Taboo
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The flamen dialis was forbidden to be out of the city for a single night or to sleep out of his own bed for three nights consecutively. No one else might sleep in his bed, the legs of which were smeared with fine clay; and it was unlawful to place a box containing sacrificial cakes in contact with the bedstead. He might not mount or even touch a horse, touch iron, or look at an army marshalled outside the pomerium, or be elected to the consulship. He was not allowed to swear an oath,nor to walk along a path over-canopied by vines. He might not touch flour, nor leaven, nor leavened bread, nor a dead body: he might not enter a burial place, but was not prevented from attending a funeral. He was forbidden either to touch or to name a dog, a she-goat, ivy, beans, or raw flesh. None but a free man might cut his hair; the clippings of which, together with the parings of his nails, were buried beneath a felix arbor.
He was required to wear certain unusual garments, such as the apex, a point-tipped hat, and a laena, a heavy wool cloak, regulations at least related to the prohibition against having a knot in any part of his attire, and he might not wear a ring unless it were plain and without stones; nor to strip himself naked in the open air, nor to go out without his proper head-dress.

(summarised from Wikipedia) The taboos incumbent on the Roman High Priest of Jupiter, the flamen dialis.

Basic Information

Derived from the Polynesian word Tapu1, a taboo is a cultural prohibition against specific actions or objects - such prohibitions generally having a religious or at least mystical origin.

In Polynesian culture, tapu restrictions are typically designed to control the flow of spiritual energy (mana) to and from people and places - thus, for example, a sacred place might have restricted access to avoid people depleting its mana and there might be a tapu against touching the king to protect him from "mana theft". Other cultures may have taboos against behaviour that is thought to annoy the gods or spirits and the term is generally used sociologically to describe any culturally forbidden behaviour (so a sociologist might refer to taboos against conspicuous consumption, nudity or incest). Another common form of taboo is against interacting with specific types or classes of person (often including specific relatives or the recently deceased) or certain types of animal - such taboos often extent to forbidding the naming of the prohibited person or thing. In some cultures, a taboo may also be personal - specific foods might be taboo for a given person, let alone their gender, caste or profession - or they may have a taboo against a given activity - even one as innocuous as going out in the rain.

Shamen can be particularly prone to picking up taboos as the result of their continual bargaining with, and often possession by, assorted spirits - such things may be mere compulsive behaviours that are left as the echo of a visiting spirit, acts that are known to please (or displease) spirits with which the shaman deal frequently or even specific conditions of bargains. Whatever their origin, taboos are a frequent addition to the generality of odd behaviour expected of shamen.

The consequences of breaking a taboo could vary enormously - sometimes, breaking a taboo will be a crime and punishable in law, others merely a social offence punished with ostracism. More mystical taboos were said to invite bad luck if broken or to diminish the breaker spiritually, sometimes fatally so, and/or to invite punishment (or at least the withdrawal of protection or patronage) from gods or spirits.

Sources

Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • World builders will need to determine which behaviours are taboo for a given culture and inform players of characters familiar with that culture (accidently breaking the taboos of newly encountered cultures, on the other hand, is part of the fun of exploring).
  • Taboos are great for values dissonance.
  • Actual, mystical taboos are great for balancing a character's powers, whether as part of a class package or as a disadvantage in a point-buy system.
    • Actual value will depend on the severity and permanency of the consequences of violating the taboo: anything that just causes hit point damage or a short duration status effect is likely to be ignored. Those that block access to powers or apply a permanent debuff rather less so…
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