Taboos (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
TABOOS. A food taboo is a prohibition against consuming certain foods. The word "taboo" (also spelled "tabu") is Polynesian and means 'sacred' or 'forbidden'; it has a quasi-magical or religious overtone. The term was introduced in the anthropological literature in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the field of food and nutrition, food taboos are not necessarily connected with magical-religious practices, and some nutritionists prefer to speak of "food avoidance." In this article these terms are used interchangeably.
Food is a culturally specific concept. In general, anything can function as food if it is not immediately toxic. But what is edible in one culture may not be in another. The concept of food is determined by three factors: biology, geography, and culture. Certain plants and animals are not consumed because they are indigestible. Geography also plays a role. For example, dairy products are not part of the food culture of the humid tropical regions since the geographical conditions for keeping cattle are unfavorable. Milk is often a taboo food in such cultures. Insects are not considered food in Europe and most of the United States despite attempts to introduce them in the late twentieth century. This is because there are few edible insects in regions with temperate climates. In Mexico, by contrast, insects are packaged in plastic sachets, cans, or jars for sale. Cultural reasons for food taboos often have a geographical basisnknown or exotic foods will be rejected as unfit for consumption.
It is of interest to note that food avoidance most frequently relates to animal meat, since in most cultures human beings have an emotional relationship with animals they have to kill to eat. One of the few taboos of a food of vegetable origin is the prohibition against alcohol for Muslims and some Christian denominations.
Food may establish a cultural identity of an ethnic group, religion, or nation. Food taboos in a society function also as a means to show differences between various groups and strengthen their cultural identity. Refraining from eating pork is not only a question of religious identity but is likewise an indication of whether or not one belongs to the Jewish or Muslim cultural community. In order to better understand the range of food taboos, it is useful to distinguish between permanent and temporary food taboos or food avoidances.
Permanent Food Taboos
Foods that are permanent taboos or avoidances are always prohibited for a specific group. The classic example of a permanent food taboo is the prohibition against pork by Jews and Muslims. The Jewish prohibition against pork is found in Leviticus 11:1. Some anthropologists point out that food taboos are based on the failure of these foods to fit into the usual systems of classification. Foods that do not fit into these classifications are unsuitable for consumption, or unclean. According to the Qurʾan (2, 168), Muslims should not only avoid pork, but also blood, non-ritually slaughtered animals, and cadavers and alcohol. In the case of both Jewish and Muslim food taboos, the foods themselves are considered unclean. A different concept of food avoidance is found in Hinduism. Hindus abstain from eating beef because cows are considered sacred. Various arguments have been used to explain the origins of such food taboos or food avoidance including religion, culture, and hygiene.
Marvin Harris has rightly pointed out that when people reject certain foods, there must be a logical and economical reason for doing so. The pig is an animal of sedentary farmers and unfit for a pastoral way of life because pigs cannot be herded over long distances without suffering a high rate of mortality. Herdsmen generally despise the lifestyle of sedentary farming communities.
In Western society cats and dogs are not consumed because of the emotional relationships developed with these pets. Increasingly pets are being "humanized" in such a way that eating them is seen as an act of anthropophagy or cannibalism. The feeling of closeness to certain animals can also be found in the savannah regions of West Africa. Certain West African clans consider dogs clan animals, based on the fact that they have been beneficial to the clan in the past; as clan animals they are unfit for consumption. Hippocrates (46077 B.C.E.) regarded dog meat favorably as a light meal, but in later antiquity, dogs were considered unclean and unfit to eat. This is still the case in the Mediterranean area and the Middle East. By contrast, dog meat is popular in China and the mountainous regions of the Philippines. From a nutritional point of view, dog meat is an excellent source of animal protein, and dogs do not require the grazing area demanded by cattle or other large ruminants.
Temporary Food Taboos or Avoidances
Some foods are avoided for certain periods of time. These restrictions often apply to women and relate to the reproduction cycle.
The times of temporary food avoidances related to particular periods of the life cycle include:
- Periods of illness or sickness
From a nutritional point of view, temporary food avoidances are of great importance as they concern vulnerable groups: pregnant women, breast-feeding women, and infants and children during the period of weaning and growth. Food regulations and avoidances during these periods often deprive the individual of nutritionally valuable foods such as meat, fish, eggs, or vegetables. In a number of African countries pregnant women avoid green vegetables. They also do not consume fish. When asked why, women say the unborn child might develop a head shaped like that of a fish. Some of these avoidances may seem odd from a scientific point of view, but there is often an unnoticed logic behind it. In the first place, women are aware of the critical period and know that much has to be done to ensure the successful delivery of a healthy child. Observing the rules of avoidance will give her the strength of knowing that everything possible has been done for the benefit of the child.
In Central Africa nutritionists observed that young children did not eat eggs. They were worried that a nutritious food was not available for this vulnerable group. The village elders gave a convincing explanation of why eggs should be avoided by children. In the past the wise ancestors were much concerned about young children roaming around the villages searching for eggs and even chasing the brood hens away from their eggs. In order to avoid a depletion of the poultry stock, the elderly decided that eggs were harmful to young children and should be avoided.
A different form of temporary food avoidances involves the rules of fasting. In medieval Christianity the most important period of fasting was Lent (the period from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday), during which meat and animal products were forbidden. There were also other days (Ember Days, Fridays, etc.) on which people were required to abstain from eating meat. The Reformation broke the tradition of fasting to a large extent. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a wide and complicated system of dietary rules and fasting, as does the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the Muslim world, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, means strict fasting, even from beverages, from sunrise to sunset (Sakr).
Do Food Taboos Change and Disappear?
Food taboos may seem rather stable, but they are often under pressure because the society is changing. Migration is a powerful factor in the process of changing food culture. In Europe and North America, most Muslim migrants from the Middle East and South Asia try to maintain their food habits, but some cannot fully resist the food culture of their new home country. A substantial number of Muslims begin drinking beer, wine, and even stronger spirits. Women tend to be less inclined to give up the avoidance of alcohol. The fear of pollution from pork often remains strong, however. In some European countries Muslims refrain from eating in factory canteens out of fear that meals may be polluted with pork fat or pork meat. In contrast, many Jewish Europeans and Americans eat pork from time to time, or even on a regular basis.
Nutrition and health education have reduced the temporary food avoidances of the vulnerable groups in a great number of countries. In the humid tropical countries of Africa and Asia, where the raising of dairy animals is unfavorable, the rejection of milk as a food is diminishing. Despite the occurrence of lactose intolerance among the population, the use of milk and milk products has extended since colonial times. Primary lactose intolerance occurs from an apparent decrease in the intestinal enzyme lactase and can occur between the ages of two and five years. This condition is present in about 75 percent of the world population. However, small but significant quantities of milk consumed throughout the day can be tolerated among ethnic groups known to be lactose intolerant. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, milk products and a little fresh milk are available for the upper and middle classes. This availability seems to have increased due to dairy exports from Western countries and dairy food aid during the 1950s through the 1970s. In a country without a dairy tradition such as Indonesia, the importation of canned sweetened condensed milk can be traced back to around 1883. In the high lands of Java, the Dutch introduced dairy farming on a small scale in the nineteenth century. From the colonists, a modest use of milk spread gradually among the emerging Indonesian upper and middle classes.
In the United States and other countries with Anglo-Saxon traditions, horsemeat is not part of the food culture. This is in contrast to continental Europe, in particular France, where horsemeat is a well-known and appreciated food. The history of horsemeat gives insight into how attitudes toward food avoidance change over the course of time. In Europe it started with a decree by Pope Gregory III (d. 714) that the Christian communities of Germany and the Low Countries refrain from eating horsemeat because the horse played an important role in pagan rituals. The purpose of the decree was that the Christian community should distinguish itself from the pagans by avoiding a typical pagan symbol, horsemeat. Gradually the consumption of horseflesh disappeared. The meat was considered to be unfit for consumption. In the nineteenth century the attitude toward horsemeat changed dramatically. Food emergencies connected with war and promotion of horsemeat as a food were the driving forces for change. During the Napoleonic Wars, hungry soldiers were forced to eat their horses. To their surprise, the meat was fit to eat and even had a reasonably good taste. French pharmacists promoted the idea that horsemeat was suitable for consumption, and from a scientific point of view no threat at all to health. Discarded workhorses became a source of good and cheap meat for the growing working classes in urban France. The concept of horsemeat as food spread to other European countries, but not to the United Kingdom, where the horse remained a noble animal, and the idea of eating horsemeat was viewed with disgust.
In periods of emergency, dietary rules including food avoidances can be temporarily ended. The West African Fulani pastoralists avoid the consumption of fish. During the dry season the herdsmen have to move with their cattle from the northern savannahs to the land along the Niger River in the south. Because of the seasonal food shortage, herdsmen are more or less forced to turn to eating fish. In rural areas with a dry and a rainy season, people will collect in the period of seasonal food shortage the so-called hungry foods. Hungry foods are mainly wild foods, often not very attractive and tasty and as such normally avoided. They are consumed only in an emergency.
See also Africa; Anthropology and Food; Christianity; Fasting and Abstinence; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Hippocrates; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; Lent; Middle Ages, European; Ramadan; Religion and Food; Shrove Tuesday.
Brothwell, Don, and Patricia Brothwell. Food in Antiquity. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.
De Garine, Igor. "The Socio-cultural Aspects of Nutrition." Ecology of Nutrition 1 (1972): 14363.
Den Hartog, Adel P. "Acceptance of Milk Products in Southeast Asia. The Case of Indonesia as a Traditional Nondairying Region." In Asian Food. The Global and the Local, edited by Katarzyna Cwiertka and Boudewijn Walraven. Richmond, Va.: Curzon Press, 2002.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboos. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1966.
Gade, Daniel W. "Horsemeat as Human Food in France." Ecology of Food and Nutrition 5 (1976): 11.
Grivetti, Louis E., and R. M. Pangborn. "Origin of Selected Old Testament Dietary Prohibitions." Journal of the American Dietatic Association 65 (1974): 63438.
Harris, Marvin. Good to Eat. Riddles of Food and Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Kilara, A., and K. K. Iya. "Food and Dietary Habits of the Hindu." Food Technology 46 (1992): 9404.
Sakr, A. H. "Fasting in Islam." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 67 (1971): 171.
Shack, William A. "Anthropology and the Diet of Man." In Diet of Man, Needs and Wants, edited by John Yudkin. London: Applied Sciences Publishers, 1978.
Simoons, Frederick J. Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to Present. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
Adel P. den Hartog
Taboo (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
The word taboo was borrowed by Captain Cook, in 1769, from the Polynesian language spoken in the Hawaiian Islands. A report of his voyage was published in 1884 but the word appeared earlier in Europe in the narratives of expeditions by Adam J. von Krusenstern, 1802, and by Otto von Kotzebue, 1817. They reported on the number and variety of prohibitions the word taboo refers to. Cook further specified that taboo was applied to anything forbidden to the touch. British anthropology took over the term, subsequently reworked by the German schools on the psychologies of various peoples, and the French schools of sociology. Freud later made use of this work to define taboo as an adjective with opposite meaningsimultaneously sacred and consecrated, as well as dangerous, forbidden, impure. Taboo was the name for prohibitions that were self-imposed along with their sanctions in the event of transgression, and which lacked meaning or any obvious referent. Anyone who violated a taboo was also taboo, which illustrates the taboo's power of contagion.
The term taboo appears in a short text of Freud's entitled "The Significance of Sequences of Vowels" (1911d), which discusses the names of God in Hebrew. "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence," the second chapter of Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), was published in 1912. This work continues an earlier investigation into obsessional neurosis, the analogy between its symptoms and religious rites, and the psychology of religion ("Obsessive Actions and Religious Rites," 1907b). Freud also published "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words" (1910e), with taboo being one such example. Thus Freud's studies on taboo are limited in scope, inserted into a broader investigation that was to be further elaborated in Freud's larger works on collecitve psychology, especially The Future of an Illusion (1927c), Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a ), and Moses and Monotheism (1939a [1934-38]).
Freud associated taboo with ambivalence from the start. As early as the preface to Totem and Taboo, he writes that "the analysis of taboos is put forward as an assured and exhaustive attempt at the solution of the problem" (1912-13a, p. xiv) (as opposed to the totem), whose differences with taboo he goes on to point out. "The difference is related to the fact that taboos still exist among us. . . . They do not differ in their psychological nature from Kant's 'categorical imperative,' which operates in a compulsive fashion and rejects any conscious motives" (p. xiv). However Freud introduces fresh complications into this idea by postulating for the first time, in the chapter "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence," the existence of a primal ambivalence of emotions which the taboo's prohibitions express. Freud then relates their existence to totemism: "The most ancient and important taboo prohibitions are the two basic laws of totemism: not to kill the totem animal and to avoid sexual intercourse with members of the totem clan of the opposite sex" (p. 31-32). Still this ambivalence becomes apparent as totemism only after the murder of the primal father, in the first acts of mourning and the transition to the totemic clan. The hypothesis of life and death drives could be used to make the taboo autonomous, which Freud does not do. Therefore, the taboo's existence is secondary, and follows upon that of the totem: given the thesis of totemism and the persistence of unconscious wishes, the "must not" is really a form of "must no longer." "The basis of taboo is a prohibited action, the performing of which a strong inclination exists in the unconscious. . . . There is no need to prohibit what no one desires to do" (p. 32). The analogy with obsessional neurosis enabled Freud to clarify the dynamics of conflict and the topographical structure that gives rise to the existence of taboos: "I will now sum up the respects in which light has been thrown on the nature of taboo by comparing it with the obsessional prohibitions of neurotics. Taboo is a primaeval prohibition forcibly imposed (by some authority) from outside, and directed against the most powerful longings to which human beings are subject. The desire to violate it persists in their unconscious; those who obey the taboo have an ambivalent attitude to what the taboo prohibits. The magical power that is attributed to taboo is based on the capacity for arousing temptation; and it acts like a contagion because examples are contagious and because the prohibited desire in the unconscious shifts from one thing to another. The fact that the violation of a taboo can be atoned for by a renunciation shows that renunciation lies at the basis of obedience to taboo" (pp. 34-35). Therefore, "taboo conscience is probably the earliest form in which the phenomenon of conscience is met with" (p. 67).
The analysis of taboos touches on a number of themes. As psychic formations actualizing a dynamic of unconscious conflict amongst drive-impulses, they make use of primary processes; the propagation of this dynamism based on representations of contiguity and similarityouch for the Unconsciouss clear and further elucidates the contagion, the "mana" of taboo as well as "delusions of touching." At the same time these psychic formations attribute hatred and dangerousness to taboo objects and enable us to analyze projection. Moreover the conviction the taboo entails, owing to its dependence on the Unconscious, points toward animism, magic, and the omnipotence of thoughtn short, to a study of narcissism. And the analogy, almost the identity, between the forms and dynamics of individual rites and rituals and those associated with taboos makes them a key element in the connection Freud creates between individual and collective psychology. The primal conflict of ambivalence that taboo allows us to postulate relates it to the hypothesis of the life and death drives, and the troubles encountered by moral conscience: anxiety, guilt, the superego, as well as their genesis via the primal murder. Even if Totem and Taboo "exhausts the problem" of taboo, Freud's later work modified our viewpoint of it. Freud's proposed analysis of the feminine in "The Taboo of Virginity" (1918a) transforms the concept of taboo. Whereas the ambivalence of those subject to the taboo was in general the cause for prohibitions and prescriptions; in the case of the young girl to be deflowered, it is the real danger she represents (penis envy, revenge) that makes her taboo for others.
When anthropologists rejected the universalist perspective Freud invoked, the concept of taboo became subject to criticism. The structuralist viewpoint interpreted all taboos for each society as a single global symbolic system of classification, organization, and interpretation of the real, independently of any possibility for dynamic change claim taken up by the structuralist movement in psychoanalysis. The renewal of studies into dynamic change in the exact sciences may renew interest in Freud's works on this subject.
See also: Abel, Carl; Animistic thought; Anthropology and psychoanalysis; Childhood; Isolation (defense mechanism); Narcissism of minor differences; Obsessional neurosis; Rite and ritual; Smell, sense of; Structural theories; "Taboo of Virginity, The"; Totem/totemism; Totem and Taboo; Transgression.
Frazer, James G. (1951). The golden bough; a study in comparative religion. London: Macmillan. (Original work published 1890-1915)
Freud, Sigmund. (1907b). Obsessive actions and religious practices. SE, 9: 115-127.
. (1910e). The antithetical meaning of primal words. SE, 11: 153-161.
. (1911d). The significance of sequences of vowels. SE, 12: 341.
. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
. (1918a ). The taboo of virginity. SE, 11: 191-208.