The notion of taboo has a peculiar history: it was originally a Polynesian term referring to a ritual prohibition against contact with a thing, an animal, or a person. The term eventually became a widely discussed anthropological concept, and finally, in its last avatar, has been adopted by most languages to refer to something that is strictly and collectively forbidden. This wide recognition stems from the fact that every culture has things that are forbidden for religious reasons. Certain beings or objects are thought to possess a kind of substance that renders them untouchable or unapproachable. In some cases, they may be thought of as particularly pure; in other cases, on the contrary, it is their extreme impurity that entails the obligation to keep them apart. The violation of a taboo has different consequences: sometimes it leads only to some temporary defilement but, in other cases, it can be considered a crime. Finally, as far as people are concerned, the notion of taboo applies to persons at both ends of the social ladder: kings as well as untouchables, priests as well as hermits. But in some ritual circumstances, nearly everyone can be the object of some kind of taboo: in transitory states, for instance during the liminal stages of rites of passage, ordinary people are also considered to be taboo.
The word taboo was first used in the English language by Captain James Cook, who, as early as 1777, reported that some chiefs in Tonga were not allowed to behave like common people: they were taboo, Cook explained. The first European observers were not quite sure whether taboo meant "sacred" or "defiled." This uncertainty is probably due to the fact that the concept is ambivalent, and can mean both, depending on the case. Later scholars often pointed out this paradox: in his major study on the subject, Franz Steiner insisted that the Brahman was just as taboo as the untouchable. In the Polynesian context, the word taboo has largely been thought to be inseparable from the idea of mana, a term that refers to the religious power or force attached to some people or objects. A chief is said to possess mana, and is considered to be taboo by virtue of this power. The idea of mana was once given great importance in some anthropological writings: Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), for example, devotes a great deal of attention to the idea of mana in his studies of the gift and magic. Yet later observers noticed that mana was finally an empty concept that meant hardly more than a "thing" or a "thingamajig": and as it means nothing, it can be taken to mean anything.
The concept of taboo soon became part of the English language, but even before then it was widely discussed by early anthropologists. While it had fallen out of fashion by the end of the twentieth century and was hardly considered an essential anthropological concept, this was not the case in the nineteenth century, when it was seen as something that had to be explained by anthropologists. The "primitives," it was then thought, lived in a world dominated by taboo. James Frazer, for instance, regarded taboo as a symptom of irrationality: primitive man, he argued, believed he lived in a world full of supernatural dangers, and he protected himself by maintaining a distance between himself and those threats. Frazer's description of numerous cases of taboo and his interpretation of it were deeply influential and permeated Sigmund Freud's views on "primitive" societies. According to Freud (1856–1939), society derived from psychology, and this was particularly clear in "primitive" societies. In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud assimilates the primitive human to a neurotic, and the concept of taboo plays a significant role in supporting this equation. According to the father of psychoanalysis, the multitude of fears and prohibitions in which the "savage" lives parallels the world of the neurotic. Furthermore, people forbid only what they desire and are therefore always ambivalent toward their prohibitions. This is particularly true of the incest prohibition, which Freud labeled the incest taboo: the mother is a forbidden sexual partner because she is the object of an intense desire. All other taboos, such as food taboos, are only extensions of the fundamental incest taboo.
Like his contemporaries, Freud considerably exaggerated the importance of fear and prohibition in preindustrial societies. Modern anthropologists soon realized that the people they studied did not live in a world dominated by prohibitions of all kinds. It is interesting to note that Captain Cook had seen the Polynesians' taboos as more funny than frightening, and later, modernist anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) and native authors from tribal societies alike commented on the variability of attitudes toward taboos. At one extreme is the strict adherence of the religious to dietary restrictions, an attitude as likely to be found among urban sophisticates as isolated tribesmen, and at the other the relaxed and humorous attention noted by Cook. In the early 2000s anthropologists no longer considered taboo to be a unitary category. Malinowski opined that taboos are most strictly observed in arenas where technical competence is least likely to yield predictable results, an observation later extended to the study of contemporary professional athletes, who often observe personal rituals and taboos with great rigor before major games.
The term itself remains useful, as there is no other word to refer to what is both dangerous and forbidden. It resurfaced in the mid-twentieth century in the work of the anthropologist Marvin Harris, who considered that all prohibitions, and food taboos in particular, are not arbitrary but result from the material conditions in which people live: the taboo on eating cow or pig was dictated by the economic conditions in which Hindus and Arabs lived. On the whole, Harris's explanations are rather unconvincing and certainly fail to establish a true determination. In another vein, Mary Douglas notes that purity taboos cannot be explained by considerations of cleanliness. Dirtiness, she maintains, has first of all to be understood within a system of symbols and cannot be taken as an isolated phenomenon: what is pure exists only as the contrary of what is impure. Thus, taboos belong to a category or a system of classification.
As a general category, the concept of taboo illustrates the differences that divide contemporary anthropologists: those who seek a general understanding of humanity find some usefulness in broad concepts such as this. Others argue that it can be useful only at the cost of a serious impoverishment of social realities. Yet the fact remains that we have no other concept to describe socioreligious prohibitions.
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