Am I a cannibal? I do eat up fellow humans. I suck their emotions, beat them to a psychological death, take delight in devouring their haplessness, and have no qualms but a sense of satisfaction at being able to devour, digest and defecate other potential threatening species of my own kind. Perhaps I do not relish the taste of their sweaty stinking flesh, but I certainly have developed the desire to eat off my opponents. And, I am not reprimanded but respected by my own species. I command fear and demand respect. I am not classified as a cannibal.
What is being a cannibal? Commonly humans who eat (literally) fellow humans have been declared and described as cannibals. Technically cannibalism is known as anthropophagy. The confused Columbus called the `Indians’ cannibals. The name however was derived from the native word whose root means `strong man’. Cannibals have to be strong! To survive or live by feasting on the living is indeed strength!
Cannibalism has been classified as survival cannibalism, ritual cannibalism and dietary cannibalism. To survive under extreme duress and to turn to your species for the basic necessity of food has been a plot for some good novels and a couple of films. In these cases the gory act is masked by the grave situation. Ritualistic cannibalism perhaps present more probably than the survival one, has been documented in all myths. It passes off with less distaste (pun unintended) because of its magical nature and mystical quixotism. It is only when cannibalism becomes a culinary exercise with a chef’s professionalism that it evokes anger and disgust. There have been some reports that human placenta is dished out as a delicacy under the pretext of medicinal value. Some villains do eat their victims to make the plot thick and sticky!
There are three types of cannibalism- Auto cannibalism in which one eats oneself, or parts of oneself; Exocannibalism where one eats outsiders- those who do not belong to their own social an cultural milieu;. Endocannibalism in which one eats even one’s own kin.
We who live on iddlis or pizzas may not prefer a finger or a tongue (of a human) even if marinated with the best spices but there are real people who possible speak in languages not totally alien to us, who do eat other people cooked or raw in full or in parts! Psychology being the eager subject that wants to give more answers than there are questions, naturally has lapped up cannibalism too. And you can bet that Freud would not let such a delicious item be untouched! He tried to explain this as a fixation in the oral stage of human mind’s development. Some psychologists have postulated that improper weaning; leaving the infant still groping for the delicacy of mother’s breast can be an underlying desire to eat flesh. Aggression coupled with frustration is one of the common themes of psychologists who try to explain cannibalism. Of course none of these theories are sufficiently and scientifically (with statistically significant research findings) recorded. Such studies are of course continuing to be difficult since a researcher may find himself more inside the stomach than inside the mind of the cannibal.
In psychiatry, an illness has been documented as a consequence of cannibalism. The Fore people of New Guinea were affected by an illness called kuru. It was a movement disorder. Research discovered that these Fore people practiced cannibalisms. In their ritual practice, the women prepared the bodies. They served the prime parts (muscles) to the men while they ate the lesser (!) stuff like the brain. It so happened that the virus was carried in the parts that women ate and more women ended up with the disease. These cases were reported in the 1940s and since 1950s these cannibalistic funeral rituals have ceased and illness is no more found!
Rites and rituals have been a part of human history. It is the stuff of which myths are made. Almost all myths have a cannibalistic story to tell. More than eating one of their own kind, which may cause a discomforting distaste in the mind, the `greater’ stories are of the kind in which one cooks one’s own species to appease the Gods! This was considered a great sacrifice. The dearer and nearer the one who is cooked happens to be, the greater the sacrifice!
In Greek myths Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order to win a war. He decides to do so with dramatic tears and throes of affection. However the kind Goddess intervenes in the last second and takes the nice girl away to make her a great priestess. In Indian mythology, the great Shiva demands that one of his devotees offer him “pillai curry” (child fry?), and when the weeping parents kill, cook and serve the kid, the God being mightily pleased blesses them all and assures a berth in heaven. In both these cases the Gods demand a cannibalistic feast that is bound to be a test of the sacrificial will of the devotee. The king need not win the war and the devotee need not go to heaven by killing their own children. Yet they offer to do so. Perhaps the love of God was greater than the love of their offspring. Perhaps the fear of God was stronger than the bonds of affection. Whatever the cause, the action speaks louder and tells that humans do not stop at killing and cooking to serve their own species. Is it survival? Is it greed? Is it fatalistic compliance? Is it getting defeated happily? Why should a human kill his own kind, not just another unknown face, but his dear child and offer as food for God? These myths imply much more than what these stories apparently dramatize.
These stories might explain the concept of auto cannibalism. It is not just a survival mechanism. It is the state of mind wherein greed for some greater satisfaction sacrifices one’s own code of ethics. To eat is not necessarily to enjoy. Eating can become a necessary function to protract life. To kill one’s own kin for a futuristic pleasure is just a way of making life better at any cost. Killing need not be the termination of heartbeat and breath. The worst murder is one in which another’s emotions are ravaged. In its worst extension it is suicide. Suicide though generally an escape is sometimes a sick mind’s search for a solution. If suicide were to be considered auto cannibalism, then incest can be a form of endo- cannibalism.
But it is the form of exo-cannibalism that is prevalent in our present society. We are in various manners, eating or preparing to eat our fellow men. We do not care for their feelings and needs and trample on their sensitivities to achieve our goals. It is not perhaps intentional self indulgence. It may have become a social style of functioning. But in the metaphorical sense of cannibalism our current acts of self preservation are indeed manifesting without our conscious sanctioning.
So? Do we continue our latent cannibalistic instincts? Can we afford to desist eating one another and not end up like how the good old dinos did long long ago and finally vanish? YES!! Cannibalism was perhaps substituted by cultivation of agriculture. We can try the same game. Instead of feeding and feasting on one another, we can try to find pleasures in other things. Lively things. Like art!!
written in 2005 for ritz