The Real Meaning of Taboo

Magic hidden in the Shadows

The contemporary use of the word ‘Taboo’ is usually meaning something we shouldn’t do or speak about.  In some contexts it is referring to something which is socially unacceptable in a specific environment, but in common usage it has a definite flavour of something being a bit grubby or unmentionable.

The word ‘Taboo’ has its origins in referring to something deeply sacred.  I think that this original meaning and the way the word has come to be used today may offer us an insight into how the human psyche relates to the divine and the sacred, and that is what I want to un-pack a bit here.

In order to do this unpacking, I need to give you a bit of information on the history of Polynesia and its languages because ‘Taboo’ is an anglicised version of a Tahitian word.  So here goes…

The Polynesian people were pretty awesome seafarers who colonised a number of islands including Tahiti (known as French Polynesia), The Hawaiian islands, and New Zealand.  Those who are now referred to as the ‘native’ inhabitants of these islands had travelled there, and in some studies of New Zealand it is thought that the Maori’s may have arrived in New Zealand only a few generations before Europeans arrived.  Because of this common heritage there is also a commonality in the language of these peoples.  In some instances as the words are written in Roman script (conventional European letters rather than image based pictographs) it is just a matter of switching some consonants and you have basically the same word with the same meaning.  For instance:

In Hawaiian, a Shaman or someone who has achieved a transcendent level of mastery in something (like herb-gathering or surfing) is called a ‘Kahuna.’  Apparently the same word in Tahitian is ‘Tahuna’, and the same word in Maori is ‘Tahunga.’

So you can see that there is a very close relationship between these languages.  Now, back to ‘Taboo’…

‘Taboo’ was originally translated into Roman script as ‘Tabu.’  I’ve not studied Tahitian culture, but I have studied Hawaiian spirituality and the Hawaiian equivalent word is ‘Kapu.’  When something was labelled as ‘Kapu’ this made it ‘out of bounds’.  At first glance this may suggest a similar usage to the common contemporary one, but when we explore why the place or activity was out of bounds the word takes on quite a different meaning.  Something was designated ‘Kapu’ when it was so sacred, so magical, and so energetically potent that it was considered dangerous for people to mess around with it unless they knew what they were doing.  Clearly any restriction on behaviour can be abused if the authorities applying it are lacking integrity but if we stay with the original intention of ‘Kapu’ then I think it has something to teach us.

Let’s take an example.  A particular glade in the forest could be designated Kapu because it has a particularly strong spiritual energy (whether you believe in this or not, it was a concrete understanding for the ancient Hawaiians so go with it for a minute).  One possibility if someone went there unconsciously is that it could harm them.  As the Hawaiian teacher Serge Kahili King says “there’s no such thing as bad energy, only too much, or a kind you haven’t learned to blend with yet.”  With this outlook maybe it is possible for a human being to not be harmed by nuclear energy but we have to learn to shape-shift our energy field in order to blend with the energy and have sufficient skill to deal with the amount of energy present.  If you have not yet learned to blend and work with nuclear energy then it’s best to follow the guidance when a sign in a power-station says ‘No Entry’ (the modern equivalent of ‘This area is Kapu’)!  So if the glade in the forest I mentioned had a particularly strong spiritual energy that could be really useful to a skilled Shaman, but harmful to someone who doesn’t have the skills or equipment to manage that amount or quality of energy.  It could make them ill. 

Another example might be a particular ritual which is used to communicate with a God or Goddess.  Let’s say it’s the Hawaiian Goddess Pele – the Goddess of fire, lava, and the volcano on the big island.  If you skilfully call on Pele and ask politely for her help then she could be a powerful ally.  If you mindlessly poke her to get her attention then she could get irritated and burn the village to a crisp!

These are examples from within the belief-system of ancient Hawaiian tribal culture so they will be more or less easy to digest as fact depending on your own beliefs, but what I hope they do adequately is illustrate that things were made ‘Kapu’ (or Tabu) not because they were dirty and bad, but because they were powerful, sacred, and magical.

This then, for me is the message: 

That which we cast into shadow, that which we see as unspeakable is probably a great place to go looking for the powerful, sacred and magical.

One description of the Shaman’s role in tribal communities was to speak the unspeakable.  I’d say one version of the role of therapists – especially in the Jungian tradition – is to help people become conscious of their shadow and make peace with it.  What we have made ‘Taboo’, either personally or culturally, may be a rich mine of untapped power, magic, and even beauty and joy.  In the UK, USA and I’d say probably many countries that have been influenced by some versions of Christianity, sexuality has become ‘Taboo’.  If we can welcome this vast and powerful aspect of our being out of the shadows and into the light of consciousness then not only can we reclaim a beautiful and potent part of human life but I think we could also make our cultures safer places to be.  It has long been understood within psychology that what gets repressed will leak out somehow.  If I repress anger then eventually it will either leak out through passive/aggressive behaviours or I will manage to bottle it up for a while but will eventually have some kind of emotional explosion.  Sexuality has been repressed for so long in many places that it has understandably begun to leak into our culture in what I would judge to be less than healthy ways.  There are other cultural models where sexuality is both more sacred and more ordinary – broadly speaking, more accepted.  In this way sex is appropriately ‘Kapu’ – held in trust as a sacred thing to be fully explored once you have the capacity to manage the powerful energies involved i.e. once you are an adult and have been educated about it.  This is as opposed to the authoritarian version of it being ‘Kapu’ where it’s an unacceptable topic for discussion, everyone is embarrassed about it, there is a dearth of proper education and people stumble on it’s power but have no idea where to turn to for advice – after all, it’s taboo.  Rant?  Moi?  Joking aside, my intention is that this serves as an illustration of how Taboo or Kapu applies today.

I’d offer to you that what I’ve just described culturally applies just as well personally.  It may not be sex for you, but all of us have things which we keep hidden away, stuffed into the cupboard under the stairs in the house of our psyche.  I’m not saying you should go out and share these things with all and sundry, but for many of us these things are hidden away because we are embarrassed about them or have labelled them in some way ‘Bad and Dirty’ (to use my own phrase from earlier on).  I would suggest that if you can find it in yourself to re-look at that which is concealed in your personal shadow, you may find some buried treasure or hidden gold.  It may be worth having some support while you do this exploration, whether from a friend, partner, minister or therapist, but it can be awesome and beautiful work.

Just as the lotus flower grows from the muck of the swamp, and a candle’s light is only visible in darkness, the divine spark is most often found in the shadows.