Saturday, April 30, 2005

Cannibalism as Cultural Libel

Claire Meurens Yashar, originally from Belgium, is an Anthropology graduate from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where Claire still lives. For the past two years, Claire has been intensely researching Taino iconography and its connection with the many mythological stories and legends. Claire can be reached at

Claire Meurens Yashar

Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known.

The ‘blood libel’ that accused the Jews of eating Christian children is an example. In antiquity, Greek reports of anthropophagy were related to distant, non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in myth to the ‘primitive’ chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods. In 1994, printed booklets reported that in a Yugoslavian concentration camp of Manjaca, the Bosnian refugees were forced to eat each other’s bodies. The reports were false.

William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) downplays the truth of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is an ideological and rhetorical device to establish moral superiority over them” (p. 3- 4).

Cannibal themes in myth or religion
Cannibal ogresses appear in folklore around the world, the witch in Hansel and Gretel being the most immediate example. On the mythological level, the cannibal mother is magnified to a universal principal, such as the Hindu goddess Kali, the Black One. In one such tale, the gods are up against the demons led by Raktabeeja found that each time he was killed more demons arose from each blood that dropped to the floor.

The story of Kronos in Greek mythology also demonstrates the theme of cannibalism. Some authorities have detected allusions to cannibalism in the earliest religious writings of the ancient Egyptians.

The opening of Hell, the Zoroastrian contribution to Western mythology, is a mouth. According to Catholic dogma, bread and wine are transubstantiated into the real flesh and blood of Jesus, which is then distributed by the priest to the faithful. For this reason, Catholics in pagan times were sometimes accused of cannibalism by suspicious non-Christians (p. 5, from, 6 pages).

Uses and Abuses of Images of New World Cannibalism

From the earliest years of European invasion of the New World, reports that native people ate human flesh provided the conquerors with easy justification for their brutal takeover of native lands and lives. European colonizers saw New World cannibalism as the quintessential expression of savagery and evil. Clearly, any way of putting an end to such depravity could be considered legitimate. The imperative to stamp out cannibalism could counter any criticism about the morality of colonial projects and the brutalities of death, disease, misery, violence, and slavery that Europeans inflicted on the natives.

People with reputation of being cannibals were fair game for exploitation. In 1503, Queen Isabella of Spain decreed that Spaniards could legally enslave only those American Indians who were cannibals (Whitehead, 1984: 70). Spanish colonists thus had a vested economic interest in representing many New World natives as people eaters. Political expediency clearly motivated a number of early chroniclers who wrote about cannibalism, particularly among the Caribs (Caniba) Indians who lived in the parts of Venezuela, the Guianas, and the Caribbean islands. (Columbus’s accounts of the supposedly ferocious man-eating Caniba gave us the word cannibal which has come to be used more widely than the older term anthropophagy.)

The Portuguese who invaded Brazil likewise found that representing the natives as cannibals provided powerful rhetoric to assert European superiority and justify their violent conquest of the New World. The Catholic Church buttressed this position in 1510, when Pope Innocent IV declared cannibalism to be a sin deserving to be punished by Christians through force of arms.
Where people-eating savages did not exist, they could be fabricated. There is little doubt that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some Spanish writers spread unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism in certain native populations (especially those that resisted European domination) as a pretext to justify slave-raiding and as a device to head off interference from Catholic clergy or government officials in Madrid. . Many other colonial-era writings also are of dubious veracity, being secondhand accounts based on rumor and innuendo, not the writer’s own observations. Even when there was no supporting evidence, historical documents tended to treat such allegations as facts. (Conklin, p. 4)

(See: Conklin, Beth A. 2001. Consuming Grief: compassionate cannibalism in an Amazonian society. Austin: University of Texas Press, Austin.)

No comments: