By ABBY HAILU
Cannibalism is when something, partly or fully, consumes its same species for food. It’s a fairly common phenomenon in nature that occurs under a range of circumstances. Sexual cannibalism can occur just after mating, simply because the newly impregnated mother’s nearest post-coital snack is her mate. Intrauterine cannibalism can happen in the womb when only the strongest embryos survive to birth by eating their weaker siblings. Filial cannibalism is when the parents of an animal eat their own offspring if they are too weak to survive until maturity in order to repurpose the nutrients and then produce an even stronger second batch of offspring. In short, nature indicates that cannibalism is a perfectly normal thing but when humans do it, society is thrown for a loop. Most people’s gut reaction to human cannibalism is confusion, disgust, and an instinctive disaffiliation—but some elements of the act can be explained and even be somewhat relatable. In any cultural or historical context, the act of eating human flesh is not taken lightly. Experts cannot seem to agree on its acceptability or soundness, but it is undeniably a deeply powerful process.
Human cannibalism has largely remained an anthropological debate because it ultimately questions the limits of “cultural relativism.” Some ethnicities and civilizations—both modern and ancient—practice cannibalism, further confusing the matter of its acceptability. William Arens, an American anthropologist, criticizes academia’s approach to analyses of cannibalism as fraught with racism and religious bias in his book The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Indeed, the layman’s perception of cannibalism is often loaded with harmful generalizations about race and conceptions of civilization. Although Aren’s work was impactful in challenging the framework and approaches of anthropologists who study cannibalism, his hypotheses were discarded for being too weakly substantiated. So the question remains: has there ever been a human society that sanctioned cannibalism?
One society that challenges widely held reductionist ideas of cannibalism is the Wari’ people, located in the Brazilian Amazon. Until the 1970s, the Wari’ tribe practiced mortuary cannibalism as part of the grieving process when a member died. It has been described as an instrumental process that differs slightly from other religious or ritualistic instances of cannibalism. When dealing with loss, the philosophy of the Wari’ was to involve the entire community in erasing physical traces of the deceased’s social identity in order to minimize the sadness felt by close kin. This includes burning the deceased’s favorite hangout spots, possessions, and, of course, roasting and eating the corpse. Furthermore, this practice relies on the belief in the human and “extra-human” exchange of vitality in explaining the relationship between humans, animals, and spirits. There is a ritualistic timeline of seclusion that the Wari’ once followed; it culminated in an extended hunt carried out by the close kin to feed the entire village and marked the full integration of the deceased into the ancestral community. This signified the return of power from the prey of the spiritual force of death as they became hunters of animal spirits. (In a way, it’s kind of similar to that episode of Friends when on Valentine’s day the girls do a ritual to burn all traces of their exes to break the cycle of “bad boyfriends” and end up meeting cute firemen because of the fire they started in the apartment—but I digress.) The Wari’ don’t consider eating the dead as part of a crucial process to ensure the gods’ appeasement or the universe’s balance. Instead, eating the dead was considered a powerful psychological element of community healing, largely remaining subjective as indicated by its supposedly voluntary abandonment in the ‘70s. Ultimately, the mortuary cannibalism practices of the Wari’ was a personal choice individuals made when carrying out the wider, more important grieving process. The place of a life force within a community or a wider spiritual ecosystem confuses the importance of the body. Perhaps mortuary cannibalism sees the body as a vessel, simultaneously recognizing its utility and disposability through its consumption.
Modernity and cannibalism have an even more unclear relationship. In much of the modern world, cannibalism is frowned upon but somehow remains legal. Granted, there are other laws that make it nearly impossible to cannibalize someone, but it’s not as illegal as one would think. The ambiguous legal standing of cannibalism brings us into uncomfortable proximity with the idea that eating human flesh isn’t necessarily wrong, perhaps speaking to the extent of its emotive power.
Among the most obvious recent cases of cannibalism are during situations of extreme necessity, such as famines, shipwrecks, or airplane crashes. The “custom of the Sea” is an unwritten code of conduct dictating what happens in the event of a shipwreck. These laws cover circumstances ranging from mutiny to the procedure of deciding who is to be eaten in the event of a shipwreck. Although they aren’t necessarily codified laws, these customs are strictly adhered to and agreed upon by those manning the ship. They are upheld with the religious spirit of self-sacrifice, with one desperate case being justified by the act of Holy Communion and John 15:13, imploring man to “lay down his life for his friends.” Often, the process of deciding who is to be eaten in the case of an emergency is determined by casting lots, and the instances of blatant murder are gross departures from the custom. Despite the unquestionable non-consensuality of murder, there is still ambiguity involving the role of necessity. For instance, the Essex was a whaleship that sank in 1820 after being attacked by a sperm whale. Eight men were rescued after nearly a hundred days at sea and candidly spoke of being forced to cannibalize seven men, two after giving consent while alive and the rest after they had died. Often, in cases like these, the survivors face no legal ramifications for their actions but suffer acute trauma from their ordeals. The key element of consent exonerates them, as in the case of the survivors of The Essex. Of course there are cases of illegal cannibalism such as the story that inspired the novel Life of Pi. Richard Parker, a seventeen year old boy (not a Bengali tiger), was murdered and cannibalized by two men when their yacht was shipwrecked. They killed him after nearly a month of being stranded, reasoning that his deteriorating health, and the risk of abandoning their families were enough to justify his cannibalization. The lack of verbal consent was ultimately damning in the case of Richard Parker’s murderers. The role of consent in driving modern legislature further complicates cannibalism. It seems much more than a perverted tribal practice or an act of pure desperation.
Interestingly, modern courts and advocates of human rights seem to be disinterested with what is done with the dead body, excluding cannibalism from the scope of human rights violations. At times of war, cannibalism often occurs as an arguably very natural mechanism to feed troops and keep the war torn lands from being littered with corpses. During the Second World War, some Japanese soldiers ate their prisoners of war, periodically selecting the healthiest men for execution and also for food. When the Japanese generals were tried, there were no international laws pertaining to cannibalism, so they were inculpable in that regard. Instead, they were charged with “preventing honorable burial” because of the way that they discarded the remains of their victims. You’d think that cannibalism would be considered a war crime, or at least a human rights violation; but an investigation led by Amnesty International in the 1980s further undermines the human body’s legal status after death. After decades of brutal civil wars in various African countries, Amnesty International studied various war crimes committed amidst both speculative and proven instances of cannibalism. The controversy of war cannibalism was greatly overshadowed by the more clear-cut war crimes. The Secretary-General of Amnesty at the time, Pierre Sane, decided that “what was done to the bodies after the human rights were committed, were not under their mandate or concern.” In short, Amnesty’s mission pertaining to war crimes in restoring justice, truth, and reparations does not apply in cases of cannibalism. The qualifier of natural life is necessary for someone to matter, and the differing philosophies of the cannibalistic practices of the Wari’ tribe and Amnesty International’s rulings reflect these profound schisms. What it ultimately means for a person to matter, as defined by either law or ritual, represents a universal desire to express the magnitude of a person’s existence and on occasion, the criteria of mattering has historically not been indiscriminate. Posthumous cannibalistic practices by definition displace a person’s importance—and even their spirit—from their body. However, painting such a forgiving picture of contemporary society’s approach to cannibalism is unfair; after all, we are talking about cannibalism. Most people today would instinctively say there’s something wrong with the act.
In discussions surrounding recent cases of cannibalism are the questions of sanity, criminality, and artistic value. One of the most famous recent cases involves convicted murderer Jeffrey Dahmer who was known for brutalizing and cannibalizing his victims. Although his past was fraught with traumatic experiences and left him with deep psychological issues, cannibalism is not formally recognized as one of them. Indeed, experts have markedly shied away from formally classifying cannibalism as a mental disorder. However, cannibalism appears as a severe and rare symptom of certain psychotic behaviors. Often these symptoms occur in cases of delusional psychoses that are heavily influenced by their cultural surroundings, such as religious, political and technological norms. As in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, there can also be a sexual element in which the sufferer’s victim acts as a symbol for their own aversion to sex. This manifests itself in a severely regressive way, reminiscent of the infantile memory of breastfeeding. Arguably, it is when severe detachment from reality occurs that the sufferer returns to their first introduction to a sense of self. Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud argues that when the infant stops breastfeeding is when it realizes its separateness from its source of food, the breast. Perhaps there is a cyclical relationship between the delicate interactions between eating, self, and trauma. Cannibalism, in cases like Dahmer’s, shows the convergence of acute psychological detachment resulting in a profound realization of self. It’s a significant manifestation of an existential grey area. One eerie case that seems to defy all understanding is that of Issei Sagawa, a PhD student in France, originally from Japan. In 1981, he murdered and cannibalized a woman and was subsequently deemed insane by French authorities and detained indefinitely in a mental institution. He was deported to Japan where doctors deemed him “sexually perverse” but overall sane. Because of technicalities, he remains free and indeed has a significant public following. He has candidly and remorsefully explained cannibalizing his friend in 1981 was to gain some sort of physical vitality which he felt he lacked. Sagawa’s crime was driven fully by how he identified himself as weak and others as strong, showing that cannibalism can be a difficult reckoning of reality and perception. For the most part, cases of cannibalism involving murder often culminate in a plea of insanity and are almost sensationalized because of contemporary social understandings and opinions of cannibalism. There’s a mix of pity, disgust, and, above all, shock.
We would expect no less from artists than to jump on this shock factor. Cannibalism has been an artistic theme for centuries but it leaves the public shaken up every time. In 2007, Marco Evaristti, as part of a performance art piece, made meatballs out of his own liposuctioned fat and served it to twelve guests in a nice buttery pasta dish! It was a critique of contemporary society’s unhealthy obsession with weight loss, body image, and food. He stated in interviews that his work was testing the limits of the human body’s sanctity. Indeed when cannibalism is involved in artistic expression, it is often met without any legal repercussions other than “public indecency.” Such is the case with Japanese performance artist Mao Sugiyama who cut off, cooked, and fed to paying, willing participants, at a humble price of $250, parts of his genitals. The art performance was done in protest of gender inequality and promotion of asexuality and generated publicity as well as controversy. Once the initial shock of cannibalism wears off, the performative qualities are easier to swallow. We then can appreciate, or at the very least begin to understand, the social commentary behind the completely voluntary and deeply psychological act of cannibalism as an artform.
In any context, cannibalism is an intensely emotive process. It seems as though the active and highly intentional nature of cannibalism is profoundly influential in symbolic, ritualistic, and in sometimes unintended ways. Regardless of how cultural, historical, or otherwise extenuating circumstances may affect the acceptability of cannibalism, the act of eating human flesh is something deeply powerful. Physicality, in a simply existence-sustenance relationship, is a universal experience because everyone has a sense of self and a sense of self-preservation, and cannibalism, in any context, questions both of these senses. The act is either almost like an intentional search for some sort of soul within the body or a reduction of a human life to just a sack of meat. Ultimately, cannibalism deals with the question of self, and chopping away the outermost parts of our beings forces us to ask—what the hell even are we?