Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Is Cannibalism in Our DNA? Part 3 of 3

We may all be capable of committing the final taboo.

Cannibalism in Myth, Religion, Literature, Fairy Tales and Nursery Rhymes, Works of Art, and the Cinema

This subtopic could be a post (or many posts) all by itself. So I'll try to keep it as brief as possible. Still, the mystical subject of Holy Communion in certain Christian sects begs for some elaboration here.

Cannibalism occurs in various mythologies (e.g., Greek, Roman, Slavic, Egyptian, Scandinavian, Germanic, Hindu, and Algonquian). However, it's perhaps most frequently recognized in Greek mythology. To take but one example, the supreme god, Kronos (or Chronos, or Cronus), who reigned over the cosmos during the so-called Golden Age, is said to have swallowed each of his four children to circumvent the prophecy that sometime in the future he'd be overthrown by one of them (which in the end he was anyway--remember Zeus?). And, quite possibly, this exemplifies the Greek belief either in poetic justice, or divine retribution.

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In religion, there's nothing that quite compares to the Christian ritual of Holy Communion, which is far more closely linked to pagan practices than generally realized. According to this belief, the procedure--technically, at least--would make all such-practicing adherents both cannibals and vampires. (And for a comically satirical introduction to this ceremony--which has "informed" my own approach--I should cite one Jim Walker, who confesses that he himself is an "ex-cannibal".)

Whether Christian or not, almost everyone knows that in eating the wafer and drinking the wine during this religious service (also known as the "Eucharist" or "Sacrament of the Last Supper"), communicants are presumably eating the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Although many Protestant Christians don't believe in the literal eating of Jesus, in Walker's estimation at least, virtually all Catholics and Episcopalians do. And, indeed, in the Bible we have this quotation from Jesus himself: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life. . . . For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed" (John 6:53-55).

 

The idea that bread and wine can actually be turned into human flesh comes from the concept of transubstantiation, which refers to the literal conversion of one substance into another. Most tellingly, Walker adds that "this theophagy (god eating) . . . did not come first from the Catholics but had occurred throughout the pagan religions long before Christianity [and that] eating another living human being [implies] the belief [that doing so enables one to absorb] his nature into [one's] own, thus becoming, in some sense, more godlike, similar to the even more primitive belief that eating one's enemies makes one more powerful."

 Finally, Walker looks at the folklore surrounding vampire stories, also comparing it to fundamentalist Christian dogma. Vampire myths and Christianity are both seen as encompassing the idea that through imbibing human blood, the individual will live forever--a reason for participating in the ritual that, I'd think for many death-fearing individuals, would be well-nigh irresistible.

Moving from faith to fiction, cannibalism has been a subject in so many short stories and novels that it's hardly viable to list them here--except to note that many movies have been adapted from such provocative works of make-believe. Additionally, unless you're a Shakespeare aficionado, you're probably not aware that one of his lesser tragedies,Titus Andronicus, actually portrays horrific scenes of cannibalism. (It's by far the bard's goriest drama--although even in the great King Lear there's a horrendously graphic scene of someone's literally having his eyes gouged out.)

Children's fairy tales, the best know of which is probably Hansel and Gretel, particularly dramatize a child's primeval terror of being eaten and utterly devoured. (And yes, witches, too, have a taste for human flesh--hideously embodying the worst nightmares of the young.) There's also this gruesome rhyme from "Jack and the Beanstalk," with which almost every child is familiar:

Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum.
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.

Many works of art--including some remarkable paintings--have employed cannibalism as their theme. Possibly the most notable among these compositions are "Saturn [the Roman equivalent of Kronos] Devouring One of His Children" (Goya), "The Raft of Medusa" (Géricault), and the shockingly surreal "Autumn Cannibalism" (Dali).

 

Of course, the most sensational use of cannibalism comes from the cinema, where examples of it  abound. Wikipedia has an excellent overview on the subject, especially in its coverage of such controversial films as they constitute a sub-genre of the exploitation films made mostly in Italy in the '70s and '80s. And the notorious, dripping-with-blood Cannibal Holocaust is almost certainly the single best example from this era. For those wishing to go more deeply into the subject (you know who you are), the web-based Encyclopedia of Cannibal Movies provides yet additional information.

 A few of the best know mainstream movies addressing the subject--either from a serious or humorous/satirical perspective--include Soylent Green; Survive!; Eating Raoul; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; Sweeney Todd; The Road; and, of course, Silence of the Lambs. (And doubtless, some readers will come up with other movies they think should have made the, er-, cut.)

The fact that the very theme of cannibalism is so verboten, so taboo, may largely account for its enduring popularity with the movie-going public, especially younger audiences. Chomping on popcorn (and perhaps sipping a blood-colored drink), in the dark sanctuary of a movie theater they can let their imaginations run wild. And producers, governed by the profit motive, are more than happy to indulge their viewers' shadow side.


Our Enduring Fascination with Cannibalism

So what, finally, does our fascination with such violence and slaughter tell us about ourselves? Is there something about watching such appalling beings in action that, at the same time it excites us with morbid curiosity and fear, also gratifies some terribly illicit urge from deep within? Why do so many of us seem magnetically drawn to horror flicks--and to the macabre generally? And why is it that the grade B movies full of flesh-eating zombies and blood-sucking vampires always seem to rise from their own ashes, somehow immune to ever going out of style? 

For that matter, why is it that Halloween is almost as alluring to adults as it is to kids? And why do so many people dress up (or down?!) for such festivities by searching for the scariest, most outlandish and terrifying outfits they can find? Sure, it's all in fun--but still, how can this not say something essential about the human psyche and the hidden/forbidden longings for a barbarism we're all-to-ready to condemn in others?

If we're "captivated" by cannibalism, might it be because in our earlier history this was what we did to those we held captive? If, essentially, we humans are a tribal species, and the practice of cannibalism was (and continues to be) predominantly tribal, is there something "everlasting" about the phenomenon, despite it's today being performed only in remote regions? Given the exigencies of hunger, famine, or a war-induced regression to our native proclivities, will it always be part of our "backwards" potential--or devolution?

No one wants to entertain the idea that he--or she--might harbor an appetite for same-species flesh. That under just the right conditions they might even relish a meal of human liver "with some fava beans and a nice chianti". We'd, of course, prefer to think that such grotesque behavior, such moral turpitude, was simply not part of us--or the human equation. Yet, as I've shown, evidence of such human primitivism has been documented as far back in history--and pre-history--as scientists have been able to explore. What to most of us might seem almost too hideous to imagine, has been both thinkable and do-able.

 In The Future of an Illusion, Freud refers to cannibalism as one of the "instinctual wishes." And in an interview with Anthony Hopkins, the loathsome (but spellbinding) antagonist of the Hannibal Lecter franchise, the actor opines that "we are fascinated by the darkness in ourselves . . . fascinated by the shadow . . . fascinated by the bogeyman."

Could this be so because, at bottom, we're all more or less repressed cannibals? Did we perhaps need to become civilized in order to transcend what may have been primally ingrained in us--in our very DNA?

And is this, at last, how we've managed over time to keep from devouring each other--and to live in, well, relative peace? . . .

NOTE 1: An article in BBC News published earlier this year takes up the question of whether cannibal customs of ancient humans may have been responsible for disease epidemics similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Its carefully balanced answer, based on both genetic and arthropological findings, is "probably"--even though it admits that the subject remains controversial.


NOTE 2: For anyone who may have missed the two earlier segments of this post, part 1 focused on the hidden metaphors and figures of speech in our language that would seem to betray our cannibalistic instincts. And part 2 discussed the origin and widespread existence of cannibalism--not only in humans, but also in lower animal forms. It then reviewed the reasons, and rationalizations, offered for our devouring our own kind.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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