taboo or tabu (both: tăbōˈ, tə–) [key], prohibition of an act or the use of an object or word under pain of punishment. Originally a Polynesian word, taboo can apply to the sacred or consecrated or to the dangerous, unclean, and forbidden. A taboo can be placed on an object, person, place, or word that is believed to have inherent power above the ordinary. This power, called mana, can only be approached by special priests. To give distinction to special moments in the life cycle, taboos are often declared at births, deaths, initiations, and marriages. Taboos are commonly placed on a clan's ancestral guardian, called the totem. The breaking of a taboo usually requires extermination of the offender or some sort of ceremonial purification in order to remove the taint from the community. Often the mana of a taboo is so great that the offender will suffer punishment, even death, merely through fear of its powers.
See J. G. Frazer, Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (3d ed. 1955); S. Freud, Totem and Taboo (1960, orig. 1918); M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (1970).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.