order to prohibit them, whereas totemic representation is based on affinities between social units and phenomenal entities. Yet the practice of exogamy (marrying outside of one's totemic group), once felt to be an integral part of totemism, comprehends both of these at once, for it places a marriage taboo on those who share affinities with the same entity.
Thus taboos serve to control and channel human interaction and collective activity through a system of negative differentiation, marking out certain persons, objects, and occasions by specifying what may not be done to, with, or on them. Words used as names are sometimes tabooed when a person holding the name undergoes a change in status. In the Marquesas and Society islands, a common word included in the name of a king or heir apparent would be tabooed and also replaced in everyday language. When a king of Tahiti assumed the name Pomare, the word po ("night") was replaced in common speech by rui, and mare ("cough") was changed to kare (Webster, 1942, p. 301). Similar taboos are found among the Zulu and the Malagasy. Among the Tiwi of northern Australia, the name of a person who has died, together with the common-noun equivalent of that name, and all the names that the deceased had bestowed upon others, together with their equivalents, are tabooed for ordinary use and transferred to a sacred language (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, pp. 209–210).
Taboos on name use, and often on any sort of interaction, are frequently encountered in the norms for kin relationship. In Papua New Guinea these are so common that the Pidgin term for "relative by marriage" is simply tambu ("taboo"). The extreme case, widespread in Aboriginal Australia and New Guinea, is a taboo involving total avoidance between a man and his wife's (or future wife's) mother. A relationship is set up between them precisely by their not interacting, one that forces them to communicate solely through the bridal exchanges. Thus the tabooing or, in this case, the negative differentiation of relationship creates the basis for future relationships by creating a marriage. Further taboos of affinity control and direct the subsequent course of the relationship by restricting overfamiliarity among other kinspeople brought into contact by the marriage.
Taboos on specific kinds, classes, or styles of food and on food preparation are perhaps the most commonly encountered of all human prohibitions. Many peoples who have no general term for "taboo" have a word for "food taboo." Food restrictions, probably universal in human cultures, often conceal (or initiate) preferences or are themselves disguised as health precautions. Well-known examples include the Hebraic prohibition against using the same utensils for preparing meat and dairy products, the Hebraic and Islamic restrictions against eating the meat of animals that have been incorrectly slaughtered and against eating pork, and the Hindu ritual distinction between pakkā foods, prepared in clarified butter, and kaccā foods, boiled in water. Among the Kaluli of Mount Bosavi in Papua New Guinea, an elaborate system of food taboos operates to prevent relationships among cultural domains that must not be mixed. Married men and women must not eat fresh meat, and smoked meat is available only through exchanges with in-laws; thus, bonds will form through marriage links rather than with single hunters (Schieffelin, 1976, p. 71).
Mourning restrictions most often take the form of taboos, ranging from prohibitions on speaking of, or using the names of, the deceased, through those on the use of the house or property of the deceased, to severe injunctions of seclusion (for widows or widowers). In parts of the Pacific, there are restrictions against washing or self-adornment, and often the mourners must wear relics. In traditional China, specific degrees of mourning behavior were specified according to one's relationship to the deceased. Among the Yi people of Yunnan Province in China visitors are prohibited from entering a compound where there are newborn infants or piglets, where someone is gravely ill, or where someone has died. Immediately upon a person's death, among the Usen Barok of New Ireland, a taboo called the lebe goes into effect: no gardening can be done, no fires can be made, and no arguments will be tolerated until the conclusion of the final mourning feast, up to a week later. It is also forbidden to utter a cry of lament until the mourners hear the first squeals of the pigs being slaughtered for the first feast.
Taboos surrounding ritual or worship are often the severest of all, for they involve mediation with the very forces that are understood to mete out the sanctions. The major ritual of the Daribi of Papua New Guinea concerns the placating of an unmourned and angry ghost, who possesses the habu ritualists in the process. Any deviation from the prescribed format of the ritual results in the affliction of the offenders with the dread habu illness, a malign act of possession that is merely the intended therapeutic possession gone awry (Wagner, 1972, p. 156). Food taboos accompanying the Chihamba ritual among the Ndembu of Africa keep the participants from "eating Chihamba" or the characteristics associated with this spirit (Turner, 1975, pp. 71–72). The sense of ritual indiscretion as mediation gone wrong is conveyed by the Navajo belief that ghosts cause people to do the opposite of whatever has been decreed in taboos.
The emphasis of a taboo, however negatively it may be phrased, is always upon the thing, act, or word tabooed. We tend to contemplate the object of the taboo itself in a search for motives, or possibly origins, for the prohibition. Thus, for instance, pork is a potential carrier of trichinosis, mothers-in-law have many potential conflicts of interest with their sons-in-law, and interbreeding among close relatives may lead to the expression of deleterious recessive genes. The difficulty with this sort of literalistic thinking can be seen in these examples. Taboo is usually indirect; its real object is not so much what is forbidden as it is the cultural and social circumstances affected by the prohibition. The Kaluli do indeed say that the juices of fresh meat are unhealthy for women and that their husbands should avoid it out of compassion. But the taboo on the eating of fresh meat for married persons serves to force them into the painstaking and appropriate activity of preparing and exchanging smoked meat with relatives by marriage. It aligns with a number of other taboos to restrict interaction to culturally appropriate categories.
The Daribi, in another example, actually have no experience of disagreeable mothers-in-law, for a married person is never allowed to see the mother-in-law, much less speak with her. But the taboo forces each party to be especially aware of the other and to funnel their efforts into organizing the exchanges that must pass between the two sides. An effective relationship is formed through the principle of "not relating"! Finally, what we know as the "incest taboo" is actually the summation of a number of particular kin relationships, which are of differing extent and content in different cultures. What may be considered to be incestuous, or a relative, or a relationship, varies from one culture to another. But the fact of kin regulation through restriction, or kin taboo, if you will, is common to all cultures, for it is the essence of kinship. Hence, whether its prohibitions are imposed by men or gods, taboo incorporates the regulatory imperative of culture itself.
Best, Elsdon. "The Lore of the Whare-Kohanga." Journal of the Polynesian Society 15 (1906): 147–162. An early, but classic, discussion of mana and pollution in Maori lore.
Handy, E. S. Craighill. Polynesian Religion. Honolulu, 1927. A dated, but synoptic, summary, with comprehensive sections on mana and tapu.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. La pensée sauvage. Paris, 1962. Translated anonymously as The Savage Mind (London, 1966). A challenging and highly original treatment of the symbolism of differentiation and classification.
MacKenzie, Margaret. "Mana in Maori Medicine: Rarotonga, Oceania." In The Anthropology of Power, edited by Raymond D. Fogelson and Richard N. Adams, pp. 45–56. New York, 1977. An engaging and illuminating account of the use of mana in a modern, mechanized society.
Schieffelin, Edward L. The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers. New York, 1976. A well-written ethnographic exploration of an exotic worldview, including a comprehensive investigation of food taboos.
Turner, Victor. Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y., 1975. A mature consideration of ritual and ritual prohibition by a foremost modern authority on the subject.
Wagner, Roy. Habu: The Innovation of Meaning in Daribi Religion. Chicago, 1972. A discussion of the symbolism of taboo and ritual prohibition in a New Guinea society.
Webster, Hutton. Taboo: A Sociological Study. Stanford, Calif., 1942. A highly detailed documentation of taboos and related ethnographic usages in a somewhat dated scholarly style.
Roy Wagner (1987)
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 basis—unknown 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 (460–377 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:
- 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 .
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Adel P. den Hartog
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 Cook’s (1728–1779) 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 (1856–1939), 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 one’s 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 culture’s own identity. Thus a meal such as the “kid seethed in its mother’s 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 culture’s 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 ship’s 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 one’s 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 one’s 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
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. [1912–1913] 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): 257–262.
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.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger. Routledge, London.
See also body contact; initiation rites; rites of passage.
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 meanings—simultaneously 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 ), 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 similarity—touch for the Unconscious—is 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 thought—in 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 change—a 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.
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.
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 ). The taboo of virginity. SE, 11: 191-208.
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 it—that 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.
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.
TruncationTaboo 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).
AdaptationBecause 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.
SubstitutionTaboo 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.
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.