Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

A term from Anthropology/comparative Religion, often used loosely to describe actions which are forbidden. However, the term originally described restrictions or bans relating to something sacred. That which is taboo is the sacred object or place or condition of being. Taboo actions are – by extension – actions which violate that sacred zone. Also spelled "tabu", "tapu" or "kapu", the term comes from the Polynesian.

In fantasy, the term is often applied with accuracy. Grant Allen's The Great Taboo (1891) treats its eponymous subject matter in an orthodox fashion; in Sheri S Tepper's The Awakeners (1987) a prohibition against the dead returning to the land of the living, or the living visiting the land of the dead, corresponds to an underlying sense that contact between the two states is contaminating, a sense whose provenance extends very deep into human prehistory, and which informs Legends like that of Don Juan. In much of his work, an author like Philip José Farmer explores forbidden regions of the psyche.

It is in the loose sense that the term is used to describe subject matters which are, or have been at one time, forbidden to fantasy. Sex and Religion are both human meaning systems very frequently subject to censorship, perhaps because they are both potentially subversive. Fantasy, as a genre which began as a subversive assault on the "real" world (>>> Aesopian Fantasy), has been peculiarly vulnerable to restrictions; when it is also remembered that until recent decades the genre was normally conceived as essentially fit only for children, the tameness of much modern fantasy is unsurprising. In the last years of the 20th century, however, most censorship has weakened, except that exercised by publishers seeking to target particular markets. Genre Fantasy, as a rule, therefore, avoids most "taboos". [JC]

see also: Superstition; Wizards.


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.