On South Pacific trade winds, the word taboo cruised into Western lexicons. European sailors, in eighteenth-century rigging, discovered that people on the islands of Fiji and Tonga referred to certain actions as tapu, forbidden. Owing to deafness or dyslexia, the first chronicler of the word rendered it into English as taboo. The misspelling and the mispronunciation stuck.
(It’s curious that, half a world away in the near East, the ancient Hebrews used the word toba for the same meaning: that which is forbidden. There may be a lexical connection between tapu and toba.)
Taboo is that which is prohibited in the religions.
It is likely that some taboos were identified after simple trial and error based upon real effects: eat leftover pig meat in 125 degrees Fahrenheit (51 Celsius) and witness the effects. Pork eating is taboo. Other acts were declared taboo based on unreal, magical effects: caress yourself too many times and in time you will become blind.
Keep in mind that an act became taboo because it had been performed and is still being performed. Real or imagined effects of performing the act followed, and then the banning of the act followed this. Any prohibitive law presumes a felt need for that law and the prohibited act is being performed at the time the law is enunciated.
In various religions there have been food taboos, things a person should not eat, such as other people, and lizards, and elephants, donkeys, vultures, camels, birds, cows, horses, snails, whales, rats, cats, dogs, hogs and frogs. (The rhymes were accidental).
There have been drink taboos, targeting alcohol, coffee, tea, and chocolate. Again, all were ingested, and then the supposed ill effects followed, and then prohibitions followed that.
There have been sex taboos, with an exhaustive list of forbidden sex partners: grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, yourself, children, thy neighbor’s wife, thy neighbor’s husband, thy or thy neighbor’s cattle, thy or thy neighbor’s dead grandmother, dead grandfather, dead mother, dead father, dead sister, dead brother, dead aunt, dead uncle, dead wife, or dead cattle. All tried, all proscribed.
Bodily functions have been declared taboo, not in the sense of being forbidden (because they are involuntary) but in the sense of being impure: menstruation, defecation and its close ally urination.
Some words in some religions have been pronounced taboo and therefore unspeakable, like the name of a God or the name of a king, or obscenities.
Taboo is the severest kind of restriction on a certain kind of behavior, but a troubling weakness of taboo is that the label ‘taboo’ might never serve to eradicate taboo behavior.
Within the Catholic Church, child molestation is undoubtedly taboo and will always be taboo. But it is taboo in word only, not necessarily in practice, and that is because the coverup of priestly crimes is itself not taboo. To protect the Church, a prelate may lie. Lying for the supposed greater good of the Church has never been labelled taboo.
Child molestation will therefore not be eradicated in the Catholic Church until the culture of coverups and the serviceable lie are made unlawful, sinful, illicit, taboo. This is a matter that a Pope may mend.
Featured image ‘Taboo’ by Robin Zebrowski via Flickr