The Golden Bough HTML version

Chapter 20. Tabooed Persons
1. Chiefs and Kings tabooed.
WE have seen that the Mikado's food was cooked every day in new pots and served up in
new dishes; both pots and dishes were of common clay, in order that they might be
broken or laid aside after they had been once used. They were generally broken, for it
was believed that if any one else ate his food out of these sacred dishes, his mouth and
throat would become swollen and inflamed. The same ill effect was thought to be
experienced by any one who should wear the Mikado's clothes without his leave; he
would have swellings and pains all over his body. In Fiji there is a special name (kana
lama) for the disease supposed to be caused by eating out of a chief's dishes or wearing
his clothes. The throat and body swell, and the impious person dies. I had a fine mat
given to me by a man who durst not use it because Thakombau's eldest son had sat upon
it. There was always a family or clan of commoners who were exempt from this danger. I
was talking about this once to Thakombau. 'Oh yes,' said he. 'Here, So-and-so! come and
scratch my back.' The man scratched; he was one of those who could do it with impunity.
The name of the men thus highly privileged was Na nduka ni, or the dirt of the chief.
In the evil effects thus supposed to follow upon the use of the vessels or clothes of the
Mikado and a Fijian chief we see that other side of the god-man's character to which
attention has been already called. The divine person is a source of danger as well as of
blessing; he must not only be guarded, he must also be guarded against. His sacred
organism, so delicate that a touch may disorder it, is also, as it were, electrically charged
with a powerful magical or spiritual force which may discharge itself with fatal effect on
whatever comes in contact with it. Accordingly the isolation of the man-god is quite as
necessary for the safety of others as for his own. His magical virtue is in the strictest
sense of the word contagious: his divinity is a fire, which, under proper restraints, confers
endless blessings, but, if rashly touched or allowed to break bounds, burns and destroys
what it touches. Hence the disastrous effects supposed to attend a breach of taboo; the
offender has thrust his hand into the divine fire, which shrivels up and consumes him on
the spot.
The Nubas, for example, who inhabit the wooded and fertile range of Jebel Nuba in
Eastern Africa, believe that they would die if they entered the house of their priestly king;
however, they can evade the penalty of their intrusion by baring the left shoulder and
getting the king to lay his hand on it. And were any man to sit on a stone which the king
has consecrated to his own use, the transgressor would die within the year. The Cazembes
of Angola regard their king as so holy that no one can touch him without being killed by
the magical power which pervades his sacred person. But since contact with him is
sometimes unavoidable, they have devised a means whereby the sinner can escape with
his life. Kneeling down before the king he touches the back of the royal hand with the
back of his own, then snaps his fingers; afterwards he lays the palm of his hand on the
palm of the king's hand, then snaps his fingers again. This ceremony is repeated four or
five times, and averts the imminent danger of death. In Tonga it was believed that if any