STRANGE CUSTOMS AND TABOOS



In 2001, bits of stone etched with intricate patterns were found in the Blombos Cave east of Cape Town on the southern African shores of the Indian Ocean. Scientists were surprised when the chunks of stone were dated at 77,000 years old, indicating that ancient humans were capable of complex behavior and abstract thought thousands of years earlier than previously expected. In Europe, thousands of sites have been excavated and artifacts unearthed that prove that what would be considered modern behavior existed there about 40,000 years ago. From everything that we understand about human evolution, certain forms of behavior were already being accepted as customs and certain actions judged as taboos even in those earliest of times.

Customs are those activities that have been approved by a social group and have been handed down from generation to generation until they have become habitual. However, many customs vary from culture to culture, and those who visit other countries may suddenly discover that the simplest of customary actions in their own society may be misinterpreted as improper in another. For example, whether they are being introduced to someone for the first time or greeting an old friend, men and women in western nations are accustomed to shake hands. While the clasping of hands is intended as a gesture of friendship by Westerners, the people of many Asian countries may be alarmed by the boldness of a stranger who extends a hand, for they prefer to bow as a sign of goodwill.

Some travelers to foreign countries have also discovered much to their dismay that even the most innocent of hand gestures in their home culture may be considered offensive in another. It must soon become apparent to any fairly objective observer that the traditional values and customs of one culture may be considered very strange by another.

When an action or activity violates behavior considered appropriate by a social group, it is labeled a "taboo," a word that we have borrowed from the Polynesian people of the South Pacific. An act that is taboo is forbidden, prohibited, and those who transgress may be ostracized by others or, in extreme instances, killed.

While the marriage of near-blood relations is prohibited in contemporary civilization, in earlier societies it was quite common. The ancient gods of Egypt, Isis and Osiris, brother and sister, provided an example for royal couples, as pharaohs commonly married their sisters. The Hebrew patriarch Abraham took as a wife his half-sister, and Abraham's nephew Lot committed incest with his own daughters.

Polygamy, the marriage of one man and several women or one woman and several men, is prohibited in modern civilization, but there are still religious groups in nearly every nation who justify plural marriages as being ordained by the deity they worship. The history of every modern culture is replete with accounts of kings, caliphs, emperors, and patriarchs who had numerous wives. The great Solomon, the prototype for the wise ruler and credited with writing some of the world's greatest love poetry, is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines.


Adultery, an act of infidelity on the part of a married individual, is one of the most universal of the taboos. The code of Moses condemned both parties involved in the act to be stoned to death. The Hindu religious doctrines order both man and woman, humiliated, mutilated or killed, depending upon their caste. In ancient Egypt, the male offender was castrated, and the woman's nose was cut off. In ancient Greece, the guilty pair might be killed by being dragged behind horses or starved. As the Greek civilization matured, adulterers were seldom killed, but they were deprived of all public privileges and sometimes covered from head to foot with wool to render their guilt easily visible by others. The laws in Old Scandinavia permitted the offended husband to castrate his wife's lover and to kill his spouse.

While adulterers may still be dealt with quite harshly in many societies around the world, in most Western nations the act of infidelity is regarded with great tolerance. Men and women who have been unfaithful to their spouses are seldom ostracized by the public at large, and adultery by one of the marriage partners is no longer considered necessary as grounds for divorce.

There are few universal taboos, for societies continue to evolve. Acts that were considered forbidden at one time have developed into an acceptable social activity. For example, seeing a couple kissing in public would seldom raise an eyebrow today, but in the Puritan New England of the 1690s, such a harmless act would have sent the man and woman to the stocks and public humiliation. On the other hand, kissing a woman in public might still get a man jailed or fined in many of the Islamic nations in the Mid-East.

As the world grows smaller because of modern transportation and its diverse inhabitants encounter people from different cultures more often than ever before in the history of the human species, it becomes increasingly difficult to condemn one person's custom as another's taboo. Within a nation, such as the United States, which has always endeavored to maintain a democratic, pluralistic society, an influx of immigrants from Asia and Africa, which began in the 1970s, has made the task of balancing cultural variety with traditional American mainstream values more and more difficult.

Barbara Crosette, writing in the March 8, 1999 issue of The New York Times, tells of a refugee from Afghanistan who was arrested in Maine when he was seen kissing his baby boy's genitals. The father was exhibiting a traditional expression of love that had long been practiced in his culture, but to his neighbors and the police, he was abusing his child. In another instance, Cambodian parents were accused of child abuse by teachers and social workers because of their traditional cures of placing hot objects on their children's foreheads during an illness.

In this section, the fascinating evolution of the customs and taboos surrounding courtship and marriage, hospitality and etiquette, and burials and funerals is explored. While some of the customs of the past may seem amusing or quaint, primitive or savage, certain elements of such barbaric acts as capturing one's bride have been preserved in many traditions is still practiced in the modern marriage ceremony.


DELVING DEEPER

Armand, Denis. Taboo: Sex & Morality Around the World. London: W. H. Allen, 1996.

Crossette, Barbara. "When One's Custom is Another's Taboo," The New York Times on the Web, March 6, 1999. [Online] http://www.nytimes.com.

Fielding, William J. Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage. London: Souvenir Press, 1961.

Gelber, Carol. Love and Marriage Around the World. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1998.

Hunt, Morton M. The Natural History of Love. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.


DELVING DEEPER

Armand, Denis. Taboo: Sex & Morality Around the World. London: W. H. Allen, 1996.

Fielding, William J. Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage. London: Souvenir Press, 1961.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1950.

Gelber, Carol. Love and Marriage Around the World. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1998.

Hunt, Morton M. The Natural History of Love. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959.

Lewinsohn, Richard. A History of Sexual Custom. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958.

Spencer, Linda. Knock on Wood. New York: Gramercy Books, 1995.

Taylor, G. Rattray. Sex in History. New York: Van guard Press, 1954.

Turner, E. S. A History of Courting. London: Michael Joseph, 1954.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.


DELVING DEEPER

Armand, Denis. Taboo: Sex & Morality Around the World. London: W. H. Allen, 1996.

Baker, Margaret. Folklore and Customs of Rural Eng land. Devon, UK: David & Charles, 1974.

Caldwell, Mark. A Short History of Rudeness, Manners, Morals and Misbehavior. London: Pan Macmillan Publishers, 2000.

Elias, Norbert. The History of Manners. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Random House, 1982.

Fielding, William J. Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage. London: Souvenir Press, 1961.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1950.

Grant, Michael. The World of Rome. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing, 1960.

Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Hazlitt, W. C. Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore. London: Bracken Books, 1995.

Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Power, Eileen. Medieval People. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955.

Rees, Nigel. Best Behavior. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.

DELVING DEEPER

Arnold, Caroline. What We Do When Someone Dies. New York: Watts, 1987.

Crim, Keith, gen. ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.

Davies, Jon. Death, Burial and the Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Dickerson, Jr., Robert B. Final Placement. Algonac, Mich.: Reference Publications, 1982.

Elias, Norbert. The History of Manners. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Random House, 1982.

Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough. New York: Collier/Macmillan, 1950.

Grant, Michael. The World of Rome. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing, 1960.

Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Hazlitt, W. C. Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore. London: Bracken Books, 1995.

Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.

Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem, eds. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989; New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1999.

Quigley, Christine, and Christ Wuigley. The Corpse: A History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996.

Walker, Barbara A. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.

Waring, Philippa. A Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions. London: Souvenir Press, 1978.



User Contributions:

Sigit Priambodo
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Dec 1, 2009 @ 2:02 am
Information from this article is undoubtedly useful. Readers benefit a lot. I hope there will more of such from Asian Taboos

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