Cannibalism  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Cannibalism (from Spanish caníbal, in connection with alleged cannibalism among the Caribs), also called anthropophagy anthropos "man" and phagein "to consume" is the act or practice of humans consuming other humans. In zoology, the term cannibalism is extended to refer to any species consuming members of its own kind.

Care should be taken to distinguish among ritual cannibalism sanctioned by a cultural code, cannibalism by necessity occurring in extreme situations of famine, and cannibalism by mentally disturbed people.

Contents

Myths, legends and folklore

Cannibalism features in the folklore and legends of many cultures and is most often attributed to evil characters or as extreme retribution for some wrong. Examples include the witch in "Hansel and Gretel", Lamia of Greek mythology and Baba Yaga of Slavic folklore.

A number of stories in Greek mythology involve cannibalism, in particular cannibalism of close family members, e.g., the stories of Thyestes, Tereus and especially Cronus, who was Saturn in the Roman pantheon. The story of Tantalus also parallels this.

The wendigo is a creature appearing in the legends of the Algonquian people. It is thought of variously as a malevolent cannibalistic spirit that could possess humans or a monster that humans could physically transform into. Those who indulged in cannibalism were at particular risk, and the legend appears to have reinforced this practice as taboo.

In popular culture

As used to demonize colonized or other groups

Unsubstantiated reports of cannibalism disproportionately relate cases of cannibalism among cultures that are already otherwise despised, feared, or are little known. In antiquity, Greek reports of cannibalism, (often called anthropophagy in this context) were related to distant non-Hellenic barbarians, or else relegated in Greek mythology to the 'primitive' chthonic world that preceded the coming of the Olympian gods: see the explicit rejection of human sacrifice in the cannibal feast prepared for the Olympians by Tantalus of his son Pelops. All South Sea Islanders were cannibals so far as their enemies were concerned. When the whaleship Essex was rammed and sunk by a whale in 1820, the captain opted to sail 3000 miles upwind to Chile rather than 1400 miles downwind to the Marquesas because he had heard the Marquesans were cannibals. Ironically many of the survivors of the shipwreck resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.

However, Herman Melville happily lived with the Marquesan Typees (Taipi), rumored to have been the most vicious of the island group's cannibal tribes, but also may have witnessed evidence of cannibalism. In his semi-autobiographical novel Typee, he reports seeing shrunken heads and having strong evidence that the tribal leaders ceremonially consumed the bodies of killed warriors of the neighboring tribe after a skirmish.

William Arens, author of The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, questions the credibility of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is a consistent and demonstrable ideological and rhetorical device to establish perceived cultural superiority. Arens bases his thesis on a detailed analysis of numerous "classic" cases of cultural cannibalism cited by explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. His findings were that many were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence. In combing the literature he could not find a single credible eye-witness account. And, as he points out, the hallmark of ethnography is the observation of a practice prior to description. In the end he concluded that cannibalism was not the widespread prehistoric practice it was claimed to be; that anthropologists were too quick to pin the cannibal label on a group based not on responsible research but on our own culturally-determined pre-conceived notions, often motivated by a need to exoticize. He wrote:

"Anthropologists have made no serious attempt to disabuse the public of the widespread notion of the ubiquity of anthropophagists. ... in the deft hands and fertile imaginations of anthropologists, former or contemporary anthropophagists have multiplied with the advance of civilization and fieldwork in formerly unstudied culture areas. ...The existence of man-eating peoples just beyond the pale of civilization is a common ethnographic suggestion."

Arens' findings are controversial, and have been cited as an example of postcolonial revisionism. His argument is often mischaracterized as "cannibals do not and never did exist", when in the end the book is actually a call for a more responsible and reflective approach to anthropological research. At any rate, the book ushered in an era of rigorous combing of the cannibalism literature. By Arens' later admission, some cannibalism claims came up short, others were reinforced.

Conversely, Michel de Montaigne's essay "Of Cannibals" introduced a new multicultural note in European civilization. Montaigne wrote that "one calls 'barbarism' whatever he is not accustomed to." By using a title like that and describing a fair indigean society, Montaigne may have wished to provoke a surprise in the reader of his Essays.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Cannibalism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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