NGC ‘Taboo’ an eye-opening thrill ride for the mind

National Geographic Channel’s (NGC) popular Taboo series returns for a new season.  The series spans six continents, 19 countries, 25 indigenous cultures taking you on an up close anthropological thrill ride, as you witness what offends, excites, disturbs and mollifies various races around the world.

The producers explore the traditions and rationale of a wide swath of people from every conceivable background, differing values, customs and lore that can yield painful initiations to extreme body modification that would give any piercing and tattoo parlor on Venice Beach a run for the money.

Asking one young initiate why he goes to the extreme, “If I don’t keep my culture, who will?” replies 10-year-old “Muko”.

There are varying explanations for the origin of taboos. Some explanations are anthropological and explain taboos using history and cultural experiences, but other explanations are psychoanalytical and explain taboos as an unconscious phenomenon passing through generations.

snake charmer

snake charmer

Taboos can include dietary restrictions, restrictions on sexual activities, gender roles and relationships (sex outside of marriage, restrictions of bodily functions, restrictions on state of genitalia such as circumcision or sex reassignment, exposure of body parts, pornography and nudity, illicit drugs, substance abuse, alcoholism, bodily pain, medical surgery, satanism or devil worship, restrictions on the use of offensive language also known as obscenity and vulgarity, and other topics/subjects that provoke emotional angst or discomfort with some.

Some taboos originated by acts of authority, be it legal, social and religious, over a stretch of time.

Stabbing ritual

Stabbing ritual

Can you imagine a place where your gender was chosen for you after you were born?  What drives someone to insert stainless steel fishing hooks into another person’s back so they can hang from the ceiling by their flesh? 

How is the practice of thrusting hands into gloves filled with stinging giant bullet ants – and enduring the pain over and over – acceptable within a culture? 

Indonesia ritual battle with sharp thorns

Indonesia ritual battle with sharp thorns

In some societies around the world, practices like these reflect deeply held traditional beliefs or deliberate lifestyle choices.  But to others outside the culture, they may seem grotesque, dangerous or.Taboo.

The new season takes viewers on a high-definition journey beyond their comfort zones and across cultural borders to explore rituals and customs that are acceptable in some cultures but forbidden, illegal or reviled in others. 

A special sneak preview airs Sunday, August 5, 2007, at 9 p.m. ET/PT before the series moves to its regular night and time of Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT. 

NGC and the show’s producers have enlisted the world’s most renowned and respected anthropologists and sociologists, who examine a diverse range of cultures. 

“We do quite drastic things in our own culture if you think about it. Plastic surgery is a serious operation and we alter our appearance profoundly – we put holes in our ears, we tattoo our skin, but we find it very odd when other cultures do similarly drastic things that we don’t happen to do,” says Dr. Carolyn Marvin of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Taboo” Line up of shows this season:

Taboo: Initiation Rituals
Sunday, August 5, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT (World Premiere) – Special Sneak Preview

Delve into the rituals that mark the passage from one phase of life to another – where pain is the price of acceptance and failure means a loss of pride and sometimes even a loss of life.  NGC takes viewers to Australia, where members of an urban subculture are pierced through their skin with giant stainless steel fishing hooks and hang suspended from the ceiling.  Then, deep in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, teenage boys thrust their hands inside specially woven gloves filled with hundreds of giant stinging bullet ants.  And they repeat the excruciating ritual 19 more times in order to become men.  Finally, in Papua New Guinea, see how boys endure swallowing about 24 inches of raw cane down their throat to the pit of their stomach so they can symbolically die as boys and be reborn as men.

Taboo: Skin Deep
Sunday, August 5, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT (World Premiere) – Special Sneak Preview

NGC travels the world to cultures where scarification – modifying the body by cutting into the skin – is not only a thing of beauty, it’s a mark of family history or entry into manhood.  Go to Papua New Guinea for one of the most painful initiations known to mankind, where tribesmen slice teenage boys’ chests, backs, arms, legs and buttocks up to a thousand times to create scars that will look like the hide of a crocodile.  In New Zealand, watch how some women embrace their Maori heritage by permanently marking their chins and lips with the traditional Maori Ta Moko tattoo.  Then, travel to southern Ethiopia, where the Karo tribe believe in an omen called Mingi, a concept that explains to them why things go wrong.  Mingi can come in the form of a child with a physical anomaly, such as a cleft lip, and their belief is so strong that they will leave the child to die to correct the apparent wrong.

Taboo: Sexual Identity
Wednesday, August 8, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT (World Premiere) – Regular Night and Time

How far will people go to change their looks – and their life – to become the person of their dreams?  In America, enter the transgender community, where some men and women undergo surgery and inject hormones to become the sex they believe they truly are.  Experts including transgender artist Loren Cameron provide insight into the practice.  In Thailand, venture into the world of an estimated 170,000 men who act and live as women, often as entertainers.  Although tolerance prevails in this Buddhist country, members of this so-called third sex called katoey often face powerful prejudice.  But in the Muay Thai ring, the country’s most famous katoey once competed in this ultra-violent sport; now, she helps other katoey gain success and acceptance through it.  And the tiny nation of Samoa, families sometimes raise biologically male children as girls.  Known locally as fa’afafini, these boys, some of whom decide on their own to identify as females, dress and act with feminine characteristics.

Taboo: Signs of Identity
Wednesday, August 15, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT (World Premiere)

Marks of identity are not always about the artwork.  In southern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, young unmarried women of the Hamar tribe are voluntarily beaten in conjunction with a male relative’s rite of passage into manhood.  The women suffer through a brutal flogging in the boy’s name to proudly demonstrate their support of their kin as he takes part in an initiation called the bullah.  The beating is a badge of honor for the women, who bear their scars with pride.  In Canada, members of an extreme subculture scar their bodies with scorching-hot metal.  For some “branders,” it is a test of endurance and courage, while for others it’s a painful but unique form of art.  Then, the Japanese equivalent of the mafia draw attention to their criminal lifestyle by a spectacular full-body tattoo, known as horimono.

Taboo: Proving Ground
Wednesday, August 22, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT (World Premiere)

How do men prove their manhood?  Often, by enduring pain.  Get a pass into an American Fight Club, where successful, educated males engage in physical combat to test their manhood, using anything to attack – wooden knives, soda cans, sticks, even soap-on-a-rope.  On the remote Indonesian island of Sumba, hundreds of men take part in a time-honored event known as the Pasola.  Facing off in two teams on horseback, they charge toward each other hurling spears, all trying to land a blow or knock a rider down.  In remote northern Benin, young men of the Fulani tribe must whip an opponent twice during a large public demonstration, then survive two savage blows themselves.  This ritual test of endurance is won when a young man does not flinch, but laughs in his opponent’s face.

Taboo: Body Modification
Wednesday, August 29, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT (World Premiere)

Why would people choose to radically reshape their bodies?  Go to the Thai-Burmese border, where women wear heavy brass rings that push down on their collarbones, giving the appearance of elongated necks.  For these so-called “long-necks,” an extra-long neck is a sign of beauty.  Some have coils long enough to form 25 concentric rings – over 12 inches high.  In the West African state of Cameroon, an estimated one in four girls undergo a practice known as breast ironing.  Here, a close family member uses a heated household tool, such as a wooden ladle, to push and pound the chest in an attempt to flatten a young girl’s breasts.  Then, in American cities such as Miami, see how some men – for vanity’s sake – are augmenting their bodies by surgically implanting silicone pectorals, biceps, triceps and buttocks.

Taboo: Nudity
Wednesday, September 5, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT (World Premiere)

For some, shedding clothes is an act of expression, of liberation, even a means of worship.  In Sydney, Australia, Wiccan witches perform rituals in the nude, or “skyclad,” to express their truest form and bring themselves closer to the natural world.  In America, some devout Christians worship together naked in the name of the Lord.  Then, watch a centuries-old chaotic event called the Hadaka Matsuri: “The Festival of the Naked Man” in central Japan.  Each year one man is chosen to be the “Spirit Man.”  He is shaven, stripped naked and must walk from one end of a street to the shrine at the other end.  Along the way thousands of seminaked men struggle to touch his bare body for luck.

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