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Chapter 21. Tabooed Things : Section 5. The Head tabooed

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Chapter 21. Tabooed Things.

Section 5. The Head tabooed.

MANY peoples regard the head as peculiarly sacred; the special sanctity attributed to it is sometimes explained by a belief that it contains a spirit which is very sensitive to injury or disrespect. Thus the Yorubas hold that every man has three spiritual inmates, of whom the first, called Olori, dwells in the head and is the man’s protector, guardian, and guide. Offerings are made to this spirit, chiefly of fowls, and some of the blood mixed with palmoil is rubbed on the forehead. The Karens suppose that a being called the tso resides in the upper part of the head, and while it retains its seat no harm can befall the person from the efforts of the seven Kelahs, or personified passions. “But if the tso becomes heedless or weak certain evil to the person is the result. Hence the head is carefully attended to, and all possible pains are taken to provide such dress and attire as will be pleasing to the tso.” The Siamese think that a spirit called khuan or kwun dwells in the human head, of which it is the guardian spirit. The spirit must be carefully protected from injury of every kind; hence the act of shaving or cutting the hair is accompanied with many ceremonies. The kwun is very sensitive on points of honour, and would feel mortally insulted if the head in which he resides were touched by the hand of a stranger. The Cambodians esteem it a grave offence to touch a man’s head; some of them will not enter a place where anything whatever is suspended over their heads; and the meanest Cambodian would never consent to live under an inhabited room. Hence the houses are built of one story only; and even the Government respects the prejudice by never placing a prisoner in the stocks under the floor of a house, though the houses are raised high above the ground. The same superstition exists amongst the Malays; for an early traveller reports that in Java people “wear nothing on their heads, and say that nothing must be on their heads … and if any person were to put his hand upon their head they would kill him; and they do not build houses with storeys, in order that they may not walk over each other’s heads.”   1

  The same superstition as to the head is found in full force throughout Polynesia. Thus of Gattanewa, a Marquesan chief, it is said that “to touch the top of his head, or anything which had been on his head, was sacrilege. To pass over his head was an indignity never to be forgotten.” The son of a Marquesan high priest has been seen to roll on the ground in an agony of rage and despair, begging for death, because some one had desecrated his head and deprived him of his divinity by sprinkling a few drops of water on his hair. But it was not the Marquesan chiefs only whose heads were sacred. The head of every Marquesan was taboo, and might neither be touched nor stepped over by another; even a father might not step over the head of his sleeping child; women were forbidden to carry or touch anything that had been in contact with, or had merely hung over, the head of their husband or father. No one was allowed to be over the head of the king of Tonga. In Tahiti any one who stood over the king or queen, or passed his hand over their heads, might be put to death. Until certain rites were performed over it, a Tahitian infant was especially taboo; whatever touched the child’s head, while it was in this state, became sacred and was deposited in a consecrated place railed in for the purpose at the child’s house. If a branch of a tree touched the child’s head, the tree was cut down; and if in its fall it injured another tree so as to penetrate the bark, that tree also was cut down as unclean and unfit for use. After the rites were performed these special taboos ceased; but the head of a Tahitian was always sacred, he never carried anything on it, and to touch it was an offence. So sacred was the head of a Maori chief that “if he only touched it with his fingers, he was obliged immediately to apply them to his nose, and snuff up the sanctity which they had acquired by the touch, and thus restore it to the part from whence it was taken.” On account of the sacredness of his head a Maori chief “could not blow the fire with his mouth, for the breath being sacred, communicated his sanctity to it, and a brand might be taken by a slave, or a man of another tribe, or the fire might be used for other purposes, such as cooking, and so cause his death.”   2

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