Taboo in Primitive Society


The Daughter of Herodias.  Public domain.

The numinous, that is the combined attitudes of both attraction and awe, has been an almost constant aspect of man’s relations with what he regards the supernatural. Taboos (tabus) are sets of negative rules, negative sanctions and prohibitions according to Margaret Mead, and interdictions in the terminology of Emile Durkheim.

The system of taboo is the non-casual and reverent manner in which the supernatural can be approached. The function of taboo is that it is predominantly psychological, originating from man’s fear of that which he does not understand. As a result taboos engender fear and respect for the supernatural, sustaining awesomeness of the supernatural. Obviously there is reinforcement of attitudes of care, and the mystery. There being punishment of attitudes of carelessness, and the profane. Taboo is also a mechanism whereby there can be a separation of social groups, for example the separation of the lower from the higher. Thus the attachment of reverence and sanctity to kingship and the priesthood. Violators of taboos become the object of communal vengeance in primitive societies, examples being found in the transgression of the laws of exogamy.

Mary Douglas developed the concept in Purity and Danger (1966) that primitive religions are inspired by fear, and that at the same time are inextricably confused with defilement and hygiene. Equating hygiene with dirt in general, dirt becomes essentially comparable with, and represents disorder. Following from this concept the elimination of dirt is not a negative act but a positive effort to organise the environment, to create order. This reordering of the environment is a creative function, a unifying experience and makes the purification of primitive society conform their idea. Whether this idea is an ‘a priori’ notion, or a reflection derived from society was not absolutely made clear. Was the ‘idea’ man’s concept of society and the supernatural? Or was the ‘idea’ the ‘supernatural’?

Mary Douglas continues by saying that rituals of purity and impurity create unity in experience. Therefore we can deduce that the symbolic patterns that are worked out and displayed have a social purpose. People therefore try to influence one another’s behaviour and beliefs, and thus reinforce and exert social pressures. Political power it was claimed is usually held precariously, but this was no exception in primitive society. Hence the legitimate pretensions of the rulers, kings and priests, were reinforced by beliefs in extraordinary powers that emanated from their persons, insignia and utterances. Here we have an example of taboos which are a reinforcement of reverence for status.

The ideal order of society is guarded by what are termed ‘ dangers’, and these dangers threaten transgressors. The danger beliefs being used as an effective means of mutual exhortation. Thus a development from this situation is that certain moral vales are upheld and certain social rules are defined by beliefs in the contagious nature of danger. These therefore pollution beliefs can be used in a dialogue, a negotiation of claims and counter-claims in status.

The ideas of separation, purification, demarcation, and the punishment of transgressions has the main aim of imposing a system on what was described as an inherently untidy experience. That these ideas exaggerate the differences between such opposite concepts as ‘within’ and ‘without’; ‘above’ and ‘below’; ‘male’ and ‘female” ‘with’ and ‘against’. Through this system of concepts of taboos there emerges a semblance of order in the society concerned. From the above the conclusion drawn was that the symbolic structures of primitive religions gave scope for the meditation and reflection on the relation of order and disorder. As well as such polarities as ‘being’ and ‘non-being’; ‘formed’ and ‘formlessness’; and ‘life’ to ‘death’.

Emile Durkheim took the view that on the origin of the word ‘taboo’, and especially in the Polynesian languages, the word was used to designate the “…institution in virtue of which certain things are withdrawn from the common use.” John Lewis defined taboo as a “…restraint or prohibition placed against certain acts, words and things, which if violated, lead to an automatic penalty inflicted by magic or religion.” Of interest to note is that taboos connected with animals or plants are related to totemism.

A more conclusive analysis of taboo was put forward by Franz Steiner. It being stated that taboo was concerned with all the social mechanisms of obedience which had ritual significance. That this was of the nature of specific and restrictive behaviour in relation to dangerous situations. Hence taboo deals with the social aspect of danger itself, being concerned with it in two main directions. Firstly, the protection of individuals in danger, and secondly, the protection of society from those endangered, that is to say, dangerous persons. About which Steiner said “…taboo is an important element in all those situations in which attitudes to values are expressed in terms of danger behaviour.”

It is restrictive behaviour which ensures the power of the charm, the charm or taboo being intended to impose on others in the interest of others for example the protection of property. Thus it is the involvement of taboos that renders danger controllable by institutionalised society. Steiner declared danger to be not a quantitative concept – to face danger being to face another power. Hence taboos narrow danger, this narrowing down having the effect of localising danger. This localisation of danger to part of and not the whole, is the function of taboo. Social relations then become describable in terms of danger, through the contagion of danger there is social participation in danger. Taboo then has two quite separate, but interdependent social functions. Firstly, the identification and classification of dangers and transgressions. Secondly, the institutionalised localisation of that which is the danger – hence protection of society.

The concept of ritual taboo is as widespread as the concept of ritual power, taboo being an aspect of ritual power. Taboo rests upon the belief, like ritual power, in the efficacy of symbols. Efficacy being the capacity to produce an effect, a mode of effecting a result. Taboos can be very effective indeed, and may be a strong deterrent or enhancement of status and prestige. In relation to all ritual taboo is an essential part of reinforcement processes. reinforcement of values upon adherence to which  the smooth running of society depends, hence the effect of taboos in the social cohesions they exert.

Human Sciences essay (1971-1974).


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