Welcome to Designing from Bones where we use the realities of the past to unearth the fiction of tomorrow.
This is the final post in a three part series on cannibalism. In week one, we took a look at the history and cultural practice of cannibalism and in week two a look at the character traits of the gruesome practice. This week we will look at cannibalism as a theme, for 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.
The Classic Story of Cannibalism ~ Hansel & Gretel
I would bet that most have heard the story of Hansel & Gretel. The children of a poor woodcutter, their vile stepmother (aren’t they all in fairy tales) takes them into the woods and leaves them, two less mouths to feed.
Out in the woods lives an old hag, who just happens to love children, or at least the taste of them. Intrepid and lost they wander into an meadow where the hag’s house of candied wonder draws them in like a siren’s song. Once caught in the trap, the hag locks up Hansel and enslaves Gretel, with a plan to eat the boy.
She feeds Hansel intending to get him nice and plump. A Thanksgiving turkey with no de-feathering required. Ah, but these children are clever little things and the hag lacks vision, literally and figuratively. The children trick the hag into her own oven and merrily go on their way with her hoard of treasure – returning with the elixir to right the wrongs of their world.
What is one of the themes of this story? Well, cannibalism, of course. Here it becomes the story stakes (fail and you’ll be eaten), the source of the main stories tension (I’m going to eat you once you’re fat enough or trick you into the oven), and ultimately the source of victory (the hag’s desire to eat them is the weakness Gretel exploits to defeat her).
The moral: Clever minds don’t get eaten and enrich their world as a result. A good lesson for the era from which Hansel & Gretel originates (1812 by the Brothers Grimm, adapted from older variants dating back to 1634).
Cannibalism is the beating heart that drives the story of Hansel & Gretel. And in this case, the cannibal loses. But, that hasn’t always been the case.
Meat the Ancient Greeks
The Ancient Greeks originated many powerful concepts. Democracy, philosophy, theater, non-deadly competition, the concept of money and – wait for it – a gruesome mythology filled with cannibalism.
The Ancient Greeks lived in a world caught between beautiful intellect and devious malice where the wilds were still deadly enough to cost the unwary their lives. As a result of these stark contrasts, cannibalism ran as a pulsing vein through their stories: Be wary or something, maybe a beast, maybe a god, maybe your own foolish desires, or perhaps another man, will devour you.
Let’s take a look at the cannibalistic thread that wraps the Filet Mignon of Greek myth.
Cronus, Father of the Olympians, after castrating his father for infidelity, fears that the same will be done to him. Thus, he devours each of his children as they are born. Finally, his wife Rhea tricks him into eating a rock in place of Zeus (which is why one should savor their food), who grows to overthrow his paranoid father. And there is the the hidden lesson – time – the great devourer that sees the strong become weak and that dooms every child at their birth. Time even devours itself when used inappropriately. A theme within a theme, the Greeks were efficient in their stories.
- Odysseus and the Laestrygonians. After sailing for days Odysseus makes a stop in an area of known desolation and sends out scouts to seek supplies. The scouts encounter a people named the Laestrygonians, giant men, the leader of which seizes and immediately eats one of the scouts. Odysseus ends up in a major struggle with these people and looses all but one his boats before he is able to escape. The lesson – be wary in unknown lands or they may devour you.
Atreus, Mycenaean king, had a golden fleeced lamb, the possession of which conferred the right to rule. His wife, after having an affair with his brother, Thyestes, secretly gives the lamb to her lover and deposes Atreus. Naturally, he’s a bit ticked off. Years later he throws a reconciliation feast for his brother to patch things up. Thyestes shows up with his sons who mysteriously vanish before the feast. The brothers enjoy a lavish meal together, after which Thyestes inquires as to where his sons are. Atreus raises a platter lid and shows his brother their heads. The sons were the main course. The lesson – don’t put the things you love into the cross hairs of someone with every reason to want vengeance against you.
I offer these three examples as a way of showing the diversity of themes and/or moral lessons available by use of cannibalism. Yes, while this subject can be gruesome, it can also be instructive when used with purpose. And now…
The Last Hors d’oeuvre
When considering the multitude of themes that surround cannibalism the all important question to ask is: What forces conspire to devour all or part of us?
Lack of knowledge. Hatred. Vengeance. Malice. Our own misapplied desires. Naivety. Deceptive beauty or friendship. The ultimate life-eater, Time. And more, if one digs deep enough into the sinew of the subject.
There is no need to use direct cannibalism once we harvest the thematic powers of its essence. And this, fellow writers, is how we cannibalize cannibalism to birth visceral tales for a voracious audience that will feel them to the marrow.
Next week, as promised, I’ll move on to a lighter subject that I’m sure you’ll all enjoy.
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 – heard about a race of flying cat people that ruled an obscure island featured on a Blackbeard treasure map – let me know about it.
I look forward to your comments and suggestions.
Another yummy post, Gene. Who of us haven’t occasionally bit the hand that feeds us (although chewing and swallowing doesn’t usually follow)? Me, I could go for some Barbie-cue about now. That and a soylent green salad with some Baked Alaskan for dessert sounds like a lovely men-u.
Mmm…filet mignon and tomato bisque with a side of bbq ribs, fingers and toes. Yum! I just wonder what goes on in the minds of those who enjoy eating their family members. Sick, sick, sick! But great pickins’ for stories, even better that you showed how to use it metaphorically. Awesome as always, Gene! Have a happy 4th, my friend!
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Your notes on cannabilism is appropiate at the moment, news is coming in of 7 people in Papua New Guinea murdered and cannalbilised so it is an on going thing in some places in the world.
Wow, this is such an excellent post, Gene. So clever, too. I never stopped to think of Hansel and Gretel being a tale about cannibalism. Yep, those Brothers Grimm lived up to their name. And the ancient Greek mythology, yikers! Pretty gruesome!
Only you, Lempp, could make cannibalism look cool. LOL.
Did you ever read any Anne Sexton poetry? She’s got a collection called Transformations that are fairy stories retold and the one about Hansel and Gretal is pretty funny. Check it out! Love her stuff, it’s weird and wonderful.
I’m oddly fascinated by cannibalism. How one human could devour another is beyond me, so I find myself wanting to understand why anyone would do such a thing. In these tales, they are monsters, witches, gods, so the cannibalism isn’t quite like Jeffrey Dahmer. But it is still super-creepy. Thanks for this series, Gene.
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I’d forgotten the Hansel and Gretel story! Those fairy tales weren’t always in good taste and sometimes fairly grim. Oops – did I say that? I did, didn’t I. Joking aside, thanks again for a great post – once again soberly covering an issue that, like it or not, has been a part of human reality in the past – ghastly, unthinkable, far outside the bounds of civilised culture – but entwined, as you point out in this post, even into our fairy stories.
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