“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” – Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs.

Pop culture has given the public a new image of the cannibal – a refined gentleman who speaks eloquently and has impeccable manners. Historical writings, however, paint a very different picture.

“We did not know until months later how near we were to a horrible catastrophe – to being, in fact, the principal dishes at a cannibal feast.” This was the written account by John H Weeks, a correspondent for the Royal Anthropological Institute, of his life experiences in the Congo. His book, Among Congo Cannibals, was published in 1913 and goes on to describe the cannibal “orgies” by the “excited savages”.  Many similar books were written about cannibalism in Fiji, the Amazon, Polynesia and all over Africa. But Cannibalism and the Colonial World takes a different approach. One of the editors, Peter Hulme, challenges the idea that cannibalism ever existed in these countries. In his introduction he points out that these histories and analyses of cannibalism were written “from firmly within the European or Western tradition”. He goes on to offer a counter-narrative: “Cannibalism is merely a product of the European imagination, it was never practised anywhere, it was a calumny imposed by European colonisers to justify their outrages.”

This opposes the view of cannibalism as a primitive or savage cultural practice. Whether the stories are true or not, the image of the modern cannibal differs greatly from the images of tribal savagery. The well-publicised case of Issei Sagawa, who is considered to be a minor celebrity in Japan, is a good example of this. In appearance and manners he almost resembles the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Sagawa was found unfit to stand trial and declared legally insane after he killed a young Dutch woman and ate pieces of her body.

 “Cannibalism isn’t a psychological illness, but it can be a symptom of another psychological illness such as schizophrenia or personality disorder,” says Esté Claassen, a third year BA Journalism student with a BA degree in psychology.

The latest anthropological notions of cannibalism however, have shied away from the literal description and focus more on the metaphorical. Nina Botha of the UP Department of Anthropology is currently doing her masters. Her study is focussed on the idea of the buying and selling of human organs and egg cells. According to Botha, this practice has been put under the label of cannibalism by modern theorists. She describes the scenario of a poverty-stricken family in which the mother sells her kidney for money in order to feed her family. This could be looked at as the family “consuming” the mother’s kidney to survive. Similarly, she says, female medical students sell their egg cells for money to pay for their studies. In this way they are living off of their unborn foetuses. Other ways in which metaphorical cannibalism is embodied is in the Christian practice where bread and wine is consumed and seen as the flesh and blood of Christ.

Botha uses this metaphorical description to explain historical cannibal stories of Africa. She says that there was a practice in some African tribes to eat the heart of a strong and courageous warrior when he died. This was perhaps only a symbolic ceremony, which was not meant to be interpreted literally.

So, you could choose to believe that cannibalism is the product of cultural practices, mental instability or just a misinterpreted metaphor and thus never existed in the first place. Or maybe you will still think of Hannibal Lecter and leave the whole notion of cannibalism within the covers of a book or DVD case.

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