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Impearls: HIC 3.13: Taboos

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Taboos   by A. L. Kroeber

The Yurok are firmly convinced of the definite immortality of the spirits of the game that they kill.  Long ago, they say, the salmon declared, “I shall not be taken.  I shall travel as far as the river extends.  I shall leave my scales on nets and they will turn into salmon, but I myself shall go by and not be killed.”

The old deer tell the young to try the house of such a one.  Then one of the young deer lies down in that man's snare and dies.  He eats its flesh with parched seed meal as flavoring and acorn gruel.  The women sit still during the meal.  They do not eat the head.  None of the flesh is dropped on the floor, so that it may not be stepped on and carried outdoors by the soles; any scraps are scrupulously gathered and put away.  After the meal the hands are carefully washed in a basket or wooden basin, then rubbed with fragrant chewed pepperwood leaves.  The meat is served on wooden platters, which are washed only with water in baskets, never in a stream.  The deer sees everything.  After two days it returns.  “How do you like that house?” the elders ask.  “I do not like it,” it says.  “He does not wash his hands, and his women shift their feet while they sit at the meal.”  Or it answers:  “He is good.  He acts rightly.  Smell my hand.”  They sniff it, like the pepperwood, and frequently go into that man's snares.  So the deer never grow less, however much they are killed, the Yurok insist; and the hunter's success is brought not by his own cunning, but by the favor he can win from his game by respectful treatment.

If the hands are washed in flowing water after a meal of venison, it is thought that the deer is drowned.  It is believed that deer can not abide the whale; the flesh of the two is not eaten together, and whale meat is called “rotten wood” before a hunter in order not to spoil his luck.  It is said that the deer dislike houses that seem dead and empty:  “I constantly see smoke there, I will go to that house,” they are thought to declare.

Salmon, or fish of any kind, are not eaten at the same time with bear meat, grouse eggs, or acorns blackened by prolonged soaking.

The Yurok avoid strange water, and will not drink from the most familiar stream in certain reaches.  River water is never taken.  A dog, the deadliest of poisons, might have been drowned, or a girl have thrown in an abortion.

Sometimes, after a killing, the slayer would set up a plank on the ridge above his house, cut the end into the rude semblance of a nose, attach a stick as arm, and fasten to this a bow.  Then he addressed the figure:  “You killed him.  Take the evil that his kinsmen are thinking.”

Any things connected with the physiology of sex on the one hand and with deer on the other are thought utterly incompatible by the Yurok.  The prospective hunter therefore carefully keeps away from his wife, or counteracts the effect by reciting a formula of special potence.  Nor does he approach her after a meal of venison or sea-lion flesh, for fear of bringing illness on their child.  Such disease can be averted only by public confession after birth.

A number of taboos were enjoined on boatmen while on the ocean.  Under no circumstances would they carry a corpse, a dog, or a bearskin, consume food, or speak of a woman as wentsauks: instead they called her megawitl.  Even on the river, travelers could not eat a meal; but if in haste they might carry fire on a layer of earth, heat stones, and then, disembarking, quickly cook.  Near Kenek, Merip, and Kepel, there are large stones at the water's edge, in front of which no corpse may pass, according to the injunction of the ancient woge spirits who took up their abodes in these rocks.  The one near Merip extended his prohibition to women also, who therefore land above or below the huge block and walk inshore of it.



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