The Navajo mother-in-law taboo

by on November 28, 2009 at 8:05 am in Books, History | Permalink

It's not what I had expected:

Observing an old and curious Navajo taboo, Narbona was not allowed to look at his mother-in-law, nor she at him.  It was a custom designed to keep the peace and, apparently, to avoid sexual tension.  In fact, many mothers-in-law in Navajo country went so far as to wear little warning bells on their clothing so that a son-in-law would not round a corner and inadvertently find himself staring at her.  This was no small thing, especially if he happened to look her in the eye.  Even an accidental violation of the mother-in-law taboo might require that the family hire a healer to perform an elaborate — and expensive — nightchant to undo all the harm that had been done.

That is from Hampton Sides's quite interesting Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West.  From the specialized academic literature, here is an entire study of the mother-in-law taboo (JSTOR); I'm not sure any of the offered hypotheses or explanations are persuasive.  It seems the taboo lasted well through the twentieth century.  Here is another discussion, under the more general heading of Navajo taboos:

The only explanation ever given for this custom is that “it avoids a lot of trouble in the family.”

1 GW November 28, 2009 at 9:34 am

The taboo is alive and well. At marriage, a man moves into the home of his mother-in-law and, to a large extent, is viewed as a guest, and the expectation of good behavior by such a guest is very high. In case of divorce or problems in a marriage (alcoholism, for example) a man may be sent back to the home of his own mother. It is common to see a family of Diné traveling in a pickup to have the men in the cab and all of the women and children (the larger group) in the back in order to preserve the distance between a man and his mother-in-law.

2 zod November 28, 2009 at 10:18 am


3 Mario November 28, 2009 at 2:47 pm

It is well known that women age like their mothers. By keeping their mothers and prospective husbands apart, women can avoid having men discount their current beauty by the expected future losses, thus maximizing their current aesthetic value.

4 crazyfish November 28, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Humans are amazing. We happily put ourselves into mental cages all in the name of culture or tradition.

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