Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Power of Taboo

I do not play Dungeons & Dragons nearly as much as I would like to. Despite this, I often like to go through various game manuals as fodder for the imagination. Once I was skimming through an expansion manual and discovered an interesting character class: the wu jen. This name is a Wade-Giles rendering of 巫人, which translates most literally to “shaman person”, although other interpretations are certainly possible. Unfortunately I never got a chance to play this character, and even more unfortunately, the manual in question is entitled Oriental Adventures.

Yeah... I wish I was making this up, but I'm not.

Yeah… I wish I was making this up, but I’m not.

The wu jen is one of the magic-user type classes available in this setting, but what makes her unique? Her power is tied to taboos. The specific taboos the wu jen must follow are chosen by the player, starting with one at 1st level and then adding additional ones at various levels as the character advances. If a wu jen breaks any of these taboos, she forfeits her ability to cast spells for the rest of the day. I had never come across anything like this in gameplay before, and was extremely intrigued. Although this was years ago, I still think about it from time to time, and I have recently starting contemplating this more deeply. How do our backgrounds and worldviews influence whether we perceive taboos as restrictive or as empowering, and what does the use of taboo in speculative fiction mean for people who follow religious taboos in real life?

If there’s one thing our modern Western, consumeristic society hates, it’s limitation and restriction of personal choice. We want all the options, we want everything, right now. Don’t tell me I can’t have an orange scarf, I’ll go buy two! I think this is one of the big reasons religious taboos seem so strange to many modern Westerners, even those raised in a Christian culture. Let’s face it; Christianity is pretty light on cultural taboos when compared to many other religions. I say cultural taboo to distinguish from injunctions against certain behaviors or activities that have moral implications, like thou shalt not kill or bear false witness or commit adultery. Practically all religions share these, but many have much more extensive rules that influence adherents’ day-to-day life: don’t eat pork, don’t mix meat and dairy, head coverings, no alcohol consumption, don’t shave, etc. Although these practices may not seem like “religious” acts to the secular eye, for many people they are a deep and vital part of the way they express and practice their faith. For those of us raised with a more secular worldview, it may seem almost nonsensical that some people freely choose to uphold these restrictions. Finding limitation empowering seems like a paradox.

Samson BibleLet’s next look at an example where the situation takes empowering to a supernatural level. Although my family was not nearly as religious when I was a small child as when I was a teenager, I still had my share of children’s media about Bible stories growing up. One of the ones that stood out for me was the story of Samson and Delilah. What a great story for a little kid already starting to get into comic books—Samson had super-strength, just like Superman! He even had a weakness, thought it wasn’t kryptonite: he couldn’t get his hair cut or he would lose his power. In my child’s mind, I’m sure I correlated the two, but for Samson getting a haircut was so much more than kryptonite. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered Samson was a nazirite. A nazarite is a specially consecrated man or woman, who in addition to following the other hundreds of commandments of Jewish ritual law, also refrains from eating or drinking grapes or anything derived from grapes (like wine), coming into contact with corpses, or cutting the hair on his/her head. More than just a convenient plot device, the cutting of Samson’s hair marks the violation of a religious taboo, and with it, a consequential loss of power.

Superman kryptoniteKryptonite, on the other hand, derives its properties because of science. It is disempowering and dangerous to Superman not because of any spiritual/religious or even personal belief, but rather because of the effects of its radiation on his physiology while on Earth. This empirical, scientific nature also removes all option of choice in the matter, whereas taboos have an implicit understanding that there is an element of choice involved in regards to respecting or breaking the taboo (though this choice is certainly influenced by threat of consequences). It also differs greatly from most religious taboos in that running into kryptonite is not something that anyone does on a regular basis (on Earth anyway, unless of course you are stockpiling it for use against Superman). Taboos become harder to follow when other cultures, particularly majority cultures that religious minorities find themselves in, allow or even encourage forbidden behavior, like eating certain meats or cutting hair.

Let’s return to the wu jen for a moment. Toward the end of the “class features” section of this link, there’s a list of ideas for possible taboos. Some seem pretty random, like “cannot wear a certain color” or “cannot sit facing in a certain direction”. Others are very familiar to those with some knowledge of world religions: “cannot eat meat” (Indic religions like Jainism and some schools of Hinduism and Buddhism), “cannot cut her hair” (Sikhism), “cannot drink alcohol” (Latter-day Saints and Islam, among others), “must make a daily offering (such as food, flowers, or incense) to one or many spirit powers” (a large number of religions). Despite the fantastical nature of Dungeons & Dragons, this brings the issue closer to home for many players, whether they themselves follow or have friends and relatives who follow religious taboos. Religious practices and dietary laws like kashrut (or kosher laws) and halal play an important role in many peoples’ lives, even here in America.

Dust (Sooraya Qadir) from Marvel Comics is a character who chooses to wear an abaya and niqāb as part of her faith, but this does not positively or negatively affect her powers.

Dust (Sooraya Qadir) from Marvel Comics is a character who chooses to wear an abaya and niqāb as part of her faith, but this does not positively or negatively affect her powers.

What does this representation of religious taboos mean for those who actually follow them? I think it’s a bit double-sided. Mysticizing a religious taboo can become just another facet of Othering, so these portrayals can lead to “Oh look, those people with turbans have magic powers!”, especially for consumers with little cross-cultural knowledge. On the other hand, allegory is a large part of speculative fiction, and for those viewers/readers/players who do follow seemingly restrictive religious rules despite potentially receiving ridicule and scorn for it, it might be nice to see a sort of metaphoric reflection where the choice to honor taboos is heroic and quite literally empowering. In short, I’d like to see both—I’d love to see characters whose religious choices in regards to diet, clothing, etc. are important to them personally, but do not define their powers or status as heroes. But I’d also like some characters who can show, in the uniquely allegorical way of fantasy and science fiction, that there is beauty and strength in choosing limitation, that there is true power in the dedication and self-control displayed by giving something up for the sake of something you believe in.

As fascinating as looking at the role of religious taboos in character’s lives is, sadly the wu jen is one of the only things I found that even remotely addresses the matter. There are so many rich opportunities for storytelling that have not yet been explored. Have you seen taboo explored in other geek media? Let me know in the comments below!

Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!