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The taboo on the dead includes the taboo against touching of the dead and those surrounding them; the taboo against mourners of the dead; and the taboo against anything associated with the dead.

Examples[edit | edit source]

  • Among the Māori anyone who had handled a corpse or taken any part in its burial was in the highest degree unclean and was almost cut off from intercourse with his fellow-men. He could not enter any house, or come into contact with any person or thing without infecting them. He might not even touch food with his hands, which, owing to their uncleanness, had become quite useless. "Food would be set for him on the ground, and he would then sit or kneel down, and, with his hands carefully held behind his back, would gnaw at it as best he could. In some cases he would be fed by another person, who with outstretched arm contrived to do it without touching the tabooed man." The mourners of the dead were also secluded from the public. When their period of mourning was near completion, "all the dishes he had used in his seclusion were diligently smashed, and all the garments he had worn were carefully thrown away."[1]

The taboo on mourners[edit | edit source]

  • Among the Shuswaps of British Columbia widows and widowers in mourning are secluded and forbidden to touch their own head or body; the cups and cooking vessels which they use may be used by no one else. [...] No hunter would come near such mourners, for their presence is unlucky. If their shadow were to fall on anyone, he would be taken ill at once. They employ thorn-bushes for bed and pillow, in order to keep away the ghost of the deceased; and thorn bushes are also laid all around their beds.[2]
  • Among the Agutainos, who inhabit Palawan, one of the Philippine Islands, a widow may not leave her hut for seven or eight days after the death; and even then she may only go out at an hour when is not likely to meet anybody, for whoever looks upon her dies a sudden death. To prevent this fatal catastrophe, the widow knocks with a wooden peg on the trees as she goes along, thus warning people of her dangerous proximity; and the very trees on which she knocks soon die."[3]

The taboo against naming the dead[edit | edit source]

Main article: Taboo against naming the dead
  • Among the Guaycurus of Paraguay, when a death had taken place, the chief used to change the name of every member of the tribe; and from that moment everybody remembered his new name just as if he had borne it all his life.[4]
  • After a Yolngu man named Bitjingu died, the word bithiwul "no; nothing" was avoided.[5] In its place, a synonym or a loanword from another language would be used for a certain period, after which the original word could be used again; but in some cases the replacement word would continue to be used.

Origins and causes[edit | edit source]

Sigmund Freud traces back the origin of the dangerous character of widowers and widows to the danger of temptation. A man who has lost his wife must resist a desire to find a substitute for her; a widow must fight against the same wish and is moreover liable to arouse the desires of other men. Substitutive satisfactions of such a kind run counter to the sense of mourning and they would inevitably kindle the ghost's wrath.[6]

Sigmund Freud explains that the fundamental reason for the existence of such taboos is the fear of the presence or of the return of the dead person's ghost. It is exactly this fear that leads to a great number of ceremonies aimed at keeping the ghost at a distance or driving him off.[7]

The Tuaregs of Sahara, for example, dread the return of the dead man's spirit so much that "[they] do all they can to avoid it by shifting their camp after a death, ceasing for ever to pronounce the name of the departed, and eschewing everything that might be regarded as an evocation or recall of his soul. Hence they do not, like the Arabs, designate individuals by adding to their personal names the names of their fathers. [...] they give to every man a name which will live and die with him."[8] In many cases the taboo remains intact until the body of the dead has completely decayed,[9] but until then the community must disguise itself so that the ghost shall not recognize them. For example, the Nicobar Islanders try to disguise themselves by shaving their heads.[10]

Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt associates the taboo to a fear that the dead man's soul has become a demon.[11] Moreover, many cases show a hostility toward the dead and their representation as malevolent figures.[12] Edward Westermarck notes that "Death is commonly regarded as the gravest of all misfortunes; hence the dead are believed to be exceedingly dissatisfied with their fate [...] such a death naturally tends to make the soul revengeful and ill-tempered. It is envious of the living and is longing for the company of its old friend."[13]

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Freud (1950, 52), quoting Frazer (1911, 138f.).
  2. Frazer (1990, 142), quoting Boas (1890 [643f.]).
  3. Frazer (1990, 144), quoting Blumentritt (1891, 182).
  4. Frazer (1990, 357).
  5. Dixon (2002, 27).
  6. Freud (1950, 54).
  7. Freud (1950, 57).
  8. Frazer (1922, 3).
  9. Freud (1990, 372).
  10. Frazer (1922, 5).
  11. Freud (1950, 58), quoting Wundt (1906, 49).
  12. Freud (1950, 58).
  13. Freud (1950, 59), quoting Westermarck (1906–8, 2, 534f.).

References[edit | edit source]

  • Alpher, Barry; Nash, David (1991). Lexical Replacement and Cognate Equilibrium in Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics 19 (1): 5–56.
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (2002). Australian Languages: Their Nature and Developments, Cambridge University Press.
  • Evans, Nicholas (June 2005). Australian Languages Reconsidered: A Review of Dixon (2002). Oceanic Linguistics 44 (1): 242–286.
  • Frazer, James George (1990). Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., Part II). New York: St. Martin's Press. [1st ed., 1913.]
  • McGregor, William B. (2004). The Languages of the Kimberley, Western Australia, Routledge.
  • Westermarck, E. (1906–8). The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (2 vols.). London.
  • Wundt, W. (1906). Mythus und Religion, Teil II (Völkerpsychologie, Band II). Leipzig.
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