“The real taboos can't even be talked about”

by Jenny Friedrich-Freksa

Taboo (Issue I/2021)

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Photo: Max Lautenschläger


It would be nigh on impossible to live without breaking a single taboo from anywhere around the globe: In Ghana you shouldn't sing while bathing, in Madagascar no pork should be taken onto the beach and in Sierra Leone you shouldn't talk to anyone about their age. Even in romantic relationships many people don't know how old their partners really are. All of these are cultural taboos, rules that societies have to respect. Often they have their roots in religious tales from long ago or originate from superstitions.

Some taboos are universal, such as the commandment that applies all over the world: “Thou shalt not kill,” or the incest taboo. “There is not a single culture that does not prohibit incest,” explains the French doctor and psychoanalyst Caroline Eliacheff, “despite this, it has not been possible to make it disappear.”

In this issue we deal with big and small taboos, those that are understood worldwide and those that are culturally specific. And we unravel where they come from: The connection between power and prohibition is the core of taboo, says American anthropologist Manvir Singh, adding that taboos are often related to loyalty. In order to forge solidarity within a group, members stick to agreed rules and label certain types of behaviour as taboo, for example making certain symbols - for example a flag - widely reviled.

But the real taboos, scientists say, cannot even be talked about. Everything else, all the outraged remarks that “that's totally not ok” or “that's totally taboo” are often applied to things which aren't as beyond the pale as they seem. But when it comes to the true taboos, we all go silent.



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