Chapter 20. Tabooed Persons : Section 2. Mourners tabooed
Chapter 20. Tabooed Persons.
Section 2. Mourners tabooed.
THUS regarding his sacred chiefs and kings as charged with a mysterious spiritual force which so to say explodes at contact, the savage naturally ranks them among the dangerous classes of society, and imposes upon them the same sort of restraints that he lays on manslayers, menstruous women, and other persons whom he looks upon with a certain fear and horror. For example, sacred kings and priests in Polynesia were not allowed to touch food with their hands, and had therefore to be fed by others; and as we have just seen, their vessels, garments, and other property might not be used by others on pain of disease and death. Now precisely the same observances are exacted by some savages from girls at their first menstruation, women after childbirth, homicides, mourners, and all persons who have come into contact with the dead. Thus, for example, to begin with the last class of persons, among the Maoris any one who had handled a corpse, helped to convey it to the grave, or touched a dead mans bones, was cut off from all intercourse and almost all communication with mankind. He could not enter any house, or come into contact with any person or thing, without utterly bedevilling them. He might not even touch food with his hands, which had become so frightfully tabooed or unclean as to be quite useless. Food would be set for him on the ground, and he would then sit or kneel down, and, with his hands carefully held behind his back, would gnaw at it as best he could. In some cases he would be fed by another person, who with outstretched arm contrived to do it without touching the tabooed man; but the feeder was himself subjected to many severe restrictions, little less onerous than those which were imposed upon the other. In almost every populous village there lived a degraded wretch, the lowest of the low, who earned a sorry pittance by thus waiting upon the defiled. Clad in rags, daubed from head to foot with red ochre and stinking shark oil, always solitary and silent, generally old, haggard, and wizened, often half crazed, he might be seen sitting motionless all day apart from the common path or thoroughfare of the village, gazing with lack-lustre eyes on the busy doings in which he might never take a part. Twice a day a dole of food would be thrown on the ground before him to munch as well as he could without the use of his hands; and at night, huddling his greasy tatters about him, he would crawl into some miserable lair of leaves and refuse, where, dirty, cold, and hungry, he passed, in broken ghost-haunted slumbers, a wretched night as a prelude to another wretched day. Such was the only human being deemed fit to associate at arms length with one who had paid the last offices of respect and friendship to the dead. And when, the dismal term of his seclusion being over, the mourner was about to mix with his fellows once more, all the dishes he had used in his seclusion were diligently smashed, and all the garments he had worn were carefully thrown away, lest they should spread the contagion of his defilement among others, just as the vessels and clothes of sacred kings and chiefs are destroyed or cast away for a similar reason. So complete in these respects is the analogy which the savage traces between the spiritual influences that emanate from divinities and from the dead, between the odour of sanctity and the stench of corruption. 1
The rule which forbids persons who have been in contact with the dead to touch food with their hands would seem to have been universal in Polynesia. Thus in Samoa those who attended the deceased were most careful not to handle food, and for days were fed by others as if they were helpless infants. Baldness and the loss of teeth were supposed to be the punishment inflicted by the household god if they violated the rule. Again, in Tonga, no person can touch a dead chief without being tabood for ten lunar months, except chiefs, who are only tabood for three, four, or five months, according to the superiority of the dead chief; except again it be the body of Tooitonga [the great divine chief], and then even the greatest chief would be tabood ten months
. During the time a man is tabood he must not feed himself with his own hands, but must be fed by somebody else: he must not even use a toothpick himself, but must guide another persons hand holding the toothpick. If he is hungry and there is no one to feed him, he must go down upon his hands and knees, and pick up his victuals with his mouth: and if he infringes upon any of these rules, it is firmly expected that he will swell up and die. 2
Among the Shuswap of British Columbia widows and widowers in mourning are secluded and forbidden to touch their own head or body; the cups and cooking-vessels which they use may be used by no one else. They must build a sweat-house beside a creek, sweat there all night and bathe regularly, after which they must rub their bodies with branches of spruce. The branches may not be used more than once, and when they have served their purpose they are stuck into the ground all round the hut. No hunter would come near such mourners, for their presence is unlucky. If their shadow were to fall on any one, he would be taken ill at once. They employ thorn bushes for bed and pillow, in order to keep away the ghost of the deceased; and thorn bushes are also laid all around their beds. This last precaution shows clearly what the spiritual danger is which leads to the exclusion of such persons from ordinary society; it is simply a fear of the ghost who is supposed to be hovering near them. In the Mekeo district of British New Guinea a widower loses all his civil rights and becomes a social outcast, an object of fear and horror, shunned by all. He may not cultivate a garden, nor show himself in public, nor traverse the village, nor walk on the roads and paths. Like a wild beast he must skulk in the long grass and the bushes; and if he sees or hears any one coming, especially a woman, he must hide behind a tree or a thicket. If he wishes to fish or hunt, he must do it alone and at night. If he would consult any one, even the missionary, he does so by stealth and at night; he seems to have lost his voice and speaks only in whispers. Were he to join a party of fishers or hunters, his presence would bring misfortune on them; the ghost of his dead wife would frighten away the fish or the game. He goes about everywhere and at all times armed with a tomahawk to defend himself, not only against wild boars in the jungle, but against the dreaded spirit of his departed spouse, who would do him an ill turn if she could; for all the souls of the dead are malignant and their only delight is to harm the living. 3