26219281911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 26 — TabooNorthcote Whitridge Thomas

Taboo (also written tapu and tabu), the Polynesian name given to prohibitions enforced by religious or magical sanctions. As a verb it means to “prohibit,” as an adjective “prohibited, sacred, dangerous, unclean.”

1. The word “taboo” or its dialectical forms are found throughout Polynesia; in Melanesia the term is tambu; in various parts of Malaysia and the East Indies pantang, bobosso, pamalli, &c.; in Madagascar fadi includes taboo; in North America the Dakota term wakart bears a similar meaning. Taboo is perhaps derived from ta, to mark, and pu, an adverb of intensity.

2. Fundamental Ideas.—In taboo proper are combined two notions which with the progress of civilization have become differentiated—(i) sacred and (ii.) impure, or unclean; it must be borne in mind that the impurity is sacred, and is not derived from contact with common things. It does not imply any moral quality; it has been defined as an indication of “a connexion with the gods, or a separation from ordinary purposes and exclusive appropriation to persons or things considered sacred; sometimes it means devoted by a vow.” This definition does not cover the whole connotation of taboo as it is employed at the present day, but it indicates clearly the non-moral character of the idea. The ordinary usage is perhaps best defined—the statement that taboo is “negative magic,” i.e. abstinence from certain acts, in order that undesired magical results may not follow; in this sense a taboo is simply a ritual prohibition. Properly speaking taboo includes only (a) the sacred (or unclean) character of persons or things, (b) the kind of prohibition which results from this character, and (c) the sanctity (or uncleanness) which results from a violation of the prohibition. The converse of taboo in Polynesia is noa and allied forms, which mean “general” or “common”; by a curious coincidence noa is the term used in Central Australia to express the relation of persons of opposite sexes on whose intercourse there is no restriction.

3. Classification.—Various classes of taboo in the wider sense may be distinguished: (i) natural or direct, the result of mana (mysterious power) inherent in a person or thing; (ii.) communicated or indirect, equally the result of mana, but (a) acquired or (b) imposed by a priest, chief or other person; (iii.) intermediate, where both factors are present, as in the appropriation of a wife to her husband. These three classes are those of taboo proper. The term taboo is also applied to ritual prohibitions of a different nature; but its use in these senses is better avoided. It might be argued that the term should be extended to embrace cases in which the sanction of the prohibition is the creation of a god or spirit, i.e. to religious interdictions as distinguished from magical, but there is neither automatic action nor contagion in such a case, and a better term for it is Religious interdiction.

4. Objects.—The objects of taboo are many: (i.) direct taboos aim at (a) the protection of important persons—chiefs, priests, &c.-and things against harm; (b) the safeguarding of the weak-women, children and common people generally—from the powerful mana (magical influence) of chiefs and priests; (c) the provision against the dangers incurred by handling or coming in contact with corpses, by eating certain foods, &c.; (d) the guarding the chief acts of life-birth, initiation, marriage and sexual functions, &c., against interference; (e) the securing of human beings against the wrath or power of gods and spirits; (f) the securing of unborn infants and young children, who stand in a specially sympathetic relation with one or both parents, from the consequences of certain actions, and more especially from the communication of qualities supposed to be derived from certain foods. (ii.) Taboos are imposed in order to secure against thieves the property of an individual, his fields, tools, &c.

5. Sanctions.—The sanctions of taboo may be (i.) natural or direct; (ii) social or indirect. Natural sanctions are (a) automatic. where the punishment of the offender results from the operation of natural laws without any element of volition, just as some kinds of magic are held to bring about their results without the intervention of a spirit; (b) animistic, where the penalty results from the wrath of a god, deceased human being, or other spirit. The motive of the social sanction is ultimately religious or magical, but the penalties incurred by the Violator of a taboo are social; they are inflicted by other members of the community, firstly, as a means of averting the supernatural sanctions, which, not having fallen on the actual offender, may visit his innocent fellows; and secondly, as a. means of discouraging other offenders; in these cases the criminal is not himself taboo, but, thanks to his mana, braves the supernatural consequences; the social penalty is also inflicted on those who, like mourners, are themselves taboo and refuse to take steps to seclude themselves, in defence of the community;in the first class the social penalty is at once repressive and prophylactic, saving the innocent by punishing the guilty, and thus averting by a piaculum the vengeance which would otherwise fall somewhere; in the second the penalty is purely repressive.

The violation of a taboo makes the offender himself taboo; other penalties are not unkown: thus a man who partakes of a forbidden animal will break out in sores or the animal will reproduce itself within him and devour his vitals. Sometimes it is thought that the penalty falls on the kinswomen of the offender and that they produce, instead of children, animals of the taboo species. In Melanesia burial-grounds are taboo, and if the shadow of a passer-by falls on one, this entails upon him the loss of his soul; sometimes misfortune is held to dog the footsteps of the offender in this life and the next. But in some of these cases the observer who reports them has probably confused taboos proper with negative magic. The social sanctions range from the death penalty down to the infliction of a fine or exaction of money compensation; the Polynesian custom of despoiling a man who breaks a taboo is perhaps a special case of this penalty, but the practice of ceremonial plundering cannot always be so explained, and may perhaps in this case too be capable of an entirely different explanation. Possibly the savage is more susceptible to suggestion than civilized man; at any rate, cases are not unknown in which the violation of a taboo has been followed by illness or even death, when the offender discovers his error. Not unnaturally rites of purification act as counter suggestions and save the offender from the effects of his erroneous beliefs.

6. Mana.—In the case of automatic taboos, and to some extent of other ritual prohibitions, the penalties for violation are unequal; they may be regarded as varying with the relation between the mana of the person or object and the mana of the offender against the prohibition. In the words of Dr R. H. Codrington, mana “is a power or influence, not physical and in a way supernatural; but it shows itself in physical force or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses. This mana is not fixed in anything, and can be conveyed in almost anything; but spirits, whether disembodied souls or supernatural (i.e. non-human) beings, have it and can impart it; and it essentially belongs to personal beings to originate it, though it may act through the medium of water, or a stone or a bone” (cf. the suhman of West Africa, in Fetishism). Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact, and may be liberated with destructive effect if the organisms which provoke its discharge are too weak to resist it; the result of a violation of a taboo depends partly on the strength of the magical influence inherent in the taboo object or person, partly on the strength of the opposing mana of the violator of the taboo. Thus, kings and chiefs are possessed of great power, and it is death for their subjects to address them directly; but a minister or other person of greater mana than common can approach them unharmed, and can in turn be approached by their inferiors without risk. The burial-place is often taboo for the common people, save when they are actually engaged in funeral rites; but the sorcerer, thanks to his indwelling power, can resist the deadly influences which would destroy the common folk, and may enter a cemetery for ritual or other purposes. So too indirect taboos depend for their strength on the mana of him who imposes them; if it is a chief or a priest, they are more powerful than those imposed by a common person. The mana of the priest, or chief, does not depend on his position; on the contrary, it is thanks to his mana that he has risen above the common herd.

7. Transmissibility.—It is characteristic of taboo proper that it is transmissible; as a logical corollary of this idea, acquired taboo may be thrown off by suitable magical or puriiicatory ceremonies; the mourner, or he who takes part in funeral ceremonies; was perhaps at the outset regarded as a person charged with death-dealing power, and fear of the spirit of the dead may well have been secondary; however this may be, we can distinguish taboos, the violation of which charges with supernatural power the human being who violates them, thus rendering him directly dangerous to the community, from ritual prohibitions the violation of which makes him an outcast, not as himself dangerous, but as a person obnoxious to the gods. The ritual prohibitions of pregnancy, and the restrictions imposed on the parents during the early childhood of their offspring, are not taboos proper; though they are transmissible, they do not depend on the transmission of an undifferentiated mana; what the parents seek to avoid is often the transmission of specific qualities, conceived as inherent in certain animals, e.g. cowardice in the hare, slowness in the tortoise; the animal is not necessarily in any sense sacred, nor are the parents, if they disregard the prohibition, liable to any penalty, direct or indirect; neither they nor the child are rendered taboo by any violation; finally, save that the child acquires its qualities by a sympathetic process, the abstinence of the parents is correlative to the converse operation of eating an animal or otherwise acquiring by a magical process the good qualities inherent in anything.

8. Duration of Taboos, Imposition, and Abrogation.—Taboo is properly sanctity and the kind of interdict which it entrains; by a transference of meaning it is sometimes used of a period of time during which ritual prohibitions of a religious nature are enforced; these periods were proclaimed in Polynesia on important occasions and sometimes lasted for many years; they may be termed interdicts. Many persons and things are permanently taboo; among them may be mentioned kings and chiefs, the property of dead persons and, a fortiori, their bodies or anything in contact with them. Other taboos are temporary. Temporary direct taboos, Whether natural or acquired, may be removed by a process of desacralization or of purification. Thus, new crops are frequently taboo till the chief has partaken of them; his mana enables him to run risks which would be fatal to ordinary people, and the crops thus desacralized become free to all; perhaps, however, we may regard the practice as a case of sacralization, in which the fchief, like a sacrificing priest, acquires special sanctity, and in so doing fortifies his people by a sympathetic process against supernatural dangers. A new-born child may also make the crops noa, just as it may remove the taboo from a temporarily affected person.

In the Tonga Islands a person who became taboo by touching a chief or his property had to put away his sacred character, before he was allowed to make use of his lands, by touching the soles of a higher chief’s feet and Washing in water. Strangers before penetrating into a village, priests after a sacrifice, warriors, women after child-birth, at puberty, the menstrual period, &c., must submit to lustration. Sometimes the purification was effected by inhaling the sacred contagion; in New Zealand a chief who touched his own head had to apply his fingers to his nose and snuff up the sanctity abstracted from his head. In other cases mere lapse of time suffices to cause the removal of a taboo; in Melanesia, where taboos are largely animistic, mourners go away for some months and on their return are free from taboo, the explanation given being that the spirit has got tired of waiting for them.

Indirect taboos are imposed in various ways, and unless they are removed may be as permanent as direct taboos, save that the death of the persons by whom they are imposed must result in their abrogation. In Polynesia a general taboo was imposed by proclamation; a chief might also taboo particular objects to his own use by naming them after a part of his person; more permanent was the taboo imposed by touching an object, but this too could be removed by proper ceremonies. In Melanesia, corresponding to the animistic character of tambu, a method of imposing taboo is to mention the name of some spirit.

Taboo objects were marked in various ways: a piece of white cloth, a bunch of leaves, a bundle of branches (in Melanesia) painted red and white, a stick with dry leaves, are among the methods in common use; in Samoa one mark of a taboo was to set up the image of a shark; in New Zealand it sufficed to give a chop with an axe to make a tree taboo. Particular taboos thus imposed seem to be abrogated by the declaration of the person who imposes them; on the other hand, he, no less than others, is bound by the taboo until it is abrogated.

9. Taboo and the Evolution of Punishment.—Penal codes may be largely, if not wholly, traced to religious sources of which taboo is certainly one; the violation of any taboo may imperil the life or health of other members of the community besides the offender; it calls for measures intended to discourage others, as well as for steps to avert the immediate evil; if a taboo imposed by a chief is disregarded, not only has his authority been set at nought, but he, and in the second place, other members of the community may suffer if the real offender gets off scot free, thanks to the mana which enables him to defy supernatural sanctions. The importance of this in the evolution of law and order is manifest; for whereas a chief would not intervene to protect the property of an individual simply to punish what we regard as a transgression, he is bound to do so when a taboo is broken. That the taboo may be of his own imposition does not affect the question, for he is bound to observe it himself, and conversely may suffer supernatural penalties when it is violated by another. lust as blood-guiltiness may be wiped out by composition, the violation of a taboo may be atoned for by a money payment or similar consideration for the revocation of the taboo; this compensation seems to have a retrospective effect, and thereby removes the dangers brought into existence by the violation.

10. Taboo and Moral Obligation.—In proportion as a taboo becomes a custom and its sanctions fall into the background and are forgotten, its obligations thus transformed are one source of the categorical imperative, the distinguishing feature of which is that it is non-rational and instinctive. We are ignorant of the origin of exogamy and the prohibition of incest, the sanctions of which in Australia and among other peoples of low culture seem to be purely' social, for as a rule irregular marriages seem to be regarded simply as offences against tribal morality; if the rules were originally of the nature of taboos, the transformation into customs must have been very early, and the same may be said of the rules by which the relations of members of the same kin are regulated.

11. Royal and Priestly Taboos.—Among people of low culture the chief, and in higher cultures the king, is sometimes held responsible for the order of nature, the increase of the crops, and the welfare of his people generally; it is therefore of the highest importance that nothing should diminish or perturb his influence, and, as a logical consequence, the life of the king, and to a less degree of the chief, is surrounded with a complicated system of taboos and ritual prohibitions. Even where this idea of the magician-king or chief is not found, his position is an expression of the more powerful mana dwelling within him; consequently the king or chief may not come in contact with the common folk, for fear his touch should blast them, as lightning withers the life of the oak. We can usually see why a king or chief must hold aloof from those whom he might injure, but it is not always easy to see the basic idea of the taboos, if such they be, which aim at protecting the potentate, or ensuring his due regulation of the course of nature. Some African kings may not see the sea; another may not lie down to sleep; in the Mentawei Islands the chief will die who during an interdict eats at the same time as common people; it is frequently forbidden to see the king partake of food. At a further stage of evolution these taboos degenerate into mere rules of etiquette, the violation of which involves the punishment of the offender, but the punishment is justified on formal grounds only. In early society the king and the priest often stand very near together; just as we find a war chief and a peace chief, so we meet with political and religious sovereigns. Sometimes the political king is also the priest and therefore sacred; the web of ritual prohibition woven round him may result in the creation of a secular authority like the Tycoon in Japan, who can rule the state without reference to the ceremonial observances prescribed for the nominal sovereign. Sometimes, on the other hand, the priest bears the title of king, but has lost even the shadow of political power and is free to perform his priestly functions. In these, however, as we see by the example of the flamen dialis at Rome, or the kings of fire and water in Cambodia, he is still hedged round by manifold restrictions as a person who must be protected from doing harm to others or suffering harm himself. In the exercise of his priestly functions he is called upon to offer sacrifice; before fulfilling his office he is often required to submit to additional ritual prohibitions; his personal sanctity, already great, is augmented, and his approach to the sanctuary facilitated. Conversely, the sacrifice over, he performs lustral rites, in part to free himself from the taint of errors of ritual, but also to desacralize himself.

12. Funerary and Allied Taboos.—Taboos of mourners, widows, and of the dead are common all the world over, but they are especially prominent in Melanesia. These are explained on an animistic hypothesis as due to the fear of the dead man’s spirit, but we seem to see traces, e.g. in Madagascar, of the idea that the contagion of death and not the wrath of the dead is the underlying motive; for it is not clear why the soul of a dead kinsman should necessarily be hostile. With funerary taboos may be compared taboos of warriors both on and after an expedition, taboos of hunters during the chase and especially after killing a dangerous animal, taboos of cannibals, and on participants in all other ceremonies which involve Contact with death or the dead. Temporary seclusion and lustration before return to ordinary life are commonly prescribed for all in this category, even though their connexion with the dead be no closer than is implied in consanguinity. The property of the dead man is commonly burnt or deposited with him in the grave, in part as a protective measure, in part under the influence of belief in the continuity of this and the future life, and the need of supplying him with necessaries. Burial grounds are avoided, animals or plants from the neighbourhood are not used as food. Finally the name of the dead is not used, partly for fear of summoning him by the power of the word, but partly also from a conviction that, like the name of a king or chief, it is too holy or too dangerous for common use.

13. Taboos of the Sick.—Both disease and death are unnatural in the eyes of the savage; they are often the result of the magic of some enemy; but they may also be the result of an infraction of a taboo. Some part of the funerary taboos may perhaps be referred to this belief; whatever be the case with taboos of the dead, there can be no question that the sick are secluded or even abandoned, subjected to rites of purification and to restrictions of various sorts, not because their malady is contagious in our sense, but because they are temporarily taboo and dangerous to the health of the community. The sick have imposed on them curative as well as prophylactic taboos; in Madagascar the sun is said to “die” when it sets; therefore it is forbidden to a sick man to look upon it as it goes down.

14. Taboos of Women, Sexual Taboos, Avoidance.—The age of puberty is especially dangerous for both sexes; in the case of a woman the danger is not so much for herself as for others, and results from her physiological state; this danger is renewed with each successive menstrual period, and the frequently long seclusion at puberty finds a parallel in the universal practice in lower stages of culture of separating adult females, not only from males, but from the whole of the community at such periods. At puberty girls are confined for months or even years; they may not see the sun nor touch the earth; many foods are forbidden them, and special costumes are prescribed for them, as for mourners. The expectant mother is taboo for months before the birth of her child, and her disabilities are not removed for a long period after delivery. Women may not look upon the performance of rites of initiation nor of secret societies; they may not eat new crops in New Caledonia till long after the men have partaken of them; they may often not approach the men’s club-house. Both parents, but especially the mother, are subjected to restrictions, having for their object the preservation of the health of the unborn or newly born child. Women are often forbidden to eat with their husbands; nor may they share his labours, especially at sea. The relations of the sexes are regulated by complicated rules, but they are not necessarily taboos. In the first place, laws of exogamy and similar regulations limit the field of choice; even where no obstacle on this side is present the intercourse of- the sexes is often, especially at first, hedged round with numberless interdictions and rites. Connected with the rules of exogamy are the customs of avoidance, which prescribe that a man may not speak to nor even look at his mother-in-law, sometimes also his father-in-law, daughter, and other relatives; in like manner the wife must avoid the husband’s relatives, and the brother may often not speak to the sister.

15. Other Taboos.—Taboos of various kinds are imposed on strangers, on sorcerers, and on children. Certain places are taboo; taboos protect the crops and ensure that landmarks are not removed. In fact the number of taboos is so great that it is impossible to mention them in detail.

16. Distribution.—Although taboo is a Polynesian word the institution is far from being restricted to Oceania. Similar prohibitions, though they seldom reached the Polynesian level, are found in America, Africa, and especially Madagascar, North and Central Asia, and among the non-Aryan tribes of India. But taboo and its survivals are not confined to the uncivilized.

17. Developments of Taboo.—It would be remarkable if a feature which has taken such deep root in the custom and belief of savage and barbarous peoples did not leave a marked impress on the faiths of higher cultures. Just as the gods have become moral pari passu with mankind, so the ceremonially clean has become the physically and morally clean, the pure has become the moral, and taboo has changed its name to holiness. At a certain point in evolution the notion of unclean, sometimes positive and implying the possession of dangerous properties, sometimes negative and connoting no more than mere absence of holiness, which is in this case indistinguishable from mana, becomes a prominent element in religion. At a later stage and as a result of the greater weight attached to morality, the positive uncleanness falls into the background, leaving only the negatively unclean, the unholy, which is not in itself death-dealing, but may, like its savage analogue, call down on the community, innocent and guilty alike, the wrath of higher powers, the remedy being, not so much the punishment of the offender, still less mere physical purification, but their moralized analogues, prayer, fasting and repentance.

18. Among the Greeks.—The general word for taboo among the Greeks in ἅγος, which may bear the sense of “sacredness” or “pollution”; derivatives occur in the same meanings. Usually, however, the notions of sacred and unclean are distinguished by the use of different terms from this root, ἁγνός for sacred, ἐναγής for unclean or accursed. The rules of the Greek ἁγνεία (season of taboo) do not differ markedly from those of the Polynesian. Corresponding to the war-taboo of Oceania we find in Homer that the army (Od. xxiv. 81) and the sentinel (Il. x. 56, xxiv. 681) are sacred; and we learn from Plato that Warriors never eat fish, from which indeed there was a general custom of abstinence except under the pressure of famine. The epithets ἱερός, δῖος, &c., which may point to beliefs similar to those of Polynesia, are applied to chiefs and kings, and further to the swineherd, thus suggesting that the pig, which bore a mixed reputation for holiness and uncleanness (ceremonial) both in Egypt and west Asia, was similarly regarded in Greece.

19. Among the Romans.—The term for taboo is sacer; any one who removed a landmark became sacer and was outlawed, any citizen having the right to kill him. Consecratio capitis et bonorum was the term for devotion to the nether gods. The flamen dialis and his wife were hedged in by a perfect network of ritual prohibitions; he might not ride upon nor even touch a horse; his eyes might not fall on an army under arms; he might not Walk under a vine; he might not name a goat, raw meat, beans, ivy, a dog, and so on; his hair might be cut only by a freeman; he might not touch a corpse. The fiaminica might not comb her hair at certain festivals; she was taboo (feriata) after hearing, thunder till she had purified herself by a sacrifice. The Roman feriae were periods of taboo.

20. Among the Jews.–The Hebrew for holy is קֹדֶשׁ which means “separated, cut off,” while its correlative הֹל means “open for common use”; another sense of sacer is conveyed by הדם “accursed, devoted to destruction.” Holiness is transmissible by contact (Ezek. xliv. 19, xlvi. 20; Ex. xxix. 37; Lev. vi. 27). It is distinct from purity in the moral sense; the names of the hieroduli קְדֵשִׁים and hierodula קְדֵשֹׁוֹת are connected with the word קדשׁ. Taboo among the Jews are: (1) things connected with Jehovah, his name is holy and terrible; his arm is holy; holy places are taboo (see Sanctuary); the ark is actively dangerous, and Uzzah, no less than the men of Bethshemesh, pays the penalty for too nearly approaching it; (2) the Nazarite might not partake of certain foods, nor touch a dead body nor shave his head, which was specially sacred; (3) in fact any one who touched a dead body was unclean and could communicate his uncleanness to others; (4) the birth of a child made the mother taboo; she was required to purify herself; (5) leprosy, menstruation, and sexual functions generally occasioned longer or shorter periods of uncleanness; and warriors, who were taboo on a campaign, were required to observe continence; (6) certain foods were taboo, and the uncleanness might be communicated to an earthen vessel, which, under certain circumstances, would be broken, like a pot in Polynesia; (7) the use of iron was forbidden in the construction of the temple; (8) a field sown with different kinds of herbs “becomes holy”; and (9) bystanders are warned not to approach a heathen rite, lest they be “sanctified”; (10) to the Polynesian interdicts, often termed taboos, corresponded certain periods of time, such as the Sabbath and the Jubilee year, but these are not connected with taboo proper.

Bibliography.—For the definition of taboo see E. Tregear, Maori Comparative Dictionary, s.v. On the Polynesian taboo see Waitz-Gerland, Anthropologie der Natur-Völker, vi. 343–363 and the authorities there quoted; Ellis, Polynesian Researches, iv. 385, sq. of the 2nd ed.; Turner, Nineteen Years in Polynesia, p. 294 sq.; do., Samoa, p. 185 sq.; Old New Zealand, by a Pakeha Maori, vii.–xii.; Cook, Voyages (1809), v. 427 sq., vii. 146 sq., &c, On Melanesia see Marillier in Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études Religieuses, vii. 35–74; Codrington, The Melanesians, passim. On Micronesia see Waitz-Gerland, op. cit. v., ii. 147 sq. On the Malaya see Skeat, Malay Magic, pp. 33–42, 57–59, 191–193, 225–228, 254, 259, 263–265, 344–351, &c. On Madagascar see v. Gennep, Tabou et totémisme; for the Jews see Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, ii. 38, 394; iv. 825. For the Semites see Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, passim. For a general discussion of taboo see Marillier, loc. cit., v. Gennep, do. For sexual taboos see Crawley, Mystic Rose, and in Journ. Anth. Inst. xxiv. 116, 219, 430. For taboos of commensality see Crawley in Folklore, vi. 130. See also Hubert and Mauss in Année Sociologique, ii. 29–138 on sacrifice; and vii. 108, on mana; Durkheim, ib. i. 38–70 on incest and exogamy; Mauss in Revue de l’histoire des religions, xxxv. 49–60 on taboo and penal law; J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough, i. 297–464 on royal and priestly taboos, also iii. 1–134, 201–236, 463–467; J. Tuchmann, articles on “La Fascination” in Mélusine, 1881, &c.; J. G. Frazer, on burial rites, in Journ. Anth. Inst., xv. 64 sq. For purity and holiness in the Old Testament see Baudissin, Studien, ii. 3–142; for mana see Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie, vii. 232.  (N. W. T.)