Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Last month I was on Easter Island. Legally a part of Chile, the island is really part of the great Polynesian triangle whose other two points are Hawaii and New Zealand, where I grew up.
Easter Island is of course famous for its Moai statues. At various “ahu” or shrines where the Moais stand, signs in English and the native Polynesian language, in an effort to stop visitors from climbing on top of sacred rocks, read, “STOP — TAPU.”
And I was marveling at the similarities between the language here on Rapa Nui, the native name for Easter Island, and the Maori language in New Zealand. I do not speak Maori, but when you grow up in New Zealand, you naturally pick up a few words.
I was sitting in a restaurant on Easter Island, where they were playing native music on their stereo. And a song began with a count-off that made my ears perk up: “Tahi, rua, toru, ha!” Or as anyone who knows Maori would recognize, “One, two, three, four,” only the word for four is a bit different.
And speaking of songs, there was one song in Maori that I once learned the first lines of which I can still remember:
Tainui te waka
Taupiri te maunga
Or in English:
Tainui the canoe/tribe
Taupiri the mountain
(When the Maori people first reached New Zealand from elsewhere in Polynesia, they divided themselves into tribes based on the canoes upon which they had arrived in, hence the word “waka” can mean either canoe or tribe.)
And here on Rapa Nui I learned that the word for boat was “vaka,” and the word for mountain was “ma’unga.”
The similarity of Polynesian languages holds across vast distances in the Pacific, as far as I understand, from any of the three corners to any of the other two.
So it was that in 1777 Capt. James Cook of the British Royal Navy reached Tonga in the course of his explorations of Pacific Islands. Cook recored the Tongans, cousins of the Easter Islanders and Maoris, as using the word “tapu,” or “taboo” as he rendered it, to refer to anything “forbidden to be eaten, or made use of it.” Cook wrote in his diaries: “Not one of them would sit down, or eat a bit of any thing…. On expressing my surprise at this, they were all taboo, as they said; which word has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden.”
Two things fascinate me about this term, “tapu,” or taboo, as it is shared from “tapu” on Tonga and Rapa Nui to “tapu” in Maori to “tabu” in Fijian to “kapu” in Hawaiian: One is that it covers both extremes of a society’s values: either too sacred or too profane to touch. The second is that the Western world had no word for the concept and had to borrow it in the 18th century from Polynesians, about as different from early-modern Europeans as a people could be.
What would modern anthropologists have done, after all, without the concept of taboo? They would not even have the correct category under which to analyze much of human behavior. What would Hasbro game designers have called their game if they didn’t have this word?
And it reminds me of a tale from Afghanistan. Alexander the Great, after conquering today’s Balkh near Mazar-i Sharif, discovered to his horror that the local people, following Zoroastrian teaching, did not bury their dead. Instead they left the corpses out on the streets for wild dogs to consume. Alexander, who had been very tolerant of cultural differences on his path of conquest, finally had had enough. Exposing the dead this way was taboo in Greek culture. And he decreed that there would be no more funerals by canine mastication. For the local Bactrians, however, the taboo was in burying the dead or cremating them, which in their view would pollute either the earth or the air.
Even today, the difficulties between the West and the rest, or really between any one culture and any other, can be understood as a conflict of taboos.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."