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Taboos are prohibitions attached to certain objects or actions. The violation of taboos is believed to cause dire consequences (bad luck, disease, death) to the guilty person or to the community. Taboos are thus a type of negative law, having both social and ritual effects. Make a list of taboos, noting when, where, and by whom the object or activity is taboo.

To get started, consider the almost universal taboo against incest; the abominations listed in Leviticus 11, 18, 19; the prohibition in Buddhism against a woman touching a monk; Islamic dietary restrictions, etc.

Are there names of people or things which one must not say? Are there animals which must not be eaten, at least on certain days? Are there people one may not speak to or touch? Are there places one may not go, or where certain things may not be done?

Are there certain relationships within the family or within the community which are forbidden? Are there certain areas of a house or a public area which are off limits?

Are there taboos on when, how, or by whom a ritual object may he touched, used, looked at, etc.? What about where those objects should be placed?

What penalties are there for violation of the taboos? Are there stories about people who violated them and were punished? What part do natural calamities have? or spirits or gods (be specific)?

How can the effects of a violated taboo be averted? Note the details for each type of taboo.

How did particular taboos get started? Are taboos associated with charms and amulets so that they will remain magically effective? How can violations of taboos come to be known, especially if they are violated unwittingly?


Ideas for whom you can talk with to inquire about this topic: talk with a lawyer to find out what types of cases he is handling, or talk with someone who has had a case pending in the courts.

If you can, observe how a case is handled in court. What judicial procedure is followed? How do the parties concerned present their cases? Is there a jury? How are they selected? What is their role?

Explore the legal system to find out what types of courts exist to handle grievances. Are these readily available to the local populace? How long does it take for a case to be heard?

What kind of training do the judges, lawyers, and others have? Are they dependable and impartial or are they easily influenced by those with money and position? How often is the law taken into “their own hands” and how is this recourse viewed?

What broken standard of behavior would constitute grounds for bringing a case to authorities?

Which would also need the services of a lawyer? a ritual expert?

What types of cases constitute the majority of those brought for judgment?

Possibilities: land disputes, water rights, pigs in one’s fields, adultery, incest, chronic bullying or other anti-social behavior, cheating on a deal, murder, theft, etc. How and on what basis is the verdict reached? Are bribes ever used to influence a case?

What types of punishment are meted out to those found guilty?

Possibilities: restitution, fines, jail, community service, banishment, death, etc. Are these punishments different from those meted out in the old days for murder, chronic theft or robbery, adultery, etc.?

Do people argue their case directly or through a spokesman? Do the parties to a case meet face to face or do they appear before the council separately? Which decisions can be appealed? How?

How is justice today different from that administered in former times


What types of marriage are recognized by the society? Must there always be a ceremony? Are mass marriages performed, and when? Attend a wedding and describe the ceremony and other activities associated with it. Notice who the participants are. As you have the opprtunity, attend various weddings and note the difference between traditional weddings of various tribes or clans, the difference between a Christian wedding and that of adherents of another faith, the difference between a civil wedding and a religious one, etc.

Who officiates at the wedding? Is there a reception or dinner afterwards, and who arranges it? When are the bride and groom presented to the invited guests? When do the bride and groom see each other for the first time after the ceremony? How do they leave the site of the wedding, and where do they go? Are there other dinners and receptions at another time? What is the traditional schedule kept by the wedding party for the first month (or later if applicable) after the wedding?

Who are invited as guests and how are they informed? What gifts are given? When and how are they given, and to whom? What would be expected of you as a guest?

Where does the new couple live? What is the relationship between the man and the woman and their in-laws? Is the relationship dependent on whether the couple lives with the man’s family, the woman’s family, or in their own house? What adjustment problems do newly-weds have? When is a marriage considered consummated?

How many wives/husbands may a person have? Are there wedding ceremonies when succeeding spouses are taken? Is polygamy permitted? What are relations like in a polygamous household?

Is divorce socially acceptable? What are the reasons for divorce? What is the frequency? Describe a divorce procedure. What happens to the original bride price or dowry? Is there any provision made in the marriage certificate for compensation in case of divorce? Can divorced people remarry? How would such a ceremony differ from a regular one? Who gets custody of the children in a divorce? May women divorce men?


Many cultures have special traditions or ceremonies to induct their young people into the world of adulthood, but some do not. Inquire about the existence of such traditions. Here are some ideas to get you started.

How and at what age is a boy recognized as an adult, able to take part in adult activities? Is there a special initiation ceremony? Is this a tribal ceremony? One conducted by the family? If a family tradition, would each family have its own tradition, or is this also standardized in the culture? Who conducts it? How is the boy prepared for it? Is he given a new name? Who gives it and how is it determined? What activities are now open to him?

How is a girl recognized as having come of age? At what age are a girl’s ears pierced? By whom? Is special note taken of a girl’s first menstruation? How? How is she prepared for it? Does a girl receive an adult name? What duties, responsibilities, or privileges are now open to her?


Are there local midwives? Are they trained? If not, how do they get their knowledge? Are they contracted beforehand to be on hand for the delivery? How much do they get paid for a successful delivery? for an unsuccessful one? How long after the delivery do they care for the mother? What are their services? What must the mother do after childbirth?

Where and how is the baby delivered? Who may be present? Who is in charge of the event? Who cuts the cord? How? What is done with the afterbirth? What must be done for the child physically and ritually? Who does this?

What is the father’s role before, during, and after the birth? At what point does he see the baby? Who announces the birth to the rest of the family? to the community? How is this done?

What is the meaning attached to events occurring at the birth of a child (guests present, cord around the baby’s neck, etc.)? What is done in the case of twins? What practices and beliefs are associated with death in childbirth?

Is the birth of a child, whether boy or girl, a time of rejoicing? Are gifts given in either case? To whom?

What religious or folk customs are observed at birth, as baptisms, charms, circumcision, etc.?


Note: For all Life Cycle assignments, be sure to ask a number of people for their stories, opinions, and experiences. Each individual will perceive these in a different way depending on what their ethnic background is, what their own experience has been, and what the local belief is.

According to local people, how does a woman become pregnant? How soon is a woman expected to become pregnant after marriage? What are the attitudes toward barrenness? What are some of the reasons given for barrenness? What recourse does the family, the couple, or the woman have for treatment? Is barrenness a reason for divorce?

Do the spirits play any role in conception? What rituals are practiced to ensure pregnancy? Are these done by a religious practitioner? by a designated woman? someone in the family?

What taboos must a pregnant woman observe? What will happen if the taboos are broken? What kinds of pressure is given by whom to ensure the taboos will be observed? How does the younger generation feel about the taboos? Ask a variety of women about these. Different families also can have different myths, tales, and experiences along these lines.

Are there dietary restrictions for the woman? What type of traditional prenatal care is given? Is there any remedy for morning sickness? Are steps taken to determine the sex of the baby before it is born? Which sex is preferred? Why?

What preparations are made for the arrival of the new-born (clothing, cradle, nursery, etc.)? If none are made, try to find out the reason why. If preparations are made, who does them (friends, certain members of the family, relatives near and far, baby showers, etc.)? What things are considered necessary for the first weeks of the child’s life (a supply of diapers, a pacifier, charms or other objects under the pillow, certain herbs around the bed, etc.)

Is contraception practiced? What types of contraceptives, traditional or modern, are there? Are they readily available? How is the practice viewed by the older generation? by the younger generation?

Is abortion practiced? Under what circumstances? What is the society’s attitude toward it?

What is the cause and frequency of miscarriages? What cures are sought to prevent miscarriages? What is done with the fetus? Is it given a proper burial or disposed of in some other way? When does the fetus receive its soul? Where does the soul come from?


Note:  While investigating this subject, plus the Life Cycle topics which follow, be sensitive. In some cultures, some of these topics would not be appropriate for men to discuss with women and vice versa. When possible and appropriate, ask a wide variety of people for their opinions. Different age groups, different ethnic groups, and different religions may hold very different perspectives on these issues.

What is the adult attitude to children’s curiosity about their own bodies? regarding procreation and birth? Is such knowledge given, withheld, or fictionalized (e.g., the stork brought you)?

What system of modesty does the society follow regarding which body parts may be seen, excretory functions, bathing, privacy of marital relations. etc.?

Is virginity expected before marriage? From both sexes? If not, when do young people begin having sexual relations? With whom? What relationships would be considered incestuous? Is premarital sex expected. condoned, punished? How? What is the attitude of the parents toward such relations?

Is pregnancy before marriage shameful, accepted, or welcomed? Is the couple punished (e.g., by being fined or expelled from the village)? What effect does such a pregnancy have on a future marriage and bride price?

Are extramarital sex relations accepted or tolerated? For both sexes? Are the spirits offended by such affairs? Is the couple fined or punished? What happens to a child born of an adulterous affair?

What are the attitudes toward homosexuality, prostitution, or abortion? Are such actions tolerated or punished? How?

How are venereal diseases treated? Is contracting such a disease a thing of shame? Is there any connection between sex and morality?

What acts are considered immoral: profaning sacred places or objects, immodest behavior, violations of kinship relationships, incest, violation of an ethical code of behavior, or something else? What is the punishment for infraction of these codes? Is there a list of such behaviors (as, the Ten Commandments, the 7 deadly sins, etc.)? How are these taught and learned?

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