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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).
- 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.
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