Archive for the ‘Defining Taboo’ Category

Defining Taboo

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Defining Taboo

“One might say that taboo deals with the sociology of danger itself […]”[1] Yet even this definition is too restrictive. As taboo deals with restrictions of either the universal or the particular, it is interesting how taboo itself cannot be restricted in its definition. No single definition can encompass what it means for something to be taboo. However there are certain categories and words that repeat when discussing taboo, namely that it revolves around some form of restriction.

At the beginning of Franz Steiner’s book Taboo he attempts to define taboo, but instead ends up introducing several possible definitions. Nevertheless, he creates a significant outline for the meaning of the word. Steiner writes that taboo focuses on four aspects: 1) obedience and ritual significance; 2) specific and restrictive behavior in dangerous situations; 3) protection of individuals; 4) protection of society.[2]

These categories are heavily related to taboo, but I think it is important to point out two things. First, the “dangerous situations” here might be real or imagined. Second, despite taboo having a focus on the individual, the society as a whole is needed to create a restriction. In other words, society creates taboos and individuals perpetuate them (or destroy them in some instances.)

Here then are four categories for which I think most taboos exist:

1. Protection (real or imagined)

2. Disgust

3. Fear

4. Exclusion or Inclusion (segregation)

Although a definitive definition is hard to come by, a simple way to understand taboo is to make it synonymous with restriction or prohibition. This however is perhaps too narrow a definition for understanding reasons behind taboo.

[1] Franz Steiner, Taboo (New York: Psychology Press, 2004) 20-21.

[2] Ibid.

In every age, the worst time is the time that people live in. For instance, in the history of Ancient Rome one could find numerous historians proclaiming it the worst age. But I doubt many think—at least not today—that the fall of Rome was, in fact, the worst time. And right now you will hear many preaching of this current century as being the worst. And it won’t just be preachers saying this. Many people will say this.
Although I won’t go as far as proclaiming this age (the 21st century) as the worst of all ages, I will say that this age is much different than any other age that has come before. It is possible that technology has made this most volatile for the individual. Dangers always exist for any society as whole. Wars will always exist, at least as long as there are footprints to be left by man. And yet, never before has an individual had access to trauma at all times.
The era of Internet news, and other various mediums has allowed for a constant overload of bad times for an individual’s mind. At all times one can find a story detailing a mother eating her children, or a person shooting another, or even still a threat of nuclear warfare or a possible act terrorism. Always, we are barraged with host of terrible sights. And thanks to Television and the Internet we can watch these terrible sights over and over again.
Breakdown is a tree that grows in every age and in every environment, and it doesn’t need water to prosper.
These days, it is hard to look into someone’s eyes and not question if they might kill you. Somehow the increased ability to connect with others around the world has led to, perhaps like never before, a growing impersonality.

Today, numerous news outlets reported of the potential for a new law in Egypt called the “farewell intercourse” law.  Although the validity of the law has come into question, and it seems that the law may never come to pass, the very mention of such a law speaks to the most destructive plight that mankind faces in the dawn of the technological era or the 21st century. As the 19th and 20th centuries were ages of mass production and individualism, the 21st century will readily go down as the age of technology, but it might as well also be remembered as the age of man. Perhaps Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was quite prophetic in its discussion of the loss of God, a similar idea to Nietzsche’s death of God.

The “farewell intercourse” law would allow either husband or wife to have sex with his or her deceased spouse up to six hours after death. What would happen to someone after six hours is yet unknown, but the arbitrary six-hour time limit seems to be of some importance. Even though such a law seems that it could be attached to some fictional book or film, it is important to realize that necrophilia (sexual intercourse with a corpse) must have been an important part of ancient societies for it to be a taboo.

No taboo can become a taboo unless it was once, to some extent, widely practiced. If people weren’t prone to killing one another, there would be no need for a law against murder. Thus, sleeping with corpses must’ve had its roots in our distant past. The reason for its decline into taboo might’ve come from a wide variety of sources, anything ranging from health reasons to religious ones. (One should note that the story of Achilles involves an act of necrophilia with a dead Amazon named Penthesilea.)

If this law is based on religious reasons, or social reasons, or whatever the reasons may be it cannot be overstated that the recent push for freedom and equality lessens the strength of taboos. What taboo of today might be the next to crumble?