Observance of a taboo was man’s effort to dodge ill luck, to keep from offending the spirit ghosts by the avoidance of something. The taboos were at first nonreligious, but they early acquired ghost or spirit sanction, and when thus reinforced, they became lawmakers and institution builders. The taboo is the source of ceremonial standards and the ancestor of primitive self-control. It was the earliest form of societal regulation and for a long time the only one; it is still a basic unit of the social regulative structure.
The respect which these prohibitions commanded in the mind of the savage exactly equaled his fear of the powers who were supposed to enforce them. Taboos first arose because of chance experience with ill luck; later they were proposed by chiefs and shamans—fetish men who were thought to be directed by a spirit ghost, even by a god. The fear of spirit retribution is so great in the mind of a primitive that he sometimes dies of fright when he has violated a taboo, and this dramatic episode enormously strengthens the hold of the taboo on the minds of the survivors.
Among the earliest prohibitions were restrictions on the appropriation of women and other property. As religion began to play a larger part in the evolution of the taboo, the article resting under ban was regarded as unclean, subsequently as unholy. The records of the Hebrews are full of the mention of things clean and unclean, holy and unholy, but their beliefs along these lines were far less cumbersome and extensive than were those of many other peoples.
The seven commandments of Dalamatia and Eden, as well as the ten injunctions of the Hebrews, were definite taboos, all expressed in the same negative form as were the most ancient prohibitions. But these newer codes were truly emancipating in that they took the place of thousands of pre-existent taboos. And more than this, these later commandments definitely promised something in return for obedience.
The early food taboos originated in fetishism and totemism. The swine was sacred to the Phoenicians, the cow to the Hindus. The Egyptian taboo on pork has been perpetuated by the Hebraic and Islamic faiths. A variant of the food taboo was the belief that a pregnant woman could think so much about a certain food that the child, when born, would be the echo of that food. Such viands would be taboo to the child.
Methods of eating soon became taboo, and so originated ancient and modern table etiquette. Caste systems and social levels are vestigial remnants of olden prohibitions. The taboos were highly effective in organizing society, but they were terribly burdensome; the negative-ban system not only maintained useful and constructive regulations but also obsolete, outworn, and useless taboos.
There would, however, be no civilized society to sit in criticism upon primitive man except for these far-flung and multifarious taboos, and the taboo would never have endured but for the upholding sanctions of primitive religion. Many of the essential factors in man’s evolution have been highly expensive, have cost vast treasure in effort, sacrifice, and self-denial, but these achievements of self-control were the real rungs on which man climbed civilization’s ascending ladder.