Food Prejudices and Taboos

Louis E Grivetti. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 2. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Over the past 2,000 years, scholars have produced a vast literature on food prejudices and taboos. This literature, however, is complicated by confusing etymology and indiscriminate or inconsistent application of several terms, such as food aversions, avoidances, dislikes, prejudices, prohibitions, rejections, and taboos/tabus.

The term aversion is used by food-habit researchers primarily in the context of disliked or inappropriate foods, whereby individuals elect not to consume items because of specific, defined, biological or cultural criteria. Some human food aversions, for example, are immediate as when foods are tasted and disliked because of sensory properties of odor, taste, and texture. Other foods are avoided because of biological-physiological conditions posed by nausea and vomiting, “heartburn” or “acid stomach,” intestinal distress associated with flatulence, or acute diarrhea. Still other food aversions are cultural or psychological in origin, as evidenced when individuals report that they dislike specific foods even though the items have never been consumed by them. In such instances, anticipation triggers avoidance or aversive behavior, and merely the color, shape, or images of the food source itself are enough to elicit aversion and the individual decision not to eat.

The word taboo or tabu, in contrast, implies a moral or religious context of foods or food-related behavior. Taboo, the Polynesian concept to “set apart,” includes the suggestion that some human activities, and eating behavior specifically, may be either protective or deleterious to the environment, to the consumer, or to society at large. Food-related taboos in this context are identical to dietary prohibitions, whereby foods and food-related behaviors are forbidden for specific positive or negative reasons.

Attached to food prohibitions and taboos are a broad range of ecological, economic, religious, and social attributes that define intake restriction. Thus, consumption of prohibited foods may produce serious consequences for individuals, groups, and societies at large, and as a result, violators may face personal and social condemnation. Some taboos may be imposed to protect food crops at specific periods of the growth cycle, whereas other food-related practices may be instituted to distribute economic gain more effectively among individuals or groups in society. Most food-related taboos, however, are religious in nature and are imposed to provide structure and to regulate individual and social behavior.

Although individual food dislikes may lead to food rejection and, ultimately, to food prejudice, food dislikes are not dietary prohibitions or taboos. Nor are food aversions. Taboos, in essence, have their basis in behavioral, ecological, and religious strictures. Accordingly, all food-related taboos result in avoidance behavior – but food-related avoidance patterns may not result in taboos.

Approaches, Paradigms, and Themes

Scholars interested in the origins, development, and evolution of food prejudices and taboos range from professionals in the humanities to researchers in the biological and medical sciences (Frazer 1935; Gaster 1955; Simoons 1961, 1978; Douglass 1977; Grivetti 1978a, 1981a). The literature presented within this broad spectrum poses a basic conflict. Anchored at one end are representative descriptive studies where explanations for food-avoidance behavior and dietary taboos are set within concepts of folklore and mythology and where magic and superstition play important interpretive roles.

In opposition to this approach are studies by researchers who reject such empiricism and seek scientific understanding of and validation for human food-related behavior. Some scholars argue that there is logic in the so-called protective magic of food taboos, whereas others seek the rationale for dietary prohibitions in causal relationships between ingestion and manifestation of disease.

A review of food-habit literature from antiquity to the twentieth century reveals that scholars have advanced at least 11 hypotheses to explain the origins of dietary codes (Grivetti and Pangborn 1974; Grivetti 1980):

  1. Aesthetics: Prohibitions are instituted because the appearance, behavior, source, or origin of certain foods is aesthetically revolting, contaminating, or polluting to humans (Douglas 1966).
  2. Compassion: Prohibitions are intended to demonstrate human compassion toward specific animals that might otherwise serve as food resources (Scott 1866; Chadwick, 1890).
  3. Divine commandment: Prohibitions have their origins in instructions directly to humans by a god, priestly intermediaries, or other cultural authorities. Adherents reject twentieth-century attempts at scientific enquiry and explanation (Singer 1907).
  4. Ecology: Prohibitions evolve because of logical interrelations between human economic systems and the environment that ultimately determine which foods will be favored or rejected (Harris 1972, 1973).
  5. Ethnic identity: Prohibitions are instituted to strengthen ethnic bonds that reinforce cultural identification by setting practitioners apart from food-related practices of other societies (Mays 1963).
  6. Health and sanitation: Prohibitions reflect religious or medical insights on causal associations between ingestion and disease or illness (Arrington 1959).
  7. Literary allegory: Prohibitions are not directed toward food, per se, but serve instead as oblique references to other behavioral, cultural, or political nonfood practices (Novatian 1957; Ginzberg 1961).
  8. Natural law: Food-related behaviors and prohibitions are instituted to reinforce concepts of compassion and to identify abominations and define “unnatural” appetite gratification (Mackintosh 1959; Cook 1969).
  9. Self-restraint/denial: Prohibited foods, once highly desired, are forbidden by priests or other cultural authorities to reduce gastronomic pleasure and to teach and reinforce moral discipline (Kellogg 1899).
  10. Staple conservation: Prohibitions and taboos are established to conserve and extend the food supply, thereby improving human survival potential during periods of environmental crisis or conflict (Thompson 1949).
  11. Sympathetic magic: Food prohibitions are related to specific behavioral or physical characteristics of animals and qualities that humans wish to avoid (Frazer 1935; Gaster 1955).

Although there have been thousands of descriptions of food and food-related taboos from antiquity into the twentieth century, contemporary analysis of how and why dietary prohibitions have evolved and how taboos and practices stabilize social and ethnic groups stems from the classic studies of food patterns and human food-related behavior in southern African societies (Richards 1932, 1939;Willoughby 1932).

Regarding thematic approaches taken by researchers on food prejudices and taboos, the most attractive and recognized theme has been religion, given the extensive literature on the dietary taboos of the major world faiths as exemplified by (1) Judaism (Kaufman 1957; Korff 1966; Cohn 1973; Dresser 1979; Regenstein and Regenstein 1979, 1988, 1991); by (2) Christianity (Hehn, 1885; Simoons 1961; Knutsson and Selinus 1970; Bosley and Hardinge 1992; Pike 1992); by (3) Islam (Roberts 1925; Sakr 1971, 1975; Grivetti 1975; Rahman 1987; Twaigery and Spillman 1989; Chaudry, 1992); and by (4) Hinduism (Harding 1931; Prakash 1961; Grivetti 1991a; Kilara and Iya 1992).

Gender and age are perhaps the second most common theme, and especially the question of how dietary prohibitions or taboos reinforce sex roles in society and characterize rites of passage, such as birth, coming of age, marriage, and death (Frazer 1935; Gaster 1955; Douglas 1966, 1977; Garine 1972).

A third common theme involves protection and takes two directions. One of these focuses on the question of whether dietary prohibitions are protective medically or nutritionally to humans (Bolton 1972; Jelliffe and Jelliffe 1978). The second has to do with whether dietary taboos protect the cultural-ecological setting of different societies and provide a balance to human use of environmental resources (Heun 1962; McDonald 1977).


Many religious practices that developed in antiquity and still regulate human behavior and social activities are known from accounts written in ancient Egypt and also stem from the religious practices and dietary codes of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

Ancient Egypt

The Nile Valley civilizations present a rich archaeological record and literature that reveal food-related practices, cooking, dining, and food patterns, and dietary prohibitions (Loret, 1892; Keimer 1924; Emery 1962; Darby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977). Although numerous dietary taboos are known from ancient Egypt, only two are reviewed here.

Cattle and Beef

Herodotus (The Histories 11:41), writing in the fifth century B.C., stated that local Egyptian priests abstained from beef, especially the flesh of cows, and that this dietary pattern extended beyond the geographical limits of Egypt westward into Libya. Such a taboo attached to beef was also described in the fourth century B.C. by Philochorus of Athens, who attempted to explain the practice when he wrote that

at one time, also when there was a dearth of cows, a law was passed, on account of the scarcity, that they [the Egyptians] should abstain from these animals since they wished to amass them and fill up their numbers not be slaughtering them (Philochorus, cited in Athenaeus 1927-41, 9:375:C).

Porphyry (1965, 2:11), writing in the third century A.D., provided a relatively late glimpse of what might be taken as the impact of the beef prohibition in ancient Egypt when he stated that:”[w]ith the Egyptians … any one would sooner taste human flesh than the flesh of a cow.”

Greek and Roman texts notwithstanding, the archaeological evidence emphatically disputes the presence of a sweeping beef taboo throughout ancient Egypt. Tomb and temple art throughout the dynastic period, 3200-341 B.C., provides abundant pictorial evidence of bovine slaughter and butchering. Indeed, thousands of carvings and paintings depict the capture and killing of cattle, butchers at work cutting up the carcasses, the display of beef haunches and organ meats in shops, and boiling and roasting beef (Darby et al. 1977).

It is true that specific types of bulls were worshiped at the urban sites of Heliopolis, Hermonthis, and Memphis, and that cows were worshiped throughout the Nile Valley as the incarnation of the goddesses Hathor and Isis. But such deification did not inhibit beef consumption throughout the Nile Valley of ancient Egypt at all geographical localities (Monet 1958).

Other writers, however, have readily accepted the Greek texts, ignored the archaeological data, and attempted explanations for Egyptian beef avoidance. J. G. Wilkinson, for example, wrote that “by a prudent foresight, in a country possessing neither extensive pasture lands, nor great abundance of cattle, the cow was held sacred and consequently was forbidden to be eaten” (Wilkinson 1854).

Yet deification of bulls and cows in ancient Egypt was not related to available pasture land or threatened extinction but to specific physical characteristics of individual bulls and cows (Darby et al. 1977). Furthermore, given the wide range of texts that clearly identify offerings of meat from bulls, bullocks, calves, and cows, it is erroneous to conclude that there was a sweeping beef prohibition associated with Egyptians of all periods. It may be that a more limited beef prohibition was intact during late- and postdynastic times, but it is not possible to state, categorically, whether the prohibition applied to all varieties of beef, or specifically to cows, or perhaps to female calves, or to other bovine categories (Darby et al. 1977).

Another aspect of the late dynastic beef prohibition deserves attention since it relates not to meat, per se, but to the Egyptian manner of butchering. Herodotus (The Histories 4:1) commented that “[n]o native of Egypt, whether man or woman … will use the knife of a Greek … or taste the flesh of an ox, known to be pure, if it has been cut with a Greek knife.” Because the ancient Egyptian standard method of butchering was to cut the throat, then drain and collect the blood for food, it may be that this passage indicates some significant differences in butchering techniques between Egyptians and Greeks. It could also, of course, be taken as evidence of (or it possibly reflected) an Egyptian aloofness and sense of superiority over the Greeks (Darby et al. 1977).


Fish held a dual position throughout the dynastic period of ancient Egyptian history. Texts and tomb art document geographical locations where (and historical periods when) fishing was an accepted occupation and eating fish was acceptable. Indeed, Egyptian kings regularly supplied beef, fish, and vegetables to soldiers as military rations and sometimes presented fresh and dried fish as temple offerings. But other passages and depictions indicate that priests abstained from fish, that fishing as a profession was abhorrent, and that fish eaters were ceremonially impure (Darby et al. 1977).

Five specific varieties of Nile fish figured prominently in Egyptian religion and were widely rejected as food: the latus (Lates niloticus; perhaps Tilapia nilotica), the lepidotus (Barbus bynni), the maeotes (possibly a siluride), the oxyrhynchus (Mormyrus spp.), and the phagrus (identification uncertain; possibly Hydrocyon forskalii).The latus was worshiped at the site of Esna where thousands of mummified examples have been discovered, but reverence and dietary avoidance of this species at Esna did not preclude its widespread consumption elsewhere along the Nile.

The lepidotus was revered throughout the Nile Valley and thus widely rejected as food. The maeotes was worshiped near Aswan where it was rejected as food because it was considered a harbinger of the Nile flood. The oxyrhynchus was universally avoided as food for two distinctive reasons: The fish was associated with the god Seth, whose followers rejected it out of respect, whereas the followers of Osiris avoided oxyrhynchus because this species reportedly fed upon the phallus of their deity and, therefore, was an abomination. The phagrus was rejected for two reasons: (1) because its appearance also signaled the Nile flood, and (2) because it, too, had fed upon the phallus of Osiris (Darby et al. 1977).


Two central texts present the Jewish dietary traditions and laws. The Torah stems from ancient oral traditions and was codified in its present literary form by, perhaps, the sixth century B.C. The Talmud, produced in Babylon and Jerusalem in the sixth century A.D., provides guidelines for Jewish moral conduct and incorporates numerous discussions and critical assessments of food and food-related issues.

Study of the Torah and Talmud suggests the development and evolution of Jewish dietary codes through seven stages:

Stage One: In Genesis 1:29-31, all products on earth are clean.

Stage Two: In Genesis 1:29-31, plant food constituted the initial diet of humans.

Stage Three: At the time of the flood, in Genesis 7:1-2, clean and unclean animals are differentiated, but not identified or specified.

Stage Four: In Genesis 7:1-2, both clean and unclean animals are saved and brought into the ark.

Stage Five: In Genesis 9:3-4, Noah and his descendants are permitted all food except blood after the biblical flood. An appropriate human diet is defined as a combination of plant and flesh foods.

Stage Six: Clean and unclean flesh foods are identified and specified, other forbidden foods and food-related behaviors are codified:

  1. Clean meats were specified in Leviticus 11:2-3, 9, 21-2; and Deuteronomy 14:4-6, 9, 11, 20.
  2. Unclean meats are discussed in Leviticus 11:4-8, 10-20, 23-31, 41-4; and Deuteronomy 14:7-8, 10, 12-19.
  3. Blood was prohibited in Genesis 9:3-4; Deuteronomy 12:16, 23-4, and 15:23; 1 Samuel 14:32-4; and Ezekiel 44:7, 15.
  4. Carrion was prohibited in Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 11:39-40, 17:15-16, 22:8; Deuteronomy 14:21; and Ezekiel 4:14.
  5. Fat was prohibited in Exodus 29:13, 22; Leviticus 3:3-4, 9-10, 17, 23-5, and 9:19-20; 1 Samuel 2:15-16; and 2 Chronicles 7:7.
  6. Meat offerings to idols were prohibited in Exodus 34:15.
  7. Sinew was prohibited in Genesis 32:32.
  8. Food contaminated by dead animals was prohibited in Leviticus 11:37-8.
  9. Seed contaminated by dead animals was prohibited in Leviticus 11:37-8.
  10. Food from the inside of a house where a person has died was prohibited in Numbers 19:14-15.

Stage Seven: Regulations forbidding mixing meat and milk products (Epstein 1948) are believed to stem from the commandment not to seeth a kid in its mother’s milk in Exodus 23:19, 34:26; and Deuteronomy 14:21.

Clean-unclean Food Lists

The form, structure, and content of the clean and unclean food lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy have remained the subject of considerable interest and debate since the early years of the Christian era (Barnabas 1961). If the clean and unclean food lists are examined in light of twentieth-century archaeological data and linguistic advances, two basic questions emerge. These concern translation accuracy and assignment rationale.

Taking up the question of translation accuracy first, an examination of Table VI.13.1 reveals linguistic consistency throughout the centuries for a number of specific forbidden foods, among them arnevet (hare), gamal (camel), and hazir (pig). The translations of other terms for forbidden foods, however, have not been consistent, and through the years some have been quite variable. The term a’nakah, for example, has been translated variously as ferret or gecko; ‘aiyah as crow, falcon, hawk, kite, and vulture; homet as lacerta, lizard, sand lizard, snail, and winding lizard; and tinshemet has been rendered variously as barn owl, chameleon, maldewerp, and mole.

Most identification and translation problems concern amphibians, birds, and reptiles. The difficulty lies with honest attempts at zoological identification based upon incomplete linguistic evidence, set within a wide range of possible eastern Mediterranean faunal representatives. Such linguistic difficulties were compounded in recent centuries when Christian missionaries translated the Old Testament into languages far removed from the origins of Judaism, where Mediterranean animals did not exist.

In the area of assignment rationale, the question of why foods became listed as clean or unclean has also been the subject of considerable debate. Seven of the eleven hypotheses discussed in the section “Approaches, Paradigms, and Themes” have been employed by various authors to support the origins of the Jewish dietary codes. Only three, however, can be critically examined: health or sanitation, ethnic identity, and ecological arguments (Grivetti and Pangborn 1974).

In the matter of health and sanitation, however, it is not logical to presume that the ancients were more observant and astute medically than nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientific physicians. Furthermore, few foods on the forbidden or unclean list pose direct health threats to consumers, whereas some foods on the clean list are vectors for anthrax, brucellosis, and various parasitic diseases.

Explanations based on ethnic identity presume that foods on the unclean list were once the dietary prerogatives of the ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, or other societies among whom the ancient Israelites lived or whom they had as geographical neighbors. Such explanations also hold that foods on the Jewish clean list once were prohibited or forbidden to non-Jews in the Mediterranean region. Analysis reveals that the ancient Egyptians in certain geographical areas and during certain historical periods ate pork, and they also consumed bustard, hare, locust, and ostrich. Moreover, several other animals on the Jewish unclean food list were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians, among them egret, hawk, heron, and vulture. But some meats on the clean list, such as beef, goat, and lamb, were also consumed, and cattle, goats, and sheep were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians (Darby et al. 1977).

The ecological hypothesis applied to pork avoidance suggests that pigs in the Mediterranean region could not compete economically with sheep and goats because they offered no hair products or milk, posed herding difficulties, and were ill suited to Middle Eastern heat. Supporters also state that as swine were in direct competition for scarce water and food resources, forbidding pork as food would not have been likely to cause sociocultural difficulties (Harris 1972, 1973). Archaeological evidence, however, can be used to counter these arguments because pigs were raised in Egypt for more than 5,000 years and, thus, were hardly ill suited to the region (Darby et al. 1977).

Ritual Slaughter

The Judaic preparation of meat is characterized by a highly structured ritual that regulates slaughter, butchering, meat preparation, and cooking. Common explanations for the religious laws governing these practices suggest that compliance assures that meat products will be religiously suitable, that ritual requirements for human consumption will be met, and that meats prepared in such a manner will be safe for consumption (Levin and Boyden 1940; Maimonides 1956, 1967).

Within Judaism, meats are divided into two categories: kosher, or fit and suitable for human consumption, and terephah, or forbidden and unsuitable. Both kinds of meats are found in the food lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In essence, terephah animals and meat products always are forbidden and never suitable as human food, whereas kosher meats and products may become terephah if ritual law is not followed.

The butcher must be an Orthodox Jew and in normal practice is a rabbi or a trained rabbinical designate. The butcher is responsible for inspecting animals prior to slaughter and declaring whether or not all accepted religious criteria are met. Thus, animals selected must be certified alive just before slaughter; a knife and no other instrument must be used. The cut must be made without hesitation or pause, in a straight line directly across the throat, with a motion that severs both gullet and windpipe.

Once the throat has been cut, the animal is suspended and bled. The cut is inspected carefully by the butcher, and if any minor lacerations are detected along the cut line, the meat is declared terephah. Similarly, after the carcass is skinned and muscle tissues inspected, there must be no ruptured blood vessels. Next, the lungs are inflated, placed under water, and inspected for any bubbles that might appear; if detected, the meat is declared terephah. Internal organs, including gall bladder, heart, kidney, liver, intestines, spleen, and stomach, are also examined for a wide range of critical signs that determine whether or not meat from the carcass will be classified as fit or unfit (Levin and Boyden 1940).

After inspection and certification, only the fore-quarters of the animal can be used as food; hindquarters are terephah. Rejection of the hindquarters is symbolic and linked with the account in Genesis 32:32 of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel who touched Jacob on the ischiatic nerve.

In modern times, if the carcass meat must be held in a cooler for more than 72 hours, or if transportation of the carcass will exceed 72 hours, the meat must be ritually washed, otherwise kosher status is lost and the meat is reclassified terephah (Lipschutz 1988).

Because the eating of blood is prohibited, several food preparation and cooking techniques have been devised through the centuries that separate Orthodox Jews from others. Kosher meats are soaked in tap water, salted on all surfaces, then placed on a slanted drain board. They are rinsed twice to remove the salt. Rare meat is terephah and so all meats must be cooked thoroughly. As a consequence, cooking techniques, such as broiling and boiling, became institutionalized in order to meet the religious law and maintain kosher designation (Grunfeld 1972; Lipschutz 1988).

Meat and Milk

Within the Jewish food tradition, kosher foods are assigned one of three categories: fleishig (meat and meat products), milchig (milk and dairy products), and parveh (neutral foods, defined as all other permitted foods). A wide range of laws govern the cooking and blending of these three categories: Fleishig and milchig foods can never be blended or combined, whereas parveh items, because of their neutral status, may be mixed with either meat or milk and dairy items. This strict observance of not mixing meat with milk is called basar be halab.

Yet the Jewish injunction against mixing meat and milk is not specifically defined in the Torah. Scholars searching for the basis of the basar be halab law consider three oblique Torah references with the common admonition found in Exodus 23:19, 34:26; and Deuteronomy 14:21:”Thou shall not seeth a kid in its mother’s milk.” But examination of the Torah also reveals that Jews once readily consumed meat and milk together at the same meal. And in Genesis (18:7-8) it is written that “Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hastened to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.”

Nonetheless, the laws and regulations that govern the dietary separation of meat and milk products are outlined in a wide range of Talmud texts, as noted by Akiba ben Joseph (A.D. 50-132), who stated that every kind of flesh is forbidden to be cooked in milk (Epstein 1948, 8:104a).

Talmud discussions define that which constitutes meat and milk, along with the concept of mixing (Grivetti 1980). The ancient rabbis agreed that beef certainly was meat but differed as to the definitions of poultry and fish. Most Orthodox Jews, both historically and in modern times, have considered poultry to be fleishig, but a minority view, championed by Rabbi Jose of Galilee (first to second century A.D.), held that poultry should be designated parveh and, thus, permitted to be mixed with either milchig or fleishig foods. Jose’s semantical and biological argument was based on the premise that it was impossible to seeth poultry in “mother’s milk”; although fowl could be mothers, they were incapable of producing milk (Mishayoth 8:4 in Blackman 1964).

What constitutes milk was easily answered in the ancient Mediterranean world: Permitted milks could come only from mammals on the clean-food lists. The definition of milk, however, has become less clear during the twentieth century with the use of nondairy cream substitutes prepared from soy-based products. Some nondairy creamers, for example, contain the milk protein sodium caseinate, which would make the product milchig; soy-based milks, however, would be parveh and permitted to be mixed with fleishig products (Freedman 1970).

Definitions for mixing involve less obvious considerations. It seems clear that foods blended during the preparation or cooking process would be classified as mixed, but Orthodox Jewish tradition presents expanded, broader definitions that allude to concepts of proximity and touching.

Consider, for example, that two people, not related to each other, sit at the same table but dine separately: One wishes to consume roast beef, the other cheese. If both persons sitting at the table are Orthodox Jews, the law governing mixing of meat and milk is broken. But if one is Orthodox and the other gentile, the law is maintained and differentiation is based upon proximity and the probability of social exchange: If the two were Orthodox they would experience the temptation to share food because of ethnic affiliation or because of friendship (Epstein 1948, 8:107b).

Mixing presents other difficulties as well. Suppose that an Orthodox Jew wishes to purchase meat and cheese from different sections of the same store. When purchased, the products are wrapped separately, then placed inside a shopping bag. In this case, the law is not broken because fleishig and milchig products cannot touch physically (Epstein 1948, 8:107b). But when both categories of wrapped food are carried into the consumer’s house, and then unwrapped, the law is precise: Fleishig and milchig products must be placed inside separate pantries. Furthermore, in the modern era of electricity, both categories of food must be kept inside separate refrigerators, and specific parveh foods must not be interchanged with the other refrigerator; otherwise all such items become terephah. Food preparation and cooking of meat or milk products must be done independently, using separate sets of utensils and appliances for fleishig and milchig products. Similarly, meat and milk dishes must be baked, broiled, or otherwise cooked inside separate ovens (Korff 1966; Grunfeld 1972).

Mixing meat and milk also includes the question of time. How long, for example, should consumers wait before dining on the other food class so that the two food categories do not mix inside the human body? Rabbi Hisda (third century A.D.) stated that the order of consumption determined the law: Meat could be eaten immediately after cheese, but one day had to pass if the order was reversed. In contrast, Rabbi Ukba (third to fourth century A.D.) argued that the order of consumption was unimportant and that one day must pass before consuming any food from the other category (Epstein 1948, 8:105a). By the twelfth century A.D., however, a compromise had been reached: a wait of six hours between meals of either food class (Kaufman 1957; Maimonides 1967).

Cultural-religious manifestation of the dietary separation of meat and milk are readily observable in Orthodox Jewish homes, less so in Conservative Jewish homes, and not usually apparent in Reform Jewish homes. Among the Orthodox, the following conditions are required when keeping the law: separate sets of table linen, separate pantries for food storage, separate electrical appliances and food preparation utensils, separate ovens (and microwave ovens) for cooking fleishig and milchig meals, separate condiment containers for meat and dairy dishes, and separate dishwashers (Frazer 1919; Gaster 1955; Natow, Iteslin, and Raven 1975).

Basar be Halab

A wide range of arguments have been advanced to explain the law of basar be halab. Several have argued that the Torah passages are mistranslated, or that the law originally did not forbid boiling or preparing meat and milk together, but was intended to apply to cooking or mixing meat with blood (Cheyne 1907; Smith 1969). Others feel that the basis was one of “Natural Law and Divine Order,” that cooking a kid in the milk of its mother would be an abomination and contrary to nature (Scott 1866; Mackintosh 1959; Cook 1969). Still others have explained the law using the argument that the ancient Jews were a compassionate people, not prone to acts that would lead to a baby goat’s being boiled in the fluid intended for its own nourishment (Chadwick 1890).

Early writers such as Philo (1954, 4:16:97, 4:17:111, 4:24:124) offered still another explanation when he wrote that the meat-milk codes were instituted because the two foods in combination were stimulating and pleasure giving to the consumer and, therefore, should be denied to demonstrate self-restraint.

Other commentators have suggested that the reason might have to do with sympathetic magic, specifically the belief that animals could control their milk after humans had obtained it. In this case, the boiling or heating of milk would have been tantamount to applying fire to cattle udders. These writers suggest that the code was a part of widespread cultural practices adopted to protect herds, lest the cattle be damaged (Frazer 1907a, 1907b, 1919; Schmidt 1926).

Still other writers conclude that the basis for the dietary separation of meat and milk was based upon considerations of food spoilage and bacterial contamination. They have argued that given the hot, desert conditions found throughout the Middle East, although both meat and dairy products spoil, they spoil more quickly if blended. This view, however, may be easily rejected since blended foods, in fact, do not spoil more rapidly than meat or milk products served alone (van den Heever 1967).

Within Judaism, meat and milk are forbidden in combination – yet meat and milk dishes are highly esteemed within Islam. Middle Eastern Muslims, in turn, reject dietary combinations of fish and milk – yet fish and milk dishes are desirable within Judaism. These acceptable and forbidden patterns of mixing foods clearly have separated Jews and Muslims in the Middle East since at least the seventh century A.D. when Muslim forces invaded and occupied the lands of ancient Palestine. Since that time, the meat-milk and fish-milk prohibitions have served as ethnic markers and as a clear means of religious and cultural separation (Grivetti 1975, 1980).

Other Food-related Issues

A wide range of Jewish dietetic rules codified in the Torah and Talmud have been reviewed and summarized by modern scholars (Preuss 1978). One important Talmud directive encourages eating in moderation with the saying, “More people have died at the cooking pot, than have been victims of starvation” (Shabbach 33a). Salt and yeast are identified as harmful to consumers if eaten in large quantities (Berachoth 34a).

Numerous rabbis cited in the Talmud present arguments well beyond those governing the clean and unclean food lists of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Rabbi Abaye (A.D. 280-339) argued that Jews should abstain from fish, fowl, and salted meat, and argued further that consumption of fish was detrimental to human eyesight (Nedarim 54b). Rabbi Mar bar Rav Ashi (fifth century A.D.) suggested that fish and meat, in combination, should not be salted and that the consumption of this mixture resulted in leprosy (Pesachim 112a). Rabbi Rab (second century A.D.) considered fish that had been chewed upon by other sea creatures; he concluded that in such cases where the fish already were dead, the dietary law could be kept by merely cutting away the chewed-upon portions (Jerushalmi Terumoth 8:46a).

Other Talmud passages discuss foods thought to be life threatening. Among them were peeled garlic, peeled onions, peeled eggs, and any diluted liquid kept overnight and exposed to the air (Niddah 17a). The Talmud also ponders the problem of honey and the law: Since the bee is an insect not on the clean list, how could honey be allowed as a food fit for human consumption? Various rabbis argued that bee honey should be permitted since the insect “expels unchanged that which it sucketh out of blossoms.” By contrast, the rabbis viewed honey obtained from hornets or wasps as a type of saliva (ri’r), and thus a product expressly forbidden as food (Bechoroth 7b; Tosefta Bechoroth 1:8).

Further evolution of Jewish dietary codes is seen in the sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century health and dietary compendium called The Book of God’s Deeds or Sefer Mif’alot Elokim. This text is important because it bridges the period between ancient and modern health-related issues and diet and contains several specific food and food-related prohibitions. It forbids almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts (unless eaten after meals), enjoins the faithful from reading or studying while eating, and provides the strict instruction never to eat bread unless the loaf has been well baked (Ba’al Shem and Katz 1936).


Early Food Taboos

Dietary prohibitions and taboos associated with Christianity developed in response to a classic philosophical schism: Should all foods be allowed, or should portions of the dietary codes of Judaism be incorporated by Christians? The early position regarding dietary taboos was Christian repudiation of earlier Jewish food laws and the concept that all foods were acceptable (Mark 7:18-21; Acts 10:8-16, 11:5-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-13, 10:23, 25-7; 1 Timothy 4:3-5;Titus 1:14-15).

Subsequent debate, however, resulted in Christian reevaluation that permitted converts to maintain their earlier dietary restrictions. This, ultimately, led to the development of three Christian dietary taboos that have not been enforced throughout the centuries: blood (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25), carrion and “things strangled” (Acts 15:20, 29 and 21:25), and foods previously offered or dedicated to idols (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; 1 Corinthians 8:1, 10, 28). Subsequent New Testament texts, however, advise only: “Whether, therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Subsequent Food Taboos and Concerns

Such a laissez-faire attitude regarding dietary matters within the church continued toward the present. One notable flurry of debate erupted in the second century concerning marine species of fish. Although fish were widely consumed by Mediterranean Christians at this time, concern was expressed that marine species might feed upon the bodies of mariners and soldiers buried at sea. In this case, was the human consumption of such fish tantamount to cannibalism? A second concern had to do with the “essence” of the human body incorporated into fish tissue, which was viewed as an impediment to the reconstitution of the deceased for resurrection, and from this concern flowed another. If the soul of a sailor became part of fish tissue, it would pass directly into the consumer’s body. Yet two souls could not occupy the same human body. Clearly, argued the opponents of marine fish consumption, such a food should be avoided.

Fortunately for fish lovers, however, Athenagoras, an Athenian Christian apologist, ably presented a number of positive counterarguments that succeeded in ensuring that the Christian faithful could continue dining on Mediterranean fish.

If there was little proscribing of foods in the history of early Christianity, there was much concern over foodstuffs that centered on physical, in contrast to spiritual, health. For example, John Chrysostom (later Saint John, 345?-407), an important fourth-century Christian leader and author of numerous religious tracts, also wrote extensively on diet. One of his major themes was that reduced food intake and regular fasting were important for Christians. In his words (Homily 22):

frugality and a simple table are the mother of health … Now if abstinence is the mother of health, it is plain that eating to repletion is the mother of sickness and ill health, and brings forth diseases … caused by gluttony and satiety … Abstinence [from food], in truth, as it is the mother of health, is also the mother of pleasure.

In like fashion, the fifth-century Greek physician Anthimus, in his work on The Dietetics, advised Christians to be moderate in their eating and drinking habits. In addition, he cautioned that foods consumed should be readily digestible, and he warned against eight items: bacon rind, aged cheese, hard-boiled eggs, fish that were not fresh, mushrooms, oysters, pickled meats, and pigeons (Gordon 1959).

Such warnings may also be found in the thirteenth-century text Regimen Santitatas Salernitatum, which is a blend of Christian and Muslim dietary traditions. Foods specifically identified to be avoided were those supposed to engender the formation of black bile. Other foods, described as “enemies of the sick,” were also to be avoided by Christians. These offenders were: apples, cheese, goats, hares, salted meats, milk, peaches, pears, veal, and venison (Temkin 1953; Harrington 1957; Arano 1976).

Absolute food prohibitions within Christianity, however, are a relatively recent phenomenon, initiated by newly formed denominations. The Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, maintain the dietary prohibitions of the Jews against foods on the unclean lists found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They also abstain from alcohol consumption and frown upon “hot” spices and condiments, specifically, chilli pepper and black pepper. Aged cheeses (Limburger and Roquefort) are also discouraged. Moreover, the faithful are cautioned:

Those who indulge in meat eating, tea drinking, and gluttony are sowing seeds for a harvest of pain and death … A diet of flesh meat tends to develop animalism … Flesh meats will deprecate the blood. Cook meat with spices, and eat it with rich cakes and pies, and you have a bad quality of blood … Tea is poisonous to the system. Christians should let it alone. The influence of coffee is in a degree the same as tea, but the effect on the system is still worse … Never take tea, coffee, beer, wine, or any spirituous liquors (Counsels on Diet and Foods 1938).

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, also reject alcohol and so-called hot drinks, defined as coffee and tea (Word of Wisdom in Smith 1833). In fact, many Mormons have extended this “hot drink” prohibition to any food or beverage that contains caffeine (Pike 1992).


Muslim dietary prohibitions are documented in two sources, the Koran and the Hadith. The Koran, the divine word of God revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, divides food into two basic categories: halal, or permitted, and haram, or forbidden. The Koran specifically forbids six foods or food categories: blood, carrion, pork, intoxicating beverages prepared from grapes (khmr), intoxicating drugs, and foods previously dedicated or offered to idols (Roberts 1925; Sakr 1971). The Hadith, or the collected traditions and sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, contains a broad range of food-related passages.

A wide assortment of human behaviors relating to food and the food quest are carefully coded in both the Koran and the Hadith. Muslims, for example, may not hunt when on religious pilgrimage to Mecca (Koran 99). At the time of slaughter of permitted animals, the name of God must be mentioned, specifically the phrase: “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, and the Merciful,” or Bisimallah er Rahman er Rahim. The throat of the animal must be cut in front with a knife, with the exception of two allowed foods: fish, because their throat already is cut (that is, gills), and locusts, because they spring upward and aspire to heaven. If the butcher is distracted and the name of another person or deity is mentioned during slaughter or while butchering the carcass, the flesh of that animal is designated haram, forbidden. If meat is slaughtered correctly, but not permitted to bleed out, the flesh also is designated haram. Meat slaughtered by Christians and Jews may or may not be permitted; meat from animals slaughtered by atheists is always forbidden (Sakr 1971).

Because conservative Muslims living beyond the boundaries of the Middle East frequently do not know the religious orientation of butchers who prepare meat for sale in markets, some turn to vegetarianism during their time abroad or butcher their own animals on specific feast dates (Grivetti, unpublished data).

Local traditions also dictate food prohibitions. In Egypt, for example, some birds consumed elsewhere in the Middle East and Mediterranean region by Muslims are not killed because the bird call resembles pious, religious phrases. The dove (Streptopelia spp.) may be avoided as food in Egypt because its call is said to imitate the words:”Oh, all merciful; Oh, all merciful,” or Ya Rahman; Ya Rahman. Other prohibited birds include the hoopoe (Upupa epops), who produces the sound:”Oh, all pitiful; Oh, all pitiful,” or Ya Raouf; Ya Raouf, and the stone curlew (Burhinus oedicnemus), whose cry is said to mimic: “The Universe is Yours, Yours, Yours, Oh, master of the Universe,” or Al-Moluk lak lak lak Ya Sahib al- Moluk (Darby et al. 1977).

The Hadith also delineates specific kinds of animals to be avoided as food. Among them are all quadrupeds that seize their prey with their teeth. Expressly identified are hyenas, foxes, and elephants. All birds with talons are prohibited. Specifically forbidden (without talons) is the pelican (Guillaume 1924).

The prominent medieval Persian physician Ibn Sina wrote, regarding prohibited foods, that fish should not be taken after laborious work or exercise because it undergoes decomposition and then decomposes the humors (The Canon No. 767). Elsewhere, he wrote on prohibited combinations of food:

Certain rules must be noted in regard to combinations of food: milk must not be taken with sour foods; fish must not be taken with milk for in that case chronic ailments such as leprosy (juzam) may develop; pulses must not be taken with cheese or radishes or with the flesh of flying birds; barley-meal should not follow a dish of rice and sour milk (Ibn Sina 1930).

Other texts by Ibn Sina document still more inappropriate food combinations: milk with acid food, Indian peas with cheese, and fine flour with rice and milk (“Advice on Foods,” cited in Kamal 1975).


The most ancient known Hindu document that considers food and dietary prohibitions is the CarakaSamhita, written about 1500 B.C. and attributed to the physician Caraka. Specific passages in this important text (Caraka 1981) identify dietary principles, permitted and prohibited foods, and regimens for various diseases. Ancient Hindu diet was perceived as consisting of two types: immobile (plants) and mobile (animals). Diet patterns were classified according to four manners of intake: beverages, eatables, chewables, and lickables. Each of these intake categories was further based upon six types of taste: astringent, bitter, pungent, salty, sour, and sweet. Innumerable variations of diet resulted that were based upon 12 categories of food and factors of abundance, combination, and preparation (Grivetti 1991a).

The Caraka-Samhita (Caraka 1981) identifies food items designated as unwholesome and to be avoided by the majority of people. Among them are black gram bean (pulse category); rainy season river water (water category); beef (animal meats category); young dove (bird and fowl category); frog (animals living in holes category); sheep milk (animal milks category); and elephant fat (fats of plant-eating animals category).

Included elsewhere in the Caraka-Samhita (Caraka 1981) are other foods to be avoided:

Meat from animals who die natural deaths, are emaciated, too fatty, too old, too young, any animal killed by poison, not maintained on pasture [land], and meat from all animals bitten by snakes or tigers … Vegetables affected by insects, wind, or sun; vegetables that are dried, old, unseasonable or not cooked with fat … Fruits that are old, unripe, damaged by insects, animals, by snow, or sun, [all vegetables that] grow in unnatural places or [at] unnatural times, or are rotted.

A further development and expansion of Hindu food-related codes is embodied later in texts collectively called the Dharma-Sutra. These law codes, derived from oral tradition that date perhaps to 1500 B.C., had been collected, edited, and presented in written form by the sixth century B.C. The texts are divided into separate tracts: Apastamba (Müller 1896a), Baudhayana (Müller 1882a), Gautama (Müller 1896b), and Vasishtha (Müller 1882b). The document called Manu (1896c), or Laws of Manu, is a subsequent summary and synthesis that probably dates from the third century A.D.

The Hindu dietary prejudices and taboos presented in the Dharma-Sutra are subsumed under five broad rubrics that reflect aspects of human occupation, food location, human and animal behavior, and animal morphology. The fifth category identifies specific proscribed items (Apastamba 1896, 1:5.16:1-1:6:19:15; Baudhayana 1896, 1:5:9:1-2:7:12:12; Gautama 1896, 17:1-38; Manu 1896, 4:205-25; 5:5-56;Vasishtha 1896, 14:2-48; Grivetti 1991a):

Prohibitions associated with human professional and physiological status: All foods offered by an actor, artisan, basket maker, blacksmith, carpenter, cobbler, dyer, eunuch, goldsmith, harlot, hermaphrodite, hunter, hypocrite, informer, jailer, leaser of land, manager of a lodging, menstruating woman, miser, musician, paramour of a married woman, person who is ill, physician, police officer, prisoner, ruler of a town, seller of intoxicating beverages, spy, tailor, thief, trainer of hunting dogs, usurer, weapons dealer, or woman with no male relative.

Prohibitions associated with food location: All foods stored inside the house where a relative has died, all foods served from a wooden platform or table, items eaten while standing, and all foods prepared out of sight and sold by street vendors.

Prohibitions associated with human behavior and contact: All foods received directly from the hand of another person, any food sneezed upon or touched accidentally by a human garment or human foot, any item that contains a hair or insect, all foods specifically prepared for another person, and any consumables that have remained overnight in contact with air that subsequently have soured.

Prohibitions associated with animal behavior and contact: All foods sniffed at by a cat or smelled by a cow, meat from any animal that died after being worried by dogs, meat from any animal that behaved in a solitary manner, and all birds that scratch with their feet or thrust forward with their beak.

Prohibitions associated with animal morphology: All meats or milk products from animals with a single hoof, five toes, double rows of teeth, excessive hair, or no hair; any mammal with young that has recently died, milk or meat from any cow that has suckled a strange calf, and any permitted animal that has delivered twins.

Prohibitions associated with specific foods: Specifically identified prohibited foods fit three broad categories:

  1. Plants and plant products: garlic, leek, mushroom, onion, turnip, young sprouts, tree resin, and red juice or sap extracted from any plant.
  2. Animals: alligator, crab, crocodile, fish with misshapen heads; cormorant, crow, dove, duck, egret, falcon, flamingo, heron, ibis, osprey, parrot, black partridge, pigeon, raven, sparrow, starling, swan, vulture, and woodpecker; village pig and other tame village animals; black antelope, flying fox, and porpoise.
  3. Beverages: milk from any buffalo, cow, or goat within 10 days after calving; any milk from camels, sheep, or wild deer; and water that accumulates at the bottom of a boat.

Prohibitions by Gender and Age

Numerous dietary prohibitions within a society are universal, applying to males and females of all ages. In other instances, however, taboos may be instituted at specific ages or associated with one gender. Dietary taboos practiced in the Republic of Botswana by the baTlokwa ba Moshaweng, a Tswana agro-pastoral cattle-keeping society of the eastern Kalahari Desert, offer examples of both.

General Prohibitions

Female and male baTlokwa of all ages reject antbear or aardvark (Orvcheropus afer afer) as food because they consider it inappropriate to kill and eat their tribal totem animal (see Table VI.13.2 for a list of foods restricted by age and gender). Pork is also not consumed by males and females of all ages for other reasons. Many state that pork is a disgusting food and offer explanations, such as that pigs are dirty, smelly, and disgusting in appearance and that they consume feces and even their own young. Still others reject pork because they say that the meat is too fatty for human consumption. BaTlokwa who break their universal taboo and eat pork, however, still may reject specific portions of the carcass: In contrast with the bones of acceptable animals, those of pigs are never cracked and chewed to extract marrow, lest the consumer become deaf (Grivetti 1976).

Several agro-pastoral Tswana societies living in the eastern Kalahari Desert do not eat locally grown oranges in the belief that the first maturing fruit is poisonous. Respondents state that it is impossible to determine precisely which orange ripens first. Therefore, locally grown oranges are all rejected, and oranges that are consumed are imported from South Africa.

Some baTlokwa, however, believe that planting orange trees is unnatural and possibly dangerous because this tree is not native to the eastern Kalahari. Other baTlokwa explain their prohibition using an analogy with another local Kalahari tree, Melia azsedarach: Although baTlokwa men and women readily dig up wild plants from surrounding bush-lands and transplant them into their household gardens, they never experiment with Melia azsedarach in the belief that transplanting it will cause the death of all family members except the gardener, who then must suffer a life of loneliness (Grivetti 1976).

The baKwena, linguistic and cultural relatives of the baTlokwa who occupy territory southwest of the baTlokwa homelands, also reject oranges as food for still another reason. Documentation exists that the nineteenth-century missionary David Livingstone was the first to import orange trees into the Kalahari Desert in baKwena territory, and he is suspected of initiating the orange taboo to curtail theft from his orchard (Grivetti 1978b).

Age-Gender Matrix

The baTlokwa ba Moshaweng exhibit a well-structured pattern of food prohibitions reflecting dual themes of age and gender. But those dietary taboos and prohibitions that reinforce gender identification at specific periods of the human physiological cycle are balanced by other foods that are characteristically associated with the consumer’s age and gender.


Certain baTlokwa food-related behaviors regulate infant feeding practices. Parents must eat before feeding their infants, as it is forbidden to hold or allow the infant to sit on the parent’s lap while the adult is eating. They believe that to do so makes the infant greedy. Furthermore, widows and widowers are discouraged from feeding infants. But if they do, the infant must be held facing away from the adult to avoid eye contact (Grivetti 1978b).


Seven foods expressly taboo to baTlokwa children are dietary prerogatives of elderly men. These foods include two types of honey, tortoise, and five birds: dikkop (Burhinus capensis), francolin (Francolinus spp.), guinea fowl (Numida meleagris), horn-bill (Tockus spp.), and red-crested korhaan (Lophotis ruficrista). The baTlokwa associate these seven items with memory and believe that their consumption exacerbates forgetfulness: Because elderly men are perceived as forgetful anyway, and memory should be developed in children, these seven foods are critical markers for age (Grivetti 1978b).

Other food taboos of childhood are associated with food remnants, especially sorghum porridge that sticks to wooden serving spoons. Boys are told that if they lick porridge from such utensils, they will develop breasts and resemble women (cultural reference to gynecomastia). Girls, on the other hand, are cautioned that such behavior will delay breast development (Grivetti 1976).

The actions of children at mealtime are also regulated. BaTlokwa children are forbidden to touch the floor with the left hand while eating as this is interpreted as a sign of laziness. Furthermore, children are not allowed to speak during mealtime because of a widely held conviction that “a talking child becomes lean” (Grivetti 1976).

When baTlokwa children are ill, mothers prepare a special sorghum beer called bojalwa jwa tlhogwana, to be drunk by all family members in the belief that this practice hastens recovery. While the tlhogwana is being prepared, no one in the family is allowed to sample it at any stage of the brewing process or to taste the sediment at the bottom of the clay or iron beer pot. To do so, reportedly, will make the child’s illness acute (Grivetti 1976).


After baTlokwa children mature sexually and enter their reproductive years, other food-related prohibitions and taboos become operative. Teenage girls are prohibited from consuming eggs, a restriction that differentiates them sharply from male counterparts, who may eat eggs with impunity. The adolescent female egg prohibition is explained at several levels. Some respondents state that the prohibition is linked to the undesirable condition of adolescent pregnancy. It is thought that girls who eat eggs will become sexually overactive, possibly promiscuous, and, consequently, might conceive at an age when they would be unable to care properly for their babies. Others think that adolescent girls who eat eggs will experience difficult labor, and should the mother and child survive, the neonate will likely die soon after delivery because of impaired breathing. Adolescent women should also avoid eggs because even if they deliver healthy children, the latter will cry regularly and wake the family in the early morning in silly attempts to mimic roosters (Grivetti 1976).

Adult/mature Years

Three cuts of beef are prohibited to baTlokwa pregnant women in the belief that they cause difficult labor and delivery. These are the fourth stomach (ngati); the large intestine (mongopo); and both meat and marrow extracted from lower leg bones (ditlhako tsa kgomo). Also forbidden during pregnancy are the meat, fat, and skin located under the belly of an ox (mofufu wa kgomo), thought to make the child greedy, or to promote the development of a large stomach (Grivetti 1976).

Commercial candy, available to the baTlokwa since the late nineteenth century, is proscribed during pregnancy. Its consumption is thought to cause the ensuing newborn to drool and spit up saliva. Similarly, sour milk (madila) is forbidden to the mother during pregnancy in the belief that it will later cause the newborn to vomit copiously (Grivetti 1978b).

After delivery, baTlokwa mothers enter a period of confinement for 3 to 6 months. During this period the mother is not permitted to eat with her bare hands. All foods must be cut, then transferred to the mouth with a utensil; otherwise it is believed that the mother’s supply of breast milk will be adversely affected (Grivetti 1978b).

Elderly Pattern

Elderly baTlokwa men and women are released from all previous culturally imposed dietary prohibitions and may eat any available food.

Gender, Pregnancy, and Allopathy

Throughout the Old and New Worlds, millions of people follow allopathic practices that specifically encourage or prohibit various foods during illness and during changes in physiological status, such as pregnancy and lactation. Allopathic systems emerged initially in India and subsequently spread to China and westward into the Mediterranean basin to influence Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim medical practices. Such practices became global during the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century era of exploration, and influenced the development of medicine in North, Central, and South America, as well as those portions of Africa and Asia colonized by Europeans (Grivetti 1991a).

At the core of allopathic medicine is the concept that illness and disease may be classified as hot or cold, and wet or dry, and that foods available to consumers are, likewise, hot (heating) or cold (cooling). Health in this system is perceived as a state of balance, whereby healthy individuals are neither too hot nor too cold; illness, accordingly, is perceived as a state of imbalance, and cures aim at restoring balance by treating with opposites. Thus, hot diseases are treated with cold foods, dry diseases with wet foods, and so forth (Grivetti 1991a, 1991b, 1991c, 1992).

Chinese Yang-Yin

Of specific interest to the study and evaluation of food prohibitions and taboos is the question of how concepts of hot or cold remain constant or shift, depending upon the consumer’s gender and, in the case of women, whether or not they are pregnant or lactating. Traditional Chinese allopathic practitioners explain that pregnancy produces a physiological state of extreme heat (yang), which requires a cooling (yin) diet in order to restore balance. Dietary management during pregnancy has been considered in a wide range of works by ancient and medieval Chinese physicians.

Among them are texts on diet and food prohibitions by Chang Chi (A.D. 142-220), Hsü Chih-Ts’asi (A.D. 510-90), Sun Ssu-Mo (A.D. 581-682), Chen Tzu Ming (perhaps A.D. 960-1027), and Chu Chen-Heng (A.D. 1281-1358). In addition to these classical Chinese texts, numerous social scientists and physicians of the past 50 years also have written on hot-cold foods, and especially foods that are encouraged or prohibited during pregnancy and lactation (Platt and Gin 1938; Read 1976, 1977a-e; Pillsbury 1978; Anderson 1980, 1984; Tan and Wheeler 1983; Wheeler and Tan 1983; Hsu et al. 1986).

A review of both ancient and modern sources reveals that Chinese dietary prohibitions during pregnancy generally fit eight food categories (Grivetti 1991c).

  1. The first and largest category is that of meats and eggs. Here prohibited items include: beef, bullfrog, carp, carp roe, chicken, crab, deer fat, dog, donkey, duck (wild and domesticated types), eel, eggs, elk, frog, gecko, goat (both meat and liver), horse, mule, pheasant, rabbit, sheep (mutton and liver), shell-fish, sparrow brain, toad, and turtle.
  2. Under the category of cereals, only barley is prohibited.
  3. In the legumes and seeds group, almonds, amaranth, beans, and soybeans are prohibited.
  4. Prohibitions on vegetables include bean leaf and mushrooms.
  5. Among the fruits, banana, litchi, pear, pineapple, and watermelon are taboo.
  6. In the category of spices and flavorings, garlic and ginger are forbidden.
  7. Proscribed beverages include beer, soda pop, tea, and wine.
  8. Among the miscellaneous foods, all frozen items are prohibited, along with malt, seaweed, and sloughed snake skin (used medicinally).

Set within the hot-cold paradigm, which encourages cooling foods, there seem to be three primary categories of explanation for these food prohibitions (Grivetti 1991c): Some of the foods are viewed as likely to cause potential miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. Among these are almonds, amaranth, banana, barley, beans, beer, eggs and salt, frozen foods, horse meat, pineapple, seaweed, and soybeans. Another group of foods is implicated in transverse presentation, difficult delivery, and postpartum bleeding. These are alcoholic beverages, crabs, donkey meat, duck, horse meat, mule meat, pheasant, sheep liver, shellfish, and tiger bones.

A final group of foods is believed to have a negative impact on the neonate. Birthmarks, for example, can be the work of beef, sparrows, or soybean paste, whereas deer fat, elk meat, or sparrow brain can cause blindness or other eye diseases. Boils, sores, and other skin lesions are associated with carp, carp roe, and shellfish, a deformed neck with turtles, and an early death (or during childhood) with frogs. Epilepsy in the child can be caused by either mushrooms or sheep (mutton). The latter is also held responsible for fever. A hoarse voice is linked to toads, jaundice to bananas, muteness or a hare lip to bullfrogs, chickens, dogs, ducks, eels, goats, rabbits, and turtles, whereas fresh ginger can trigger polydactyly (an extra digit).

Still other dietary prohibitions during pregnancy are related to the notion that the foods in question will produce specific undesirable behaviors once the child has grown to maturity. Chinese traditionalists believe, for example, that should women consume sparrow cooked in alcohol or wine during pregnancy, the child will exhibit lewd, licentious behavior as an adult (Grivetti 1991c).

The focus is upon cooling foods (yin) during pregnancy, and yin foods are commonly low in protein and energy. Consequently, dietary reliance upon these items during pregnancy often results in a low-birth-weight baby – but an easier delivery for the mother.

After delivery, the Chinese allopathic system classifies lactating women as strongest yin. Consequently, diet at this time is based upon hot (yang) foods that are high in protein and energy, thus providing a sound nutritional basis for postpartum recovery and breast milk production (Pillsbury 1978).

Taboos as Protective for Society and the Individual

Dietary taboos and prohibitions have also been considered from the viewpoint of protection. In some instances, such practices protect local and regional ecology or agricultural crops during various phases of their growth cycle; in other cases, they have to do with human health and disease.

Crop Protection

As residents of the arid Kalahari Desert of eastern Botswana, the baTlokwa face uncertainties of unseasonable weather, specifically uneven rainfall and drought, hail, and desiccating winds. The baTlokwa attempt to minimize these uncertainties by instituting a range of taboos and prohibitions in a cultural attempt to regulate weather.

The appearance and timing of rainfall in the Kalahari is critical to growing crops, and three specific taboos are instituted in the conviction that enforcement will assure rain. If the following taboos are broken, however, traditionalists believe that the rain clouds will be driven away:

  1. Salt must never be thrown into a cooking fire or accidentally spilled onto flames or embers.
  2. During their one-year mourning period, widows and widowers cannot wash their body during daylight and are forbidden to walk about the village during the heat of midday.
  3. Pregnant or menstruating women are not allowed to walk across agricultural fields, or to touch agricultural equipment, such as plow blades, harnesses, and yokes, lest the heat of their bodies burn the earth or render the ground sterile (Grivetti 1981b).

Health Protection

There is also much in the way of literature that suggests that the origin and development of many dietary taboos may lie in attempts to maintain human health and reduce disease.

Pigs and Pork

In ancient Egypt, swine played a role in both religious and dietary practices. In some historical eras, at specific geographical localities, pork was a highly favored food, but during other periods and at other locations pork was forbidden.

Before 3200 B.C., Egypt consisted of two distinctive geographical-cultural entities: a pork-consuming north or Lower Egypt, and a pork-avoiding south or Upper Egypt (Menghin and Amer 1932). Shortly after 3200 B.C., however, both regions were united politically when the South conquered the North. One result of this conquest was a broadly based pork avoidance throughout the Egyptian Nile Valley and Delta that predates the Jewish pork prohibition by more than 2,000 years.

Pigs in the ancient Egyptian pantheon were associated with Seth, the evil brother of Osiris. During political periods when Osiris worship dominated, pork was avoided, but when Seth gained ascendancy, pork was widely consumed. Certainly pork was an important food during the reign of Amenhotep III (about 1405-1370 B.C.), who offered pigs to the temple of Ptah at Memphis. Seti I, father of Ramses II (about 1318-1298 B.C.), allowed pigs to be raised inside the temple of Osiris at Abydos (Newberry 1928: 211). That swine were eaten by Egyptians during the Ramessid Period is confirmed by the large numbers of pig bones found in refuse-trash heaps associated with the workman’s village of Deir-el-Medina at Thebes (Kees 1961).

By late dynastic times and during the subsequent Greek and Roman periods, however, literary and pictorial evidence for pork consumption or avoidance in Egypt reveals the same kind of curious dichotomy that was noted previously for beef. On the one hand, a wide range of sources document pork consumption. One description, dating from the third century B.C., indicates that Egyptian priests at the city of Naucratis in the Egyptian delta were served pork (Hermeias, cited by Athenaeus Deipnosophists 4, 149:F). Moreover, numerous Greek and Roman writers commented on the widespread presence of pigs throughout Egypt. Pliny (Natural History, 13:50) reported that swineherds fed their animals dates and lotus stems, and Polynaeus (Stratagems of War 4:19) noted that herds of swine were raised near Memphis. Heliodorus’s Ethiopian history (1587: 130) described herds of pigs at Aswan.

There are also, however, Greek and Roman writers who indicate that there was a strong dietary avoidance of pork in Egypt. Indeed, both Plutarch (Isis and Osiris 353: 5) and Aelian (Characteristics of Animals 10: 16) stated that pork was forbidden as food throughout Egyptian territory, and Sextus Empiricus (Outlines of Pyrrhonism 3: 233) wrote that Egyptian priests would sooner die than eat swine’s flesh.

This ancient Egyptian pork avoidance, which dates from about 3200 B.C., predates the Mosaic codes against pork by more than 200 years. Yet, as we have seen in Egypt, pork avoidance was not associated with any relationship between ingestion and disease, but rather was instituted by the followers of Osiris because the pig was the cult animal of Seth (Darby et al. 1977).

It is true that one frequently mentioned reason for pork avoidance links pork consumption with trichinosis (Sakr 1991; Chaudry 1992). But although pork taboos have been instituted in Africa and the Middle East for at least 5,200 years, the relationship between eating pork and contracting trichinosis was not established until the nineteenth century (Hilton 1833; Owen 1835; Zenker 1860; Paget 1866).

Moreover, although associations between parasitism and disease would have been readily apparent in cattle, goats, sheep, and a wide range of fish and fowl, dietary taboos in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not exist for these animals. Further, there are no formalized, coded taboos in these three faiths for toxic mushrooms, or such plants as aconite or datura, which are lethal and clearly more deadly than eating pork infected with Trichina (Trichinella) spiralis.


Meat from an animal that “dies of itself” is proscribed by each of the monotheistic faiths that developed in the Mediterranean region. For Jews, the injunction is repeated six times (Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 11:39-40, 17:15-16, and 22:8; Deuteronomy 14:21; and Ezekiel 4:14); for Christians, three times (Acts 15:20, 29, 21:25); and for Muslims, four times (Koran:The Cow, 168; Koran:The Table, 4; Koran: Cattle, 145; Koran:The Bee, 115).

The rejection of carrion as human food is hardly universal, however. Many societies readily consume carrion and “rancid meat” as dietary staples. Indeed, dietary use of carrion by circumpolar Arctic societies has been reviewed extensively (Borgoras 1909; Eidlitz 1969), and consumption of carrion by European Gypsies has been well documented, especially the use of animals burned to death by brush and forest fires (Petrovic 1939).

All of this brings up the question of whether religious prohibitions against carrion are in fact protective. Clearly, the potential for disease transmission exists if humans consume infected carrion, but to reject carrion as human food merely upon the potential for disease transmission is illogical, given that humans consume fish, fowl, meats, and plant foods that can and do create serious health problems after consumption.

In fact, it could be argued that eating carrion is protective in that it has helped millions of people survive periods of food shortages, wartime famines, and climatic stress. Indeed, droughts of recent decades in the southern African Kalahari Desert region severely challenged regional agro-pastoralists, who suffered loss of their herds but maintained their dietary and nutritional status by consuming carrion. When cattle and other livestock died of thirst or environmental stress, the baTlokwa butchered the carcasses and the carrion was steamed, with leaves of Croton gratis-simus used to remove “off” odors. Such meat then was sun-dried and jerked and could be readily stored as a suitable famine food (Grivetti 1976, 1978b).

It is interesting to note that most baTlokwa agropastoralists are animists or moderate Christians; in contrast, most agro-pastoralists of the drought-stricken Sahel are Muslim. Both Christianity and Islam prohibit carrion consumption, but there are distinctive regional and cultural differences in keeping “the law.”

Harmful Foods not Prohibited

Returning to a question posed earlier, if health considerations lie at the root of the carrion (and other food) prohibitions, then it might be asked why there are no codified prohibitions in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism for moldy grain (manifest as the human disease ergotism), or for fava beans (favism), or for field vetch (lathyrism).

To employ another example, human poisoning from eating European migratory quail (Coturnix coturnix) is manifest as the human illness coturnism. This food-related problem, documented since biblical times (Numbers 11:31-4), was known to Greek and Roman naturalists, among them Aristotle (On Plants 820: 6-7), Lucretius (On the Nature of Things 4: 639-40) and Pliny (Natural History 10: 33). However, no dietary codes were instituted to protect consumers. Furthermore, subsequent medieval Jewish and Muslim physicians described human poisoning from quail, among them Maimonides (Commentary Epidemiarum 6: 5), Ibn Sina (The Canon 2:2:2:5), Qazwiny (Kitab Aga’il 2: 250), and al-Demiri (Hayat al-Hayawan al Kubra 1: 505). Nonetheless, not only were potentially toxic quail not proscribed but they have also remained a favorite food of Middle Eastern Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout the centuries (Kennedy and Grivetti 1980).

Concluding Comments

The literature on food prohibitions and taboos is ancient and voluminous, and most certainly reflects human interest in understanding how and why specific foods have been proscribed throughout the ages. More than 10 hypotheses have been advanced to explain the origins and development of food-related taboos, and evidence in support of them and against them can be marshaled for each.

Some who study food-related taboos have worked for decades to identify unifying concepts that would explain ancient as well as contemporary human behavior toward food. Some have attempted scientific explanations; others have sought meaning in nonscientific descriptions. Most accounts have stressed the cultural-religious aspects of food prejudices in Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism. Beyond religion, however, lie still other categories of food prohibitions associated with the consumer’s age and gender, ecological protection, and medical-nutritional themes. But within this enormous body of literature, there remains a single concept that has been expressed in two ways: Food for one is not food for all, and One man’s meat is another’s poison.