The Purpose of Taboos
This is an older article I am shifting over to my blog from my website – expect several more of these as I re-order a few things. More details to follow soon.
“And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.” (Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea)
I have been smoking clove cigarettes since I was 15 years old. Never much – it varied over the years between “occasionally” to as much as a pack per week. But I enjoyed them, and I made sure periodically that I wasn’t physically addicted, and it seemed okay, a small vice. Then, shortly after I accepted the vocation of spirit-worker, my spirits laid a taboo on me: I must no longer smoke casually, but may only do so in certain specific circumstances: when it enhanced an altered state of consciousness (which it does for me sometimes, a combination of treating the tobacco as an entheogen, and some personal significance that the act has for me and certain spirits). When I smoked for any other reason, I became slightly ill, sometimes more.
I initially agreed, figuring I didn’t have much choice (it wasn’t really a question anyway), but I’ll admit that it’s taken me quite some time to fully accept this rule. I flout it all too frequently, and I pay the price – it’s amazing how stubborn and even self-destructive we can be sometimes. But I am slowly coming to terms with the restriction, and how positive its effects can be.
Soon after They laid this taboo on me, I asked the question, what is the purpose of taboos in general? I got a few answers that seemed applicable beyond my personal situation, and thought it might be useful to others to share them.
[Note: I sometimes see the terms “taboo” and “geas” used interchangeably, especially by modern spirit-workers. I see them a little differently, although I admit I’m not sure my perceptions are perfectly in line with the historical usage of the latter word. However, to me a geas is more intractable, a line one would never cross, that may be almost impossible to cross. At this point in time, the only taboo I have that is at that level is actually something that I’ve had since childhood. I had a dream of what I came to eventually think of as “the spider god,” although it may have just been a very powerful spirit. It was huge and frightening, and it told me I must never kill a spider. And I obeyed, and have obeyed for all these years, because I immediately recognized the seriousness of the order and who it came from. I never knew why this was laid on me (although now I have some suspicions), nor what would happen if I violated it, but it didn’t really matter. I had and have no intention of ever violating it (at least, of course, not intentionally, as it may happen that I step on a spider without knowing it, and that doesn’t seem to be part of the geas), nor any reason to. Whereas, with other taboos, I may struggle with them, I may resist at least initially, but while I will often suffer some ill effect from doing so (and likewise, beneficial effect from keeping the taboo), it is a bit more of a process than an absolute law. At least, that’s been my experience.]
Alright, so back to the purpose of taboos. These were three points that were made to me – I am sure they are not the only possible ones, but they suffice for me, and help me remember why I am doing this.
1. Because following the taboo forces you to be in a proper mental state.
When even a small, seemingly mundane action is governed by a spiritually-imposed rule, nothing is casual any longer. It makes you pay attention, it enforces a constant state of awareness. For instance, wearing a head covering whenever you leave the house (as some mystics I know are required to do) makes sure that you are always at least peripherally aware of Who has asked/mandated this, and your role in regards to Them. Taboos set you apart, sometimes only in your own mind, sometimes to others as well, in a way that reinforces your own acknowledgement of what you are and what your path is.
2. Because that is the way it is done, and so that is the way you must do it.
Sometimes, the answer is this simple (and occasionally this frustrating, as it cannot really be argued with). There are rules to the way certain spiritual things function, sometimes culturally-bound rules and sometimes universal rules. Not just rules that someone or Someone created, but inherent, “natural” ways that things work. For instance, someone might have a taboo to always give some kind of gift in return for a gift (material or otherwise) received, but this is reflective of a simple and powerful law, what the Havamal calls “a gift for a gift,” a rule that is present in so many fairy tales as well – those who travel in the otherworlds know it to be true. And it may be a much smaller, more specific detail as well – the way a tool is used, the way a ring is worn. If you accept the reality of the spiritual world, you must accept that it has an internal logic not always apparent to us, but nonetheless applicable. The gods and spirits understand its workings much better than we do, and will sometimes give us direction based on that.
3. Because it binds us to Them.
This seems to be one of the laws I just mentioned, the “way things work.” Following the taboos set upon us by our gods and spirits creates a powerful bond between us, not just on an emotional and psychological level (and those things are important), but on what I can only describe as a magical level. There is inherent power in the act of submitting to Their will, of abiding by Their rules and the rules of the magical universe we, as spirit-workers or shamans or mystics, inhabit. We don’t just gain Their favor or approval by doing this, we enter into a deeper relationship, one that will have far-ranging and often unexpected consequences in the rest of our life.
It is rarely easy to follow the taboos laid upon us, but I do feel that it is worth the effort, and to do so not just out of fear of reprisal or negative consequences, but out of love, gratitude, and dedication to the spiritual path.
I must add one other purpose for taboos – they bring power. Like ascetic acts (such as fasting, enduring extreme temperatures, or celibacy) and like ordeal rituals, taboos require discipline and submission to hardship, and keeping them will often result in acquiring more spiritual “mojo” for lack of a better word. They are less dramatic and more long-term than ordeals, but often work similarly.