The Taboo, by Herman Melville

There is a marked similarity, almost an identity, between the religious institutions of most of the Polynesian islands; [Footnote: Polynesian Islands: in the Pacific, just east of Australia.] and in all exists the mysterious "Taboo," restricted in its uses to a greater or less extent. So strange and complex in its arrangements is this remarkable system, that I have in several cases met with individuals who, after residing for years among the islands in the Pacific, and acquiring a considerable knowledge of the language, have nevertheless been altogether unable to give any satisfactory account of its operations. Situated as I was in the Typce valley, I perceived every hour the effects of this all-controlling power, without in the least comprehending it. Those effects were indeed wide-spread and universal, pervading the most important as well as the minutest transactions of life. The savage, in short, lives in the continual observance of its dictates, which guide and control every action of his being.

For several days after entering the valley, I had been saluted at least fifty times in the twenty-four hours with the talismanic [Footnote: Talismanic: having the properties of a charm.] word "Taboo" shrieked in my ears, at some gross violation of its provisions, of which I had unconsciously been guilty. The day after our arrival I happened to hand some tobacco to Toby over the head of a native who sat between us. He started up as if stung by an adder; while the whole company, manifesting an equal degree of horror, simultaneously screamed out "Taboo!" I never again perpetrated a similar piece of ill-manners, which indeed was forbidden by the canons of good breeding as well as by the mandates of the taboo. But it was not always so easy to perceive wherein you had contravened [Footnote: Contravened: come into conflict with.] the spirit of this institution. I was many times called to order, if I may use the phrase, when I could not for the life of me conjecture what particular offense I had committed.

One day I was strolling through a secluded portion of the valley; and hearing the musical sound of the cloth-mallet at a little distance, I turned down a path that conducted me in a few moments to a house where there were some half-dozen girls employed in making tappa. [Footnote: Tappa: a kind of cloth made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry.] This was an operation I had frequently witnessed, and had handled the bark in all the various stages of its preparation. On the present occasion the females were intent upon their occupation; and after looking up and talking gayly to me for a few moments, they resumed their employment. I regarded them for awhile in silence, and then carelessly picking up a handful of the material that lay around, proceeded unconsciously to pick it apart. While thus engaged, I was suddenly startled by a scream, like that of a whole boarding-school of young ladies just on the point of going into hysterics. Leaping up with the idea of seeing a score of Happar warriors about to perform anew the Sabine atrocity, [Footnote: Sabine atrocity: referring to the carrying off of the Sabine women by the Romans in the legendary history of early Rome.] I found myself confronted by the company of girls, who, having dropped their work, stood before me with staring eyes, swelling bosoms, and fingers pointed in horror towards me.

Thinking that some venomous reptile must be concealed in the bark which I held in my hand, I began cautiously to separate and examine it. Whilst I did so the horrified girls redoubled their shrieks. Their wild cries and frightened motions actually alarmed me; and throwing down the tappa, I was about to rush from the house, when in the same instant their clamors ceased, and one of them, seizing me by the arm, pointed to the broken fibres that had just fallen from my grasp, and screamed in my ear the fatal word "Taboo!"

I subsequently found out that the fabric they were engaged in making was of a peculiar kind, destined to be worn on the heads of females; and through every stage of its manufacture was guarded by a rigorous taboo, which interdicted the whole masculine gender from even so much as touching it.

Frequently in walking through the groves, I observed bread-fruit and cocoanut trees with a wreath of leaves twined in a peculiar fashion about their trunks. This was the mark of the taboo. The trees themselves, their fruit, and even the shadows they cast upon the ground, were consecrated by its presence. In the same way a pipe which the King had bestowed upon me was rendered sacred in the eyes of the natives, none of whom could I ever prevail upon to smoke from it. The bowl was encircled by a woven band of grass, somewhat resembling those Turks' heads occasionally worked in the handles of our whip-stalks. A similar badge was once braided about my wrist by the royal hand of Mehevi himself, who, as soon as he had concluded the operation, pronounced me "Taboo." This occurred shortly after Toby's disappearance; and were it not that from the first moment I had entered the valley the natives had treated me with uniform kindness, I should have supposed that their conduct afterwards was to be ascribed to the fact that I had received this sacred investiture.


[Footnote: The author, Herman Melville, was born in New York in 1819. In his youth he ran away from home and became a sailor on a whaling vessel. Escaping from the cruel tyranny of the captain, he reached the Marquesas Islands, where he had strange adventures as the captive of a tribe of cannibals in the Typee Valley. He lived here many months, and finally returned home in an Australian ship.]

[Footnote: Many writers on the customs of primitive people suppose the taboo to be the earliest form of law. It is commonly imposed by the king or the high priest of the tribe. Does the "taboo" here seem to you to be a matter of law or religion? Have we any "taboos" in our social system? What do we mean when we say of an act or a thing that it is "taboo," or "tabooed"? Does ceremoniousness increase or decrease with civilization?]

Louise de la Ramee