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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga

Prohibited Foods

Prohibited Foods

Most of the prohibited foods were associated with families, and I could get my informants to connect none of them except the turtle and the frigate bird with definite subtribes. The turtle (honu) was said to have been the arai of the Taupo subtribe of the Numatua tribe. The frigate bird (kotaha) was said to have been the arai of the whole Numatua tribe, but later, as the people increased, it became restricted to the Pu-tauhunu subtribe.

The presence of zoological gods with their prohibition as food naturally suggests totemism. However, in no instance is the prohibited food in its personified form regarded as having anything to do with the origin of the family which avoided it as food. All the families and subtribes had their normal origin from human ancestors, and the creation of material gods and the use of ritual in connection with them seems to be a late development. It is tempting to assume, from the nature of the symptoms associated with breaking the prohibitions, that the system had its origin in unpleasant experiences and reactions toward particular foods. Many people of other races cannot eat crayfish, lobster, crabs, or shellfish without digestive disturbances and the production of an urticarial rash. Some Rakahangan ancestor suffered in this way on eating crayfish and it became his atua in the sense of being disagreeable materially and malign through failure to appreciate natural causes of disease. The ancestor, therefore, tapued the food and ceased to collect it in his fishing operations within the lagoon. As it disappeared from his family menu, it also became tapu to his children. One can imagine the children asking the father why they did not have crayfish, like other families, and the father describing in detail all the symptoms that occurred on eating crayfish. He had to excuse what might have been regarded as a lack of skill by impressing upon his family the real cause for the absence of crayfish from the family diet. In this manner, he passed the prohibition on to his children. In Polynesian psychology there is a dual reaction that is extremely common and of great significance for an understanding of the attitude toward institutions. The very fact that a person suffers through eating crayfish indicates clearly that there is some supernormal influence that takes particular notice of him and selects him, so to speak, from his fellow men. His self-esteem is flattered. It is the common people of no account of whom the unseen powers take no notice. The inconvenience of a personal tapu is page 215 balanced by the satisfaction the individual experiences from being important enough to have a tapu. The satisfaction of the individual is shared by the family. The tapu becomes a family tapu, and in time a subtribal tapu. The crayfish that caused inconvenience to a single ancestor thus in the course of time becomes a subtribal arai. It may be that the idiosyncrasy toward the particular food reappears from time to time as manifested in the authentic case of Metutera, but with the mass of the subtribe the factor that keeps the prohibition from being broken is not so much fear of consequences as the pride in having a peculiar tapu. I know personally that men would be extremely disappointed if unpleasant symptoms did not arise after eating the arai. They desire so much that the power of the arai should continue that on some occasions symptoms are exaggerated and may even be falsified. The lack of reaction to the breaking of a tapu diminishes the status and self-esteem of the individual, and he would rather conceal the fact that the god had taken no notice of him than to blazon forth his own inferiority.

It is well known that around certain atoll islands certain fish are poisonous at certain seasons. An urticarial rash and gastric trouble are among the common symptoms of fish poisoning. Thus, besides an individual idiosyncrasy in regard to crayfish and crabs, disasters from the eating of poisonous fish provided the origin for fish tapus. These again were associated with certain families and spread to subtribes. Some of the present older inhabitants assured me that they had eaten their arai without ill effect, but this they attributed to the breaking down of the power of the old institutions through Christianity. On the other hand, I have been somewhat suspicious of the veracity of some who informed me that they could not eat their arai without suffering the classical symptoms. Little doubt can be entertained that in the original cultural background the person who broke a prohibition would suffer psychologically, but apart from an idiosyncrasy or a poisonous fish, the question of how far such psychological guilt would result in physical symptoms is a matter for conjecture.

That similar prohibited foods exist in Tongareva shows a similar physical reaction to similar causes. However, in the far-away high islands of Hawaii similar food prohibitions exist among families, and their supernatural association is believed in.