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Chapter 19. Tabooed Acts
1. Taboos on Intercourse with Strangers
SO much for the primitive conceptions of the soul and the dangers to which it is exposed.
These conceptions are not limited to one people or country; with variations of detail they
are found all over the world, and survive, as we have seen, in modern Europe. Beliefs so
deep-seated and so widespread must necessarily have contributed to shape the mould in
which the early kingship was cast. For if every person was at such pains to save his own
soul from the perils which threatened it on so many sides, how much more carefully must
he have been guarded upon whose life hung the welfare and even the existence of the
whole people, and whom therefore it was the common interest of all to preserve?
Therefore we should expect to find the king's life protected by a system of precautions or
safeguards still more numerous and minute than those which in primitive society every
man adopts for the safety of his own soul. Now in point of fact the life of the early kings
is regulated, as we have seen and shall see more fully presently, by a very exact code of
rules. May we not then conjecture that these rules are in fact the very safeguards which
we should expect to find adopted for the protection of the king's life? An examination of
the rules themselves confirms this conjecture. For from this it appears that some of the
rules observed by the kings are identical with those observed by private persons out of
regard for the safety of their souls; and even of those which seem peculiar to the king,
many, if not all, are most readily explained on the hypothesis that they are nothing but
safeguards or lifeguards of the king. I will now enumerate some of these royal rules or
taboos, offering on each of them such comments and explanations as may serve to set the
original intention of the rule in its proper light.
As the object of the royal taboos is to isolate the king from all sources of danger, their
general effect is to compel him to live in a state of seclusion, more or less complete,
according to the number and stringency of the rules he observes. Now of all sources of
danger none are more dreaded by the savage than magic and witchcraft, and he suspects
all strangers of practising these black arts. To guard against the baneful influence exerted
voluntarily or involuntarily by strangers is therefore an elementary dictate of savage
prudence. Hence before strangers are allowed to enter a district, or at least before they are
permitted to mingle freely with the inhabitants, certain ceremonies are often performed
by the natives of the country for the purpose of disarming the strangers of their magical
powers, of counteracting the baneful influence which is believed to emanate from them,
or of disinfecting, so to speak, the tainted atmosphere by which they are supposed to be
surrounded. Thus, when the ambassadors sent by Justin II., Emperor of the East, to
conclude a peace with the Turks had reached their destination, they were received by
shamans, who subjected them to a ceremonial purification for the purpose of exorcising
all harmful influence. Having deposited the goods brought by the ambassadors in an open
place, these wizards carried burning branches of incense round them, while they rang a
bell and beat on a tambourine, snorting and falling into a state of frenzy in their efforts to
dispel the powers of evil. Afterwards they purified the ambassadors themselves by
leading them through the flames. In the island of Nanumea (South Pacific) strangers from