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Chapter 21. Tabooed Things
1. The Meaning of Taboo.
THUS in primitive society the rules of ceremonial purity observed by divine kings,
chiefs, and priests agree in many respects with the rules observed by homicides,
mourners, women in childbed, girls at puberty, hunters and fishermen, and so on. To us
these various classes of persons appear to differ totally in character and condition; some
of them we should call holy, others we might pronounce unclean and polluted. But the
savage makes no such moral distinction between them; the conceptions of holiness and
pollution are not yet differentiated in his mind. To him the common feature of all these
persons is that they are dangerous and in danger, and the danger in which they stand and
to which they expose others is what we should call spiritual or ghostly, and therefore
imaginary. The danger, however, is not less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts
upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic
acid. To seclude these persons from the rest of the world so that the dreaded spiritual
danger shall neither reach them nor spread from them, is the object of the taboos which
they have to observe. These taboos act, so to say, as electrical insulators to preserve the
spiritual force with which these persons are charged from suffering or inflicting harm by
contact with the outer world.
To the illustrations of these general principles which have been already given I shall now
add some more, drawing my examples, first, from the class of tabooed things, and,
second, from the class of tabooed words; for in the opinion of the savage both things and
words may, like persons, be charged or electrified, either temporarily or permanently,
with the mysterious virtue of taboo, and may therefore require to be banished for a longer
or shorter time from the familiar usage of common life. And the examples will be chosen
with special reference to those sacred chiefs, kings and priests, who, more than anybody
else, live fenced about by taboo as by a wall. Tabooed things will be illustrated in the
present chapter, and tabooed words in the next.
2. Iron tabooed.
IN THE FIRST place we may observe that the awful sanctity of kings naturally leads to a
prohibition to touch their sacred persons. Thus it was unlawful to lay hands on the person
of a Spartan king: no one might touch the body of the king or queen of Tahiti: it is
forbidden to touch the person of the king of Siam under pain of death; and no one may
touch the king of Cambodia, for any purpose whatever, without his express command. In
July 1874 the king was thrown from his carriage and lay insensible on the ground, but not
one of his suite dared to touch him; a European coming to the spot carried the injured
monarch to his palace. Formerly no one might touch the king of Corea; and if he deigned
to touch a subject, the spot touched became sacred, and the person thus honoured had to
wear a visible mark (generally a cord of red silk) for the rest of his life. Above all, no iron
might touch the king's body. In 1800 King Tieng-tsong-tai-oang died of a tumour in the
back, no one dreaming of employing the lancet, which would probably have saved his