1902 Encyclopedia > Taboo, Tabu

Taboo, Tabu



TABOO (also written TABU and TAPU) is the name given to a system of religious prohibitions which attained its fullest development in Polynesia (from Hawaii to New Zealand; see vol. xix. P. 426), but of which under different names traces may be discovered in most parts of the world.

The word "taboo" is common to the different dialects of Polynesia, and is perhaps derived from ta, "to mark," and pu, an adverb of intensity. The compound word "taboo" (tapu) would thus originally mean "marked thoroughly." Its ordinary sense is "sacred." It does not, however, imply any moral quality, but only "a connection with the gods or a separation from ordinary purposes and exclusive appropriation to persons or things considered sacred; sometimes it means devoted as by a vow." Chiefs who trace their lineage to the gods are called arii tabu, "chiefs sacred," and a temple is called a wahi tabu, "place sacred." The converse of taboo is noa (in Tonga gnofooa), which means "general" or "common." Thus the rule which forbade women to eat with men, as well as, except on special occasions, to eat any fruits or animals offered in sacrifice to the gods, was called ai tabu, "eating sacred"; while the present relaxation of the rule is called ai noa, eating generally, or having food in common. Although it was employed for civil as well as religious purposes, the taboo was essentially a religious observance. In Hawaii it could be imposed only by priests; but elsewhere in Polynesia kings and chiefs, and even to a certain extent ordinary individuals, exercised the same power. The strictness with which the taboo was observed depended largely on the influence of the person who imposed it: if he was a great chief it would not be broken; but a powerful man often set at nought the taboo of an inferior.

A taboo might be general or particular, permanent or temporary. A general taboo applied, e.g., to a whole class of animals; a particular taboo was confined to one or more individuals of the class. Idols, temples, the persons and names of kings and of members of the royal family, the persons of chiefs and priests, and the property (canoes, houses, clothes, &c) of all these classes of persons were always taboo or sacred. By a somewhat arbitrary extension of this principle a chief could render taboo to (i.e., in favor of) himself anything which took his fancy by merely calling it by the name of a part of his person. Thus, if he said "That axe is my backbone," or "is my head," the axe was his; if he roared out "That canoe! My skull shall be the baler to bale it out," the canoe was his likewise. The names of chiefs and still more of kings were taboo, and could not be uttered. If the name of a king of Tahiti was a common word or even resembled a common word, that word dropped out of use and a new name was substituted for it. Thus in course of time most of the common words in the language underwent considerable modifications or were entirely changed.

Certain foods were permanently taboo to (i.e. in favor of or for the use of) gods and men, but were forbidden to women. Thus in Hawaii the flesh of hogs, fowls, turtle, and several kinds of fish, cocoa-nuts, and nearly everything offered in sacrifice were reserved for gods and men, and could not, except in special cases, be consumed by women. In the Marquesas Islands human flesh was tabooed from women. Sometimes certain fruits, animals, and fish were taboo for months together from both men and women. In the Marquesas houses were tabooed against water; nothing was washed in them; no drop of water might be spilled in them. If an island or a district was tabooed, no canoe o rperson might approach it while the taboo lasted; if a path was tabooed, no one might walk on it. Seasons generally kept taboo were the approach of a great religious ceremony, the time of preparation for war, and the sickness of chiefs. The time during which they lasted varied from years to months or days. In Hawaii there was a tradition of one that lasted thirty years, during which men might not trim their beards, &c. A common period was forty days. A taboo was either common or strict. During a common taboo the men were only required to abstain from their ordinary occupations and to attend morning and evening prayers. But during a strict taboo every fire and light on the island or in the district was extinguished; no canoe was launched; no person bathed; no one, except those who had to attend at the temple, was allowed to be seen out of doors; no dog might bark, no pig grunt, no cock crow. Hence at these seasons they tied up the mouths of dogs and pigs, and put fowls under a calabash or bandaged their eyes. The taboo was imposed either by proclamation or by fixing certain marks (a pole with a bunch of bamboo leaves, a white cloth, &c.) on the places or things tabooed.

The penalty for the violation of a taboo was either religious or civil. The religious penalty inflicted by he offended atuas or spirits generally took the form of a disease: the offender swelled up and died, the notion being that the atua or his emissary (often an infant spirit) ha entered into him and devoured his vitals. Cases are on record in which persons who had unwittingly broken a taboo actually died of terror on discovering their fatal error. Chiefs and priests, however, could in the case of involuntary transgressions perform certain mystical ceremonies which prevented this penalty from taking effect. The civil penalty for breaking a taboo varied in severity. In Hawaii there were police officers appointed by he king to see that the taboo was observed, and every breadth of it was punished with death, unless the offender had powerful friends in the persons of priests or chiefs. Elsewhere the punishment was milder; in Fiji (which, however, is Melanesian) death was rarely inflicted, but the delinquent was robbed and his gardens despoiled. In New Zealand this judicial robbery was reduced to a system. No sooner was it known that a man had broken a taboo than all his friends and acquaintances swarmed down on him and carried off whatever they could lay hands on. Under this system (known as muru) property circulated with great rapidity. If e.g., a child fell into the fire, the father was robbed of nearly all he possessed.

Besides the permanent and the artificially created taboos there were others which arose spontaneously as a result of circumstances. Thus all persons dangerously ill were taboo and were removed from their houses to sheds in the bush; if they remained in the house and died there the house was tabooed and deserted. Mothers after childbirth were taboo, and so were their new-born children. Women before marriage were noa, and could have as many lovers as they chose; but after marriage they were strictly tabooed to their husbands and from every one else. One of the strictest taboos was incurred by all persons who handled the body or bones of a dead person or assisted at his funeral. In Tonga a common person who touched a dead chief was tabooed for ten lunar months; a chief who touched a dead chief was tabooed for from three to five months according to the rank of the deceased. Burial grounds were taboo; and in New Zealand a canoe which had carried a corpse was never afterwards used, but was drawn on shore and painted red. Red was the taboo color in New Zealand; in Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa it was white. In the Marquesas a man who had slain an enemy was taboo for ten days; he might have no inter-course with his wife and might not meddle with fire; he had to get some one else to cook for him. A woman engaged in the preparation of cocoa-nut oil was taboo for five days or more, during which she might have no intercourse with men. A tabooed person might not eat his food with his hands, but was fed by another person; if he could get no one to feed him, he had to go down on his knees and pick up his food with his mouth, holding his hands behind him. A chief who was permanently taboo never ate in his own house but always in the open air, being fed by one of his wives, or taking his food with the help of a fern stalk so as not to touch his head with his hands; food left by him was kept for him in a sacred place; any other person eating of it was supposed to die immediately. A man of any standing could not carry provisions on his back; if he did so they became taboo and were useless to any one but himself. For the taboo was communicated as it were by infection to whatever a tabooed person or thing touched. This rule applied in its fullest force to the king and queen of Tahiti. The ground they trod on became sacred; if they entered a house, it became taboo to them and had to be abandoned to them by its owner. Hence special houses were set apart for them on their travels, and, except in their hereditary districts, they were always carried on men’s shoulders to prevent them touching the ground. Elsewhere, as in New Zealand, this rule was not carried out so strictly. But even in New Zealand the spots on which great chiefs rested during a journey became taboo and were surrounded with a fence of basketwork. The head and hair, especially of a chief, were particularly taboo or sacred; to touch a man’s head was a gross insult. If a chief touched his own head with his fingers he had immediately to apply them to his nose and snuff up the sanctity which they had abstracted from his head. The cutting of a chief’s hair was a solemn ceremony; the severed locks were collected and buried in a sacred place or hung up on a tree. If a drop of a chief’s blood fell upon anything, that thing became taboo to him, i.e., was his property. If he breathed on a fire, it became sacred and could not be used for cooking. In his house no fire could under any circumstances be used for cooking; no woman could enter his house before a certain service had been gone through. Whatever a new-born child touched became taboo to (ie., in favor of) the child. The law which separated tabooed persons and things from contact with food was especially strict. Hence a tabooed or sacred person ought not to leave his comb or blanket or anything which had touched his head or back (for the back was also particularly taboo) in a place where food had been cooked; and in drinking he was careful not to touch the vessel with his hands or lips (otherwise the vessel became taboo and could not be used by any one else), but to have the liquid shot down his throat from a distance by a second person.





There were various ceremonies by which a taboo could be removed. In Tonga a person who had become taboo by touching a chief or anything belonging to him could not feed himself till he had got rid of the taboo by touching the soles of a superior chief’s feet with his hands and then rinsing his hands in water, or (if water was scarce) rubbing them with the juice of the plantain or banana. But, if a man found that he had already (unknowingly) eaten with tabooed hands, he sat down before a chief, took up the foot of the latter, and pressed it against his stomach to counteract the effect of the food inside. In New Zealand a taboo could be taken off by a child or grandchild. The tabooed person touched the child and took drink of food from its hands; the man was then free, but the child was tabooed for the rest of the day. A Maori chief who became taboo by touching the sacred head of his child was disinfected, so to speak, as follows. On the following day (the ceremony could not be performed sooner) he rubbed his hands over with potato or fern root which had been cooked over a sacred fire; this food was then carried to the head of the family in the female line, who ate it, whereupon the hands became noa. The taboo was removed from a new-born child in a somewhat similar manner. The father took the child in his arms and touched its head, back, &c., with some fern root which had been roasted over a sacred fire; next morning a similar ceremony was performed on the child by its eldest relative in the female line; the child was then noa, i.e., free from taboo. Another mode of removing the taboo was to pass a consecrated piece of wood over the right shoulder, round the loins, and back again over the left shoulder, after which the stick was broken in two and either buried, or burned, or cast into the sea.

Besides the taboos already described there were others which any one could impose. In New Zealand, if a man wished to preserve his house, crop, garden, or anything else, he made it taboo; similarly he could appropriate a forest tree or a piece of drift timber, &c., by tying a mark to it or giving it a chop with his axe. In Samoa for a similar purpose a man would set up a representation of, e.g., a sea pike or a shark, believing that any one who meddled with property thus protected would be killed by a sea pike or shark the next time he bathed. Somewhat similar to this was what may be called the village taboo. In the autumn the kumera (sweet potato) fields belonging to the village were taboo till the crop was gathered, so that no stranger could approach them; and all persons engaged in getting in the crop were taboo, and could therefore for the time engage in no other occupation. Similar taboos were laid on woods during the hunting season and on rivers during the fishing season .

On looking over the various taboos mentioned above we are tempted to divide them into two general classes, -- taboos of privilege and taboos of disability. Thus the taboo of chiefs, priest, and temples might be described as a privilege, while the taboo imposed on the sick and on persons who had come in contact with the dead might be regarded as a disability; and we might say accordingly that the former rendered persons and things sacred or holy, while the latter rendered them unclean or accursed. But that no such distinction ought to be drawn is clear from the fact that he rules to be observed in the one case and in the other were identical. On the other hand, it is true, that the opposition of sacred and accursed, clean and unclean, which plays so important a part in the later history of religion, did in fact arise by differentiation from the single root idea of taboo, which includes and reconciles them both and by reference to which alone their history and mutual relation are intelligible.

The original character of the taboo must be looked for not in its civil but in its religious elements. It was not the creation of a legislator but the gradual outgrowth of animistic beliefs, to which the ambition and avarice of chiefs and priests afterwards gave an artificial extension. But in serving the cause of avarice and ambition it subserved the progress of civilization, by fostering conceptions of the rights of property and the sanctity of the marriage tie, -- conceptions which in time grew strong enough to stand by themselves and to fling away the crutch of superstition which in earlier days had been their sole support. For we shall scarcely err in believing that even in advanced societies the moral sentiments, in so far as they are merely sentiments and are not based on an induction from experience, derive much of their force from an original system of taboo. Thus on the taboo were grafted the golden fruits of law and morality, while the parent stem dwindled slowly into the sour crabs and empty husks of popular superstition on which the swine of modern society are still content to feed.





It remains to indicate briefly some facts which point to a wide diffusion under various names of customs similar to the taboo. As might have been expected, the taboo is found, though in a less marked form, among the Micronesians, Malays, and Dyaks, all of whom are ethnologically connected with the Polynesians. In Micronesia both the name and the institution occur; the inhabitants of certain islands are forbidden to eat certain animals and the fruits of certain trees; temples and great chiefs are tabooed from the people; any one who fishes must previously for twenty-four hors abstain from women; in conversing with women men are not allowed to use certain words, &c. again, the Malays have the custom, though apparently not the name. In Timor and the neighboring islands the word for taboo is pamali (or pomali); and during the long festival which celebrates a successful head-hunt the man who has secured the most heads is pamali; he must not sleep with his wife nor eat from his own hand, but is fed by women. Pamali is a Javanese word, and had originally in Java and Sumatra the same meaning that it now bears in Timor. In Celebes a mother after childbirth was pamali. Amongst the Dyaks of Borneo the pamali (called by the land Dyaks porikh) is regularly practiced at the planting of rice, harvest home, when the cry of the gazelle is heard behind, in times of sickness, after a death, &c. At the harvest home it is observed by the whole tribe, no one being allowed to enter or leave the village. The house where a death has taken place is pamali for twelve, days, during which no one may enter it and nothing may be taken out of it. A tabooed Dyak may not bathe, meddle with fire, follow his ordinary occupations, or leave his house. Certain families are forbidden to eat the flesh of particular animals, as cattle, goats, and snakes. The taboo is often indicated by a bundle of spears or a rattan. The Motu of New Guinea also have the taboo: a man is tabooed after handling a corpse. He then keeps apart from his wife; his food is cooked for him by his sister; and he may not touch it with his hands. After three days he bathes and is free. But the Motu appear to be Malayo-Polynesians, not Melanesians proper. However, in Melanesia also we find the taboo. It flourished in Fiji. It is observed in New Caledonia in cases of death, to preserve a crop, &c. according to the Rev. R. H. Codrington, there is this distinction between the Melanesian and the Polynesian taboo, that for the former there is no supernatural sanction: the man who breaks a taboo simply pays compensation to the person on whose tabooed property he has transgressed. But Mr. R. Parkinson states that in New Britain (now New Pomerania) a person who violates a taboo-mark set on a plantation, tree, &c., is supposed to be "attacked by sickness and misfortune." To go through the similar customs observed by savages all over the world would be endless; we may, however, note that a regular system of taboo is said to exist among some of the wild tribes of the Naga Hills in India, and that the rules not to touch food with the hands or the head with the hands are observed by tabooed women among one of the Fraser Lake tribes in North America. In fact some of the most characteristic features of taboo -- the prohibition to eat certain foods and the disabilities entailed by childbirth and by contact with the dead, together with a variety of ceremonies for removing these disabilities -- have been found more or less amongst all primitive races. It is more interesting to mark the traces of such customs among civilized peoples, e.g. Jews, Greeks, and Romans.

Amongst the Jews (1) the vow of the Nazarite (Num. Vi 1-21) presents the closest resemblance to the Polynesian taboo. The meaning of the word Nazarite is " one separated or consecrated," and this, as we saw (p. 15), is precisely the meaning of taboo. It is the head of the Nazarite that is especially consecrated (v. 7 "his separation unto God is upon his head"; v 9. "denfile the head of his separation"; v. 11, ‘shall hallow his head"), and so it was in the taboo. The Nazarite might not partake of certain meats and drinks, nor shave his head, nor touch a dead body,-- all rules of taboo. If a person died suddenly beside him, this was said to "defile the head of his separation," and the same effect, expressed in the same language, would apply to a tabooed Polynesian in similar circumstances. Again, the mode of terminating the vow of the Nazarite corresponds with the mode of breaking a taboo. He shaved his head at the door of the sanctuary and the priest placed food in his hands, either of which acts would have been a flagrant violation of a Polynesian taboo. (2) Some of the rules for the observance of the Sabbath are identical with rules of strict taboo; such are the prohibitions to do any work, to kindle a fire in the house, to cook food, and to go out of doors (Exod. xxxv. 2,3; xvi. 23, 29). The Essenes strictly observed the rules to cook no food and light no fire on the Sabbath (Josephus, Bell. Jud. Ii. 8, 9). (3) Any one who touched a dead body was "unclean" for seven days; what he touched became unclean, and could communicate its uncleanness to any other person who touched it. At the end of seven days the unclean person washed his clothes, bathed himself, and was clean (Num. Xix. 11, 14, 19, 22). In Polynesia, as we have seen, any one who touched a dead body was taboo; what he touch became taboo, and could communicate the infection to any one who touched it; and one of the ceremonies for getting rid of the taboo was washing. (4) A Jewish mother after childbirth was unclean (Lev. xii); a Polynesian mother was taboo. (5) A great many animals were unclean, and could infect with their uncleaness whatever they touched; earthen vessels touched by certain of them were broken. Certain animals were taboo in Polynesia, and untensils which had contracted a taint of taboo were in some cases broken.

Amongst the Greeks a survival, or at least a reminiscence, of a sytem of taboo is perhaps to be found in certain applications of the epithets "sacred" and "divine" in Homer. Thus a king or a chief is sacred , Od. ii. 409, xviii. 405, &c., Od., viii 167, viii. 2, &c) or divine Il., ii 335, &c., Od., iv. 691); his chariot is sacred (Il, xvii, 464), and his house is divine (Od., iv. 43). An army is sacred (Od., xxiv. 81), and so are sentinels on duty (Il., x. 56; xxiv. 681). This resembles the war-taboo of the Polynesians; on a warlike expedition all Maori warriors are taboo, and the permanent personal taboo of the chiefs is increased twofold: they are "tabooed an inch thick." The Jews also seem to have had a war-taboo, for when out on the war-path they abstained form women (1 Sam. Xxi. 4,5), -- a rule strictly observed by Maori warriors on a dangerous expedition. The Dards, who with the kindred Siah Posh Kafirs on the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush -- tribes which probably of all Aryan peoples retain a social state most nearly approximating to that of the primitive Aryans -- abstain from sexual intercourse during the whole of the fighting season, from May to September; and "victory to the chastest" is said tobe a maxim of all the fighting tribes from the Hindu Kush to Albania. The same rule of continence in war is observed by some Indian tribes of North America. In Homer a fish is sacred (Il., xvi. 407), and Plato points out that during a campaign the Homeric warriors never ate fish (Rep., 404 B). Even in time of peace the men of Homer’s day only ate fish when reduced to the verge of starvation (Od., iv. 363 sq.; xii. 329 sq.) The Siah Posh Kafirs refuse to eat fish, although their rivers abound in it. The Hindus of Vedic times appear not to have eaten fish. It is probable, therefore, that among he early Aryans, as among primitive peoples in various parts of the world, the eating of fish was tabooed. Again, the threshing-floor, the winnowing-fan, and meal are all sacred (ii., v. 499; H. Merc., 21, 63; Il., xi. 631). Similarly in New Zealand a taboo was commonly laid on places where farming operations were going on; and among the Basutos, before the corn on the threshing-floor can be touched, a religious ceremony has to be performed, and all"defiled" persons are carefully kept from seeing it. Although the Homeric folk are ate swine, the epithet "divine" commonly applied to a swineherd in Homer may point to a time when pigs were sacred or tabooed. In Crete pigs were certainly sacred and not eaten (Atheneaus 376a), and apparently at Pessinus also (Pausanias, vii. 17, 10). Amongst the Jews and Syrians, of course, pigs were tabooed and it was a moot question with the Greeks whether the Jews abhorred or worshipped pigs (Plut., Quest. Conv., iv 5). The pigs kept in the great temple at Hierapolis were neither sacrifices nor eaten; some people thought that they were sacred, others that they were unclean, (Lucian, De Dea Syria, 54). Here we have an exact taboo, the ideas of sacredness and uncleanness being indistinguishable. Similarly by the Ojibbways the dog is regarded as "unclean and yet as in some respects holy." The divergence of the two conceptions is illustrated by the history of the cow among different branches of the Aryan race: the Hindus regard this animal as sacred; the Shin caste among he Dards hold it in abhorrence. The general word for taboo is Greek is ayos, which occurs in the sense both of "sacredness" and of "pollution"; and the same is true of the adjective ayios and of the rare adjective .... "tabooed" (Bekker’s Anecdota Graeca, 212, 32; Harpocration, s.v.). Usually, however, the Greeks discriminated the two senses, being devoted to the sense of "sacred" and to that of "unclean" or "accursed." "To taboo", "to observe a taboo" is __ and the state or reason of taboo is __ or ___. The rules of the Greek ___ correspond closely to those of the Polynesian taboo, consisting in "purifications, washings, and sprinklings, and in abstaining from mourning for the dead, child-bed, and all pollutions, and refraining from certain foods," 7c.

Amongst the Romans, who preserved more traces of primitive barbarism than the Greeks, the flamen dialis was hedged in by a perfect network of taboos. He was not allowed to ride or even touch a horse, nor to look at an army under arms, nor to wear a ring which was not broken, nor t have a knot on any part of his garments; no fire, except a sacred fire, could be taken out of his house; he might not touch or even name a goat, a dog, raw meat, of his bed had to be daubed with mud; his hair could be but only by a freeman, and his hair and nails when cut had to be buried under a lucky tree; he might not touch a corprse, &c. His wife, the flaminica, was also subject to taboos; at certain festivals she might not comb her hair; if she heard thunder, she was taboo (feriata) till she had offered an expiatory sacrifice. The similarity of some of these rules to the Polynesian taboo is obvious. The Roman feriae were periods of taboo; no work might be done during them except works of necessity; e.g., an ox might be pulled out of a pit or a tottering roof supported. Any person who mentioned Salus, Semonia, Seia, Segetia, or Tutilina was tabooed (ferias observabat). The Latin sacer is exactly "taboo"; for it means either "sacred" or "accursed."

Literature. – On the Polynesian taboo, see Cook, Voyages, vol. v. p. 427 sq., vol. vii p. 146 sq (ed. 1809); G.F. Angas, Savage Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, passim; W. Yate, New Zealand, p. 84 sq.; Ellis, Polynesian Researches, 2d ed., vol. iv. p. 385 sq.; Langsdrff, Reise um die Welt, i. p. 114 sq.; Mariner, Tonga Islands, i. p. 141 note, ii. pp. 82,220 sq.; Turner, Nineteen Years in Polynesia, p. 294 sq.; Id., Samoa, p. 185 sq.; Klemm, Cultur-geschichte, iv. p. 372 sq.; Waitz-Gerland, Anthropologie der Natur-Volker, vi pp. 343-363; Shortland, Traditions and Superstitions of the New Zealanders, p. 101 sq.; Id.; Maori Religion and Mythology, p. 25 sq.; Old New Zealand, by a Pakeha Maori, chapter vii-xii.; Polack, Manners and Customs of the New Zelanders, i. p. 275 sq.; Diefenbach, Travels in New Zealand, ii. p. 110 sq. R. Taylor, New Zealand, p. 163 sq. On the taboo in Micronesia, see Waitz-Gerland, op. cit., v. pt. ii. p. 147 sq.; among the Dyaks and Malays, see Id., vi. P. 354 sq.; Low Sarawak, pp. 260-262; Bock, Head-Hunters of Borneo, pp. 214-230; Spencer St John, Life in the Forests of the Far East, i. p. 184 sq; A.R. Wallace, The Malay Archipelago. P. 196; in Melanesia Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, i. p. 234 sq. (ed. 1860); J.E. Erskine., The Western Pacific, p. 254 Vincedon Dumoulin and Desgraz, Iles Marquises, p. 259 sq.; Journ. Anthrop. Inmst., x pp. 279, 290; Ch. Lemire, Nouvelle Caledonie, Paris, 1884, p. 117; R. Parkinson, Im Bismarck-Archipel, Lepisic, 1887, p. 144. ( J.G. FR.)



The above article was written by: James George Frazer, M.A., D.C.L., LL.D., Litt.D.; Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; Barrister; author of Totemism; The Golden Bough; and Pausanias, and other Greek Sketches.



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