You come from Cannibals

A man "lies crumpled on the sand ... Behind him a dark trail leads back to the spot from which he has just been dragged. Looking closer, we notice something slightly odd about the figure crouching over the wounded man. His posture does not suggest a doctor attempting to staunch bleeding, or even to check heartbeat or pulse. Look a little closer still, and you may be inclined suddenly to reel back or to close your eyes. The man sprawled at such an odd angle beside the injured [man] has his face pressed against a gaping tear in [his] throat. He is drinking blood fresh from the wound..." Why? Well, to cure his epilepsy, of course. The date is 24 AD, the injured man is a gladiator, and the man drinking the blood must have bribed his way to the front of the line because he's getting what a lot of other people in Ancient Rome routinely sought. A nice blood meal, for medicinal purposes, of course.

(a repost)

Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires

And that is not the most shocking thing you'll read if you devour Ricahrd Sugg's Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. In this scholarly yet macabre book, Sugg documents the practice of consuming or wearing or otherwise messing around with human flesh, skin, fat, brains, and blood as generally recommended by the best and most reputable healers, and as generally practiced by people of means and education, among others. "James I refused corpse medicine; Charles II made his own corpse medicine; and Charles I was made into corpse medicine." Corpse medicine. Sounds like cannibalism to me!

Suddenly, the Eucharist makes sense. The consumption of human tissue in Europe for quite some time was a primarily Christian practice. Some of the tissues were harvested from the bodies of the freshly executed. Were the fabled crowds gathered to see the bad men hang after something other than a good show? Was it like a drive-through, a buffet, or more of a sit-down affair? Interestingly, though the roots of this tradition go back to the Classical Period, and it was developed to its full science during the Medieval Period, Medical Cannibalism seems to have reached it's height during the early Renaissance and continued into the Victorian Era, though much reduced in fashion. You have to read this book.

Is cannibalism normal?

In my last essay on Cannibalism (Among Cannibals) I asked if you thought that cannibalism could ever be considered as just one of many of the diverse modes of human behavior, recently abandoned by virtually all societies and thus seen as much odder and demented than it should be viewed. In particular, I was asking about cannibalism where you go and kill someone so you could eat them. The stuff I mention above, from Sugg's book, seems a bit more like ritual cannibalism where you eat your ancestors, perhaps cremated and calcined and made into a sort of soup, as part of a ritual. So maybe, if you are of European Ancestry, you can keep believing that your people have never really been cannibals. But I'm not so sure. Sucking the blood from the gaping wound of a dying gladiator is probably not what you were thinking as an example of "not demented" or fully ritualized. And, once there is a sufficient demand for human body parts, tissues, and fluids, would you think for a moment that there were not agents who could provide these valuable items in ways that were exactly the same as killing someone so you could eat them ... because people were killed, so they could be eaten, then, well, eaten?

No. Sorry. If you are of European Ancestry, you come from Cannibals.

One way to make sense of this all is to consider blood, and bodily fluids in general. These days, in Western society, we know that these things are dangerous. Some people (smart people) carry around portable shields that allow them to give mouth-to-mouth to strangers and not get a disease. Ambulance workers and other first responders routinely don protective materials to avoid contact with fluids. I'm not sure ... do mothers still suck the blood from their children's wounds like they did when I was a kid? Probably not. Do people still suck the blood from their own wounds? (Not counting when you bite your own tongue.) I'm not sure, you tell me. When was the last time you tasted human blood?

Our fear of fluids has gone so far that you can't get a good piece of red meat out any more unless you go to the highly specialized restaurant's, where despite the availability of Pittsburgh you will see people ordering "medium" or even, gasp, "well done."

Given this, the whole idea of paying to suck the blood from the gaping wound of a dying gladiator is enough to put you off your lunch, but I submit that this disgust is a cultural trait that you need not be endowed with. I'm not saying sucking blood is a good thing. I'm just saying that it is a bad thing, to you, because you learned to be that way. And in other times and other places, the distaste for human body parts, tissues, or fluids may not have been routinely learned.

It's all cultural

And maybe in some cases, quite the opposite may have happened: Such a taste may have been cultivated. And once you've got a culture where eating raw human liver or rendered human fat or whatever is seen as a good thing, it is very hard to not define such a culture as "Cannibals."

So why, then, is it the case that in our Western literature the prevailing notion (over the last couple of centuries) is that dark skinned people living in far off lands are sufficiently cannibalistic (even when they aren't) that the term "Cannibals" can actually become the primary term by which they are referred (used in much of the literature more often than "Natives"), but French, English Germans, and others who, if of sufficient status, mainstream, and solvent, did it whenever they could but are not thusly labeled?

Because the meaning of the word "cannibal" has almost nothing to do with who eats whom.


Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.


More like this

I appreciate this post, especially because I suspect that it's intended to be analogous to numerous other topics and to imply some things about how we moralize about out-groups.

But I suspect that you will find that the point of view that you're presenting will be accepted only by those who already accept it or are strongly predisposed to accept it.

A few months ago I was in a discussion on a major web-discussion site, a mostly progressive and open-minded community, about that Japanese man who got some people involved in willing cannibalism. The mood was almost without exception extremely censorious. Granted, within the context of a culture where this is very transgressive, such behavior is, well, unacceptable and naturally suspect (because I'm of the opinion that beyond reasonable limits, extremely transgressive behavior is in some sense harmful in context, though not usually inherently).

But the majority opinion seemed to be that this was wrong in some inherent sense. This from people who otherwise aren't prone to making such absolutist moral arguments. And, indeed, when pressed a lot of them weren't willing to make explicitly morally absolute arguments. Nevertheless, their instinct to assert that it's somehow deeply wrong prevailed.

All this is to say that I think that a lot of things that progressives tend to think are qualitative differentiations of themselves from conservatives are really usually merely quantitative. With cultural matters, at least. Liberals and progressives are really just willing to to be only moderately more accepting of non-mainstream behavior and values, and it's not so much that they fundamentally think about these matters differently (as they often imagine themselves to do).

A good example of this is the inability to empathize with or properly evaluate cultural positions that were progressive in the past but regressive or abhorrent from contemporary perspective. People imagine that they wouldn't have straddled lines concerning civil rights, such as supporting segregation, or being opposed to interracial marriage, but there are positions that these people endorse today that function in exactly the same way. Such as supporting gay civil unions but not gay marriage — something that was popular just a few years back.

There's a lot of positions on certain issues that most contemporary progressives think are laughable, absurd, so extreme as to self-evidently not be worth taking seriously. Being opposed to male circumcision, or favoring animal rights, or the idea that any sort of marital arrangement between two or more people is nobody's business but those in the marriage, are all stupid, nutty, not to be taken seriously. But cultural conservatives think the same thing about gay marriage, or (for crying out loud) contemporary racism against black people in America (which they don't think exists anymore). Today's laughably absurd, not-to-be-taken seriously positions often turn out to be tomorrow's all-right-minded-people-know-this-is-correct position.

That's fine as long as the progressives criticize the conservatives on the merits of where conservatives are drawing their lines, and why. But progressives tend to argue as if their entire intellectual approach to these and similar issues is qualitatively distinct, and superior, to that of conservatives. And, I agree, if this reasoning really were mostly what my fellow progressives think that it is, it would be superior. It would be rational and have some strong foundation that isn't just convention or tradition. But, really, it's usually just what is conventional within one's particular subculture. Most progressives live within a subculture where gay marriage is acceptable, and so they agree that it's acceptable. Cultural conservatives don't, so they don't agree. And, as we see, as various forces conspire to redefine what is acceptable within a culture, then previously unacceptable things become acceptable. Not so much because individual people rationally and carefully considered the issues and decided on the merits, but most of them simply because they are accommodating the evolving mores of their (sub)culture. (Certainly it's the case that this sort of change arguably happens because some people are truly being thoughtfully and courageously progressive. But most aren't.)

And, again, I would have no objection if those involved were to understand this and present it as it is. But they often don't, they often claim that they're (we're) superior moral creatures than conservatives as if we individually and courageously embraced the morally correct position after a careful, rational, and informed examination of the issues.

But, for example, the way that people respond to the idea that maybe, just maybe, there's nothing inherently wrong with cannibalism, indicates that this isn't true for most people. Even when given the opportunity to do so, as you are providing in this blog, the vast majority just won't be able to step outside their own cultural context and think about this in the way that they otherwise imagine they are thinking about many other things that distinguish them from cultural conservatives.

By Keith M Ellis (not verified) on 19 Nov 2012 #permalink

Interesting food for thought. An aside note of sorts, I have a tic of sorts where, if I have a wound, I tend to suck on it. (I guess, after reading it, that it's less of a tic.) It seems to make it hurt less - though that's probably just a placebo effect.

However, from the couple of bad wounds I've had, I have tasted my own blood a few times. It's kind of a metally, salty taste. Not unpleasant really, though I'm not about to pour myself a glass.


That aside, this was an interesting read, and you bring up some good points about how words and labels like cannibal are often actually used to make judgements. Savages and barbarians come to mind as other words that often mean "not me". (To borrow a definition from John Green).

By James Davis (not verified) on 19 Nov 2012 #permalink

Media always focus on the negative and sensational aspects of cannibalism. Why don't we hear more stories about the good cannibals?

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 21 Nov 2012 #permalink

Can't recall where I read this (more than one source, decades ago), but some say that licking one's own wounds not only (somewhat) cleans the area, but gets whatever germs have come along for the ride into the mouth, where the immune system has a chance to mobilize antibodies much more rapidly than it does in whatever random part got injured.

Since you already have active antibodies for whatever lives in your mouth, the germs which move from there to the wounded area already face a full complement of antibodies.

It seems to work for the other animals.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 21 Feb 2017 #permalink