A taboo is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment. Such prohibitions are present in virtually all societies. The word has been somewhat expanded in the social sciences to strong prohibitions relating to any area of human activity or custom that is sacred or forbidden based on moral judgment and religious beliefs. "Breaking a taboo" is usually considered objectionable by society in general, not merely a subset of a culture.
The term "taboo" comes from the Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu ("prohibited", "disallowed", "forbidden"), related among others to the Maori tapu, Hawaiian kapu, Malagasy fady. Its English use dates to 1777 when the British explorer James Cook visited Tonga. Describing the cultural practices of 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 eaten, or made use of, they say, that it is taboo.
The term was translated to him as "consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed". Tabu itself has been derived from alleged Tongan morphemes ta ("mark") and bu ("especially"), but this may be a folk etymology (note that Tongan does not actually have a phoneme /b/), and tapu is usually treated as a unitary, non-compound word inherited from Proto-Polynesian *tapu, in turn inherited from Proto-Oceanic *tabu, with the reconstructed meaning "sacred, forbidden". In its current use on Tonga, the word tapu means "sacred" or "holy", often in the sense of being restricted or protected by custom or law. On the main island, the word is often appended to the end of "Tonga" as Tongatapu, here meaning "Sacred South" rather than "Forbidden South".
Sigmund Freud posited that incest and patricide were the only two universal taboos and formed the basis of civilization. However, although cannibalism, in-group murder, and incest are taboo in the majority of societies, modern research has found exceptions for each and no taboo is known to be universal.
Common taboos involve restrictions or ritual regulation of killing and hunting; sex and sexual relationships (primarily incest, necrophilia, miscegenation, adultery, fornication, pedophilia, homosexuality, intermarriage, bestiality, and masturbation); reproduction (abortion, infanticide); the deceased and their graves; as well as food and dining (primarily cannibalism and dietary laws such as vegetarianism, kashrut, and halal). In Madagascar, a strong code of taboos, known as fady, constantly change and are formed from new experiences. Each region, village or tribe may have its own fady.
The word "taboo" gained popularity at times, with some scholars looking for ways to apply it where other English words had previously been applied. For example, J. M. Powis Smith, in his "The American Bible" (editor's preface 1927), used "taboo" occasionally in relation to Israel's Tabernacle and ceremonial laws, including Exodus 30:36, 29:37; Numbers 16:37,38; Deuteronomy 22:9, Isaiah 65:5, Ezekiel 44:19 and 46:20.
Communist and materialist theorists have argued that taboos can be used to reveal the histories of societies when other records are lacking. Marvin Harris particularly endeavored to explain taboos as a consequence of ecologic and economic conditions.
Changing social customs and standards also create new taboos, such as bans on slavery; extension of the pedophilia taboo to ephebophilia; prohibitions on alcohol, tobacco, or psychopharmaceutical consumption (particularly among pregnant women); and the employment of politically correct euphemisms – at times quite unsuccessfully – to mitigate various alleged forms of discrimination.
Incest itself has been pulled both ways, with some seeking to normalize consensual adult relationships regardless of the degree of kinship (notably in Europe) and others expanding the degrees of prohibited contact (notably in the United States).
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- Cook, James; King, James (1821). A voyage to the Pacific Ocean: undertaken by command of His Majesty, for making discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere : performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore : in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780 : being a copious, comprehensive, and satisfactory abridgement of the voyage. Printed for Champante and Whitrow ... and M. Watson; 1793.
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