"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cannibalism–A Powerful Human Ritual

A number of decades ago Michael Rockefeller, heir to a family fortune, disappeared while filming a documentary in Dutch New Guinea.  The family maintained that his boat had capsized and that he was lost at sea, and until now there has been no credible information to the contrary.  Many people were convinced that the story was a cover up and that a far worse and fearsome fate befell him; but recent evidence suggests that the most gruesome rumors were true – he was eaten by cannibals.
The practice of cannibalism is not all that grisly, for in most cases it is done ritually.  Bits of fallen enemies are consumed in consecration of valor, ferocity, and will.
In some societies, especially tribal societies, cannibalism is a cultural norm. Consumption of a person from within the same community is called endo-cannibalism; ritual cannibalism of the recently deceased can be part of the grieving process, or a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of living descendants. Exo-cannibalism is the consumption of a person from outside the community, usually as a celebration of victory against a rival tribe. Both types of cannibalism can also be fueled by the belief that eating a person's flesh or internal organs will endow the cannibal with some of the characteristics of the deceased (Wikipedia)
However, the myth of cannibalistic feasts persists. The unwary traveler lost in the jungle feels he is sure to be eaten.

Reports of cannibalism were common during the recent conflicts of Liberia and Sierra Leone, but rather than sanctified rituals common to cannibalism, the devouring of raw human hearts and livers was thought more to be part of the fevered mania of wigged out, drugged, and T-charged killers. However the behavior of these young warriors was not unusual and had its antecedents in many ancient cultures.


The wars in Africa were reminiscent of the great battles of Mesoamerica in which Aztec warriors dressed as animals, and took on the spirit of leopards, panthers, and tigers. Death by ritual sacrifice is another thing altogether. In Mesoamerica many pre-Colombian cultures - Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Toltec practiced human sacrifice, an offering to the gods immanent in the sun, the mountains, the deserts and plains.

The gods in pre-Colombian America were not only everywhere, but a looming, brooding, and violent presence – a still and resident power, but a retributive and vengeful one expressed in thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. Human sacrifice to these gods, in appeasement, deference, or awe was the purest and most powerful human emotion.

Image result for images pre-colombian ritual sacrifice

As Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings, 1978) points out, the Aztecs killed thousands in ritual sacrifice and then ate the victims:

“There really is no mystery concerning what happened to the bodies since all the eyewitness accounts are in fundamental agreement. Anyone with a knowledge of how the Tupinamba, the Huron and other village societies disposed of their sacrificial victims should be able to come to the same conclusion: the victims were eaten. Bernardino De Sahagún's description leaves little room for doubt:
After having torn their hearts from them and poured the blood into a gourd vessel, which the master of the slain man himself received, they started the body rolling down the pyramid steps. It came to rest upon a small square below. There some old men, whom they called Quaquacuiltin, laid hold of it and carried it to their tribal temple, where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it.
“De Sahagún makes the same points repeatedly:
After they had slain them and torn out their hearts, they took them away gently, rolling them down the steps. When they had reached the bottom, they cut off their heads and inserted a rod though them, and they carried the bodies to the houses which they called calpulli, where they divided them up in order to eat them... and they took out their hearts and struck off their heads. And later they divided up all the body among themselves and ate it...
“Diego Durán gives us a similar description:
Once the heart had been wrenched out it was offered to the sun and blood sprinkled toward the solar deity. Imitating the descent of the sun in the west the corpse was toppled down the steps of the pyramid. After the sacrifice the warriors celebrated a great feast with much dancing, ceremonial and cannibalism.”
The central Christian ritual – Communion – is divine cannibalism. When a congregant takes the communion wafer, he is literally consuming the body and blood of Christ. The words of the consecrating priest are:
Hoc est enim Corpus Meum. Hic est enim calix sanguini mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti
Cannibalism has been invoked over the centuries by colonial powers to dehumanize their subjects.  What act could be more primitive, godless, and savage than cannibalism?  Anyone who eats another person is no better than an animal and deserves to be chained and beaten like one.

Nineteenth century British explorers and missionaries penetrated the inner reaches of deepest, darkest Africa, and reports were rife that many had been cooked up and boiled in a pot.

Mungo Park an early 18th century British explorer who traveled to the interior of Africa reported that he (luckily) never encountered cannibals, but he frequently reported in his journals that they existed:  In his Travels to the Interior Districts of Africa 1795-97 he wrote:
They (Mandingos) describe the sea as a large river of salt water, on the farther shore of which is situated a country called Tobaubo doo (the land of the white people). At a distance from Tobaubo doo they describe another country, which they allege as inhabited by cannibals of gigantic size, called komi. This country they call Jong sang doo (the land where the slaves are sold).
This particular account could of course be legend, myth, or superstition; but Park reported enough of such tales, that he assumed that they were true.

New Guinea in the 1950s was one of the most primitive, isolated places on earth, and Michael Rockefeller was certainly walking uncharted terrain.   Fifteen years after his death, Canadian Club, a maker of blended whisky, ran a series of ads featuring the Mudmen of New Guinea.  The company wanted to show that its whisky drinkers were adventurous and daring.

Image result for images whisky add mudmen of new guinea 60s

Understanding the nature of cannibalism and its totemic power, one should not be shocked at the cannibalism of the recent wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, nor to be outraged by the image of young soldier holding up the still-beating heart of a conquered enemy is not disturbing. This bloody sign of victory is an honest expression of  the humanity and inhumanity of war.

Joseph Conrad wrote about cannibalism in Heart of Darkness. The tribes of the African interior where Kurtz ruled his ivory empire were cannibals, and although when he first arrived in Africa on the civilizing mission his English patrons had stressed, he became as savage as the Africans in the forest.

Kurtz, according to the manger of the Central Station, was one of the new breed of colonists sent out by the Company, charged with both dominating the ivory trade and bringing civilization to the natives.   Kurtz himself admits that he understood both responsibilities; and yet as the story ends it appears that he has disregarded the latter entirely.  In fact, he has become more African than the Africans.  In arrogating divinity to himself through a manipulation of tribal beliefs; and by maintaining complete control over the natives because of this assumed power, he rules absolutely, amasses a fortune in ivory, and becomes megalomaniacal at best and bestial at worst.  Cannibalism for Kurtz was not the damning pagan ritual he had once thought, but simply the most exaggerated expression of human nature. 

Image result for images conrad heart of darkness

Conrad adds another dimension to Kurtz – the search for understanding and meaning.  It takes courage to peer over the edge – to look into one’s own ‘heart of darkness’ – and few men do.  Kurtz did and died with the terrifying notion that not only he but all of mankind was indeed primitive; that ‘civilization’ is nothing more than a balm, a protective veneer, or at best a restraining order to violence. Ultimately the forces of primitivism and the conflict between it and an innate, irreproachable Western morality destroyed him; but before he died, he uttered his last words, "The horror, the horror".  Not only had he become as savage as the Africans around him, but that all human beings must be possessed of the same savagery. 

Tennessee Williams wrote of cannibalism in Suddenly Last Summer. Mrs. Venable's gay son Sebastian, for whom she pimped in Europe is eaten alive by street urchins in Italy on a trip with her niece.  While this cannibalism has none of the totemic, tribal, existential sense that it does in Conrad, Williams used it as the final expression of the human primitivism which is at the center of the play and metaphorically expressed by the tropical jungle garden which is the setting for it. 

Image result for images suddenly last summer

Shakespeare's Tamora, Queen of the Amazons, a principle character in Titus Andronicus, is served a pie in which have been baked the remains of her two sons by Titus in return for her savagery in mutilating his daughter.  Both Titus and Summer are macabre, unusual plays for both playwrights.  Neither are taken as seriously as the authors's other works, but given their vision and insights into human nature, they cannot be dismissed. 

Image result for images tamora queen of the amazons titus andronicus

The tame 'cannibalism' of the Catholic Mass - eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ at the moment of consecration - is perhaps the most sophisticated, although not uncommon, metaphorical expression of the desire to incorporate and ingest the holy and the sacred.

As abhorrent and repulsive as the idea of cannibalism may seem, it should be nothing of the sort. If Kurtz and Conrad are right then human primitivism and tribal savagery have not been removed from the human psyche; and although dormant, are never far from the surface.

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