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.