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A sign on Bora Bora. Translates to "Keep out"

In a group or society, a taboo is something that is against the societal value of such community or group. It is a bad act and is not expected to be done. Sometimes even talking about taboos is taboo. Some actions that are thought of as taboo may also be against the law. Breaking the taboo may result to punishment by those states. Breaking other taboos can result in feeling embarrassed, or ashamed. Breaking a taboo is sometimes seen as rude.

Origins of the word[change | change source]

The English word is traced back to Tongan tapu[1][2] or the Fijian tabu.[3] These words usually mean "not allowed", or "forbidden".[3] In its current use in Tonga, the word tapu also means "sacred" or "holy", in the sense of being restricted or protected by custom or by law. For example, the main island in the Kingdom of Tonga, where the capital Nuku'alofa is located and most of the population resides, is called "Tongatapu".

The use of the word taboo drawn from tapu. "Tapu" means "not allowed". It dates back to 1777 and an English explorer, Captain James Cook, went to a place he named "the Friendly Islands" (now Tonga). Writing about the Tongans, he wrote:

Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing.... On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden.... When any thing is forbidden to be eat, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.

—James Cook, 1777

Some Solomon Islanders say that their languages have a word tabu (said like "ta-boo") that means holy. It refers to places in the bush where holy spirits live. Those areas should not be disturbed unless a ceremony or ritual is taking place. As taboo, they are places that should not be touched.

Examples of taboos[change | change source]

Taboos can include:

Some taboos are because a religious, legal or social authority did something, over and over. Taboos can be talked about or joked about, outside "polite society". Comedy and satire such as South Park, The Simpsons or Beavis and Butthead frequently do this.

Origin[change | change source]

There have been two main groups of explanations why taboos exist:

  • Taboos are the result of history and culture (called Anthropolcial approach)
  • Taboos are the result of unconscious phenomena that are passed on (called Psychoanalytical approach)

Anthropological approach[change | change source]

One suggestion is that taboos are the result of history and certain cultural experiences (which is called Anthropolcial approach). Steven Pinker suggests that taboos have developed culturally from more basic instincts. For taboos regarding the dead, he proposes that the human brain may have developed a hard-wired repulsion to many carriers of disease – an "intuitive microbiology". Only with the modern development of scientific microbiology have humans been able to rationalize these taboos. Pinker suggests similar explanations for the incest taboo and other things that cause the reflex emotion of disgust.

Psychoanalytical approach[change | change source]

The other proposal is that taboos are the result of unconscious phenomena that are passed on (and this is called Psychoanalytical approach). Sigmund Freud provided an analysis of taboo behaviours. He highlighted strong subconscious motivations behind such prohibitions. In this system, described in his collection of essays Totem and Taboo, Freud says there is a link between forbidden behaviours and the sanctification of objects to certain kinship groups. Freud also states that the only two "universal" taboos are that of incest and patricide, which formed the eventual basis of modern society.

German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt explains that taboos were originally nothing other than an objectified fear of a "demonic" power which was believed to lie hidden in a tabooed object.[4] Sigmund Freud believes this to be a superficial explanation having nothing to do with the true origins of taboos. He claims that many similarities between taboo-holders and obsessive neurotics point to "a psychological condition that prevails in the unconscious".[5] Freud believes this "unconsciousness" is central to understanding the history of taboos. He then reconstructs the history of taboo based on the model of obsessional prohibitions as follows:

"Taboos, we must suppose, are prohibitions of primæval antiquity which were at some time externally imposed upon a generation of primitive men; they must, that is to say, no doubt have been impressed on them violently by the previous generation. These prohibitions must have concerned activities towards which there was a strong inclination. They must then have persisted from generation to generation, perhaps merely as a result of tradition transmitted through parental and social authority."[6]

And so, "Anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example."[7]

Related pages[change | change source]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. "Online Etymology dictionary". Retrieved 2007-06-05.
  2. "Online dictionary". Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Retrieved 2007-06-05.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Dixon, R.M.W. (1988). A Grammar of Boumaa Fijian. University of Chicago Press. p. 368. ISBN 978-0-226-15429-9.
  4. Freud 1950, p. 24
  5. Freud 1950, pp. 26–30
  6. Freud 1950, p. 31
  7. Freud 1950, p. 32

References[change | change source]

  • Bastian, A. (1874–75), Die deutsche Expedition an der Loango-Küste [2 vols.] Jena.
  • Blumentritt, F. (1891), Über die Eingeborenen der Insel Palawan Globus, 59: [181ff.]
  • Boas, F. (1890), "Second General Report on the Indians of British Columbia", Report of Sixtieth Meeting of the British Association [562ff.]
  • Brown, W (1845), New Zealand and its Aborigines, London
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (2002), Australian Languages: Their Nature and Developments, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-47378-1
  • Frazer, J. G. (1911), "Taboo and the Perils of the Soul", The Golden Bough (3rd ed., Part II ed.), London
  • Frazer, J. G. (1990), "Taboo and the Perils of the Soul", The Golden Bough (3rd ed., Part II ed.), New York: St. Martin's Press [1st ed., 1913.]
  • Freud, Sigmund (1950), trans. Strachey (ed.), Totem and Taboo:Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-00143-3
  • Kulick and Willson, Taboo: Sex, Identity, and Erotic Subjectivity in Anthropological Fieldwork 1995
  • Müller, S. (1857), Reizen en Onderzoekingen in den Indischen Archipel, Amsterdam
  • Tregear, E. (1890), "The Maoris of New Zealand", Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xix
  • Zweifel, J.; Moustier, M. (1880), Voyage aux sources du Niger, Marseilles

Other websites[change | change source]