"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 traveller 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.


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 travelled 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. Too much time had gone by to assume any ironic association with the young adventurer and heir; but whenever I read something about Michael Rockefeller – like today – I can’t help conjuring up this image.

One day a few years ago, I was travelling in Zimbabwe, and we spent the night in a hotel in Great Zimbabwe, a point of important cultural and historical significance.  I was anxious to get back to Harare, and asked the driver if we could leave early, perhaps that day.  The roads were good and the distance not too far, so if we started in the late afternoon, we would make the capital shortly after nightfall.

The chauffer demurred and suggested that we stick to our schedule and depart the following morning.  When I persisted and asked why, he said, “Lions, bwana, lions”. After years of having escaped kidnapping, armed robbery, carjacking, disease, shakedowns, coups, and civil unrest, this was the first time that getting eaten was a possibility; but at least it would be by an animal and The Kind of Beasts at that.

I was encouraged by today’s report that Michael Rockefeller might have indeed been eaten by cannibals and not drowned.  I have nearly tipped over many times on African and Amazonian rivers, and there is nothing noble in thrashing around in the stiff current of the Napo River, snagged and dragged under by reeds and broken trees, washed miles downriver and found weeks later in the mud 50 miles from Misaualli.

Death by ritual sacrifice is another thing altogether.

I travelled extensively through Mexico in the mid-Seventies, and visited many of the important Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Toltec pre-Colombian sites. Many of these cultures practiced human sacrifice, and standing in the ruins of Monte Alban and some lesser-known Meso-American sites, I understood the power of an immanent religion - one in which god or the gods were believed to be in the sun, the mountains, the deserts and plains.  

During those trips I thought about our comparatively tame, passionless, and routine religious ceremonies.  The power and majesty of ritual human sacrifice had been replaced by consecration and allegory.

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.

Which is why I am not appalled at the cannibalism of the recent wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  They are brutal and barbaric enough – as are all wars – so that the image of a young soldier holding up the still-beating heart of a conquered enemy is not disturbing. This bloody sign of victory is a more honest expression of the humanity of war than any row of black body bags. Our wars are just as brutal, destructive, and murderous as the civil wars in Africa; but they are fought methodically, mathematically, and procedurally.  They are neither glorious nor evil, just perpetrations of political ambition.

Most of modern life exists in a suppression of human nature.  We are obsessed with expunging any last traces of barbarism and with creating a more civilized, tame, and uniformly predictable world.

Cannibalism, far from repulsing us, should be a reminder of how tame and inconsequential life has become.

In one of Tolstoy’s most famous short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the main character constructs a predictable, safe, and respectable life.  He avoids conflict, prefers absence rather than confrontation, and makes his way up social and professional ladders.  When he finally accepts that he has an incurable and terminal disease, he is paralyzed with fear.  Why death, he wonders? What cruel and unjust fate?  Did he do something wrong?  Was he derelict in composing his moral life as correctly as he did his professional? His social composure was the reason for his panic.  He had avoided any of the validating passions that can at least mitigate the fear of the unknown.

Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Strindberg contemporaries at the end of the 19th century, all wrote about the expression of individual will as the only validation of human life and existence.  Nietzsche in particular glorified action ‘beyond good and evil’, for it was the only meaningful human statement.  Centuries before, Machiavelli, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare all celebrated the expression of powerful, amoral will.  Tamburlaine, Richard III, Goneril, Regan, and The Prince were all great characters and embodiments of what is most unique and special about life.

So I will presume that Michael Rockefeller was eaten by Mudmen but who did so ceremoniously and despite their pagan dances, whoops, and hollers, did so respectfully.

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