Cannibalism: A modern taboo

Armin Meiwes, the German who is standing trial for eating an acquaintance, has advised others not to follow his example.

But he is unlikely to be the last to sample human flesh.

After years of wrangling over its very existence, anthropologists increasingly concur that cannibalism is a tradition which has spanned both cultures and centuries, although the extent to which it has been practised remains an academic battleground.

General repugnance has met the case of Mr Meiwes, who has confessed to killing and eating a man he met after advertising for someone who wanted to be killed and eaten.

While modern societies have proven largely sympathetic to “survival cannibalism” – eating others on the grounds of nutritional necessity – many remain uncomfortable with the notion of the ritualistic consumption of human flesh – however consensual the act may be.

Demonising effect

The term cannibalism derives from the name of the West Indian Carib tribe, first documented by the explorer Christopher Columbus. The Carib tribe was alleged to eat others – it remains unclear whether they did indeed do so.

Early accounts of cannibalism by European colonisers have been widely viewed with suspicion on the grounds that allegations may well have been made in an effort to illustrate the necessity of civilising foreign peoples.

For cannibalism has frequently been used as a means to demonise others: Medieval Christian culture frequently depicted the Jew who had a taste for the blood of Christian babies.

But while anthropologists approach stories of cannibalism with caution, there do nonetheless appear to be substantiated examples of both ritualistic and survival cannibalism throughout history.

Murder and survival

The Aztecs are believed to have practised cannibalism on a large scale as part of the ritual religious sacrifice of war captives and other victims in a practice known as exocannibalism – the eating of strangers or enemies.

Earlier this year the United Nations accused rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo of cannibalising their enemies, and of forcing families of the victims to eat the organs of their relatives.

Aboriginal Australians are meanwhile believed to have taken part in what is seen as a more benevolent form of cannibalism – endocannibalism – the consumption of friends and relatives, who are usually dead.

In this case, the body of a dead person was ritually eaten by his relatives as a means of allowing his spirit to live on.

History also provides ample examples of cannibalism during famine and other periods of severe shortages.

Survival cannibalism was made famous by the film Alive, based on the 1972 air crash in the Andes, when surviving members of the Uruguayan rugby team ate the dead to stay alive.

And somewhere between ritual and survival lies the case of the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea, who engaged in cannibalistic practices from the end of the 19th century until the 1950s.

While the men of the Fore tribe supplemented their bean-and-sweet-potato diets with small game, women and children made up for their lack of protein by eating the brains of tribal members who had recently died.

Some scientists hold the practice responsible for incidences of a fatal brain disease, the symptoms of which are similar to the human form of mad cow disease, although other experts have disputed the link.

Breaking a taboo

In many countries, the consumption of human flesh is not itself a crime.

Perpetrators tend to be convicted on the basis of accompanying acts: Mr Meiwes, for example, has not been charged with cannibalism, but with murder for “sexual satisfaction”.

A number of high-profile cannibal cases have involved the eating of flesh in a sexual context.

Albert Fish, who has been called America’s Bogeyman, raped, murdered and ate a number of children during the 1920s. He claimed to have experienced immense sexual pleasure as a result.

Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered at least 53 people between 1978 and 1990, also indulged in cannibalism. His crimes were linked to sexual problems.

But what distinguishes Mr Meiwes’ self-confessed sexual cannibalism from killers such as Fish and Chikatilo, or acts committed by peoples such as the Aztecs or the Congolese rebels, is the ostensibly consensual nature of his act.

Mr Meiwes met the man he was ultimately to eat, 43-year-old Bernd-Jurgen Brandes, in early 2001, after advertising on websites for “young, well-built men aged 18 to 30 to slaughter”.

Mr Meiwes told investigators he took Mr Brandes back to his home, where Mr Brandes agreed to have his penis cut off, which Mr Meiwes then flambeed and served up to eat together.

Mr Meiwes says he then killed Mr Brandes with his consent.

But the allegedly consensual nature of the act has done nothing to pacify German disgust.

Whether Mr Meiwes’ victim was willing or not, eating another for anything less than necessity remains a taboo in the modern world.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Dec. 2, 2003
Clare Murphy

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday December 4, 2003.
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