The Taboo

Author: 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.

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