Taboo and Sin

Sin and taboo are two ways of regulating behavior that are used by African religions and African social systems. A sin is a wicked act that breaks the laws of a deity or deities. It is also a deliberate act—the sinner knows that he or she is committing a sin. Taboo is a type of social rule that must not be broken. If a person breaks a taboo, even unknowingly, serious misfortune is believed to result.


Sins are offenses against a god or goddess and are considered fundamentally wrong or evil. They are defined only by religious beliefs and teachings. Therefore, a sin is not necessarily illegal in terms of human law. A person may commit a sin that is not a crime or a crime that is not a sin.

African religions have various ideas about sin and how it is punished. Some faiths say that people are reborn from earlier lifetimes in order to pay for past sins. According to other religions, there is an afterlife during which the dead are punished for sin or rewarded for virtue. Some religions teach that people who commit sins but later repent, regretting their sinful acts and wishing to make up for them, may be purified by religious rituals. Concepts of sin, repentance, and purification are forms of social control. They encourage the specific moral behavior that all those who share a particular religion have agreed is desirable.


The idea of taboo controls moral behavior as well. Most taboos involve certain prohibitions, entry into sacred places, or kinds of physical contact. Taboos in central Africa forbid pregnant women and small children to have anything to do with a person who has committed adultery. A child's life is thought to be endangered if an adulterer eats food cooked on the same fire used to cook the child's food. The taboo breaker is not the adulterer, however, but the child's mother, who puts herself and her child at risk.

African taboos may involve such acts as walking on a dog's grave, touching a corpse, or failing to show the proper respect to certain beings, such as rulers or twins. In some parts of Africa the birth of twins is considered an extremely powerful event in which the deities interrupt the normal course of human birth. Twins are surrounded by taboos all their lives and must be treated correctly. Among the Lele of CONGO (KINSHASA), if a stranger who is a twin arrives at a village, the village must perform a ceremony of twin-entry or its hunting will not prosper.

Most Africans believe that if they break a taboo, punishment will follow swiftly and automatically—whether or not they intended to do wrong. The punishment may fall on the individual who broke the taboo, his or her relatives, or the whole community. Because any member of a group may suffer if someone breaks a taboo, community members often watch each other to make sure that taboos are observed. The effect of breaking a taboo can be undone if the taboo breaker performs the necessary acts of purification.

The concept of taboo reflects a view of the universe as having a natural world, a human social order, and a divine order. The divine order regulates the natural world through rules that humans must follow. The rules do not always have an obvious moral significance—in other words, they may not appear to be concerned with questions of good or evil. Generally, however, they are important for maintaining a community's customs. Respect taboos, such as taboos against insulting a leader, support the political system, and sexual taboos, such as those that punish incest or adultery, protect the institution of the family. When a society changes its ideas about the things that are important to it, old taboos fall out of favor, and new ones may arise. When this happens, it is almost as if a simple purification occurred, after which the old taboos no longer had any power. In a similar manner, strong community ties have become weaker in many parts of Africa, and the individual has gained importance at the expense of the group. In this situation, taboos are no longer enforced by the community, so it is up to each person to obey the taboos. In this way, taboos become more of a personal honor system than a community rule. (See also Divination and OraclesReligion and Ritual.)