Taboo (tabu).

The numinous refers to the attraction and awe in combination. Taboos are sets of negative rules considering things that one must not do. They are the means whereby the supernatural can be approached in a reverential, non-casual manner. The function of taboo is predominantly psychological. Taboos originate in man’s fear and respect for the supernatural. Taboo sustains the awesomeness of the supernatural and reinforces attitudes of care and mystery. Taboos act as punishment for attitudes of carelessness and profanity. Taboos are also a mechanism of separation of higher groups from lower groups, and attach reverence to the kingship and the priesthood. A violator of taboo becomes the object of communal vengeance in primitive society. An example is the violation of the law of exogamy.

There are taboos concerning birth and death. The mystery of life and death is supernatural to primitive man, and so accordingly taboos develop. The mysterious processes of the nature of reproduction are viewed with reverence and awe. From the attainment of puberty women are surrounded with innumerable taboos, particularly concerning pregnancy and childbirth. At these time the woman is sacred and therefore dangerous and possesses mystic influence. Taboos are associated with death and any person who comes in contact with a corpse is rendered taboo. This taboo is contagious and thus the prohibitions concerning death extend to the whole house, family and clan.

There are a number of taboos and rituals that are centred around the warrior. The vessels used are sacred. Continence and personal cleanliness must be observed before battle. Care must be taken to prevent the enemy obtaining anything by which they can work their magic. Blood is potent and a slayer in battle and is as dangerous as a pregnant woman. He must touch nobody and nor go near the tribe until he has performed the necessary purificatory rites.

Taboos relate to the thing feared. The supernatural is a help in trouble, but is also a source of danger and disaster if it is not handles circumspectfully and propitiated. These are acts of appeasement, atonement, conciliation and expiation. Purification takes place after visits from ancestral spirits. A crop failure is the result of a broken taboo, a matter of pollution, and unexpiated defilement. Hence the cruelty of many primitive rites. This cruelty takes the form of human sacrifices, tearing to pieces of living animals. The roots of these rites are in terror – the terror of the breach of the taboo, a terror of the forbidden thing.

With taboo and the priesthood priests, and often the king, are regarded as sacred. They are guarded against by profane things. Profane things are not sacred, they are common things. Care must be taken to prevent sacredness from being injuriously communicated to persons or objects. Priests are often required to abstain from meat, shed no blood, and not allow their hair and nails to touch commoners. Every sacred rite requires of the worshipper a similar ritual purity to that of the priest. Prior to participation there is a period of purificatory preliminaries and abstention from the forbidden things. Sacred things are temples, stones, trees, images, and objects of worship.

The concept of ritual taboo is as widespread as ritual power. Taboo is an aspect of ritual power, and rests upon the belief in the efficacy of symbols. Efficacy is the capacity to produce an effect, a mode of effecting a result. Taboos can be very effective indeed, and can discourage  theft and enhance prestige. In relation to all ritual taboo is the essential part played by reinforcement processes. Taboo reinforces values upon adherence to which the smooth running of society depends.


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One response to “Taboo (tabu).

  1. Paleoanthropus sapiens

    ” Anyway – humans share 98.8% of their DNA with the chimpanzee but there is no claim the two species ever interbred”

    Actually, there was a recent suggestion that comes close to that, “complex speciation”, suggesting the possibility of a final episode interbreeding between the human and chimpanzee lineages at about 1 million years ago.

    It’s not impossible for that to have happened (not the preferred hypothesis, though), and it’s far more unlikely than sapiens and neanderthalensis/sapiens-neanderthalensis mating, which wouldn’t be anything extraordinary by any means. The human-chimp split was then something like seven to four million of years ago (then), with neanderthals it was merely five hundred to two hundred fifty thousand years. Baboons are known to hybridize every now and then and their split is estimated to have happened two to four million years ago. There’s this hypothesis that rarely seen “giant chimpanzees” may hybrids of chimpanzees and gorillas, who have split at about eight to thirteen million years ago.

    Unless you’re a creationist or something, there’s a fundamental difference in the finding of genes shared with neanderthals in living non-african humans and the much more global share of genes between humans and chimpanzees, or between humans and bananas. These shared genes “look old” inserted amidst “newer” genes, having less variation than genes present in the human lineage for a longer time. That’s highly suggestive of introgression.

    Where perhaps there’s more room for questioning is whether this hybridization was something very literal, at the end points of lineage divergence, or something more blurred between “strong” hybridization and a scenario that’s may defy the classic “recent origins” and “multiregional” labels. Say, if homo sapiens have a recent african origin, but neanderthals were the ones who evolved in a multiregional fashion, being actually largely hybrids themselves of successive waves of early/proto-sapiens and the European Homo heidelbergensis. The hybridization would go “back” to North Africa and the Levant to some degree while Homo sapiens was still evolving (in an “African multiregional” fashion), and then perhaps these “leftovers” are what was really caught by the North Africans who left to populate Eurasia and replace neanderthals. That’s a form of “incomplete lineage sorting”, I think. And a “second hand” hybridization, so to speak.

    While I think that perhaps an even more ancient incomplete lineage sorting could be ruled out (which is the opinion of most researchers), I think it’s not necessarily the case with this version. I have the impression that it allows for a neutral inheritance of such neanderthal/heidelbergensis genes, rather than an adaptive introgression.

    In the other hand, the finding that Otzi had much more neanderthal genes than present Eurasians do may be better explained by selective forces acting against such neanderthal genes. But I’m not sure, maybe their sheer rarity would make most of them disappear by genetic drift.

    In any case, genetic data is the hard evidence in this subject, and it shows that humanity shares some neanderthal genes, not evenly. Models that explain the genetic data more parsimoniously are preferable over confabulations about their behavior and culture, theories that rest much more on imagination than data. There’s no way one could really know that neanderthals and sapiens (or maybe “pre-sapiens”) wouldn’t ever mate, forcing us to find another explanation for the seemingly introgressed genes.

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