Taboo (Anthropology)

Polynesian origins

Introduced into English by Captain Cook, ‘taboo’ was once central among the constructs of social anthropology. Reporting the custom of human sacrifice in Tahiti, Cook observed: ‘The solemnity itself is called Poore Eree, or Chief’s Prayer; and the victim, who is offered up, Tataa-taboo, or consecrated man’ (III 1784, ii: 40). The natives of Atui Island asked Cook’s party apprehensively whether certain objects shown them were ‘taboo, or, as they pronounced the word, tafoo?’ (Cook III 1784, ii: 249). Following Cook’s death, his successor in maintaining the ship’s journal wrote of native priests ‘tabooing’ a field of sweet potatoes using wands, and of women who — throughout Polynesisa — ‘are always tabooed, or forbidden to eat certain kinds of meats’ (Cook III 1784, iii: 10-11).

On the basis of such accounts, taboo – with the stress shifted from the first to the second syllable – rapidly entered the English language. In common usage throughout the nineteenth century, it was given a new lease of life in the twentieth through the writings of Sigmund Freud (e.g. 1965 [1913]), who linked it particularly with sexual prohibitions such as the ‘incest taboo’. James Frazer, Bronislaw Malinowski, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and many other social anthropologists used the term when referring to any strong ritual prohibition.

Etymologically, the Maori term, tapu, derives from two words: ta, to mark, and pu, thoroughly (Steiner 1967 [1956], citing Shortland 1854: 81). But in Polynesian usage, more than secular marking was signified. Cook and subsequent European visitors were never sure whether tapu meant ‘sacred’ or ‘defiled’. They alternated between the two ideas in their translations, noting that in either case, strict ritual avoidance was required. It may seem paradoxical to allow a single term to link, say, the ‘pollution’ of a woman’s menstrual flow with the ‘holiness’ of a priest, and although this Polynesian pattern is far from unusual, not every symbolic system would permit it. ‘One has only to think of Indian caste society’, comments Steiner in his classic account, ‘ … to see how inapplicable the Polynesian range of taboo would be there: it would mean using the same word for Brahman and pariah, for the sacred cow and human faeces’ (1967 [1956]: 35).

Returning to Polynesia, political power throughout the region was traditionally inseparable from ritual power or mana, in turn measurable by reference to the ‘taboos’ a person could impose. Cook mentions the Tongan food controller, alerting people to the foods they were prohibited from eating (III 1784, i: 410-11). This official could declare any category of food taboo when it grew scarce; it was then protected from consumption until the next harvest. Local history records occasions when officials or chiefs went too far, tabooing foods to the point of provoking a revolt. To challenge a chief s right to impose food taboos was to doubt his mana, calling into question his whole right to rule.

The taboos imposed by a chief were conceptualized as emanating directly from his physical constitution. Thanks to his mana, the whole body of a chief was tapu, and if he wanted to extend this to certain external objects – claiming them to himself – he could do so by calling out, for example, ‘Those two canoes are my two thighs!’ Once the objects in question were his body — rendered, like his name, symbolically inseparable from his very flesh and blood — then for as long as his mana held, no one could challenge such supernaturally sanctioned ownership. Comparable linkages of ‘taboo’ with the notion of bodily ‘self’ are to be found worldwide; such a mystical identification between persons, names and ‘respected’ things forms an important strand in what used to be termed ‘totemic’ thinking (Levi-Strauss 1969b [1962]; Knight 1991: 106-21).

After taboo

The term ‘taboo’ is no longer fashionable among anthropologists. In many modern textbooks and treatises, it is missing from the index. Comparable terms thought to impute ‘otherness’ or ‘irrationality’ to non-Western cultures — such as ‘totemism’ — have suffered similarly. In justification it could be pointed out that Captain Cook and his crew condescendingly found the ‘taboos’ of the Polynesians amusing, and that in subsequent European popular usage, to refer to a ‘taboo’ was to question the rational basis of a prohibition or rule. Freud linked the term with sexual neurosis. A ‘taboo’ in psychoanalytic parlance was compulsive behaviour, perpetuated by the patient for irrational reasons. Freud equated ‘savages’ with neurotics, using terms such as ‘taboo’ to underline such parallels (1965 [1913]). Given this historical background, abandonment of the old vocabulary has recently seemed a safe way to maintain political correctness, helping to emphasize that traditionally organized peoples are not ‘different’ but in reality ‘just like us’.

The consequent terminological impoverishment has its costs, however. Apart from ‘taboo’, what better word do we possess to describe a collective prohibition which is to be obeyed categorically, without question? And who is to say that unquestioning adherence to a ritually established rule — where this is found — is intrinsically less logical than a stance of sustained scepticism and challenge? A rationality which incites the individual to weigh up the personal costs and benefits of each course of action contrasts starkly with one in which the collectivity asserts the primacy of its own interests. But to rank the former as logically superior to the latter is to slip from science into ideology. An alternative might be to ask why kin-coalitions and other collectivities, in traditional cultures, so insistently assert that certain things, being ‘sacred’, are to be respected unquestioningly.

One of the strongest of taboos, in Polynesia as elsewhere, insulates women from contact with males during their menstrual periods (Steiner 1967 [1956]). Comparable taboos cross-culturally have long been considered oppressive of women, or else without rational basis. However, recent scholarship has re-evaluated them as frequently protective and even empowering to women (Buckley and Gottlieb 1988). An early proponent of such a view was "Durkheim (1963 [1898]), according to whom female fertility was the first domain of ‘the sacred’ whilst menstruants (rather than priests or priestesses) were the first beings to be periodically ‘set apart’.

Durkheim’s model of social origins pictured menstruants as actively repulsing their spouses during each menstrual period, their ‘tabooed’ blood becoming equated with that of game animals killed in the hunt. Men were by such means obliged to ‘respect’ bloody flesh, whether menstrual or animal. In a recent reworking and updating of this theory, Knight (1991) argues that early Homo sapiens females prevented inequalities and conflicts over the distribution of meat by forming powerful kin-based coalitions. These enabled women to refuse sexual advances whenever meat was scarce, making sexual access dependent on adequate supplies being brought home to them. The signal selected to indicate ‘No!’ was the blood of menstruation, signifier of fertility. This was appropriated collectively by the menstruant’s coalition partners and augmented as required by animal blood, red ochre or other pigments. Combined in this way as if on a picket line, women monthly declared themselves ‘on strike’, linking the periodicity of the hunt with that of the moon in a pattern still discernible in Southern African hunter-gatherer and other ritual traditions worldwide.

Claude Levi-Strauss demonstrated that so-called ‘incest taboos’ and elaborate rules of "exogamy in traditional cultures are not irrational phobias but intricate expressions of collective wisdom, ensuring social integration by regulating the circulation of marriageable partners between groups. The seemingly irrational food taboos of hunter-gatherer and other traditional cultures can be similarly explained. The extension of incest taboos from human to animal flesh is the central principle of what used to be termed ‘totemism’. It implies that ‘one’s own flesh’ — whether one’s own offspring, or one’s own kill in the hunt — is not for selfish appropriation but for others to enjoy. If the sex-strike theory of cultural origins is accepted, men were first prevented from eating their own kills under pressure from their affines, to whom all meat supplies had to be surrendered. Asserting themselves periodically as inviolable, marriageable women drew on their male kin and offspring as coalitionary allies in asserting the force of their combined action. Insofar as they were withdrawn from sexual circulation, all members of each coalition were ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’. All were ‘protected’ by the same real or surrogate ‘blood’, which equally protected the raw flesh of game animals which hunters killed. Sexual taboos and ‘totemic’ food taboos — as Durkheim was among the first to realize — stem from the same culture-generating source.

Where menstrual taboos retain their traditional force, a woman during her periods is to be respected without question. Her ‘taboo’ is a part of herself. Like a Polynesian’s mana, it is her ritual potency — inseparable from her very flesh and blood. Although scarcely modern, such a viewpoint has a parallel in at least one strand of contemporary politically correct thinking. An instructive contemporary Western example of a taboo can be found in the industrial labour movement’s founding principle: the prohibition against crossing a picket line. Costs and benefits to the individual are not to be taken into account. The principle is that regardless of precise issues in the particular dispute at hand, a trades unionist simply does not cross. Adherence is bound up with the very identity of those involved, and with the perceived nature of the world they inhabit. To cross a picket line would be to abandon self-respect, denying the very existence of the social class categories out of which identity is constructed. Reserved for violators, the English abuse term ‘scab’ most perfectly conveys defiled flesh. Although social anthropologists have scarcely focused on such home-grown ritual, it is known that in the prevailing ethic a trades unionist respects the picket-line unques-tioningly, without thinking. The ‘rationality’ of such behaviour can of course be contested, in accordance with the class standpoint of the observer. What is certain is that participant observation among members of a striking community would reveal a taboo maintained successfully, on grounds of collective self-interest, without appeals to mystical forces or supernatural powers.

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