THE TABOO

THE TABOO

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Written by Hunter   
Wednesday, 08 October 2008 00:43

There is a marked similarity, almost an identity, between the religious
institutions of most of the Polynesian islands; [Footnote: Polynesian
Islands: in the Pacific, just east of Australia.] and in all exists the
mysterious "Taboo," restricted in its uses to a greater or less extent.
So strange and complex in its arrangements is this remarkable system,
that I have in several cases met with individuals who, after residing
for years among the islands in the Pacific, and acquiring a considerable
knowledge of the language, have nevertheless been altogether unable to
give any satisfactory account of its operations. Situated as I was in
the Typce valley, I perceived every hour the effects of this
all-controlling power, without in the least comprehending it. Those
effects were indeed wide-spread and universal, pervading the most
important as well as the minutest transactions of life. The savage, in
short, lives in the continual observance of its dictates, which guide
and control every action of his being.

For several days after entering the valley, I had been saluted at least
fifty times in the twenty-four hours with the talismanic [Footnote:
Talismanic: having the properties of a charm.] word "Taboo" shrieked in
my ears, at some gross violation of its provisions, of which I had
unconsciously been guilty. The day after our arrival I happened to hand
some tobacco to Toby over the head of a native who sat between us. He
started up as if stung by an adder; while the whole company, manifesting
an equal degree of horror, simultaneously screamed out "Taboo!" I never
again perpetrated a similar piece of ill-manners, which indeed was
forbidden by the canons of good breeding as well as by the mandates of
the taboo. But it was not always so easy to perceive wherein you had
contravened [Footnote: Contravened: come into conflict with.] the spirit
of this institution. I was many times called to order, if I may use the
phrase, when I could not for the life of me conjecture what particular
offense I had committed.

One day I was strolling through a secluded portion of the valley; and
hearing the musical sound of the cloth-mallet at a little distance, I
turned down a path that conducted me in a few moments to a house where
there were some half-dozen girls employed in making tappa. [Footnote:
Tappa: a kind of cloth made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry.]
This was an operation I had frequently witnessed, and had handled the
bark in all the various stages of its preparation. On the present
occasion the females were intent upon their occupation; and after
looking up and talking gayly to me for a few moments, they resumed their
employment. I regarded them for awhile in silence, and then carelessly
picking up a handful of the material that lay around, proceeded
unconsciously to pick it apart. While thus engaged, I was suddenly
startled by a scream, like that of a whole boarding-school of young
ladies just on the point of going into hysterics. Leaping up with the
idea of seeing a score of Happar warriors about to perform anew the
Sabine atrocity, [Footnote: Sabine atrocity: referring to the carrying
off of the Sabine women by the Romans in the legendary history of early
Rome.] I found myself confronted by the company of girls, who, having
dropped their work, stood before me with staring eyes, swelling bosoms,
and fingers pointed in horror towards me.

Thinking that some venomous reptile must be concealed in the bark which
I held in my hand, I began cautiously to separate and examine it. Whilst
I did so the horrified girls redoubled their shrieks. Their wild cries
and frightened motions actually alarmed me; and throwing down the tappa,
I was about to rush from the house, when in the same instant their
clamors ceased, and one of them, seizing me by the arm, pointed to the
broken fibres that had just fallen from my grasp, and screamed in my ear
the fatal word "Taboo!"

I subsequently found out that the fabric they were engaged in making was
of a peculiar kind, destined to be worn on the heads of females; and
through every stage of its manufacture was guarded by a rigorous taboo,
which interdicted the whole masculine gender from even so much as
touching it.

Frequently in walking through the groves, I observed bread-fruit and
cocoanut trees with a wreath of leaves twined in a peculiar fashion
about their trunks. This was the mark of the taboo. The trees
themselves, their fruit, and even the shadows they cast upon the ground,
were consecrated by its presence. In the same way a pipe which the King
had bestowed upon me was rendered sacred in the eyes of the natives,
none of whom could I ever prevail upon to smoke from it. The bowl was
encircled by a woven band of grass, somewhat resembling those Turks'
heads occasionally worked in the handles of our whip-stalks. A similar
badge was once braided about my wrist by the royal hand of Mehevi
himself, who, as soon as he had concluded the operation, pronounced me
"Taboo." This occurred shortly after Toby's disappearance; and were it
not that from the first moment I had entered the valley the natives had
treated me with uniform kindness, I should have supposed that their
conduct afterwards was to be ascribed to the fact that I had received
this sacred investiture.

--HERMAN MELVILLE.

[Footnote: The author, Herman Melville, was born in New York in 1819. In
his youth he ran away from home and became a sailor on a whaling vessel.
Escaping from the cruel tyranny of the captain, he reached the Marquesas
Islands, where he had strange adventures as the captive of a tribe of
cannibals in the Typee Valley. He lived here many months, and finally
returned home in an Australian ship.]

[Footnote: Many writers on the customs of primitive people suppose the
taboo to be the earliest form of law. It is commonly imposed by the king
or the high priest of the tribe. Does the "taboo" here seem to you to be
a matter of law or religion? Have we any "taboos" in our social system?
What do we mean when we say of an act or a thing that it is "taboo," or
"tabooed"? Does ceremoniousness increase or decrease with civilization?]


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