We all need some rules and guidelines. They are, whether you like it or not, an essential part of our lives. Can you imagine what the world would look like if no regulations existed? Well, I can. It would be nothing but a mess. Complete chaos. Total disarray. In other words, it would be a terrible place to live.
The importance of law and order has been recognized since remote times. Most countries had established their own social principles long before ‘traditional’ legal systems came into being. Such rules indicated what was forbidden and what was permitted. Individuals couldn’t just do as they pleased. Their personal freedom was restricted in favour of public interests. Was it wrong? No. Was it necessary? It surely was.
In the Pacific Islands the first ‘law’ that organized social life was tapu. Although the word is usually translated into English as ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited’, its definition is actually much broader. In order to fully understand the code, we must first dig into Polynesian culture.
The origins of tapu are strongly linked to the concept of mana, which can be defined as an extraordinary power derived from the gods. In the past, mana was a synonym for authority, influence, prestige and efficacy. It was a kind of supernatural force certain people, places and objects possessed. In case of human beings, mana could be both inherited or acquired during life. It could also be increased, decreased or even lost through one’s actions or behaviour.
Now, you may wonder what is the connection between the two concepts. Well, when something was tapu (‘forbidden’), it was actually sacred as it was imbued with the power of mana. And the higher the mana, the greater the tapu. Chiefs and noble families, as well as significant objects and places, were believed to have had an exceptionally high level of mana. That is why they were extremely tapu and out of bounds to those who didn’t have a dispensation.
The concept of tapu was so commonly used in the various Pacific Islands that it quickly became a means of social control. It imposed restrictions, limitations and prohibition. Everything and everyone could be made tapu. Such things or people couldn’t be touched, approached or sometimes even talked to. To give you an example, if someone’s house was declared tapu, unauthorized person was forbidden to enter it. In one of his books, Robert Louis Stevenson mentions how King Tembinok, the ruler of Apemama, made Stevensons’ compound sacred and thus inaccessible to the locals. The natives obeyed; as usual. Tapu was rarely violated by the islanders. They knew that ‘breaking the law’ would have some very serious consequences. They feared the anger of their ancestors, which would manifest itself through illnesses, catastrophes, disasters or even death. The rule was simple: showing a reckless disregard for tapu was considered an offence to the gods. And who would want to lose divine guardianship? No one. At least no one from the traditional Pacific Island society.
As you can see, tapu has always been a very complex system. It was a representation of mana, so its primary aim was to protect and preserve: people, places, objects and natural resources. But it cannot be denied that tapu was also an early substitution for civil law. By placing various restrictions upon members of the community – or in other words by declaring someone or something ‘sacred’ or ‘forbidden’ – chiefs, priests and rulers made sure that the society as a whole was moving in the right direction. And just as no one can escape the law (at least in theory), no one could also escape tapu.
Does the concept exist in the modern Pacific world? It does, though it’s definitely not as strong as it was in the past. But still, don’t be surprised if you go to New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Fiji or several other islands and learn that some average-looking place is loaded with the sacred power of mana…