Image by Paweł Czerwiński

‘The Bread of Life’: Exploring Ritualistic Cannibalism 

Abby Riehl | Trinity College Dublin
Issue 01 - September 2020

'Sons of Pindorama', engraving by Theodore de Bry, 1562. Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557, as described by Hans Staden. 


  o many, cannibalism is more than just a scary story to tell in the dark, or the worst-case scenario of becoming stranded in the woods. The cannibal is the Dangerous Other, a justification of the brutal persecution of many an inconvenient population over the course of history, be they Jews, Aztecs, Pagans, or even Christians. Though Christians were typically the ones carrying out the persecutions, it is not difficult to understand why the Romans would think the early Christians to be practisers of ritualistic cannibalism. After all, it fit the bill: secret gatherings to partake in the flesh and blood of the one who sacrificed himself to save the others. It sounds suspicious, the kind of behaviour that only a dangerous group of people would engage in. If they ate one of their own, logic asked, what was to stop them from eating one of ours?  

    But that was an often-deliberate misunderstanding of Communion. The Eucharist was not cannibalism, it had nothing to do with it whatsoever, despite the startling similarities it shares with other flesh-eating rituals from cultures around the globe. Warrior peoples like the Iroquois and Fijians ate the flesh of their defeated enemies in order to absorb their power; Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea ate the heart or brains of their deceased elders to honour them, to ensure they remained a part of the community and to pass on their knowledge to the younger generation; Christians consumed the body and blood of Christ to gain salvation and eternal life and called it Communion.  And yet, beyond that brief period of history during which the Romans believed the Christians to be man-eating monsters, the Eucharist never faced the same persecution that the other rituals suffered. It is not the literal eating of human flesh, one may argue, but of the wafer and wine; and they would be correct were they Protestant. Protestantism did not arrive on the scene, however, until 1517. Prior to that, and indeed afterward, the majority of Europe was Catholic, and the Catholics held a firm belief in transubstantiation, that is the literal presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In other words, when one consumes the wafer, they are consuming the literal body of Christ. They are eating human flesh. What, then, makes the Eucharist different from any other cannibalistic ritual?  

     Historically, European peoples were unwilling to entertain the notion that the Eucharist could have anything in common with the barbaric practices of the uncivilized peoples of Africa and the New World. This is a perception steeped in long-held colonial beliefs and a sense of so-called European superiority. However, the refusal to associate the Eucharist with non-Christian practices persisted for a surprisingly long time in modern historiography. Indeed, it was not until the late 1970s that scholars began to toy with the idea of comparing the ideologies of the Eucharist to those famed Indigenous practices of ‘man-eating savages’ of the New World. Here we shall look at the evolution and driving forces of this change and consider why it has taken so long to come about. 


Arens and the Man-Eating Myth: ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (John 6:60)


In the Man-Eating Myth, published in 1979, W. Arens claims that cannibalism was never practiced in any culturally significant manner. Yes, it existed, and from time to time was used in extraordinary circumstances such as starvation or an over-zealousness during times of great strife. However, it was never as widespread as folklore, mythology, and first-hand accounts from New World settlers would have us believe. In the span of six chapters, Arens surveys the history of anthropophagy from the prehistoric world to the modern, with a particular focus on Africa, the New World, and the mythical worlds of Ancient Greece and Rome. He largely ignores European cannibalism, arguing that it was attributed only to Satanists, witches, and Jews so as to justify their persecution and was largely imagined; therefore it required no further investigation. Neither does Arens discuss the practice of European corpse medicine, such as the consumption of  mummified remains as medication, despite its huge popularity in the Early Modern era, especially in England.  

    At times, Arens discusses the similarities between Aztec religion and Christianity. In doing so, he describes the dough images of Aztec gods consumed as sacrifices during what he calls ‘Aztec communion’. Despite the obvious similarities between the two practices, Arens does not go so far as to further compare the driving ideologies behind them.  Instead, he focuses his attention on actual cannibalism as practiced by the Aztecs, which he concludes was over-exaggerated and lacked sufficient evidence to back the claims. Yet all the same, he credits European culture for the taming of the wild savages. Arens draws attention to the colonial origins of the cannibal myth, which Europeans used in order to help the Indigenous peoples to become civilized by ridding them of cannibalistic practices. However, whilst concluding that argument, he once again reiterates that cannibalism, like many strange and scary things, has been overexaggerated to the point of becoming nothing more than folklore. It is a rather counter-productive piece of literature for the study of cannibalism as it denies the reality of the very thing which this article is interested in. However, it set a solid, rational foundation from which more liberal scholarship would be able to build.

Jan van Kessel the Elder, Scene of cannibalism in Brazil, 18cm × 24cm, Musee de Nouveau-Monde, La Rochelle.

     A glance at the bibliography of the Man-Eating Myth reveals that previous anthropological scholarship was primarily consumed with the health affects and nutritional value of human flesh. The rest focus on the Dangerous Other more broadly—typically either witches or Jews, or ‘primitive’ non-European countries and cultures from Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. This serves to enforce the point that, prior to the publishing of the Man-Eating Myth, cannibalism was a concept reserved strictly for non-white ‘savages’ and dangerous outcasts living on the fringes of society; people who needed to be labeled as dangerous to justify the violence they suffered in the face of European religious and cultural endeavours.  

     Why even bother to discuss a work that is so adamantly against the existence of the phenomenon this paper is interested in? It is because this work laid the foundation for later historians to consider the idea of Eucharist as cannibalism without the negative stereotypes previously attached to that perspective. As scholars rushed to disprove Arens’s broad claims, they delved into personal letters and diaries, medical textbooks and academic discussions to prove that cannibalism was indeed more prevalent than anyone—Medieval and Early-Modern Europeans particularly—wanted to admit. Arens’s book was highly influential in the development of a more liberal take on comparative religious history, in which ritualistic cannibalism gradually received the same respect that any other religious practice would receive.


Post-Arens: ‘For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6:55) 

For several years after the publication of the Man-Eating Myth, the literature remained focused primarily on cannibalism as practiced by non-Europeans and its gross over-exaggeration. Many scholars, however, focused on destigmatizing the study of cannibalism, and in doing so bring it a sense of scientific legitimacy.  This was attempted by breaking up different kinds of cannibalistic activities into separate, strictly defined categories. In doing this, scholars brought a degree of scientific rationality to the subject, and diminished some of the stigma that had been attached to it for so long. With this endeavour, cannibalism would no longer be the domain of folklore and mythology.


      In 1986, Peggy Reeves Sanday published her book Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System, in which she proposed three categories of cannibalism based on the different reasons which triggered them. Of these suggested reasons, the first is called the ‘psychogenetic hypothesis’. This hypothesis suggests that cannibalism is a method through which individuals can satisfy certain psychosexual needs. This category can be best illustrated by the murders committed by American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who consumed several of his victims as a means of sexually dominating them. While Dahmer was active during the years Reeve-Sanday wrote, serial killers do not emerge as a concrete example in Sanday’s work, rather this is a connection I have drawn through my own research.  


   Sanday’s second category of cannibalism is motivated by the ‘material hypothesis’, which is perhaps the easiest of the three to swallow. It suggests that historically, human flesh had been consumed strictly for its nutritional value, rather than having any religious or cultural significance. Incidents of survival cannibalism fall under this category and are used my many anthropologists and other scholars to prove, like Arens, that cannibalism is something that only happens as a last resort. This is the most conservative of the various viewpoints in the field and encompasses arguments such as the one made by Arens in the Man-Eating Myth


     Finally, the ‘hermeneutical hypothesis’ simply states that the act of cannibalism is a part of being human, as natural as sex or death. It is only this category in which we can firmly place cannibalistic rituals such as the aforementioned Aztec communion and the Eucharist itself. Unlike the first category, the hermeneutical does not necessitate a sexual component to the act itself. Therefore, it is the most accommodating and least stigmatizing of Sanday’s classifications. It approaches cannibalism as a natural cultural phenomenon rather than a perversion of cultural norms as the others do. 


    Sanday’s work takes a scientific and rational approach to the topic, and she is much less skeptical than Arens on the actual existence of cannibalism. Though Divine Hunger was one of the first works to take such an approach, it proved to be highly influential and many later authors adopted the same scientific, facts-based approach as Sanday. Further, her categorizations insist upon treating cannibalism not as a trope of post-colonial racism or a novelty, but rather as an important element of many world religions and cultures. In doing this, scholars can account for all kinds of cannibalism that might otherwise have been left out or insufficiently represented by Sanday’s original three categories.


    More broadly, scholars have also defined cannibalism by who is being eaten, rather than why they are being eaten. In this case, cannibalism is categorized as either endo-cannibalism—the eating of a member of one`s tribe in a gesture to honour—or exo-cannibalism—an act of violence against an outsider. Endo-cannibalism can be seen in various cultures which consume their dead elders in order to maintain and pass on their wisdom. Exo-cannibalism is typically represented by Indigenous American Iroquois tribes which were said by colonial missionaries to eat their defeated enemies to absorb their powers. While it is more common to hear of exo-cannibalism—especially from colonial accounts which demonize Indigenous peoples as opportunistic killers and eaters of Europeans, most cases were between people who are a part of the same community.  

    Cannibalism can be defined further to differentiate between religiously influenced rituals and those that are more practically motivated. It is only with this categorization that we can firmly place the Eucharist within the framework of cannibalism, whereas the categories previously mentioned tend to focus on strictly on literal, unambiguous examples. Therefore, this method divides cannibalism into anthropophagy and theophagy. Anthropophagy is the eating of humans by other humans. Theophagy defines the sacramental eating of a god in the form of a symbol for the purpose of communion with or receiving power from that god. This distinction is especially important to note, as the introduction of the idea of ‘theophagy’ as something similar to though separate from cannibalism pervades the literature which came after Sanday. Theophagy allows the historian to consider the Eucharist as a cannibalistic act in a less controversial way than plainly stating that it is cannibalism; rather, it can now be called ‘figurative cannibalism’. Further, the idea of god-eating to gain power or communion is important in the study of European medicinal cannibalism, as will soon be explored.  

     However, before that, there are two final sub-categories of cannibalism that must be accounted for: that of starvation and revenge cannibalism. Revenge cannibalism is essentially exo-cannibalism with the specific intention of causing the opposing group harm. Starvation cannibalism, on the other hand, is a differentiation which highlights many of the issues that have been preventing the comparative study of the Eucharist and ritualistic cannibalism for so long. Starvation cannibalism is also known as ‘white cannibalism’, and exemplifies the deep-seated colonial racism that has haunted the scholarly discourse surrounding cannibalism. It draws attention to the ‘othering’ of so-called cannibals, along with the stark denial—primarily, as we have already seen, by Europeans—of any form of cannibalism beyond necessity during times of dearth and famine. 


     Despite these insistent denials, the practice of eating human remains for religious or medicinal purposes was extremely prevalent in medieval and early modern European culture. It was studied by the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493/4-1541) and other well-respected medical professionals and used not only by the average gentry-man who could afford medical care, but by kings such as Charles II of England and even Pope Innocent VIII. The ideology behind this practice was said to be influenced by the healing properties of the Eucharist. In fact, the general consensus seems to be that medicinal cannibalism was supported by the same ideas that supported the Eucharist: that human flesh contained healing powers, and the most effective way to access those powers was by eating that which contained them. Therefore, it seems rather odd for cannibalism to be the pervasive symbol of ‘otherness’ when the Eucharist was so essential to the European psyche. However, it has been suggested by modern scholars that early medical historians had white-washed corpse medicine, and indeed the literature shows that there is a notable gap in the discussion of medicinal cannibalism practiced outside of Europe. This can be attributed to not only the modern literature, but to a shift in early modern attitudes regarding cannibalism as a whole Indeed, the downfall of corpse medicine coincided with colonial expansion. As cannibalism became increasingly associated with New World savages, European medicine began to turn away from the belief in the spiritual properties of the flesh and the negative reputation that was associated with it. 

     In retrospect the over-arching conservatism of the topic is unsurprising. There are still anthropologists who are adamant that cannibalism is not, and never has been, practiced by anyone. Many historians, too, are prone to scoffing at the connection between cannibalism and the Eucharist. Cannibalism and Christianity have been associated from the very beginning, and the hesitancy to acknowledge this is one of colonialism’s many legacies in modern culture and academia. My experience writing about cannibalism and Christianity has been decidedly mixed. At times it has been received enthusiastically. But I have also been accused of being intentionally provocative and inflammatory. There are also those who find the topic to be completely inappropriate. Always, when confronted with this scepticism, I argue that there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the cannibalistic rhetoric present in Eucharistic theology. In religious practices, cannibalism is rarely a consequence of murder, and is often consensual. Still, cannibalism is inherently associated with the Dangerous Other, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Lingering colonial influences which tell us that European Christians are the civilizing force in the world prevents the efficient comparative study of cannibalistic practices. However, as inter-disciplinary work becomes more common, I hope that more people will begin to consider the Eucharist in the broader realm of ritualistic cannibalism in the manner of other successful comparative studies.  



Further Reading: 

  • Arens. W, The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). 

  • Avramescu, Catalin, An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). 

  • McGowan, Andrew, ‘Eating People: Accusations of Cannibalism Against Christians in the Second Century’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 2, no.4 (Winter 1994) 413-442. 

  • Noble, Louise, Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). 

  • Price, Merrall L., Consuming Passions: the Uses of Cannibalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2003). 

  • Sanday, Peggy Reeves, Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). 

Abby Riehl is currently enrolled at Trinity Dublin for a Masters in Medieval Studies. Her thesis concerns the development and spread of medical knowledge during the Carolingian Renaissance, with specific focus on the interactions between monasteries and the local populations which still maintained a pagan influenced belief system. Her overall research interests include science and medicine, early Christianity, comparative mythology and the cultural and theological interpretations of the human body. 

Twitter: @mirabilisPhD 

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