The World's Most Intriguing Taboos

Sex with cousins, hiding from the dead and beating would-be kings: The world's taboos come in many forms.

What makes an action or a glance taboo?

The word taboo comes from "tabu"—Fijian—or "tapu"—Tongan—meaning forbidden or prohibited. The spectrum of prohibitions across the world’s cultures is broad and fascinating. Taboos range from naming at birth to mentioning the dead, from superstitions surrounding tribal rulers to the presenting of gifts, from hunting for food to eating it.

These are some—a mere cross-section—of the world's intriguing taboos to keep in mind while traveling the globe.

Gift-Giving Taboos

Sometimes it’s important to take notice before finding a present.

In Singapore, taboo gifts are sharp objects, like knives or scissors, as they symbolise the cutting off of a friendship: handkerchiefs, as they are considered a sign of sadness: straw sandals, as they are worn at funerals: and clocks, as the Cantonese word for clock also can mean "to go to a funeral." These same guidelines apply in Latin America, but are blunted if a coin is included.

In the Middle East, a handkerchief suggests tears or a parting and is considered an inappropriate gift, while the Japanese don’t wrap their gifts in white paper as it is the colour that represents death.

Eygptian scene
Eygptian children are given two names at birth, with one closely concealed. (©Nicola/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Naming at Birth

In many cultures, the name given at birth is unutterable. With the Arunta of Australia, a person’s real name is chosen by the clan’s elders and by the child’s father and then kept secret, for it’s sacred and only to be whispered on solemn occasions.

Egyptians traditionally receive two names known as the great name—carefully concealed—and the little name that was made public. Likewise, in India a Brahman child receives one name for common use and another secret name that only his parents know and use at solemn ceremonies.

Speaking the Names of the Dead

When it comes to not speaking the names of the dead themselves—or any words that resemble them—the basic explanation is that out of fear the dead might present themselves or return as a ghost.

Among the Kiowa Indians, on someone’s death all the relatives take on new names. Likewise, among the Bahima of Central Africa, when the king dies, his name is abolished from the language and if his name was that of an animal, then a new name had to be found. Sometimes this taboo on naming persists up until the body has totally decayed with some communities feeling a need to disguise themselves to prevent being recognised; The Nicobar islanders go as far as shaving their heads.

Woman walking with item on her head
In some parts of the world pregnant women aren't allowed to carry certain items during the length of their pregnancy. (©Ben Piven/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Pregnancy Taboos in Malaysia

In traditional Malaysia, a pregnant woman may not kill, tie or mangle anything and any neglect may result in birthmarks or a deformed baby. Neither fire nor water can be carried on her back and she can’t look at anything ugly or frightening. While this taboo on ugly and frightening things forbids monkeys, it allows blood and gore on television. Malaysians also believe that a horde of evil spirits lurk in the country’s jungle, air and water and focuses on pregnant women, so the husband has to plant a pineapple under the house to hamper them with the fruit’s spikes.

Sex: Taboo in Peru

For the Manu people of Peru, sex was regarded as a violent and shameful performance in the darkness of night. Mothers told their daughters that sex was painful until the first child was born and unpleasant thereafter. Husbands and wives regarded each other’s bodies with shame. Sex play was taboo between man and wife. Such activity was restricted to cousins.

Hunting Taboos

On the Indonesian island of Nias, the local population won't spit for fear that the game would revolt in disgust. After building a pit covered with twigs, leaves and grass to catch wild game, the Nias won’t laugh or the pit’s sides would collapse. They also believe that on the night after digging the pit they may have no intercourse with a woman or all their labour would be in vain.

Sometimes the game itself was, or is, the object of the taboo. The Caffres of Malagasy feared the boa constrictor and whoever killed it had to lie in a running stream of water during the daytime for several weeks. When the Kayans from Borneo shot a panther, the hunter's soul was in jeopardy as the panther’s soul is considered more powerful, so they stepped eight times over the carcass and would recite "Panther, thy soul under my soul."

Table of Fiji dishes
Taboos about eating an drinking abound in some cultures throughout the world. (©Lin Padgham/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Food Taboos

The Zafimanelo in Madagascar lock their doors when they eat and are not seen. Likewise, the Warua of Fiji ban anyone (in particular from the opposite sex) seeing them eat and drink. While, from a fear of sorcery, no one may touch the food that the king of Loango of Gabon leaves on his plate. Instead it is buried in a hole in the ground.

Male Maori dancer
Maori chiefs are not allowed, traditionally, to blow out a fire as their breath is thought to be sacred. (©ash.wu/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Taboos for Rulers

Sometimes taboos stem from hostility toward the ruler. The savage Timmes of Sierra Leone are allowed to beat their king on the eve of his coronation, thus risking his chances of survival. When the leading chiefs want to get rid of someone, they elect him king. 

Other ruling taboos might be in the form of restrictions like those imposed upon an ancient Irish king, the king of Leinster. He couldn’t stay in a certain town on a particular day of the week or cross a river on a particular hour of the day or encamp for nine days on a certain plain.

In other cultures with taboos that governed a ruler's practices, a Maori chief of New Zealand can't use his mouth to blow on a fire as his breath is sacred and this would affect the fire, the pot on the fire and the meat in the pot. As for the man who ate the meat, he was thought to be infected and risk death.

Adam Jacot de Boinod wrote The Meaning of Tingo and all the most Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.