Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Cannibalism is an age-old tradition that, judging by a constant stream of flabbergasted news reports, is far from extinct. From Congo to Germany and from Mexico to New Zealand, cannibalism is enjoying a morbid revival of interest, if not in practice. A slew 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 is still the case in godforsaken battle zones such as Congo (formerly Zaire).

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, denizens of besieged cities, members of exploratory expeditions gone astray 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.

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.

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.

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 football 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!

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, and exclusive mating.

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.

Also Read:

On Incest - The Off-spring of Aeolus

The Myth of the Right to Life

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