The progression of spirituality and the practice of cannibalism–both actually and symbolically–seem to have gone hand in hand throughout the advancement of humanity. Can it be that cannibalism is fundamental to all spirituality, religion, and belief systems of the world? This article explores this possibility.
In every known religion, belief system, and spiritual philosophy, there is an expressed element of communion. A transcendental objective involving human interaction with the supernatural. And from the symbolic eating of the body practiced in Catholicism (transubstantiation) to the actual eating of the flesh practiced in Aghora Hinduism, this spiritual objective is often achieved through the act of ritual cannibalism.
The oral and written tradition
Anthropologists believe the concept of cannibalism has been part of human reality since long before recorded history. Oral traditions and historic accounts are rich with fascinating tales of headhunting cannibals of the African jungles, heart devouring tribes of the Amazonian rainforest and highly elaborate flesh-eating ceremonies of the Papua New Guinea Aborigine. Cannibalism, as history will attest, is deeply embedded in the romantic lore of mankind’s evolution–tied to mythology, religion, and a wide spectrum of spiritual beliefs. And while the idea of eating one’s kind may send cold chills up and down the spines of most “civilized” people today, it also compels us to ask if cannibalism mightn’t be a fundamental thread woven through the development of spirituality, cross-culturally, and throughout the world.
Transcending time and cultural boundaries
Many psychologists believe that eating human flesh is rooted in early man’s belief that human flesh represents life-generating food, and that eating it reaffirmed the meaning of existence. Another view suggests that cannibalism illustrates the innate human need to over-power death–to get the better and ultimately triumph over it. And as it is regarded in some remote areas of modern Latin America, for example, the concept of eating an enemy is still seen as a viable strategy to acquire that individual’s charisma–that indefinable quality that empowers leaders and separates them from mere followers. And while there is no common consensus among the academic community as to why this seemingly barbaric behavior continues in modern times, there does appear to be a hard-wired underlying perspective connecting the eating of the dead to spirituality that transcends time and all cultural boundaries.
The animal “essence”
Today, ritual cannibalism is still practiced among many cultures of the world including the Gimi of Papua New Guinea, the Wari tribesmen of western Brazil, and as recently documented by the BBC, among the Aghori of India. Among the Gimi, for example, cannibalism is primarily a female ritual whereby women eat the bodies of their children, husbands, and parents as a way to counteract the life-draining powers of the “mother” deity, wherein they sit casually conversing while picking over choice pieces of their loved ones. Similarly, following the death of a Wari tribesman, family members mourn and wail inconsolably over the corpse until it begins to putrefy, then it is ritualistically cut into small pieces, roasted, placed on clean ceremonial mats, then distributed among the relatives–the choicest pieces going to the parents and elders. They believe that to consume their loved ones is to absorb their animal “essence,” which then becomes part of their inner strength. And as recently documented in the film, Feeding on the Dead, ritual cannibalism, which is known to have taken place among the Hindu Aghori for at least a century, seems to be growing in acceptance in certain areas of modern India.
Though fewer in number than a century ago, a growing number of Aghori devotees have recently centered themselves around the crematoriums in the hills above the holy city of Varanasi, living in surrounding caves. While the Hindu religion generally calls for the dead to be cremated, some traditions allow bodies to be ceremoniously returned to the Ganges, an act that has drawn the Aghori into busy, populated areas, hoping to find floating corpses for their mystical rituals. In early 2005, Indian and British news agencies began reporting an increase of Aghori sightings in Varanasi, one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world, as well as one of the most sacred. The unprecedented appearance of the Aghori (who shy away from all outside contact) within this sacred city–and mainstream Indian society–prompted documentary filmmaker Sandeep Singh to attempt contact, hoping to persuade them to be interviewed and filmed. After three months of approaching and being rebuffed, Singh finally convinced an Aghori holy man (sadhu) to allow him and three cameramen to sit vigil while he waited for an available corpse to appear in the Ganges or abandoned in the ashes of a funeral pyre. Ten days later, a corpse was spotted floating in the Ganges and was promptly retrieved. The encounter that followed resulted in an ethnographically monumental 10-minute documentary titled, Feeding on the Dead, a film which aired worldwide in October of 2005 on the BBC, MSNBC, and the National Geographic Channel.
When interviewed, the sadhu explained that eating the flesh would stop him from aging and give him supernatural powers like the ability to levitate and control the weather. He said that each ritual takes him one step closer to oneness with God; ideas that parallel many other cultures who follow this ancient practice. And while we may find the idea preposterous that consuming human flesh can bring one closer to God, is it so different from Church practices rooted in 2,0000-year-old spirituality? Could the Church’s position on symbolic cannibalism be rooted in pre-historic, innate spiritual concepts?
The practice of Communion (the eating of the Eucharist) in the Catholic Church, is based on the New Testament recounting of Jesus when he addressed what appeared to be mere bread and wine, saying: “This is my body . . . this is my blood.” Accordingly, the Catholic Church teaches that when the bread and wine are consecrated in the Eucharist, they cease to be bread and wine, and become instead the “Most Precious Body and Blood of Christ.” Physical appearances are not changed, but the reality is.
In 1551 the Council of Trent officially mandated that “by the consecration of the bread and the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called transubstantiation.” This position was reaffirmed by Pope Paul IV in his 1968 Credo of the People of God, which reiterated that any theological explanation of the doctrine must hold to the two-fold claim that, after the consecration: 1) Christ’s body and blood are present, and 2) bread and wine are absent, and this presence and absence is real and not merely something in the mind of the believer. Accordingly, even when entering a church, Roman Catholics genuflect to the consecrated host in the tabernacle that holds the consecrated host, to acknowledge respectfully the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a presence to which a red votive candle or sanctuary lamp kept burning close to such a tabernacle draws attention. In essence, even apart from the Communion ritual, Catholics acknowledge the symbolic act of eating the flesh even upon entering a church. Indeed, cannibalism seems to be a principle shared by “non-mainstream,” and “mainstream” religions alike. But does that mean cannibalism exists in every spiritual context?
The Anasazi of the U.S. Southwest
One of the most highly debated issues among scholars today is whether or not the seemingly universal practice of cannibalism was part of the early Native American people’s spiritual perspective (and rituals). And more often than not, that debate quickly turns to the Puebloan peoples and the Anasazi of the U.S. Southwest who are believed to have been one of the most peaceful and non-aggressive cultures ever known.
Many scholars speculate that while cannibalism may not have initially been a fundamental aspect of the Puebloan spiritual perspective, as their society evolved, it became a virtual imperative, necessitated by the all-powerful place witchcraft and witches came to hold in society. To counter-act the undermining effects of power-wielding witches, so-called “warrior societies” were formed, as illustrated by more modern warrior-priest groups such as the Kachina Cults of the Zuni (also Puebloan). Accusing, prosecuting, and (often) executing witches–which is how witches were commonly exposed to in early Anasazi society–required tribal shaman to possess especially powerful skills–exceeding those of the witch–to neutralize their magic. And since taking a witch’s life was fraught with inherent supernatural dangers that could affect not only the shaman but the entire society, they had to develop methods of increasing their “warrior” skills to remain effective. This need seems to have resulted in the formation of special cults and totem societies, as well as several rituals involving hunting and warfare–among these, the practice of scalping. Believed to harness an enemy’s spiritual and physical strength, Pueblo oral history tells of the scalping and eating of human scalp flesh–often feeding portions to their children–an intricate weaving of magic and ritual technology. It’s believed that this weaving led both to witches vying for power by the ritualistic taking of life, and probably, to the wide-spread practice of cannibalism.
Evidence of cannibalism
Through taphonomic analysis (examination of post-death damage with comparison to nonhuman predator remains), cannibalism has now been assigned to 40 Anasazi prehistoric habitation sites. Based on the types of apparent wounds the victims suffered (see image), it has been hypothesized that these individuals were most likely beaten, tortured, and then killed before they were dismembered, defleshed, and broken up for cooking purposes. The evidence further indicates that this method was probably practiced in this area of North America for over 400 years–right up to the disappearance of this mysterious tribe. This would seem to indicate that, indeed, the perceived relationship between cannibalism and spirituality also extended to the North American continent.
Fundamental to spirituality?
While scholars and theologians may forever clash on whether the practice of cannibalism can be traced through time and to all cultures–and therefore fundamental to spirituality, it would seem that with such wide-spread examples of the cannibalism/spiritual relationship, it could be logically explained any other way.