Taboo is a concept that originated in a very specific cultural meaning and became generalized in popular English. Popularly it means forbidden and to be avoided—by custom, or because of some danger, or under some general supernatural sanction, or by explicit divine order. But in anthropology, it has much more specific meaning. Based in the universal idea that all things have an inherent mystical power of some sort, taboo means the avoidance of a specific behavior for fear of harm by a dangerous power, or of dangerous pollution caused by the intermixing of incompatible powers. Taboo circumscribes some kind of supernatural threat that is usually simply termed “danger.” Some tabooed acts might have horrendous society-wide consequences; examples are incest, culturally defined but universally forbidden, or severe forms of sacrilege. But most taboos are sanctioned by some specific consequence, most commonly infection by some powerful mystical force, which can cause psychological or physical sickness, or some reversal of personal fortune, to the offender or to those close to him. Such infection may be termed pollution, or contamination, or defilement; it renders the offender impure or unclean, and such impurity or uncleanness is contagious, so the offender should be somehow isolated until the contagion has dissipated or a cleansing ritual of some sort has been performed. Examples of widespread taboos include entry by members of one sex into areas or activities restricted to the other; entry into certain adult activities by children, or into sacred areas or activities by uninitiated or otherwise profane persons; entry of objects associated with wildness or violence and death, such as weather gear, weapons, or butchering instruments, into areas demarcated for peace, socialization, healing, or sacred activities, such as the home, hospital, or temple; performance of acts involving tying or cutting or closing, or symbolic representations of any of these, by pregnant women; committing incest; physical contact with people with various sorts of bodily lesions, or with menstruating women, or with corpses; exposure of the adult genitals; and various magical activities. In such senses, taboos are culturally universal, and the concept has important implications not only for ritual behavior but for social and political organization.
The term was first introduced into European and American awareness by Captain James Cook after his Polynesian voyages and investigations of 1768-1779. It was recognized as having universal parallels by James George Frazer in the ninth edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1875-1889. In Polynesian languages the term meant forbidden, as in a simple injunction, but it also meant sacred, and it involved a ritual prohibition enforced by a specific kind of supernatural sanction. In Polynesia and Melanesia it was defined in terms of mana, a communicable power innate in all things. Mana occurs in varying types and degrees of intensity, and in certain concentrations its different forms should be kept apart, lest some misfortune occur from their intermixing. Most mana is positive, like that of chiefs or benevolent spirits, but it can be overpowering to ordinary unprotected people, resulting in sickness or even death. It is similar to the concept of the sacred, which should be approached and handled only by sacralized priests; contact by ordinary people can pollute the sacred and endanger the offender. But mana can also be negative, even evil, like that in demonic spirits or corpses, or the malicious magic of sorcerers, and it is contagious, from initial to secondary contact, and a contagious person is isolated until the appropriate cleansing rite has been performed. Early ethnologists of Polynesian belief and custom gave three prominent examples of taboo acts by ordinary people: touching chiefs, corpses, or newborn babies, but it should not be assumed that the resultant afflictions are identical. The English word “taboo” derives from the Melanesian and Polynesian variants tapu, tabu, or kapu, meaning having a dangerous quantity or type of mana, but like mana, the nature of taboo varies considerably throughout Melanesia and Polynesia.
Explanation of taboo has proved challenging throughout the history of anthropology. Explanations based in rationalizations of sensible prohibitions-avoidance of sexual relations among close kin or of eating dead flesh—quickly proved unsatisfactory. Early scholars saw in taboo a supreme example of the “irrational” in primitive culture. Captain Cook asked the men why, since they enjoy the company of women, it was tabu to eat with them; their answer was simply that it was their custom, and the custom was right. Indeed, the complex and widespread system of taboos in Hawai’i was seen as so cumbersome in the context of modernization that it was publicly violated and abrogated by King Kamehameha II in 1819. Less than a year after its abolition, most of the system was recorded by the missionary William Ellis in his four-volume Polynesian Researches. Taboo was quite early recognized as reinforcing patterns of respect and authority in Polynesia, and subsequently it has been seen to have important social, political, and cosmological functions.
It is a magical concept; the magical act involves establishing an active mystical connection over a distance. Magic most often involves the principles of similarity and contact; things which appear or behave similarly, or which have been in contact with each other, have a causal connection. Frazer in his The Golden Bough identified taboo as “negative magic”; it means avoiding the establishment of a magical connection by avoiding imitation of or contact with something. Sigmund Freud famously placed the origin of the taboo concept in the Oedipus complex, in Totem and Taboo (1913).
Emile Durkheim saw taboos as among a larger class of “interdictions” necessary to maintaining separation between the sacred and the profane. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, in his famous Frazer Lecture on Taboo (1939), asserted that, as first observed by Frazer, taboos provide supernatural enforcement for the rules of society, and that these social results of taboos “constitute their essential function and the ultimate reason for their existence.” Lucien Lévy-Bruhl offered similar interpretations in his various efforts in the 1930s to show how patterns of social organization develop out of patterns of thinking.
The concept of supernatural danger seems to have been recognized first by Frazer, and subsequent scholars have recognized its social implications. Mary Douglas incorporated it into the title of her great work, Purity and Danger (1966). Therein she surveyed many fields, examined instances of ritual avoidance in the Hebrew scriptures, especially Leviticus, and following the functionalist explanatory tradition in anthropology, she showed that taboos underpin social structure everywhere. Douglas further interprets taboo as functioning in a critical system of social and cosmological classification, serving to keep things of different orders and classes separate from one another. The apparently universal village-bush or culture-nature dichotomies recognized by Claude Lévi-Strauss are strengthened and maintained by taboo, for example, Lele taboos against bringing fishing equipment into the village. Nature is wild and chaotic, culture is calm and orderly, and the classic principles of sympathetic magic explain how things that have been in contact with things or states retain the qualities of those states when separated from them. Many well-known “superstitions” can be similarly explained, for example, early warriors were forbidden to bring armor into the home; world religions forbid bringing weapons into places of worship; and western European heritage has superstitions about placing hats on beds or opening umbrellas inside the home.
- Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger. An analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1939). Taboo. Cambridge: University Press.
- Steiner, F. (1956). Taboo. London: Cohen & West.