A taboo is a prohibition on human activity declared as sacred and forbidden or dangerous or unclean either physically or spiritually. Breaking a taboo may serious consequences, ranging from imprisonment to social ostracism. The idea of a universal taboo is questionable, but some taboos, such as cannibalism, incest, and genocide, occur in the majority of societies. Taboos often remain in effect after the original reason behind them has expired. Study of taboos by anthropologists has led to deeper understanding of the development of different societies, and the similarities among cultures spread throughout the world. Even if the actual taboos are not universal, the concept of prohibiting particular acts is, indicating that humankind as a whole aspires to goodness.
Definition of Taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition or ban relating to any area of human activity or social custom declared as sacred and forbidden; breaking of the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society. The term was borrowed from the Tongan language and appears in many Polynesian cultures. In those cultures, a tabu (or tapu or kapu) often has specific religious associations. It was a word brought back and introduced into the English language by Captain James Cook in 1777, after his long sea voyage to the South Seas.
Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited under law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. Breaking of other taboos may have social implications, such as embarrassment, shame, and rudeness.
Nature of Taboos
The idea of a universal taboo is questionable, but some (such as the cannibalism, incest taboos, and genocide) occur in the majority of societies. Taboos can include dietary restrictions, restrictions on sexual activities and relationships, restrictions of bodily functions, restrictions on the state of genitalia such as circumcision, exposure of body parts, nudity, and restrictions on the use of offensive language. Taboos often extend to cover discussion of taboo topics. This can result in taboo deformation (euphemism) or replacement of taboo words.
Taboos may serve many functions, and often remain in effect after the original reason behind them has expired. Some have argued that taboos therefore reveal the history of societies when other records are lacking. Researchers such as James Frazer, who compiled the comprehensive documentation of cultural beliefs and practices around the world in his 1890 publication The Golden Bough, and Marvin Harris, a leading figure in cultural materialism, proposed explanations of taboos as a consequence of the ecologic and economic conditions of their societies.
Sigmund Freud provided an analysis of taboo behaviors, highlighting strong unconscious motivations driving such prohibitions. In this system, described in his collections of essays Totem and Taboo, Freud postulated a link between forbidden behaviors and the sanctification of objects to certain kinship groups. Freud also stated that the only two “universal” taboos are that of incest and patricide, which formed the eventual basis of modern society.
Various religions forbid the consumption of certain types of meat. For example, Judaism prescribes a strict set of rules, called Kashrut, regarding what can and cannot be eaten. Certain sects of Christianity also hold to these or similar rules. In Islamic practice, the laws of Haram and Halal dictate, among other things, certain foods which may not be eaten. Hindus, Jains and Buddhists often follow religious directives to observe vegetarianism and avoid eating meat. Since Hinduism lacks a central dogma, however, many Hindus do eat meat, while among many modern Indian Hindus, all meat is considered a taboo except mutton (usually in India the goat’s flesh, or sometimes sheep’s flesh), chicken and fish.
Cultural taboos against the consumption of some animals may be due to their species’ standing as a pet or animal companion. For example, dog meat is taboo in the United States and Europe, but is common in Southeast Asia. Similarly, horse meat is rarely eaten in the US and UK, but is common in some parts of continental Europe and is considered a delicacy in Japan (basashi). Within a given society, some meats will be considered taboo simply because they are outside the range of the generally accepted definition of a foodstuff, not necessarily because the meat is considered repulsive in flavor, aroma, texture, or appearance.
Some authorities impose cultural food taboos in the form of law. In some cases this has been alleged to constitute dietary persecution and possibly human rights abuse. For example, even after resumption to Chinese rule, Hong Kong has not lifted its ban on supplying meat from dogs and cats, imposed in colonial times.
Health reasons may also contribute to a taboo. For example, eating undercooked pork has a risk of trichinosis, while many forms of seafood can cause extreme cases of food poisoning. Scavengers and carnivores are frowned upon in many taboo systems, perhaps from their potential to pick up disease and parasites from other creatures.
Of all the taboo meat, human flesh ranks as the most proscribed. Historically, man has consumed the flesh of fellow humans in rituals, and out of insanity, hatred, or when facing starvation—never as a common part of one’s diet.
In certain versions of Buddhism, onions and chives are taboo. Specifically, Kashmiri Brahmans forbid “strong flavored” foods. This encompasses garlic, onion, and spices such as black pepper and chili pepper. Brahmans believe that pungent flavors on the tongue inflame the baser emotions.
In Yazidism, the eating of lettuce and butter beans is taboo. The Muslim religious teacher and scholar, Falah Hassan Juma, links the sect’s belief of evil found in lettuce to its long history of persecution by Muslims and Christians. The Caliphs of the Ottoman Empire carried out massacres against the Yazidis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the faithful slain in the lettuce fields then dotting northeastern Iraq. Another historical theory claims one ruthless potentate who controlled the city of Mosul in the thirteenth century ordered an early Yazidi saint executed. The enthusiastic crowd then pelted the corpse with heads of lettuce.
Coffee and tea
In addition to alcohol, coffee and tea are also taboo drinks for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some other Mormon groups. For some Mormons this taboo extends to other caffeinated beverages, but usually not to chocolate.
Some religions—most notably Islam, Sikhism, the Bahá’í Faith, Latter-day Saints, the Nikaya and most Mahayana schools of Buddhism and some Protestant denominations of Christianity—forbid or discourage the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Drinking blood is a strong social taboo in most countries, often with a vague emotive association with vampirism (the consumption of human blood). Followers of Judaism, Islam, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden to drink blood, or eat food made with blood.
On the other hand, the Maasai and Batemi people of Tanzania drink cow’s blood mixed with milk as a major part of their diet. In Kenya, camel blood is drunk. In many areas such as Brazil, the Philippines, and Mexico, blood is a main ingredient in favorite dishes.
Taboos that apply to human interactions include sex, nudity, and bodily functions. Many of these taboos focus on human sexuality, and in fact sexuality itself balances on the edge of taboo. Sexual practices such as intermarriage, miscegenation, homosexuality, incest, bestiality, pedophilia, and necrophilia are all taboo in many cultures. The exposing of certain body parts such as ankles in the Victorian British Empire and women’s faces in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan are also a form of taboo in those areas. The United States holds public nudity as a taboo where in other areas (such as Europe) nudity is much more accepted.
Taboos against bodily functions also exist in many cultures. Burping and flatulence are looked down upon and seen as vulgar.
The use of profanity is taboo in many circles. Seen as improper, swearing or cursing is frowned on as being uncivilized. This again, as many taboos, is not agreed upon and exercised in degrees in different groups of people.
Some taboos originated partly in response to uncleanliness, as well as religious belief. Thus, physical contact with a menstruating woman has been taboo in many cultures, thought to be defiling. Those who had been in contact with dead bodies may also be restricted in their physical contact with food or others.
Taboos are widely agreed upon negative entities that are shunned and avoided. As peoples’ morals and values are different, so vary the taboos they believe in. Thus, it is hard to agree on any universal taboos. Genocide, cannibalism, and incest taboos are considered the only taboos that might reach the level of universal.
There are taboos in every subject and they vary from culture to culture. What unites these different ideas is the quest for the knowledge of right and wrong. This mission links people of all ideologies in an attempt to better themselves and create a morally just human race.
- Anathema – Something or someone that is detested or shunned
- Deviance – Action or behavior that violates social norms
- Etiquette – Customary code of polite behaviour
- Geas – An idiosyncratic taboo, whether of obligation or prohibition, similar to being under a vow
- Morality – Differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper
- Naming taboos
- Obscenity – Act or statement that offends the morality of the period
- Public morality
- Sexual ethics
- Social stigma – Type of discrimination or disapproval
- Taboo on rulers
- Taboo on the dead
- Word taboo
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia