Taboo on the dead

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The taboo on the dead includes the taboo against touching of the dead and those surrounding them; the taboo against mourners of the dead; and the taboo against anything associated with the dead.

The taboo on mourners

  • Among the Shuswaps 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. [...] No hunter would come near such mourners, for their presence is unlucky. If their shadow were to fall on anyone, 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.[1]
  • Among the Agutainos, who inhabit Palawan, one of the Philippine Islands, a widow may not leave her hut for seven or eight days after the death; and even then she may only go out at an hour when is not likely to meet anybody, for whoever looks upon her dies a sudden death. To prevent this fatal catastrophe, the widow knocks with a wooden peg on the trees as she goes along, thus warning people of her dangerous proximity; and the very trees on which she knocks soon die."[2]

The taboo against naming the dead

A taboo against naming the dead is a kind of word taboo whereby the name of a recently deceased person, and any other words similar to it in sound, may not be uttered. It is observed by peoples from all over the world, including Australia,[3] Siberia, Southern India and the Sahara.[4]


  • Among the Guaycurus of Paraguay, when a death had taken place, the chief used to change the name of every member of the tribe; and from that moment everybody remembered his new name just as if he had borne it all his life.[5]
  • After a Yolngu man named Bitjingu died, the word bithiwul "no; nothing" was avoided.[6] In its place, a synonym or a loanword from another language would be used for a certain period, after which the original word could be used again; but in some cases the replacement word would continue to be used.
  • In some Australian Aboriginal culture the dead are not referred to by their name directly as a mark of respect. In Pitjantjatjara, for instance, it is common to refer to a recently deceased person as 'kunmanara', which means "what's his name". Often, the person's last name can still be used. The avoidance period may last anywhere from 12 months to several years, depending on how important or famous the person was. The person can still be referred to in a roundabout way, such as "that old lady" or by generic skin type but not by first name. Other reasons may include not making mockery of that person and keeping respect with regard to them.[3]


  • The Maasai of East Africa resort to the device of changing the dead person's name immediately after their death; the person may then be mentioned freely under the new name while all the restrictions remain attached to the old one. They assume that the dead person will not know their new name, and so will not answer to it when hearing it pronounced.[7]
  • Among the Kaurna and Ramindjeri tribes of South Australia, the repugnance to mentioning the names of those who have died lately is carried so far that persons who bear the same name as the deceased abandon it, and either adopt temporary names or are known by any others that happen to belong to them.[8]


The taboo may be enforced with extreme severity:

  • Among the Goajiro of Colombia to mention the dead before their kin is a dreadful offence, which is often punished with death; for if it happens on the rancho of the deceased, in presence of a nephew or uncle, they will assuredly kill the offender on the spot if they can. But if they escape, the penalty resolves itself into a heavy fine, usually of two or more oxen.[9]

Effects on language

R. M. W. Dixon has suggested, in reference to Australian Aboriginal languages, that the substitution of loanwords for tabooed words results in significant vocabulary replacement, hindering the application of the comparative method.[6] Other linguists find the effects of the taboo on vocabulary replacement to be insignificant.[10][11][12]

Goddard (1979) also suggests upon finding evidence of name-taboos of the deceased in Tonkawa similar to Australian languages, the languages of the North American Southeast may have resisted classification into language families so far due in part to vocabulary replacement (in addition to their already sparse documentation).

Origins and causes

Sigmund Freud traces back the origin of the dangerous character of widowers and widows to the danger of temptation. A man who has lost his wife must resist a desire to find a substitute for her; a widow must fight against the same wish and is moreover liable to arouse the desires of other men. Substitutive satisfactions of such a kind run counter to the sense of mourning and they would inevitably kindle the ghost's wrath.[13]

Sigmund Freud explains that the fundamental reason for the existence of such taboos is the fear of the presence or of the return of the dead person's ghost. It is exactly this fear that leads to a great number of ceremonies aimed at keeping the ghost at a distance or driving him off.[14]

The Tuaregs of Sahara, for example, dread the return of the dead man's spirit so much that "[they] do all they can to avoid it by shifting their camp after a death, ceasing for ever to pronounce the name of the departed, and eschewing everything that might be regarded as an evocation or recall of his soul. Hence they do not, like the Arabs, designate individuals by adding to their personal names the names of their fathers. [...] they give to every man a name which will live and die with him."[15] In many cases the taboo remains intact until the body of the dead has completely decayed,[16] but until then the community must disguise itself so that the ghost shall not recognize them. For example, the Nicobar Islanders try to disguise themselves by shaving their heads.[17]

Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt associates the taboo to a fear that the dead man's soul has become a demon.[18] Moreover, many cases show a hostility toward the dead and their representation as malevolent figures.[19] Edward Westermarck notes that "Death is commonly regarded as the gravest of all misfortunes; hence the dead are believed to be exceedingly dissatisfied with their fate [...] such a death naturally tends to make the soul revengeful and ill-tempered. It is envious of the living and is longing for the company of its old friend."[20]

See also


  1. Frazer (1990, 142), quoting Boas (1890 [643f.]).
  2. Frazer (1990, 144), quoting Blumentritt (1891, 182).
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Australian findings on Aboriginal cultural practices associated with clothing, hair, possessions and use of name of deceased persons", Pam McGrath and Emma Phillips, Research paper, International Journal of Nursing Practice Vol 14, Issue #1 pp. 57–66
  4. Frazer (1922, 3).
  5. Frazer (1990, 357).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Dixon (2002, 27).
  7. Frazer (1990, 354–355).
  8. Frazer (1922, 4).
  9. Frazer (1922, 2).
  10. Alpher & Nash (1991)
  11. Evans (June 2005, 258–261).
  12. McGregor (2004, 34).
  13. Freud (1950, 54).
  14. Freud (1950, 57).
  15. Frazer (1922, 3).
  16. Freud (1990, 372).
  17. Frazer (1922, 5).
  18. Freud (1950, 58), quoting Wundt (1906, 49).
  19. Freud (1950, 58).
  20. Freud (1950, 59), quoting Westermarck (1906–8, 2, 534f.).


  • Alpher, Barry; Nash, David (1991). "Lexical Replacement and Cognate Equilibrium in Australia". Australian Journal of Linguistics. 19 (1): 5–56. doi:10.1080/07268609908599573.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dixon, R. M. W. (2002). Australian Languages: Their Nature and Developments. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47378-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Evans, Nicholas (June 2005). "Australian Languages Reconsidered: A Review of Dixon (2002)". Oceanic Linguistics. 44 (1): 242–286. doi:10.1353/ol.2005.0020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Frazer, James George (1922). "Names of the Dead Tabooed". The Golden Bough, abridged ed. New York: The Macmillan Co. [Retrieved on 2006-12-04.]
  • Frazer, James George (1990). Taboo and the Perils of the Soul (The Golden Bough, 3rd ed., Part II). New York: St. Martin's Press. [1st ed., 1913.]
  • Freud, Sigmund (1950). Totem and Taboo:Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics. trans. Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-00143-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McGregor, William B. (2004). The Languages of the Kimberley, Western Australia. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-30808-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Westermarck, E. (1906–8). The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (2 vols.). London.
  • Wundt, W. (1906). Mythus und Religion, Teil II (Völkerpsychologie, Band II). Leipzig.