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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Taboo
By Herman Melville (1819–1891)
 
From ‘Typee’

THERE is a marked similarity, almost an identity, between the religious institutions of most of the Polynesian islands; 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 Typee valley, I perceived every hour the effects of this all-controlling power, without in the least comprehending it. Those effects were indeed widespread 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.  1
  For several days after entering the valley, I had been saluted at least fifty times in the twenty-four hours with the talismanic 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 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.  2
  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. 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, I found myself confronted by the company of girls, who, having dropped their work, stood before me with starting eyes, swelling bosoms, and fingers pointed in horror towards me.  3
  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!”  4
  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.  5
  Frequently in walking through the groves, I observed breadfruit 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.  6
  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.  7
  The capricious operation of the taboo is not its least remarkable feature; to enumerate them all would be impossible. Black hogs, infants to a certain age, women in an interesting situation, young men while the operation of tattooing their faces is going on, and certain parts of the valley during the continuance of a shower, are alike fenced about by the operation of the taboo.  8
  I witnessed a striking instance of its effects in the bay of Tior, my visit to which place has been alluded to in a former part of this narrative. On that occasion our worthy captain formed one of the party. He was a most insatiable sportsman. Outward bound, and off the pitch of Cape Horn, he used to sit on the taffrail and keep the steward loading three or four old fowling-pieces, with which he would bring down albatrosses, Cape pigeons, jays, petrels, and divers other marine fowl, who followed chattering in our wake. The sailors were struck aghast at his impiety; and one and all attributed our forty days’ beating about that horrid headland to his sacrilegious slaughter of these inoffensive birds.  9
  At Tior he evinced the same disregard for the religious prejudices of the islanders as he had previously shown for the superstitions of the sailors. Having heard that there was a considerable number of fowls in the valley,—the progeny of some cocks and hens accidentally left there by an English vessel, and which, being strictly tabooed, flew about almost in a wild state,—he determined to break through all restraints and be the death of them. Accordingly he provided himself with a most formidable-looking gun, and announced his landing on the beach by shooting down a noble cock, that was crowing what proved to be his own funeral dirge on the limb of an adjoining tree. “Taboo,” shrieked the affrighted savages. “Oh, hang your taboo,” says the nautical sportsman: “talk taboo to the marines;” and bang went the piece again, and down came another victim. At this the natives ran scampering through the groves, horror-struck at the enormity of the act.  10
  All that afternoon the rocky sides of the valley rang with successive reports, and the superb plumage of many a beautiful fowl was ruffled by the fatal bullet. Had it not been that the French admiral, with a large party, was then in the glen, I have no doubt that the natives, although their tribe was small and dispirited, would have inflicted summary vengeance upon the man who thus outraged their most sacred institutions: as it was, they contrived to annoy him not a little.  11
  Thirsting with his exertions, the skipper directed his steps to a stream; but the savages, who had followed at a little distance, perceiving his object, rushed towards him and forced him away from its bank,—his lips would have polluted it. Wearied at last, he sought to enter a house, that he might rest for a while on the mats; its inmates gathered tumultuously about the door and denied him admittance. He coaxed and blustered by turns, but in vain,—the natives were neither to be intimidated nor appeased; and as a final resort he was obliged to call together his boat’s crew, and pull away from what he termed the most infernal place he ever stepped upon.  12
  Lucky was it for him and for us that we were not honored on our departure by a salute of stones from the hands of the exasperated Tiors. In this way, on the neighboring island of Ropo, were killed but a few weeks previously, and for a nearly similar offense, the master and three of the crew of the K——.  13
  I cannot determine with anything approaching to certainty what power it is that imposes the taboo. When I consider the slight disparity of condition among the islanders, the very limited and inconsiderable prerogatives of the king and chiefs, and the loose and indefinite functions of the priesthood,—most of whom were hardly to be distinguished from the rest of their countrymen,—I am wholly at a loss where to look for the authority which regulates this potent institution. It is imposed upon something to-day, and withdrawn to-morrow; while its operations in other cases are perpetual. Sometimes its restrictions only affect a single individual, sometimes a particular family, sometimes a whole tribe; and in a few instances they extend not merely over the various clans on a single island, but over all the inhabitants of an entire group. In illustration of this latter peculiarity, I may cite the law which forbids a female to enter a canoe,—a prohibition which prevails upon all the northern Marquesas Islands.  14
  The word itself (“taboo”) is used in more than one signification. It is sometimes used by a parent to his child, when in the exercise of parental authority he forbids it to perform a particular action. Anything opposed to the ordinary customs of the islanders, although not expressly prohibited, is said to be “taboo.”  15
 
 
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