The mysteries of taboo: a Marsden study

Taboo is the subject of an ambitious University of Auckland study that has received funding from Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden, the Marsden Fund.

'Distant View of the Bay of Islands' (c.1827-28) by British painter Augustus Earle. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia.

Alex Calder, an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts, has been awarded a $494,000 Marsden grant for his exploration of the literary and cultural history of taboo.

Ideas about taboo are important because they have helped build and modify the frames through which we have come to understand cultural difference, says Dr Calder.

“Taboo is common to all Polynesian cultures—the Māori word is tapu—and it became an English word for the first time when the journals of Cook’s third voyage were published. But why was such an obviously important word not picked up earlier, and what difference would having the concept make?”

He says an explorer like Cook expected the different people he encountered on his travels to have different customs.

“To say that such and such a behaviour was a custom didn’t so much explain the behaviour as obviate the need for explanation. But taboo invited speculation as to what lay behind customs: the belief structures of a people or, as we would now say, their culture. Cook thought he could anticipate and manipulate those beliefs—but getting taboo wrong would also contribute to his death.”

Missionaries, traders and beachcombers would later deal in practical ways with taboo, while remaining puzzled by the range of its indigenous meanings, and their writings made an archive that would fuel the speculations of ethnologists and the imaginations of literary writers for decades to come.

Among the texts Dr Calder will be examining is Murnau’s classic silent film 'Tabu' (1931).

However, tapu, the contrasting indigenous term, Dr Calder believes, “resists a simple gloss”.

“It has an inherent sacred quality, traceable to the gods, with connotations of being set apart, restricted. Tapu thins out in translation yet, as taboo, it appeared to combine associations that had become distinct in Western thought: sacred, but also dangerous, unclean, awful.”

He says in the mid-19th century, biblical scholars became intrigued by the possibility that Polynesian taboos, apparently preserved in isolation on remote Pacific islands, might open a window onto the tribal world from which the Hebrew Bible emerged.

“The interest of these early scholars lay in separating true religion from superstition, but in the hands of more secular thinkers, taboo would go on to prompt major work in anthropology and psychoanalysis. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, for example, or Freud’s Totem and Taboo."

These were studies of the so-called ‘primitive mind’ but Freud was among the first to query that notion.

“After all, many of his sophisticated Viennese patients seemed to be suffering from modern equivalents of ‘taboo sickness'. And in the 1960s, the anthropologist Mary Douglas developed further parallels between the taboos of so-called primitive societies and our own taken-for-granted responses to the ‘dangers’ of dirt in modern life.

“In her view, taboo is ‘a spontaneous device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe’. Taboo is a concept that goes to the heart of how all people from all cultures perceive danger, borders, limits, mixed states, and anomalies.”


Associate Professor Alex Calder: "We know a great deal about the cultural impact of Europe on Polynesia. It is time we knew more about currents running the other way.”

He says taboo was also an object of fascination in literary narratives set in the Pacific or inspired by its ethnography.

“Ideas about taboo inform Coleridge’s albatross, Melville’s white whale, and in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, they are behind the idea that people should be punished for being sick but congratulated on a successful robbery.”

While there have been several anthropological histories of taboo, Dr Calder’s project will be the first to explore it in relation to its wider literary, intellectual, and cultural contexts.

“We know a great deal about the cultural impact of Europe on Polynesia. It is time we knew more about currents running the other way.”

He believes all Western claims regarding the nature of tapu need to be handled cautiously.

“The project confronts missionary intolerance, racist theories of the ‘primitive’ mind, and the insidious process by which book-knowledge displaces actual indigenous knowledge, but it also explores how westerners began to know their own culture more deeply by discovering how they themselves were enmeshed in taboo."

The classic 'Moby-Dick' by Herman Melville is another focus of the study. Lithograph by Frank Convery (1997).

“My history will follow the meaning of taboo, from custom to mentality, from primitive magic to modern neurosis and from a system of social control to structures of human thought.”

In the New Zealand context, Dr Calder says it’s been apparent for some time that we need a history of tapu, and that this would necessarily be a multi-perspectival and many-authored undertaking.

He believes his research will contribute to this larger goal by providing a detailed account of the reconfiguration of tapu as taboo, and how that much-modified idea in turn influences situations in Aotearoa.

“For example, Sir James Frazer’s notion that taboo involves an infectious form of supernatural energy comes directly from the work of the New Zealand writer, F. E. Maning, the author of Old New Zealand.

Frazer’s theories would in turn influence fiction from the 'Maoriland' period, and contribute to the uproar that led to 1907 Tohunga Suppression Act, an Act of Parliament intended to stop people using traditional Māori healing practices which had a "supernatural" or spiritual element.

“Frazer’s theory of supernatural infection never had tapu sharply in focus,” says Dr Calder, but it has everything to say about the role of magical thinking in colonial health policy and the scapegoating of tohunga as agents of contagion.”

Dr Calder’s Marsden award will also fund a PhD student to undertake complementary research into the history of tapu from a Māori perspective.

Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life' by Herman Melville

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