Designing from Bones ~ Cannibalizing Fiction

Welcome to Designing from Bones where we use the realities of the past to unearth the fiction of tomorrow.

Today, we begin a three part series on the dainty subject of Cannibalism. The roots of this practice predate written history and examples of it can be found in every culture from the primordial mists right up to the modern day. For the weak of stomach or those disposed to a gentler view, I’ll do my best to keep the discussion – tasteful, by approaching cannibalism from three writerly angles – as an aspect of culture, as an aspect of character and thematically. Culture first. Grab a napkin.

Cannibalism’s History in Culture

Getting a leg up – Menschenfresserin by Leonard Kern, circa 1650

Neanderthal’s, Homo Sapiens hooting cousins, were known practitioners of cannibalism, both of their own kind and of the other human branches. Some studies believe that this activity was a key factor in their extinction through the action of degenerative diseases associated with the practice of eating human flesh.

However, the hairy hunters were not alone. Neanderthal bones found in France show the marks of butchery by stone tools – the same type of marks left by ancient humans on rendered deer carcases. While not conclusive, in at least a few locations, humans likely dined on Neanderthals as well. Dinner invites were a different experience in the distant past – be careful what you RSVP.

It is important to remember two key ideas while exploring cannibalism’s menu.

First, until recent times it was believed that a person’s power was stored in one or more organs or the flesh itself. The ancient Greeks, Romans and nearly every culture out there believed in this ideal.

“Dying to be the center of the party” has a whole new meaning.

Second, while this may bother our modern sensibilities, meat is meat, regardless of its source. Now before you run off, let me say that studies of modern Western diet have proven that due to the fillers, chemicals and other sundry things they pack into our food, eating us would prove toxic to practically any other life form. Which is an interesting survival strategy as long as the other guy isn’t carrying Pepcid and an antibiotic.

Culturally speaking, most cannibalistic practices have been of the first variety – ritual (eating for power or religious reasons) rather than homicidal (killing and eating as food).

Lunch flambe!

And herein lies the great ethical divide. While it may make ones skin crawl to watch the witch doctor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom take a bite from a human heart as part of a magical religious ritual, it is a whole different thing to consider the same scene shot in Jeffery Dahmer’s kitchen at dinner time. Hannibal Lector anyone?

No culture is one-dimensional, each, historical, existing or fictional culture defines the acceptability and/or laws that govern cannibalism based on their own needs, beliefs and understanding. And yes, some still partake of the taboo practice today, such as the Korowai tribe of Papua among a few others.

Cannibalizing Fiction or A Little Take Out for Writers

To discover how cannibalism can be applied and used as part of a fictional culture it is important to consider all the factors governing the subject objectively. Here are a few key questions to ask that will lead to a rich and diverse culture that includes cannibalism among its traits. Note that these will overlap on occasion.

  • Who are the practitioners? A small tribe, like the Korowai, or an empire, like the Aztecs? Are they isolated from the rest of global society or a recognized political power? The Aztecs were separate for a long time, even though they were an empire.
  • Who is allowed to participate? Only priests, members of a family or any member of the society? Each of these factors points to the potential method, reasons and societal acceptance of the practice.
  • The Aztecs ate their enemies key parts to steal their power and gain eternal dominion over them.

    What type of cannibalism? There are two primary forms: Endocannibalism (eating those from ones own community) and Exocannibalism (eating those from other communities). Endo was notable among the Aghoris of northern India (to gain divine power) and some indigenous Australian tribes (to honor a deceased family or tribe member). Exocannibalism’s famous example is the Aztecs who ate the hearts (and sometimes more) of enemies as part of a religious ritual to claim the defeated ones powers before the gods.

  • Where and when are cannibalism allowed?  If it is anytime, anywhere, then it is a rare, but not unheard of, example. The most common reason was as part of a religious or burial ceremony. Other examples of “when” would be: Sacred dates (equinox, solstice, star alignments) or at the ascension of a new king or shaman over an expired one (where eating the heart or brain transferred power). Two things to consider for where and when are: a) the rules that allow for acceptable cannibalism in the society, and, b) the main method of cannibalism used (ritual – already dead OR homicidal – dying to be eaten).
  • Why is cannibalism practiced? Is cannibalism part of the long term culture or only a phase? For some Pacific Isle and African tribes it was a common running practice (run faster). However, famine is a common historical reason as well. Remember, meat is meat to a starving person. Examples of this include the Sieges of Jerusalem in 70 CE and Leningrad during World War II, where things became so desperate for the living that basic survival instinct overrode ethical and/or moral sensibilities.
  • The practice and methods of cannibalism should mirror the beliefs and culture in which they occur.

    How is cannibalism practiced? This would be the method itself. Is the deceased laid on the table with an apple in its mouth? Prepared through a special ritual? The method should be in line with the other reasons for the practice and the broad beliefs of the culture.

  • How is cannibalism used by non-practitioners? It was used by the Spanish to determine what Caribbean peoples could be enslaved (and is also how the word came into existence thanks to Columbus). It offered the British, French and others a justification to conquer peoples throughout Africa, India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Isles. It was a reason used by the United States for their suspension of rights and treatment of the American Indians during the 1800’s (of which many tribes either practiced or were accused of cannibalism).

Full yet? Cannibalism is a part of human culture. From blood-drinking vampires to flesh-eating zombies to Aerosmith’s “Eat the Rich”, it is pervasive, just under the skin. Visceral. And that, my friends, is what makes for powerful fiction. Remember, if it makes you squirm it will probably thrill your audience – when done tastefully.

Call this the after dinner mint. Finding tasteful pics for this post was a real joy!

And now, for those of you that made it this far, I’d like to know what YOU are interested in. People, places, subjects, concepts, hoaxes, mysteries, potential truths, you name it – if you think it is worthy of a future DfB post or series drop the idea in the comments and I’ll put it on the list for consideration. Heard about a race of flying cat people that ruled an obscure island featured on a Blackbeard treasure map – let me know about it. If I use the idea for a post I’ll credit it back to whomever brought it to me first.

I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Peaceful Journeys.

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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17 Responses to Designing from Bones ~ Cannibalizing Fiction

  1. I’m excited about a 3-part series on cannibalism. I have a weird secret obsession on the topic. Hmm. Now I’m hungry. 😉

  2. This is my favorite Designing from Bones yet! Very witty and packed with useful, thought provoking info. I have a MG that has cannibals in it, and this has really made me think about how to make the tribe more rounded and credible. Looking forward to the next part in the series–thanks so much, Gene!

    I have a somewhat strange and probably totally unrelated q–cannibals and cannabis. Just a coincidence the words mirror so closely, or is there a root reason for it?

  3. Marcia says:

    Love the one-liners throughout your post! I find cannibalism fascinating, especially since I’ve never been in danger of being the center of attention in a religious ritual. Looking forward to more on this tasty treat…I’ll bring a fork.

  4. prudencemacleod says:

    Great as usual, Gene. At last, something to really sink your teeth into. 🙂

  5. Well now this is a topic I’m not generally interested in knowing more about, but I did manage to get all the way through your post. And the Indiana Jones movie creeped me out so much I almost didn’t want to watch the next one. Almost. It is still Indiana Jones after all.

    I’m much more interested in the places than the people. People in general are weird. And weirdness doesn’t discriminate, all ethnicities, ages, religious factions, rich/poor, they’re all weird. And that’s what’s so scary. I don’t want to believe that people do those weird sick things, but they do.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge though.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  6. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Wow, so many aspects to cannibalism that never would have occurred to me. That first picture gave me the heebie jeebies, but you’re right about the pics you chose being tasteful (LOL), and although this subject makes me queasy and is a bit hard to swallow (LOL again), it’s very well done, Gene, and quite interesting.

    I’d be interested in reading about hoaxes. You’ve covered a few in prior posts, and I find them fascinating.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Angela: I’m so glad the post helped inspire you. I actually had you in mind while I was putting it together because I knew of your interest. So, your question inspired a brief research run: Cannabis is an ancient word with its roots in Greece and and predecessor words throughout the ancient Middle East. Cannibal is essentially the Spanish word for the Caribbean Carib tribe, described by Columbus as man eaters, which under Spanish law at the time would allow them to be used as slaves. Great comment, thanks 🙂

      Marcia: I thought the humor would help tone down the intensity of the subject. Since DfB posts are aimed at writers, it is not my intent to gross anyone out but to provide food for thought (no pun intended). Be glad you’ve never been central to a ritual 🙂

      Prudence: Ha! Thanks 🙂

      Patricia: I can understand and have total respect for your view. As I mentioned above to Marcia, my intent in these posts is to inspire ideas that will produce powerful emotional responses in readers. Obviously, this subject is one of those things when handled properly. I’m with you on Indiana Jones, saw Temple of Doom as a teenager and it hooked me in, even if some parts were a bit gross. Appreciate you sticking with me 🙂

      Lynn: You crack me up! Nice one-liners. Hoaxes, yep, love them as well. I think its the mystery and deception combination that I find appealing in them. If you run into any that you’d like to see more on drop me a line and I’ll delve into it and see what can be found. Thanks 🙂

  7. Debra Eve says:

    One of this disturbingly fascinating subjects. Have you read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Gene? His take on the subject is… well, it’s Heinlein!

  8. gloriaoliver says:

    I’d heard recently that the flesh eating is actually okay, if you’re into cannibalism, but the organ eating is what will doom your future generations. That whatever messes up the DNA from eating your own kind is in the inside bits rather than the meat. 😛 Great post by the way.

    And I second Debra Eve’s comment on Stranger In A Strange Land – a perfect example of the use of Cannibalism in fiction.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Debra: While I’ve read a great deal of Heinlein I haven’t read Stranger in a Strange Land. Yet – I’ll be picking up a copy to rectify that oversight. Thanks for the hint 🙂

      Gloria: LOL! Odd that my wife and I were discussing that very thing the day after I put up this post. All the bad effects come from the organs but the muscle tissue, i.e. meat, is fine. One of the main reasons that cannibalism creeps out humans is that when the subject is brought to mind one of the first responses is to consider being eaten by another person. No one would want that to occur and thus the typical goosebump, skin crawl, disgusted reaction. This is also what makes it great for fiction – people personalize, which equates to visceral – a powerful emotional experience wrapped in a primal motivator: Fear of being eaten. Great comment, thanks 🙂

  9. Great post – very sober coverage of a gross-out subject (the word ‘ewwwww!’ springs to mind…). But one that, certainly historically, had its place in some non-European cultures. Cannibalism was certainly practised by Maori in pre-European New Zealand. They inherited it from the Pacific islands, and in the early nineteenth century the place had a repute as ‘cannibal islands’. European visitors in the 1800-1820 era genuinely believed Maori lining up on the shore were sizing them up as potential dinner. They weren’t, of course – Maori were actually sizing them up as potential trading conduits.

    For Maori in pre-European times, cannibalism was a specific mechanism for ultimate revenge – they were eating the mana (authority/strength/repute) of their victim. The historical debate has been over whether the ‘ultimate revenge’ aspect extended to the digestive process – as in, the idea was to not merely consume the enemy’s power, but reduce them to…well, you get the idea. It was all too long ago, in a culture with only oral traditions, for anything to have been reliably recorded, and academics get rather heated about this issue (not helped by the ‘ewwwwww!’ factor).

    Either way, Maori stopped it pretty sharply as soon as Europe turned up. Maori learned very quickly that kai tangata (lit: ‘people food’) was a worse crime than murder as far as the British were concerned – not just wrong, but outside anything that was acceptable. It was certainly going to ruin any trade arrangements. There were some explosive incidents during the ‘musket wars’ – including an episode in which Maori chartered a British ship which then carried a cargo of the stuff. Sydney authorities tried and failed to prosecute the captain – I’m actually about to publish the full story next week in my book ‘Convicts’. But by 1835-40 the practise was completely gone from Maori life anyway. It was revived briefly in 1868-69 by one chief for terror purposes; he lost his war – and that was an end to it.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Matthew! I did come across the Maori during researching this series but it was apparent that they made the shift you refer to. It is interesting how the power of trade has acted to regulate some of the more taboo practices around the world. I had not heard of this cannibal ship you refer to – sounds quite interesting and I’ll have to check out your book and look into it a bit. You always put me on good trails of discovery. Thanks for the great comment 🙂

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  11. Julie Glover says:

    Wow, this is fascinating! I recall learning about the Karakawa tribe in Texas, Native Americans who practiced cannibalism with their defeated enemies. I was repulsed by that practice. But then again, the story of the Andes mountains survivors eating human flesh of the dead after a plane crash made total sense to me (in the film ALIVE). Context obviously matters.

    I’m eager to read the next two in the series!

  12. Pingback: Designing from Bones ~ Eaten By Theme | Gene Lempp ~ Writer

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