Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Also tabu, tapu, kapu ; a prohibition of acts and/or contacts dangerous to the doer and his or her group.

Captain James Cook first heard the word in 1777 at Tonga and found the idea of taboo even more prevalent on the Sandwich Islands. Cook discovered that the term had wide usage among various groups in the South Pacific, signifying that a thing is forbidden. Violation of some taboos was punishable by death. When social scientists began the study of religions, the term was used to indicate the cautions set up by groups to guard against behavior or objects thought to be spiritually dangerous.

Taboo stands for all fear-inspired inhibitions proceeding from religious beliefs. The social scientific meaning focuses on supernatural penalties and reduces emphasis on human sanctions. Violation of group codes or contact with sources of infection is considered to be an immediate threat to the individual. He or she acquires a contagion that might spread to the whole group. Groups tend to be more concerned with purification rather than punishment. Coming into contact with a certain object or situation requires special rituals in order for the individual to be safe for social relations.

Many taboos are associated with blood and death. In many societies, corpses are thought to have contagious qualities that require destruction or abandonment of objects that touched them. Relatives and mourners may require purification rituals before normal life can resume. Blood from menstruation or childbirth is often taboo, requiring isolation and purification rituals for those in contact.

R. R. Marett conducted a psychological study of taboos in The Threshold of Religion (Methuen 1909). J. G. Frazer included a volume, Taboo and the Perils of the Soul , in Part II of The Golden Bough (St. Martin's 1990 [1913]). Sigmund Freud, stimulated in part by Frazer's work, attempted to relate primitive taboos to psychoneurosis in Totem and Taboo (Moffat 1919). Although Freud's efforts were naive from an anthropological vantage point, his theories had profound impacts on his followers.

Taboos often function to support status hierarchies. For example, women may be prohibited from eating certain foods or touching certain objects. Those who might violate a prohibition are placed in a weakened position because they might unknowingly be bringing bad fortune to the group.

Modern anthropologists such as Marvin Harris (1993) note that taboos diminish dissent, compel conformity, and resolve ambiguities. These qualities allow taboos to fulfill both social and ecological functions. The incest taboo, which prohibits sexual relationships within culturally proscribed kin relationships, prevents people from succumbing to temptations that would bring short-term satisfaction but long-term negative consequences. Because of the incest taboo, family members are prohibited from dysfunctional activities and directed toward mating behaviors that establish beneficial relationships with outside groups. The taboo's religious quality removes doubts and ambiguities that might otherwise occur. Incest taboos do not stop all prohibited behavior, but they bring doubts and psychological conflicts under more effective social control.

Harris argues that prohibitions against eating pork or beef fulfill similar positive functions. In areas where deforestation has occurred, such as in the Middle East, the raising of pigs became ecologically unsound. As a consequence, the ancient Israelites prohibited the consumption of pork, removing the temptation to engage in that ecologically damaging activity. Once in existence, the prohibition against eating pork (and other foods) became a means of demarcating Jewish from non-Jewish groups and of establishing group identity and solidarity. Taboos against eating beef in India fulfill similar functions. By using cows only for traction power and as a source of fertilizer, the land could be used more efficiently for raising grain fed mainly to humans.

In summary, the word taboo has a variety of connotations. The South Pacific word was redefined by social scientists. The term also has acquired a broader definition within general language to mean "forbidden by traditional or general usage."

James McClenon


J. Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean (London: Nicol and Cadell, 1784)

M. Harris, Culture, People, Nature , 6th ed. (New York: Harper, 1993).

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