Cannibalism, the ultimate taboo, a word that conjures up such revulsion that it drives one to denial that it could ever have been an accepted practice amongst our ancestors. When it comes to cannibalism, modern preconceptions have led us to imagine only savage madmen driven by an insatiable hunger for human flesh could carry out such a macabre act. It may be that this modern misconception is responsible for the denial of the practice of ritual cannibalism (endocannibalisim). This false impression has oftentimes led to modern historians writing off the evidence of Historic cannibalism as nothing more than a fabrication, contrived by classical writers in order to paint a savage and uncivilised picture of cultures foreign to their own. This idea was further emboldened by the work of W Arens 1979 publication The Man Eating Myth. Arens preferred the idea that cannibalism was a myth, that all accounts of cannibalism were mere fabrication. Although popular and often still cited this theory had to be abandoned when evidence from as early as the neolthic right up to the present day showed this to be a false premise . No matter how much we cannot bear the thought of it, cannibalism is an aspect of human culture that must be confronted if it has any hope of being understood.

Historically, and even still now we cannot help but apply our own sense of comfort and sensibility to the culture of others to find some kind of semblance of right and wrong. This sense of cultural ethnocentrism, that we are programmed to believe that our own culture and customs are right and the ways of others are wrong, was perhaps best understood by the Persians. The Persian empire encompassed many diverse nations. It was this understanding that culture is an operating system, that there is no emperical right or wrong, that allowed them to govern over such a diverse number of nations so effectively. A perfect example of this understanding can be found in Herodotus’ description of the Greeks and Indians brought to the court of Darius, where Darius compared the treatment of the dead of both cultures.

If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably -after careful considerations of their relative merits- choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country.

One might recall, for example, an anecdote of Darius. When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do.” Herodotus book 7

Herodotus book 7

Other accounts of the endocannibalistic ritual come down to us from Herodotus when describing the people East of the Scythians named the Issedones. Admittedly these accounts are second hand, stories passed down to the Greeks by the Scythians as no Greek had ventured so far North East at this early time. In this instance, Herodotus is not claiming these people are savages, instead choosing to remark that in all other accounts they are a law abiding people.

 It is said to be the custom of the Issedones, that whenever a man’s father dies, all the nearest of kin bring beasts of the flock, and having killed these and cut up the flesh they cut up also the dead father of their host, and set out all the flesh mingled together for a feast. As for his head, they strip it bare and cleanse and gild it, and keep it for a sacred relic, whereto they offer yearly solemn sacrifice. Every  son does so by his father, even as the Greeks in their festivals in honour of the dead. For the rest, these also are said to be a law‑abiding people; and the women have equal power with the men

Herodotus IV.26

Yet further East, the Massagatae were known to the Greeks, made famous by the defeat of the Persians and the brutal killing of Cyrus the great. Again these people are reported to follow the custom of endocannibalisim. It seems that they differ from the Issodenians whereby when the father grows old, he is ritually killed before being defleshed and eaten.

The following are some of their customs; – Each man has but one wife, yet all the wives are held in common; for this is a custom of the Massagetae and not of the Scythians, as the Greeks wrongly say. Human life does not come to its natural close with this people; but when a man grows very old, all his kinsfolk collect together and offer him up in sacrifice; offering at the same time some cattle also. After the sacrifice they boil the flesh and feast on it; and those who thus end their days are reckoned the happiest. If a man dies of disease they do not eat him, but bury him in the ground, bewailing his ill-fortune that he did not come to be sacrificed.

Herodotus 1.216

Not all the accounts of cannibalism in the classics are to portray foreign cultures as backward or savage but there can be no doubt that the description of the Androphagi of central Europe is to portray them as savages. This is perhaps appropriate as their name translates as, Andro- man, phagi- Eaters. Their customs appear to be brutal. Not only are they said to be cannibals, but in their description we can perhaps find the origin of an old savage trope that echos down through the ages. Pliny the elder reports that the Androphagi use the skulls of the fallen as drinking vessels. As if that were not savage enough, he goes on to say that they create napkins from the scalps of the dead and wear them on their chests with hair still attached. This form of eating the flesh of fallen enemies is distinguished from endo-cannibalisim as Exo-cannibalism, thought to be more prevelent than endo-cannibalism, more violent and destructive – and easier for us to understand. Here people hate the people they consume, but eating their flesh is a joy. They pursue their victims and eat them for vengeance, possibly gaining a part of their soul or virtue as part of the ritual.

The manners of the Androphagi are more savage than those of any other race. They neither observe justice, nor are governed, by any laws. They are nomads, and their dress is Scythian; but the language which they speak is peculiar to themselves. Unlike any other nation in these parts, they are cannibals.

Herodotus book 7

The Androphagi, whom we have previously mentioned as dwelling ten days’ journey beyond the Borysthenes, according to the account of Isigonus of Nicæa, were in the habit of drinking out of human skulls, and placing the scalps, with the hair attached, upon their breasts, like so many napkins.

Naturalis Historia Book 7, Chapter 2,

Staying with Herodotus, not all accounts of cannibalism are ritual or savage. Cannibalism is used as a sickening punishment for poor Harpagus the Mede. Harpagus is perhaps one of the most entertaining characters on the Persian side throughout the histories. Harpagus the Mede was made kingmaker when Astyages, the king of the Medes, asked Harpagus to kill the infant Cyrus as he feared that Cyrus would grow to topple him from the throne. This fear grew from a dream he had interpreted by the Magi where a vine grew from his daughters vagina and covered all of Asia. Harpagus took the order to kill the baby Cyrus but could not bring himself to do it. Instead he gave the infant to a humble shepherd. Years later when Cyrus had grown to a boy, it was discovered that he was still alive. The king Astyages was overjoyed that Cyrus still lived as his relationship with his daughter had suffered after he had stolen the baby Cyrus from her. Pleased at the discovery that Cyrus lived but angry that Harpagus had failed to carry out his orders, he set about a plan to punish Harpagus in the most despicable manner. Astyages invited Harpagus to the unholy banquet.

This image is actually a cake!

Coming in, he told his only son, a boy of about thirteen years of age, to go to Astyages’ palace and do whatever the king commanded, and in his great joy he told his wife everything that had happened. But when Harpagus’ son came, Astyages cut his throat and tore him limb from limb, roasted some of the flesh and boiled some, and kept it ready after he had prepared it. So when the hour for dinner came and the rest of the guests and Harpagus were present, Astyages and the others were served dishes of lamb’s meat, but Harpagus that of his own son, all but the head and hands and feet, which lay apart covered up in a wicker basket. And when Harpagus seemed to have eaten his fill, Astyages asked him, “Did you like your meal, Harpagus?” “Exceedingly,” Harpagus answered. Then those whose job it was brought him the head of his son and hands and feet concealed in the basket, and they stood before Harpagus and told him to open and take what he liked. Harpagus did; he opened and saw what was left of his son: he saw this, but mastered himself and did not lose his composure. Astyages asked him, “Do you know what beast’s meat you have eaten?” “I know,” he said, “and all that the king does is pleasing.” With that answer he took the remains of the meat and went home. There he meant, I suppose, after collecting everything, to bury it.

Herodotus 1.119

Centuries later, we can still hear the echos of these early stories of cannibalism in later histories. It is possible that St. Jerome was aware of these stories written by Herodotus centuries prior and was influenced by them to form preconceptions about the mode of culture practiced by the misunderstood and peculiar tribe of Britain named the Attacotti.

Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the paps of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.

St Jerome letters

It may be that St. Jerome was using this accusation of cannibalism as essentially a term of abuse. Such accusations
are levelled at enemies, neighbours or ‘inferiors’, to comparatively show how ‘primitive’
or subhuman they are. We must also remember the context of the letter he was sending, which was essentially a discussion about the dietary preferences of different people across the empire. From this it can be assumed that it wasn’t survival cannibalism or endo-cannibalisim but, like the Androphagi, just a dietary preference or Exo-cannibalism.

The Roman author Strabo, when writing his work ‘Geography’, describes the inhabitants of Ireland as cannibals. This has been interpreted by revisionists as Strabo being another student of Herodotus’ works echoing the accusation of cannibalism as a term of abuse rather than an observation of their customs. This instance of endo-cannibalisim is construed by Strabo to be evidence of primitive savagery. The later Elizabethens were fond of using Strabo to demonstrate that the Britons had always been more civilised and sophisticated than the Irish.

(The Irish) count it an honorable thing, when their father dies, to devour him

concerning this island, I’ve nothing certain to tell, except that the inhabitants are more savage than the Britons, since they are man eaters

Strabo, Geography

The historical account is awash with references of cannibalism. Whether it was an honourable death ritual, a punishment, a last resort before starvation or a cruel punishment, the aversion to this cultural taboo remains to be as strong then as it is now. So much so that amongst the academic community the historic evidence is more often than not written off as fantasy or misrepresented. The archaeological record for cannibalism is not strong but there are scant instances that are oftentimes explained away in a similar manner as the historic examples and are often disregarded. Lack of evidence often being cited as evidence of lack. It would seem that the taboo remains strong enough for us to continue to seek alternative, more pallatable ways to explain this kind of (sub)human behavior, even though we know from modern society that there are still instances of cannibalism prevalent among some tribal cultures. Whatever your view on it there can be no doubt that cannibalism was a reccurring theme of the classics. I hope these collected references can help you make up your own mind whether they were all mindless savage madmen or if there was any truth in the claims that they honored the dead by consuming their flesh.

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