Strange taboos from history

If you have sex during the day, everyone you know will drown. I mean it. Or at least, the Semang people do. This is an examination of bizarre taboos throughout history that we've lost sight of, and a rationale for why taboos should be considered a cultural, not biological or (god forbid) divine phenomenon.

A general truth about taboos is that they run deep. A shallow gripe can generally be passed off as a mere grievance or prejudice, and is almost certainly a result of societal values and circumstance, however a good bona fide taboo involves a much more fundamental form of disgust, and seems to run so deep it could be grounded in the very nature of humankind.

Take, for example, the idea of cannibalism. To the vast majority of individuals in the west at least, cannibalism is abhorrent on a level where one might become physically sick upon thinking about it too hard. When I first heard the news about German cannibal Armin Meiwews, who killed and ate (well actually, ate a bit, then killed, and then ate) his consenting victim, I began to feel faint at imagining the act take place. If two siblings were to look at each other and conceptualise the idea of incest between them, I'd suppose they would experience a similar repulsion. Such seems to be the nature of a taboo: the word can't be thrown around too lightly.

It's funny, then, given the seeming irrefutability, universality and permanence of taboos, how fluid, local and ever-changing they actually are. Sigmund Freud stated that incest and patricide were the two universal taboos, which were fundamentally necessary in order for societies to function. However we already know examples to contradict this: in Ancient Egypt it was socially acceptable, and particularly common, for brother and sister to marry and reproduce, and in modern society patricide isn't so much of a taboo as murder is in general.

Similarly, taboos associated with sex tend to be merely societal or timely. For example, though in the west the idea of having daytime sex is celebrated if nothing else, The Cuna of Panama find it simply repulsive, according to the Semang of Malaysia you will drown and so will your girlfriend if you do it and if you ask the Bambara of West Africa, your daytime-sex conceived child will be an albino. And if you've recently set a bear trap, then you should naturally expect to become celibate for the next three months if you're a member of the Lepcha people of Tibet and Nepal.

Adultery could certainly be considered one of the most universally deplored taboos throughout history, however in modern western society the idea that an affair could in fact bolster a marriage is raising a few eyebrows, but no fists. Adulterers are allowed to come and go (no pun intended) as they please, without a jail sentence. This can be contrasted with the treatment of adultery in Ancient Egypt (castration for the man, with the woman's nose being cut off) or in Ancient Greece (death by being dragged behind a horse, or starving to death), and indeed some modern Islamic states such as Iran, Somalia and Sudan still practice the stoning to death of adulterers in certain cases. In this sense, Adultery is particularly notable as an example of a taboo differing completely from place to place, during the same time.

It's clear that taboos aren't gospel: they vary through space, and they've varied throughout time. Though some may have a good reason for existing, as with any other beliefs we adopt, these reasons deserve to be challenged and not assumed.

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