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Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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"I believe that when man evolves a civilization higher than the mechanized but still primitive one he has now, the eating of human flesh will be sanctioned. For then man will have thrown off all of his superstitions and irrational taboos."

(Diego Rivera)

"One calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to."

(Montaigne, On Cannibalism)

Cannibalism (more precisely, anthropophagy) is an age-old tradition that, judging by a constant stream of flabbergasted news reports, is far from extinct. Incontrovertible proof exists that our Neanderthal predecessors were cannibals.

The Wikipedia numbers among the practitioners of cannibalism the ancient Chinese, the Korowai tribe of southeastern Papua, the Fore tribe in New Guinea, the Aztecs, the people of Yucatan, the Purchas from Popayan, Colombia, the denizens of the Marquesas Islands of Polynesia, the natives of the captaincy of Sergipe in Brazil

From Congo to Germany and from Mexico to New Zealand, cannibalism is enjoying a morbid revival of interest, if not in practice. A veritable torrent of sensational tomes and movies adds to our ambivalent fascination with man-eaters.

Cannibalism is not a monolithic affair. It can be divided thus:

I. Non-consensual consumption of human flesh post-mortem

For example, when the corpses of prisoners of war are devoured by their captors. This used to be a common exercise among island tribes (e.g., in Fiji, the Andaman and Cook islands) and is still the case in godforsaken battle zones such as Congo (formerly Zaire), or among the defeated Japanese soldiers in World War II.

Similarly, human organs and fetuses as well as mummies are still being gobbled up - mainly in Africa and Asia - for remedial and medicinal purposes and in order to enhance one's libido and vigor.

On numerous occasions the organs of dead companions, colleagues, family, or neighbors were reluctantly ingested by isolated survivors of horrid accidents (the Uruguay rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes, the boat people fleeing Asia), denizens of besieged cities (e.g., during the siege of Leningrad), members of exploratory expeditions gone astray (the Donner and John Franklin Polar parties), famine-stricken populations (Ukraine in the 1930s, China in the 1960s), and the like.

II. Non-consensual consumption of human flesh from a live source

For example, when prisoners of war are butchered for the express purpose of being eaten by their victorious enemies.

A notorious and rare representative of this category of cannibalism is the punitive ritual of being eaten alive. The kings of the tribes of the Cook Islands were thought to embody the gods. They punished dissent by dissecting their screaming and conscious adversaries and consuming their flesh piecemeal, eyeballs first.

The Sawney Bean family in Scotland, during the reign of King James I, survived for decades on the remains (and personal belongings) of victims of their murderous sprees.

Real-life serial killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert Fish, Sascha Spesiwtsew, Fritz Haarmann, Issei Sagawa, and Ed Gein, lured, abducted, and massacred countless people and then consumed their flesh and preserved the inedible parts as trophies. These lurid deeds inspired a slew of books and films, most notably The Silence of the Lambs with Hannibal (Lecter) the Cannibal as its protagonist.

III. Consensual consumption of human flesh from live and dead human bodies

Armin Meiwes, the "Master Butcher (Der Metzgermeister)", arranged over the Internet to meet Bernd Jurgen Brandes on March 2001. Meiwes amputated the penis of his guest and they both ate it. He then proceeded to kill Brandes (with the latter's consent recorded on video), and snack on what remained of him. Sexual cannibalism is a paraphilia and an extreme - and thankfully, rare - form of fetishism.

The Aztecs willingly volunteered to serve as human sacrifices (and to be tucked into afterwards). They firmly believed that they were offerings, chosen by the gods themselves, thus being rendered immortal.

Dutiful sons and daughters in China offered their amputated organs and sliced tissues (mainly the liver) to their sick parents (practices known as Ko Ku and Ko Kan). Such offerings were considered remedial. Princess Miao Chuang who gave her severed hands to her ailing father was henceforth considered a divinity.

Non-consensual cannibalism is murder, pure and simple. The attendant act of cannibalism, though aesthetically and ethically reprehensible, cannot aggravate this supreme assault on all that we hold sacred.

But consensual cannibalism is a lot trickier. Modern medicine, for instance, has blurred the already thin line between right and wrong.

What is the ethical difference between consensual, post-mortem, organ harvesting and consensual, post-mortem cannibalism?

Why is stem cell harvesting (from aborted fetuses) morally superior to consensual post-mortem cannibalism?

When members of a plane-wrecked rugby team, stranded on an inaccessible, snow-piled, mountain range resort to eating each other in order to survive, we turn a blind eye to their repeated acts of cannibalism - but we condemn the very same deed in the harshest terms if it takes place between two consenting, and even eager adults in Germany. Surely, we don't treat murder, pedophilia, and incest the same way!

As the Auxiliary Bishop of Montevideo said after the crash:

"... Eating someone who has died in order to survive is incorporating their substance, and it is quite possible to compare this with a graft. Flesh survives when assimilated by someone in extreme need, just as it does when an eye or heart of a dead man is grafted onto a living man..."

Complex ethical issues are involved in the apparently straightforward practice of consensual cannibalism.

Consensual, in vivo, cannibalism (a-la Messrs. Meiwes and Brandes) resembles suicide. The cannibal is merely the instrument of voluntary self-destruction. Why do we treat it different to the way we treat any other form of suicide pact?

Cannibalism is not the equivalent of drug abuse because it has no social costs. Unlike junkies, the cannibal and his meal are unlikely to harm others. What gives society the right to intervene, therefore?

If we own our bodies and, thus, have the right to smoke, drink, have an abortion, commit suicide, and will our organs to science after we die - why don't we possess the inalienable right to will our delectable tissues to a discerning cannibal post-mortem?

When does our right to dispose of our organs in any way we see fit crystallize? Is it when we die? Or after we are dead? If so, what is the meaning and legal validity of a living will? And why can't we make a living will and bequeath our cadaverous selves to the nearest cannibal? Do dead people have rights and can they claim and invoke them while they are still alive? Is the live person the same as his dead body, does he "own" it, does the state have any rights in it?

We find all three culinary variants abhorrent. Yet, this instinctive repulsion is a curious matter. The onerous demands of survival should have encouraged cannibalism rather than make it a taboo. Human flesh is protein-rich. Most societies, past and present (with the exception of the industrialized West), need to make efficient use of rare protein-intensive resources.

If cannibalism enhances the chances of survival - why is it universally prohibited? For many a reason.

I. The Sanctity of Life

Historically, cannibalism preceded, followed, or precipitated an act of murder. It clashed with the principle of the sanctity of life. Once allowed, even under the strictest guidelines, cannibalism debased human life and fostered homicide, propelling its practitioners down a slippery ethical slope towards bloodlust and orgiastic massacres.

II. The Afterlife

Moreover, in life, the human body and form are considered by most religions (and philosophers) to be the abode of the soul, the divine spark that animates us all. The post-mortem integrity of this shrine is widely thought to guarantee a faster, unhindered access to the afterlife, to immortality, and eventual reincarnation (or karmic cycle in eastern religions).

For this reason, to this very day, orthodox Jews refuse to subject their relatives to a post-mortem autopsy and organ harvesting. Fijians and Cook Islanders consumed their enemies' carcasses in order to prevent their souls from joining hostile ancestors in heaven.

III. Chastening Reminders

Cannibalism is a chilling reminder of our humble origins in the animal kingdom. To the cannibal, we are no better and no more than cattle or sheep. It confronts us with the irreversibility of our death and its finality. Surely, we cannot survive our demise with our cadaver mutilated and gutted and our skeletal bones scattered, gnawed, and chewed on?

IV. Medical Reasons

Infrequently, cannibalism results in prion diseases of the nervous system, such as kuru. The same paternalism that gave rise to the banning of drug abuse, the outlawing of suicide, and the Prohibition of alcoholic drinks in the 1920s - seeks to shelter us from the pernicious medical outcomes of cannibalism and to protect others who might become our victims.

V. The Fear of Being Objectified

Being treated as an object (being objectified) is the most torturous form of abuse. People go to great lengths to seek empathy and to be perceived by others as three dimensional entities with emotions, needs, priorities, wishes, and preferences.

The cannibal reduces others by treating them as so much meat. Many cannibal serial killers transformed the organs of their victims into trophies. The Cook Islanders sought to humiliate their enemies by eating, digesting, and then defecating them - having absorbed their mana (prowess, life force) in the process.

VI. The Argument from Nature

Cannibalism is often castigated as "unnatural". Animals, goes the myth, don't prey on their own kind.

Alas, like so many other romantic lores, this is untrue. Most species - including our closest relatives, the chimpanzees - do cannibalize. Cannibalism in nature is widespread and serves diverse purposes such as population control, food security, threat avoidance (rabbits, mice, rats, and hamsters), the preservation of genetic purity, and exclusive mating (Red-back spider).

Moreover, humans are a part of nature. Our deeds and misdeeds are natural by definition. Seeking to tame nature is a natural act. Seeking to establish hierarchies and subdue or relinquish our enemies are natural propensities. By avoiding cannibalism we seek to transcend nature. Refraining from cannibalism is the unnatural act.

VII. Religion

The major monotheistic religions are curiously mute when it comes to cannibalism. Human sacrifice is denounced numerous times in the Old Testament - but man-eating goes virtually unmentioned. The Eucharist in Christianity - when the believers consume the body and blood of Jesus - is an act of undisguised cannibalism.

Still, most systems of morality and ethics impute to Man a privileged position in the scheme of things. Men and women are supposed to transcend their animal roots and inhibit their baser instincts (an idea incorporated into Freud's tripartite model of the human psyche). The anthropocentric view is that it is permissible to kill all other animals in order to consume their flesh. Man, in this respect, is sui generis.

Yet, it is impossible to rigorously derive a prohibition to eat human flesh from any known moral system. As Richard Routley-Silvan observes in his essay "In Defence of Cannibalism", that something is innately repugnant does not make it morally prohibited. Moreover, that we find cannibalism nauseating is probably the outcome of upbringing and conditioning rather than anything innate.

VIII. The Argument from Progress

It is a circular syllogism involving a tautology and goes like this:

Cannibalism is barbaric. Cannibals are, therefore, barbarians. Progress entails the abolition of this practice.

The premises - both explicit and implicit - are axiomatic and, therefore, shaky. What makes cannibalism barbarian? And why is progress a desirable outcome?

Also Read:

On Incest - The Off-spring of Aeolus

The Myth of the Right to Life

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