Discussion in 'World Building' started by Greybeard, Apr 15, 2011.
When world building, do you give serious thought to taboos? Have you created any unusual ones?
I'm ashamed to say it's something I never thought much about until reading a fanfic a year or two ago. It was a Star Trek Reboot fic that played on the theory that Gaila is green because she photosynthesizes, and postulated that as a result, Orions have a mess of taboos about eating in public... just like humans have taboos about having sex in public. It was a really enjoyable story and also got me thinking about taboos much more seriously in my own worldbuilding.
One of my characters operates within the restrictive parameters of a geis. Only he knows what it is, which leads to much frustration amongst his companions when he refuses to do certain things, or go to places which may result in him doing certain things. It's a fun conceit, and I enjoy playing around with it.
My main character in the story I'm writing at the moment is coming across some taboos in the city he's in right now. One is public nakedness (he's used to public bath houses, "heroic nude" statues, and men walking around without a shirt on on really hot days; in the city he's come to, anything above the elbow or knee for men, wrist or ankle for women, and below the neck that's showing is really offensive, and very much a private thing to be seen by theoretically three people in your entire life: the midwife when you're born, your mother when you're very young, and your spouse.) Also taboo is accusing someone of being a liar. If you think they're lying, you don't call them a liar or even say you don't believe them, as these are both rude, and in polite company even saying something like you feel you don't have all the information at hand is a little on the rude side; you'd certainly never so much as hint that someone is lying if they're considerably higher status than you, like if they're a king or general. One of my characters gets away with being incredubly rude to my main character because he doesn't have a clue how rude she thinks she's being.
In the world I am currently building one of the taboos is touching another person's blood. This is more commonly noted as a taboo within the nobility, people who would be horrified at the thought of someone else's blood on their skin. Blood is seen as very sacred, it is the vessel for magic and power and so obvious interaction with it in a non-violent situation is frowned upon. In cases where someone is injured and has an open wound, the healer would always wear gloves or attempt to help without any contact. making someone bleed would be different, it is the actual touching that is taboo.
In one of my northern countries, a woman that wears her hair down would be seen as cheap and unclean. There are exceptions, like age and occupation but hair is usually tied up or hidden when in public. It's a superficial and vain taboo, the idea that if a woman can't be bothered to groom herself, she has little worth.
Yes. They're fundamental parts of societies… no matter what name they're given. As for "unusual," I guess it depends on what you regard as unusual–since so many taboos are to begin with.
So now you need a culture that has a taboo about having sex while eating…?
(Though a more interesting one to explore might be a taboo about being in public while being in public.… )
My culture is fairly modern and magic isn't that big a deal, so there aren't exactly 'taboos' in the way we might regard them. Murder, rape, etc. are considered taboo, but I think those ones count more towards commonsense. If anything, it is their utter lack of taboo that defines the culture. Although the technicalities are grossly elaborate, the only law of the land is "do not impede on another man's freedom", which basically just amounts to do not kill, rape, or steal from them. Most crimes can somehow fall into that, but a fair few don't. Children in this society are considered 'free' once they hit puberty, so potentially sex between a girl of nine or ten and an adult would be legal and accepted. Nudity is cool. Ill-advised, mind you, as the continent is nearly all covered in snow, but still legal. Education is free, but also completely optional. Most people only go to school if they intend to learn magic or a difficult field of study (law, swordfighting, medicine, engineering, etc.), while the rest just learn their language and a bit of math and get a job. And even then, many people simply join a school to use the library and never actually find someone to teach them. Magic, fighting, hunting, etc. would need one, but if you just need to learn advanced calculus, a lot of people just stick to the books.
My Elonians aren't allowed to eat meat or kill animals safe in self-defense. I wouldn't really call this unusual though.
The rest might be, though: This only applies to animals which have bones like humans, the others are viewed in a different category. Therefore it's okay for them to eat insects, spiders, mollusks and and so on. Opinions on fish vary. Some groups (usually living close to the sea or lakes) think it's fine to eat them, others disagree.
I have some difficulty conceptualizing this. So I could, say, eat cooked human baby (as long as it died of natural causes) while fornicating with an orangutan? In public or private? Hmm.…
Still, an interesting approach (whether the above were allowed or not), minimizing what is prohibited and maximizing what is permitted overall. Very libertarian. I can think of all sorts of possible story complications that could arise from it–but that's part of the fun, too, eh?
Aside from the fact that neither humans nor orangutans exist, technically it would be allowed, yes. Some people might think you're rather rude, though, if only for the 'public' factor. The other two bits wouldn't garner much attention, certainly not legally anyway. And I do like to explore odd political concepts. I get sort of sick of reading stories where a nation is obviously good or bad, without any real mix of working policies and sinister ones. I took this route because it shows a world where many things do work, some in ways far better than ours, but it also shows that no system can be taken to an extreme. The spread of freedom gave these people a near ideal government and economy - nobody is so poor that they cannot feed their family or get medicine when dying, and the government is all but powerless, they function more as lawyers than as rulers - but the lengths they went to to ensure 'ultimate freedom' caused what we would perceive as grand scale moral decay.
I've come up with a couple for stories, but I generally just recycle ones from modern society or from history. Someone already mentioned the whole 'seeing a woman's ankle' thing, which is one of my favorite examples of changing attitudes. Many of the taboos I actually invent have to do with the use of magic in my worlds, as of course these don't have a simple parallel most of the time.
Are you my next door neighbor? It only happened *once* I swear!
But in all seriousness, I have never really given this sort of detail much thought. Interesting things to think about though as I get to work.
Fair enough. Just checking. If the society allows cannibalism and bestiality, then, yeah, odds are it doesn't have any taboos (incest is the third "biggie," but if you could get away with the above, that one isn't even worth asking about).
If you have not read Ursula K. LeGuin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," you need to track it down. (Do not read a summary–really spoils the effect.) It's one of those stories that kicks your aÃŸ so hard that it remains kicked for… well, probably forever. It's not the same direction you're taking your work, but I'm sure you'll see the connection; may spark some new ideas for you. Which is what all the best fiction does, after all.
I hope it is not taboo to raise an old thread, but I was going to ask about this topic and did a search first.
I am curious what kind of taboos you folks have included in your writing. I have been brainstorming a bit lately, but haven't come up with anything that has clicked. This old thread has some interesting ideas, but there has to be some new ones.
Interesting topic. I've been pondering this a bit with regards to my Fae, since they operate on a moral code much different than that of humans, with only the occasional overlap. For instance, incest and cannibalism are taboo among all kiths, but bestiality is not; a few kiths are shapeshifters, and many of them are partial to living in the forms of animals for various reasons.
Also, while we humans would object to someone taking a child from their parent(s) to raise as their own without the parent(s)' consent, the Fae view it as common practice to do such to humans. They justify it to themselves as a means of increasing their population, since the Fae have a much lower fertility rate than humans, and stolen children eventually become part-Fae themselves. The Fae are also wont to take human lovers or spouses, with or without consent.
Honestly, for about the first three books, my main party is lucky enough to be getting out of situations alive that they don't have time to worry about things like society.
As always I need to preface this by saying that chances are good none of this will apply to my stuff given, oh, two weeks, but I've thought up of a couple of things which would count as taboos.
One setting has dozens of different magical systems and traditions. Each of which tends to be rather possessive of their own secrets so just in order to keep magical society from destroying itself it's taboo to try and discover another tradition's secrets or politely ignore them if you do happen to come across some. Naturally since this is just a taboo it only means that such things have to be kept secret / plausibly deniable.
In the same setting as above, as an urban fantasy setting mundane technology and culture are somewhat looked down upon, but this only reaches taboo levels among the more established traditions. There's plenty of minor practitioners completely comfortable with modern day amenities.
I had a culture that would assign a profession class -- each associated with a patron god -- to each person, and have a tattoo of it put on their right hand. It is considered heretical to do a job other than one within your profession class (e.g. Warrior included jobs like guard, soldier, hunter, etc.). They believe that if you don't keep to your profession class, your soul is destroyed and recycled when you die.
Some people get around this by accepting a rebel patron god, which they believe stands against the tyranny of the others, and allows them the freedom to do what they please. But they have to do this in secret for fear of execution.
And now that I think about it, it would probably be taboo for them to cover their hands with gloves etc. since that would hide their profession class tattoo.
That's interesting. I assume this takes place in a culture where it doesn't get too cold during the winter? Otherwise everyone would get frostbite, and then they'd have no more hands at all.
Eh, I didn't even think about that. How cold does it need to be for frostbite to occur (given that the rest of their bodies can be covered in warm clothing)? Most of the country is in a warm climate, but a bit up north is on a high-altitude mountainous area with snow.