Taboo (or Tabu or Tapu)
A Polynesian word meaning ‘‘prohibited’’ and signifying a
prohibition enforced by religious or magical power, which has
come to be applied to similar usages among primitive peoples
all over the world. It also has parallels in the religious codes of
sophisticated societies, as in the early Hebrew term Kherem (‘‘set
apart’’ or prohibited), and in the highly developed social etiquette
of modern society.
Taboo, or prohibition, was enforced in the cases of sacred
things and unclean things. In the first instance, the taboo was
placed on the object because of the possession by it of inherent
mysterious power. But taboo might be imposed by a chief or
priest. It would be used for the protection of important individuals,
the safeguarding of the weak, women, children, and slaves
from the magical influence of more highly-placed individuals,
against danger incurred by handling or coming in contact with
corpses, or eating certain foods, and the securing of human beings
against the power of supernatural agencies, or the depredations
of thieves.
Taboo could be sanctioned by social use or instinct. The violation
of a taboo made the offender taboo; taboos, like various
kinds of social uncleanliness, were transmissible, but the taboo
could be thrown off by magical or purificatory ceremonies. It
might last for a short period, or be imposed for eternity.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Taboo (or Tabu or Tapu)
It may be said that the practice of taboo was instituted
through human instinct for human convenience. This applies
of course merely to the most simple type of taboo. It was, for
example, forbidden to reap or steal the patch of corn dedicated
to an agricultural deity, for the simple reason that his wrath
would be incurred by so doing. Similarly it was taboo to devour
the flesh of the totem animal of the tribe, except in special circumstances
with the object of achieving communion with him.
It was taboo to interfere in any manner with the affairs of the
shamans or medicine men, also a type of the imposed taboo for
the convenience of a certain caste. It was prohibited to marry
a woman of the same totem as oneself, because all the members
of a totemic band are supposed to be consanguineous; such a
union might incur the wrath of the patron deity. A very strict
taboo was put upon the witnessing of certain ritual instruments
belonging to some primitive tribes, but this only applied to
women and uninitiated men. It was considered a degradation
for women to behold sacred implements.
If taboo does not spring directly from the system known as
totemism, it was strongly influenced by it—that is, many intricate
taboos arose from the totemic system. There was also the
taboo of the sorcerer; it in effect was merely a spell placed upon
a certain object, which makes it become useless to others.
Taboo, or its remains, can still be found even in modernized
communities. From its use the feeling of reverence for ancient
institutions and those who represent them is undoubtedly derived.
Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough. Vol. 3 of Taboo and the
Perils of the Soul. New York Macmillan, 1935.
Ganzfried, Rabbi Solomon. Code of Jewish Law (Kitzur Schulchan
Aruch). New York Hebrew Publishing, 1927.
Mead, Margaret. Inquiry Into the Question of Cultural Stability
in Polynesia. New York Columbia University, 1928. Reprint,
New York AMS Press, 1981.
Webster, Hutton. Taboo A Sociological Study. Palo Alto,
Calif. Stanford University Press, 1942. Reprint, London Octagon,