New Worlds: Cannibalism

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Continuing the October theme of death and its customs, I’d like to talk about the rather squicky topic of cannibalism. If that disturbs you, I recommend not clicking through to read the rest of this post.

From a worldbuilding point of view, I think of cannibalism as a third rail. It’s a custom that exists (or at least has existed) in reality, in many parts of the world, but including it in a story is difficult — at least if you want to use it for any other purpose than othering a society or showing how evil your bad guy is. Eating human beings is, for (probably) all of us reading this essay, so profoundly taboo that the simple horror of it can overpower anything else the author might be trying to say. Empathizing with it as a cultural practice? That’s right out.

But that’s why I decided it deserved its own essay. Because there’s more going on here than you might assume, and while I don’t expect to see it showing up in fiction a lot any time soon — nor should it, necessarily — it’s worth giving it a proper look.

First let’s talk briefly about cannibalism not as a cultural practice. By this I mean two things: first, when it’s done for survival, and second, when it’s done by a mentally ill person (e.g. a serial killer). Survival cannibalism is your Donner Party type scenario, where people stranded under starvation conditions resort to eating the dead from sheer desperation. This has happened countless times in countless places, but I’m discounting it simply because it isn’t a part of the culture. (Though cultural responses to it can be interesting: are the people forgiven on the grounds that they had no other choice, or shunned for their taboo behavior?) The same goes for the serial killer situation, where it’s an individual aberration from the norm.

With those laid aside, you can sort the cultural practice manifestations into two forms: endocannibalism (eating members of your own social group) and exocannibalism (eating outsiders). These may involve the same general act, but the meaning attached to it and the motivation for doing it are often very different.

Exocannibalism is what we tend to think of when the term “cannibalism” comes up. It’s aggressive, dominating, an expression of superiority of the consumer over the consumed or an attempt to take the power of the consumed into oneself. Was your opponent brave in battle? Then in some cultures, the idea was that eating his heart or other flesh would allow you to absorb his courage, making yourself even stronger for the battles to come. (A similar symbolic logic sometimes attaches to eating the flesh of certain animals.) In other cultures, your enemy’s defeat in battle means he was weak and pathetic, and by eating his corpse you assert your final victory over him. When you read colonial-era accounts of “cannibal islands” and other such lurid tales, they’re often talking about exocannibalism — when they’re not just making up slanders for the sake of justifying imperial conquest or extermination.

Endocannibalism is generally very different. It’s a mortuary practice: something done for members of your own community to help them pass on from this life, by by freeing them from their body, by taking their spirit into yourself or your community. Rather than being hostile, it’s compassionate. Depending on the society, it might be expected that people will consume their own close relatives, that they will consume more distant relatives, or that the dead should be consumed by people as unrelated to them as possible.

This is not simply an unusual culinary practice. I learned a great deal about endocannibalism when one of my grad school classes assigned me to read Consuming Grief by Beth A. Conklin, which discusses the practice among the Wari’ Indians of the western Amazon, and one of the things that stayed with me was the lengths they went to in order to ensure that the remains of the dead were not treated in the same way as food. For example, the bodies were often left to decay for several days before being roasted; the book’s descriptions of this were enough to turn my stomach just reading about it, so I can only imagine what it’s like in person. They ate not out of hunger or desire, but out of a sense of duty, of compassion for the loved ones of the deceased. To them, burying the dead in the ground was a shocking offense — why would you stick the remains of someone you loved in the cold, wet dirt?

When the topic of cannibalism comes up, people often point to disease as a rational, non-taboo-based reason for why it’s a terrible idea. Kuru is transmitted by prions, and used to be widespread among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea; there’s evidence to suggest it came about because one individual spontaneously developed the disease, and then after that person’s death it spread to those who ate their flesh (brain tissue especially), and so on through the group.

But the broader truth is that prion-based diseases can be acquired from the brains of a variety of animals, not just humans. The flesh of our own species is not inherently riddled with diseases waiting to strike down those who transgress by eating their kin. It can happen . . . but so can trichinosis. In the end, the main reasons for not engaging in cannibalism are cultural: we see it as an atrocity, rather than a normal part of victory in battle or the funerary process.

And because we see it as an atrocity, it’s incredibly difficult to build it into a setting. Your reader’s sense of revulsion will prime them to read it as a marker of evil or primitivism; you’ll have to work overtime to get them to see it any other way. Which skews your story — if you weren’t writing a story About Cannibalism before, well, you are now. You can’t just slip in a background reference about how three days after your hero’s mentor died, the town dug up his corpse and ate it. The idea derails everything around it.

But if you can point me at a story that makes good, non-sensational use of the concept, please do. I’m very curious.

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