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A taboo is a strong social prohibition (or ban) against words, objects, actions, or discussions that are considered undesirable or offensive by a group, culture, society, or community. Breaking a taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent. Some taboo activities or customs are prohibited by law and transgressions may lead to severe penalties. Other taboos result in embarrassment, shame and rudeness.


Common etymology traces the word back to the Tongan tapu[1][2] or the Fijian tabu[3] meaning "under prohibition", "not allowed", or "forbidden".[3] In its modern use in Tonga, the word tapu also means "sacred" or "holy", although often 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 situated and most of the population resides, is called "Tongatapu". In this context, it means "Sacred South", rather than "forbidden south".

The use of the word taboo drawn from tapu (meaning "not allowed") dates back to 1777 and an English explorer, Captain James Cook, visiting a place he named "the Friendly Islands" (now Tonga). Describing 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."[4]

Some Solomon Islanders say that their languages have a word tabu (pronounced "tam-boo") that means holy. It refers to places in the bush where holy spirits reside (usually marked with an object, such as a giant clam shell or stone carving). Those areas should not be disturbed unless a ceremony is taking place, therefore they are places that should not be touched.


Taboos can include:

Some taboos originated by acts of authority, be it legal, social or religious, over a period of time. When not in "polite society", discussions on taboos are allowed in humorous expression, such as comedy and satire.

Some taboos can be mutually antagonistic, e.g. the prohibition of obscenity is itself taboo in some groups, where such prohibitions are considered rude, or at least immature attempts to restrict the freedom of speech of others, particularly where such restrictions have the effect of loading the language.


There are varying explanations for the origin of taboos. While some explanations are anthropological and explain taboos using history and cultural experiences, other explanations are psychoanalytical and explain taboos as an unconscious phenomenon passing through generations.

Steven Pinker (anthropological/biological)

Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works suggests that taboos have developed culturally from more basic instincts. With regard to taboos regarding the dead, he proposes that the human brain has evolved 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.

Sigmund Freud (psychoanalytical)

Sigmund Freud provided an analysis of taboo behaviours, highlighting strong subconscious motivations driving such prohibitions. In this system, described in his collection of essays Totem and Taboo, Freud postulates a link between forbidden behaviours and the sanctification of objects to certain kinship groups. Freud also states here 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.[5] 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".[6] 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."[7]

And so, "Anyone who has violated a taboo becomes taboo himself because he possesses the dangerous quality of tempting others to follow his example."[8]

Taboo on the dead

Main article: Taboo on the dead

The taboo on the dead includes the taboo against touching of a corpse and those who are caring for it; the taboo against mourners of the dead; and the taboo against anything associated with the dead (e.g., the dead person's name).



  • Any Māori who had handled a corpse or had taken part in its burial was considered unclean and cut off from interaction with his fellow men. He could not enter any house, or come into contact with any person or thing without infecting them. He might not even touch food with his hands, which, owing to their uncleanness, had become quite useless. "Food would be set for him on the ground, and he would then sit or kneel down, and, with his hands carefully held behind his back, would gnaw at it as best he could. In some cases he would be fed by another person, who with outstretched arm contrived to do it without touching the tabooed man." The mourners of the dead were also secluded from the public. When their period of mourning was near completion, "all the dishes he had used in his seclusion were diligently smashed, and all the garments he had worn thrown out."[9]


  • Among the Shuswap of British Columbia widows and widowers in mourning are secluded and forbidden to touch their own head or body; the cups and cooking vessels which they use may be used by no one else. [...] No hunter would come near such mourners, for their presence is unlucky. If their shadow were to fall on anyone, he would be taken ill at once. They employ thorn-bushes for bed and pillow, in order to keep away the ghost of the deceased; and thorn bushes are also laid all around their beds.[10]
  • Among the Agutainos, who inhabit Palawan island, Philippines, a widow may not leave her hut for seven or eight days after the death; and even then she may only go out at an hour when she is not likely to meet anybody, for whoever looks upon her dies a sudden death. To prevent this fatal catastrophe, the widow knocks with a wooden peg on the trees as she goes along, thus warning people of her dangerous proximity; and the very trees on which she knocks soon die."[11]

Naming the dead

Main article: Taboo against naming the dead

The taboo on naming the dead prohibits any utterance of a dead man's name or any other words similar to it in sound. Some examples follow:

  • Among the Guaycurus of Paraguay, when a death had taken place, the chief used to change the name of every member of the tribe; and from that moment everybody remembered his new name just as if he had borne it all his life.[12]
  • After a Yolngu man named Bitjingu died, the word bithiwul "no; nothing" was avoided.[13] In its place, a synonym or a loanword from another language would be used for a certain period, after which the original word could be used again; but in some cases the replacement word would continue to be used.

Origins and causes

Sigmund Freud traces back the origin of the dangerous character of widowers and widows to the danger of temptation. A man who has lost his wife must resist a desire to find a substitute for her; a widow must fight against the same wish and is moreover liable to arouse the desires of other men. Substitutive satisfactions of such a kind run counter to the sense of mourning and they would inevitably kindle the ghost's wrath.[14]

Freud explains that the fundamental reason for the existence of such taboos is the fear of the presence or of the return of the dead person's ghost. It is exactly this fear that leads to a great number of ceremonies aimed at keeping the ghost at a distance or driving him off.[15]

The Tuaregs of Sahara, for example, dread the return of the dead man's spirit so much that "[they] do all they can to avoid it by shifting their camp after a death, ceasing for ever to pronounce the name of the departed, and eschewing everything that might be regarded as an evocation or recall of his soul. Hence they do not, like the Arabs, designate individuals by adding to their personal names the names of their fathers. [...] they give to every man a name which will live and die with him."[16] In many cases the taboo remains intact until the body of the dead has completely decayed,[17] but until then the community must disguise itself so that the ghost shall not recognize them. For example, the Nicobar Islanders try to disguise themselves by shaving their heads.[18]


Artists that have worked with the theme of death include Bill Viola, Damien Hirst, Lennie Lee and Joel-Peter Witkin.

Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt associates the taboo to a fear that the dead man's soul has become a demon.[19] Moreover, many cases show a hostility toward the dead and their representation as malevolent figures.[20] Edward Westermarck notes that "Death is commonly regarded as the gravest of all misfortunes; hence the dead are believed to be exceedingly dissatisfied with their fate [...] such a death naturally tends to make the soul revengeful and ill-tempered. It is envious of the living and is longing for the company of its old friend."[21]

Taboo on rulers

Main article: Taboo on rulers


  • The Nubas of East Africa believe that they would die if they entered the house of their priestly king; however they can evade the penalty of their intrusion by baring the left shoulder and getting the king to lay his hands on it.[22]
  • In West Africa, in the woods of Shark Point near Cape Padron, in Lower Guinea, a priestly king named Kukulu once lived alone. Forbidden from touching a woman or leaving his house, or even leaving his chair, in which he would sleep, the natives feared that if he lay down no wind would rise and navigation would be stopped.[23]
  • The ancient kings of Ireland were subject to a number of strange restrictions as listed in The Book of Rights. The king, for instance, may not stay in a certain town on a particular day of the week; he may not cross a river on a particular hour of the day; he may not encamp for nine days on a certain plain, and so on.[24]

Taboo on warriors


Restrictions placed on a victorious slayer are unusually frequent and as a rule severe.[25]

  • In Timor, the leader of the expedition is forbidden "to return at once to his own house. A special hut is prepared for him, in which he has to reside for two months, undergoing bodily and spiritual purification. During this time he may not go to his wife nor feed himself; the food must be put in his mouth by another person."[26]
  • In some Dayak tribes, men returning from a successful expedition are obliged to keep to themselves for several days and abstain from various kinds of food; they may not touch iron nor have any intercourse with women.[27]
  • In Logea, an island in the neighborhood of New Guinea, "men who have killed or assisted in killing enemies shut themselves up for about a week in their houses. They must avoid all intercourse with their wives and friends, and they may not touch food with their hands. They may eat vegetable food only which is brought to them cooked in special pots. The intention of these restrictions is to guard the men against the smell of the blood of the slain; for it is believed that if they smelt the blood they would fall ill and die.
  • In the Toaripi or Motumotu tribe of south-eastern New Guinea a man who has killed another may not go near his wife, and may not touch food with his fingers. He is fed by others, and only with certain kinds of food. These observances last till the new moon."[27]

See also


  1. Online Etymology dictionary. URL accessed on 2007-06-05.
  2. Online dictionary. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. URL accessed on 2007-06-05.
  3. 3.0 3.1 A Grammar of Boumaa Fijian, By Robert M. W. Dixon page 368
  4. Cook, James (1728-1779), The Three Voyages of Captain James Cook Round the World, 5, London: A&E Spottiswoode, p. 348, 
  5. Freud 1950, p. 24
  6. Freud 1950, pp. 26–30
  7. Freud 1950, p. 31
  8. Freud 1950, p. 32.
  9. Freud 1950, p. 52, quoting Frazer 1911, 138f
  10. Frazer 1990, p. 142, quoting Boas 1890, 643f.
  11. Frazer 1990, p. 144, quoting Blumentritt 1891, p. 182.
  12. Frazer 1990, p. 357.
  13. Dixon 2002, p. 27.
  14. Freud 1950, p. 54.
  15. Freud 1950, p. 57.
  16. Frazer 1922, p. 3.
  17. Freud (1990, 372).Template:Check
  18. Frazer 1922, p. 5.
  19. Freud 1950, p. 58, quoting Wundt 1906, p. 49.
  20. Freud 1950, p. 58.
  21. Freud 1950, p. 59, quoting Westermarck 1906–8, 2, 534f.
  22. Freud 1950, pp. 41–42, quoting Frazer 1911, p. 132.
  23. Frazer 1911, 3f., quoting Bastian 1874–5, [1, 287 & 355].
  24. Frazer 1911, 11f.
  25. Freud 1950, p. 39.
  26. Freud 1950, p. 39, quoting Müller 1857, 2, 252.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Freud 1950, p. 39, quoting Frazer 1911, p. 167.


  • Bastian, A. (1874–5), 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 0-521-47378-0 
  • 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 0-393-00143-1 
  • Holden, Lynn (2000), Encyclopedia of Taboos, Oxford: ABC-Clio Ltd, ISBN 1-57607-069-7 
  • 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 

External links