The word “taboo” is a Polynesian term which Western anthropology has adopted to commonly designate systems of regulation within primitive societies. The symbolic matrix of these systems of regulation is found in the ancestral myths which all cultures and peoples have always known and which modern Western societies, to a greater extent, have merely secularized.
Sigmund Freud was one of the first to study this symbolic matrix in his work, Totem and Taboo (1999), giving rise to the term used to designate the common mythical ancestor of all members of a community, venerated under the form of a symbol which not only represents it, but at the same time also contains something of its essence which makes it infinitely sacred and, as such, imbued with an unquestionable authority in the eyes of the community which is incessantly interpreting its will and unhesitatingly and unreservedly following what the people believe are its precepts. Thus, taboo synthesizes the ideas of the sacred and the dangerous, those to be observed and feared and before which one must adopt the most reverent awe. Respect for taboo thus signifies piety before divine will and the fear of the gods.
Organized human communities invariably comprise systems of regulation governing the relationships amongst individuals, of each individual with respect to himself, and the individual with respect to nature. These systems establish a sense of sharing of what is permitted and what is prohibited, which for its part is a reflection of other binary oppositions, such as the sacred and the profane, studied by Mircea Eliade (1999), the clean and unclean, the special focus of Mary Douglas (1991), as well as the public and the private, the proper and the improper, what belongs to us and to others, etc. The system of regulation of the bonds of parenthood, studied by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1996), constitutes a perfect example of the conjugation of these three levels of relationships. This system is based on the taboo of incest, which indicates which relationships are allowable and with which person within the community. The only truly and effectively universal taboo common to all known societies is that of the union of a mother and a son, which constitutes the only true incest. Based on the taboo of incest, Lévi-Strauss conceived of a complete system of binary oppositions taking into account the organization of human societies according to the rules of parenthood which make up one of the frameworks of the structuralist currents found in the social sciences.
The ritual observance of sharing/interplay amongst what is clean and unclean (objects, persons, parts of the body, food, animals and plants, etc.) is a particular illustration of the practical function of taboo, which does not signify but rather imply that taboo is not included in a coherent system of beliefs. Thus, the literal injunction that a taboo always carries with it, that of law which compels a certain type of action or the prohibition of another type of action (for example, the choosing or refusal of a certain sexual partner, or at which specific times one may or may not eat a type of food, or which way it may be prepared, etc.) expresses in the same way a coherent type of rules of behaviour that aim at safeguarding the individual and the community in their relationships with natural phenomena and other humans, and with contamination and pollution, which, when they occur, make a cleansing ritual necessary, which may take the form of a sacrifice. Taboo is thus part at the core of the organization of hierarchies and social roles.
Douglas, Mary – Pureza e perigo. [Purity and Danger]. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1991.
Freud, Sigmund – Totem e tabu. [Totem and Taboo]. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Imago, 1999.
Eliade, Mircea - O sagrado e o profano. [The Sacred and the Profane]. A essência das religiões. Lisboa: Livros do Brasil, 1999.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude - Antropologia estrutural. [Structural Anthropology]. Rio de Janeiro: Tempo Brasileiro, 1996.