All about Taboo

Taboo: A Taboo is essentially anything that is considered to be immoral or wrong by the norms of society.

What is a Taboo?

 A taboo is anything that is forbidden or frowned upon as per society norms. Anything that may be considered immoral or wrong by society is essentially said to be taboo. The taboos may be based in cultural or moral beliefs; things that we generally consider as wrong, such as adultery, theft, murder or cannibalism. There are also a number of taboos that maybe influenced by religion; for example, many religions consider being gay as taboo or some religions prohibit eating meat from certain animals.

Where does the word taboo come from?

The word, taboo is derived from the Tongan ‘tapu’ or Fijian ‘tabu’. The Tongan, ‘tapu’ means, "consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed," whereas the Fijian ‘tabu’ is defined as “prohibited, disallowed, forbidden.”

The word was introduced to English, when Captain James Cook was discovering Polynesia. He arrived in Tonga, which was then referred to as the Friendly Islands. When dinner was served, the Tongans refused to eat anything, claiming that everything was ‘taboo’ or forbidden for them.

Cook published this scene in the books chronicling his adventures, and hence introduced the term, ‘taboo’ to the Western World.

How do Taboos change in different societies?

Taboos vary over different societies, cultures, religions, etc. Something that may be accepted in one culture or society, may be taboo is another. For example:  Most societies consider eating dogs as taboo, whereas there are certain regions in East Asia, where dog meat is considered a delicacy.

Most religions have their own set of taboos. These taboos become generalized in cultures, where that religion is predominant. For example: In Hinduism, it is taboo to eat cattle. Hence, in India, where Hinduism is predominant, cattle meat is not easily available. Once, it was impossible to find cattle meat in India, as cows were worshiped in the olden days. Due to globalization and influx of people belonging to other religions, cattle meat is now available at some specialty stores and restaurants.

How do taboos change over time?

 Over time, societies must adapt and change. Due to globalization, increase of literacy, and the rise of rationalism and science has led to changing and modernization of certain beliefs.

For example:

  • Once it was taboo for women to work in any profession, this now considered hogwash.
  • Once it was taboo for women to show any part of the leg above the ankle, now women proudly dress in bikinis. However, some cultures still have taboos on how much skin is acceptable for women to show.
  • It was once taboo to discuss sexuality, menstrual cycles, rape, abortion, etc. While, it may still be frowned upon in some cultures, many are now addressing these issues openly and promoting open discussions on the topic.
  • In some cultures, human sacrifice, cannibalism, etc. was once acceptable, however these are now generally considered taboo by all cultures.

What are some examples of Taboos?

There are various types of taboos. They may range from small rules applicable to you, your family, and your community; to bigger taboos which are frowned upon by members of a particular religion, citizens of a particular region or country to all of humanity in general.

Small Taboos:

  • Coming home after curfew
  • Talking with your mouth full
  • Discussing religion or politics at dinner
  • Interrupting somebody while speaking
  • Speaking profanity

Cultural Taboos:

  • Murder
  • Theft
  • Partaking drugs
  • Underage drinking
  • Drinking and Driving
  • Abortion
  • Discussing sex, masturbation, menstrual cycles, etc.
  • Nudity

Religious Taboos:

  • Marrying outside of the religion
  • Eating some foods, such as cattle, port, rat, dog, etc.
  • Eating food not prepared in a particular way, such as halal or kosher
  • Homosexuality
  • Intermarriage

Major Taboos:

  • Cannibalism
  • Incest
  • Rape
  • Necrophilia
  • Pedophilia
  • Bestiality
  • Human Sacrifice


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