Mad meditation #1: Cannibalism

Scary Google

The problem with search engines, apart from their changing their logo into a form less appealing than the previous one, is that you can get hooked onto a macabre and random topic by accident. Cannibalism, to be specific. After coming across an article when reading about Queen Elizabeth II last Wednesday which cited and dismissed the claims from outcast philosopher Hubert Humdinger that the Queen was a cannibal, I was intrigued and decided to delve a little deeper into the history of cannibalism. Not the speculation surrounding cannibalism though, which is really, as I expected, nothing to do with the Queen.

When was the word ‘cannibalism’ coined?

In 1493, by the explorer Christopher Columbus, after he landed on an island in the Lesser Antilles. Canibales in Spanish. The singular form is caniba, a corrupted form of caribaCariba was the Arawak word the West Indians of the Lesser Antilles used to call their rival tribe. Columbus, influenced by the reports of dog-snouted people who ate man-flesh, combined the Arawak word with the Latin word for dog, canis.

What are the different categories of cannibalism?

Key Ray Chong in his book “Cannibalism in China” names two types: “survival cannibalism” and “learned cannibalism”.

Medicinal cannibalism

  • The Roman encyclopaedist Celsus wrote that some found a cure for epilepsy in drinking the hot blood from the cut throat of a gladiator. This belief was still shared centuries later, when spectators at executions in the 1600’s came with mugs to catch the spurting blood.
  • Powdered Egyptian mummies were used in medicines. The key ingredient is not the mummy corpse but the bitumen coating the corpse, for which the Persian word was mumia, but this distinction was lost and later entire corpses were ground up. It was not only the common people but aristocrats and even royalty who practiced cannibalism. Dr. Richard Sugg from Durham University writes that “James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine.”
  • Medical sanguinarians drink human blood for its restorative properties. Most are not into vampire culture but do conceal their habits for fear of being stigmatised.

Survival cannibalism

  • Many of the surviving members of the Donner party who were migrating to California had turned cannibal in the winter of 1846-7.
  • The John Franklin’s crew resorted to cannibalism in 1854. In 1972 passengers who survived the crash of a flight which carried the Uruguayan rugby team resorted to eating the flesh of those who had not survived.

Social cannibalism

  • Endocanniballsim – eating a member of one’s social group. Until just several decades ago, the Amazonian Wari used to eat a little of their dead relatives’ flesh so that the souls of the deceased would not wander alone but live on within the family.
  • Exocannibalism – eating a member outside of one’s social group. Fijian chief Ratu Udre Udre, who holds the Guinness World Record for being “the most prolific cannibal”, ate his enemies and kept their skulls to keep count, as he believed that the 1000th victim would bring him immortality. We should be wary though, of assuming that more primitive cultures were cannibalistic. For example, there are those who argue that the ancient Amazasi tribe that lived in what is now southwestern USA were cannibals because of evidence of bones having been broken, cut, burnt, rubbed, and polished. But others argue that these marks can be explained by desecration of the corpse for other purposes like the elimination of witchcraft. And we should not assume that only the ancients were voluntary cannibalistic. Japanese soldiers ate flesh from their enemies in WWII in an act of solidarity, sometimes while the victims were still alive. The Syrian “cannibal rebel” Abu Sakkar touched his lips to lung freshly cut from one of the enemy in 2013, and a certain Christian “Mad Dog” in the Central African Republic turned cannibal in revenge for his family, who were killed by Muslims.


  • For art – in his 2006 film, ‘Polpette al grasso di Marco’, Danish artist Marco Evaristti used his own liposuction fat to cook meatballs, which he ate and served up for 12 guests, with reference to Christ’s Last Supper.
  • For health – some women eat their own placenta after giving birth to reabsorb lost nutrients, a form of behaviour common among other animals, but British celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was criticised for cooking and eating placenta on his TV show ‘TV Dinners’ in 1996.
  • When mentally disturbed – Andre Thomas, a American man on death row since 2005, removed his own eye and ate it to prevent others from reading his mind. There have also been incidents of auto-cannibalism under the influence of drugs.

Sexual cannibalism

  • Erontophonophilia – the killing of victims or mutilation of victims’ genitalia during sex. In the early 1900s Fritz Haarmann, the Butcher of Hanover, bit through his victims’ Adam’s apples or strangled them in ecstasy. Decades later Andrei Chikatilo, the Butcher of Rostov, tried to but he failed to get an erection.
  • Gynophagia – the consumption of female humans. Jack the Ripper’s infamous ‘Letter from Hell’ contained half of a female victim’s kidney, the other half of which he had eaten. Issei Sagawa from Japan killed and ate a Dutch student when in Paris in 1981, and still thinks about the taste of human flesh today, even if he does not want to eat it. Last year NHS nurse Dale Bolinger was convicted of plotting to kill and eat a teenage girl.
  • Vorarephilia – being aroused by the prospect of being eaten. The defence for the German cannibal Armin Meiwes argued that the butchered man had consented to being eaten.
  • Sexual autophagy – being aroused by the prosper of eating oneself. The man butchered by Meiwes in 2001 had also consented to having his penis cut off and served up to him.
Is cannibalism illegal?

Technically not but effectively yes – for example murder and desecration of corpses are illegal acts in most European countries.

What does human flesh taste like?

Like pork, according to islanders on Papua New Guinea who call it ‘Long Pork’.

Is cannibalism any good for our health?

The eating of the brains of their deceased relatives by the Fore tribe from Papua New Guinea strengthened their immunity to disease. However, it also contributed to the transmission of kuru, a neurological disease the symptoms of which are bouts of laughter and violent shivering. Basically, no since the dangers far outweigh the benefits. Likewise for the consumption of placenta, and in any case, there are many less morally questionable ways to keep healthy.


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