Cannibalism: Part 1

The term cannibalism means the eating of human flesh by human beings, and/or eating of animals by members of their own species. It is a relatively recent word, and not found in the ancient world or any ancient text. However, the action of consuming blood and flesh are common throughout the world’s history.

Carib Indian natives in Dominica

Cannibalism was derived from the Carib Indians, discovered by Christopher Columbus, during his quest in search of the West Indies. The earliest mention of the Caribs is that made by Columbus in his journal on 26 November 1492: ‘All the people that he has found up to today, he says, are very frightened of those of can iba or can ima’ [the name of a place, not a people]. Evangelicals distorted the name so that the Caribs were defined as man-eaters, and the Spanish name for the tribe was Canibales, meaning in Spanish: bloodthirsty and cruel ( but the Caribs saw themselves as god-fearing, loyal, and loving who live in the Lesser Antilles islands. ( The people were betrayed by the evangelizing missionaries who gave them an alternative: convert or die. Conversion was made simpler by incorporating many of the Caribs native faith into Christianity, with the Last Supper being the easiest to explain.

The practice of cannibalism reaches back into antiquity and has been found in many areas of the world. Evidence indicates that it may have been practiced as early as the Neolithic Period. The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) wrote of the ανθρωπογενών τρώγοντες  or Androphagoi (man-eaters) [Histor. 1.216 (to bring a happy death as a sacrifice): When a man is very old all his kin meet together and kill (thuousi) him, with beasts of the flock besides, the boil the flesh and feast (kateuokheontai) on it. This is held to be the happiest death; when a man dies of a sickness they do not eat him, but bury him in the earth, and lament that he would not live to be killed. While both the Issedones and Massagetae are generally presumed to have been Iranian-speaking, Herodotus also attributes cannibalism to two tribes living immediately south of the Indus: the Kallatiai, who ‘devour (katesthiousi) their parents’ (3.38), and the Padaioi, described as nomads who eat raw flesh, among whom when ‘one has come to old age, they sacrifice (him) and feast (kateuokheontai) on his flesh’ (3.99). Later, in 4.26 Herodotus notes how flesh-eaters will cut up the flesh of the dead father), 106 (eat people to gain their strength)], and other ancient writers gave accounts of various ancient people as being cannibals. Strabo (63 BCE – 24 CE) arguing it was a custom among the Irish whereas in Britain the family will devour (καταβροχθίσει: katesthiein) the dead to honor them (Geographia 4.5.4); in 11.11.8 he writes: When men become over 70 years of age they are slaughtered and their flesh is consumed (analiskousi) by their nearest of kin; but their old women are strangled and then buried. However, the men who die under 70 years of age are not eaten, but only buried. Marco Polo details cannibalism in the Orient in his Travels (1.61; cf. with full text at reported tribes ranging from Tibet to Sumatra who practiced cannibalism.

North American Indian tribes of the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico practiced cannibalism. Until recently the practice prevailed throughout much of central and western Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Sumatra, New Guinea, Polynesia, and remote portions of South America. (cp.

Cannibalism at times has had religious significance. This stems from the belief that the person who eats of the deceased person acquires the desired qualities or characteristics of that person if both the body and the blood of the one who is living is to be sacrificed and consumed immediately upon death. Frequently this consumption of body and blood took place in a large cave or tomb in front of which a huge stone was rolled to keep non-communicants out for three days. After the three-day period of feasting and gorging on the body and blood of the sacrificed person, the congregants would emerge and declare that the one whom they had fed on had “risen” (meaning: the person had become a part of them and they a part of the sacrificed whom they would meet after death). In most cases this resembles the theory of sympathetic magic: something must transfer the effect of the magician’s actions on the physical object to the person who once was in contact with the object, and became a part of Middle Eastern / Mesopotamian cultural theology; cf. Meyer, Melvin W., translator.
The Secret Teachings of Jesus: The Four Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1984; 5:102-103). Some examples of this are seen in Attraction of Blood that meant that not only did the man’s blood contain his life (women were seldom sacrificed), but the blood that was drunk (usually from the severed skull) also contained his experiences, characteristics and qualities.

It soon came to be thought these characteristics and qualities could be passed onto others if they consumed or were touched by the blood [Cavendish, Richard, The Black Arts. New York: Peigee Books, Berkley Publishing Group, 1967]). Rituals were performed for many reasons. These reasons included ritual purification after an immersion in sanctified water (baptism), pacification of gods, and ancestor worship which was common throughout the world from Asia to Mesoamerica. It is true that in a few instances cannibalism was practiced for revenge, but these also had religious overtones, for the revenge killing and eating of the deceased’s body and drinking his blood gave to the assassin special magical powers that would permit the slayer to ascend to a near deity position and summon others to attend him as followers (οπαδοί) who were usually twelve in number (twelve being a specially significant and religious potent symbol) or in rare cases 70 (as in Luke 10:1). There are twelve ‘ Jyotirlingas’ (epitome of God Shiva) in Hindu Shaivism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam (In Shi’a Islam, there are twelve Imams, legitimate successors of the prophet Muhammad), and also found in some older religions and belief systems. For example: In ancient Greek theology, the Twelve Olympians were the principal gods of the pantheon. The chief Norse god, Odin, had 12 sons (in memory of his nine-day crucifixion, Adam of Bremen (eleventh century) relates that every ninth year, people assembled from all over Sweden to sacrifice at the Temple at Uppsala, where male slaves and males of each species were sacrificed and hanged from the branches of the trees; cf. Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964, and Munch, P. A. Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. In the revision of Magnus Olsen; translated from the Norwegian by Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt. New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation; London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1926), quite similar to Jacob’s 12 sons in the Old Testament (Genesis 29:31-30:24). In other cases it was believed that the ghost of the enemy would be utterly destroyed when his body was eaten, thus leaving nothing in which his spirit could exist.

The Binderwurs of central India ate their sick and aged in the belief that the act was pleasing to their goddess Kali. While the blood was fresh and warm, the head of the family and community, revered as a priest, pronounced an invocation that the drinking of the deceased’s blood be a remembrance of the dead and a drink of everlasting life.

Aztecs sacrificing to the gods Codex Tudela folio 76

The Aztecs sacrificed thousands of human victims annually to their deities. Following the sacrifices, the Aztec priest and people ate the bodies of the victims believing the acts brought them closer to their gods. Ritual prayers were said over the dead bodies before the flesh consumed, and when the blood was brought to all the faithful, it was drunk with knowledge that each of those who tasted the blood of the sacrificed victim would obtain greater strength.  In some records there is a hint that those who drank the blood would win eternal life. (cf. Many of the 16th century sources that describe ancient Aztec customs do not come from impartial observers. Their authors, in fact, were especially interested in Aztec culture from a religious perspective, namely because they were Catholic evangelists. Authors such as friars Sahagún (who is claimed to have been Mexico’s first anthropologist), Torquemada, and Motolinía, amongst many others, dedicated themselves to writing gargantuan works on everything from Aztec religious rituals to their astronomy and fine arts. These early Roman Catholic writings express how misguided and barbaric they thought their Mexican charges to be in their worship of multiple gods, and eating of human body parts, yet used the Aztec theology to push their own Christian theology.

Mesoamerica communion sacrificial ritual

Aztec religious mythology was about the creation and destruction of the world. If the gods, who created humankind, did not receive regular gifts of human blood, the Aztecs believed that life as they knew it could easily be taken away. To stave off this apocalypse, the Aztec people ate the bodies and drank the blood of sacrificial victims. All of those sacrificed (we know only of males) were about thirty years of age (a sacred number), all celibate males, and all who were hailed as the “Sons of God”.  Captives who faced the sacrificial knife acted either as live images of gods or offerings to them. Their deaths signified the continuation of the life cycle, be it agricultural, lunar, or seasonal. It is imperative in solid interpretation of the original texts chiseled in stone or cast in other formats to view the bodies the Aztecs ate as ‘little pieces of life’, symbols of good fortune to come. Often, only people of high standing were privileged enough to consume human flesh, and they were styled and called priests and bishops who presided over an altar dedicated to God of the Aztecs pronouncing incantations prior to drinking the blood and eating the body of the Son of God—much as in the same way as did the ancient Egyptians. While later Christian missionaries attempted to portray the Aztecs as bloodthirsty and enjoying the sacrificial rituals, this is propaganda, as the texts that exist today show that the Aztecs didn’t consider sacrifice to be pleasurable. It simply had to happen in order for the earth to keep on turning.

There are those who claim that the Aztecs practiced cannibalism and human sacrifice in order to compensate for meat shortages, but there is no proof of this assertion. If it did happen, there is no record, but at best the material (flesh) and other dietary needs were not known at that time. A far better reason would be that the principle justification for sacrificial blood rites among the Aztecs was to maintain the metaphysical and cosmological system that upheld the hierarchical social order of the Aztec elite. The Aztecs believed that the universe depended upon the blood of the sacrificed victims just as Christians believe that the universe began and will end in relation to the body and blood of Christ.  The violence of Aztec civilization was directed against smaller tribes considered to be enemies of the empire. Likewise, Christian civilization was spread by colonial violence, all over the world. “He that is not with me is against me”(Matthew 12:30) and “Go all of you into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature”(Mark 16:15) are two of the many sentences of Christ that justified the violence and rapaciousness of Christian colonial practices. The Aztecs have no record of ever using a speech by a god or a son of a god to justify colonialization or the overthrow of a people, as did the Spaniards, Luther’s German nobility (see: Martin Luther, Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern), and other sects in Christianity. When Christianity plundered the New World and soiled the earth with human blood in quest of forced conversions, those who brought the sword came like thieves at night to wreck carnage on all people. Far crueller were the Christian missionaries, especially the Jesuits, Augustinians, Benedictine, Franciscans and

Cannibalism in the New World

Dominicans who celebrated the most barbaric tortures (including water boarding) to be inflicted on the natives who did not rush to Christian conversion, always citing scripture when raping, murdering, and robbing the natives. The missionaries frequently proclaimed that the Biblical Christ said he did not come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34), to divide “brother against brother” (Matthew 10:21), and indeed he did so, as two thousand years of bloody Christian wars and conquests demonstrate. The hypocrisy of the Conquistadores, whose own Eucharistic rite was symbolically cannibalistic, could hardly condemn Native American practices when their own practices were as bad or worse.

Seige of Tenochtitlan by Cortez 1519

With the blessings of the Roman Catholic the Spanish tortured and maimed those they considered heretics. Aztecs and other tribes people were burned at the stake, thrown into pits of spikes and attacked by ferocious mastiffs (large dogs) brought from Spain. Both Aztecs and Spaniards committed carnage in the name of a god that no one knew but declared primacy rights over!  The Spanish attacked the Aztec capital (Mexico City) with only a few score of men in 1519, and massacred thousands in a single day. W.H. Prescott wrote: “The carnage was horrible. The ground was heaped up with slain, until the maddened combatants were obliged to climb over the human mounds to get at one another. The miry soil was saturated with blood, which ran off like water and dyed the canals themselves with crimson.” 

Spanish priests praised god in song and with masses, and when news of this barbarity reached Europe, church bells pealed and Te Deum was the only song sung with prelates everywhere celebrating the slaughter of babies, women, and the elderly who dared to feast on the blood a god other than their own.

Inquisition Museum (Lima, Perú)

Spanish priests in Perú were extremely cruel and extraordinarily brutal in forcing conversions. They established torture chambers throughout the capital city of Lima, and invented mind and body breaking techniques to “encourage the heathens” to change from their religion of consuming the body and drinking the blood of their victims whom they saw as sons of god so that the Inkas and other indigenous people would eat the body and drink the blood of the son of the Christian god. Those who would not obey the cruelty of the Spanish Jesuits in Lima, or refused the orders of the Augustinians, truly the most corrupt of all missionaries to Perú, were

Inquisition in Lima, Perú

 forced to parade around in the garments of fools (complete with dunce caps) until the natives of Perú were “dispatched” for refusing conversion to Christianity.  The attack upon the natives continued while the Jesuits and other religious orders founded schools to teach (demanding rote memorization) Christianity which confused the locals who saw no difference between the new religion and their old. Those who dared question the priests and brothers were put before the Inquisition which tortured them into submission–a scar that remains to this day in Perú education where students go to schools and universities to sit and listen without being invited into discourse unless the conversations supported the professors. Those   executed by the Spanish Inquisition in Lima, Perú were decapitated and their skulls thrown into a pit at the convent/monastery-church of San Francisco to decompose with hundreds of other martyred Inkas.

Convent San Francisco (Lima, Perú)

Critical thinking was denied and the goal of students was only to complete their learning and escape the insanity of the religious orders. Unfortunately, that remains the rule for most of Perú’s schools and universities: do not question, do not read widely, sit silently and know that they will pass the course and complete their studies to go on and teach the same ignorance to future generations.  Learning was not a process to gain knowledge or to question all things, as originally enjoined by Socrates (cf. Plato, The Republic, Book 10), but, instead, was blind obedience to the pomposity of the teachers who were to be venerated as surrogates and intercessors of the Christian gods (the Trinity) and subservience to the interpretations of mortal men who molested women, children, and the elderly with impunity, while Spanish soldiers spread veneral diseases among the Inkas and other tribes, decimating their numbers so that most disappeared within a generation. (Captain Francisco

Francisco Pizzaro

Pizarro formed a partnership in Panama with Diego de Almagro and the nefarious and vile priest Hernando de Luque in order to explore the Pacific coast, looking for a Biru tribe that became the name Peru.  An envoy invited Pizarro to come to Cajamarca to meet the dominant Inca emperor Atahualpa, wrongfully thinking that Pizarro was a rational and reasonable man–two qualities the Spaniard lacked. Instead of treating the Inkas with human respect, he commissioned Hernando de Soto, who found five hundred women from a convent in a square, to give many of them to his men who were laced with syphlis. Pizarro sent Soto and his brother Hernando Pizarro ahead with fifteen horseman and the interpreter Martin; Atahualpa complained that they had treated chiefs badly by chaining them but offered them houses on the square. This did not soften Pizarro’s hear, for when Francisco Pizarro arrived he planned a treacherous

Pizzaro slaughters Inkas

attack. Atahualpa asked the Spaniards to return what they had stolen and threw down a prayer book that Friar Vicente de Valverde gave him. The Dominican shouted it was an outrage against the Dominican’s god, and Pizarro ordered the cannons fired. As if they were from the Apocalypse, Spanish horseman rode out and slaughtered the unarmed Incas, as Pizarro tried to grab Atahualpa. Pizzaro was successful and the king was captured. In two hours about 7,000 natives were killed in Cajamarca. Pizarro had Atahualpa instruct the Incas to surrender, and Soto gathered men, women, llamas, gold, silver, and clothing. Although Governor Pizarro said the Spaniards wanted only gold, Atahualpa promised to fill a room with gold in exchange for his freedom. Some caciques came and obeyed their captive Inca emperor. His rival brother Huascar was killed on the road, and Atahualpa also had two half-brothers murdered.  Pizarro, his priests and evangelists and royal officials condemned the Inca emperor to be burned; but because he agreed to be baptized, Atahualpa was strangled in 1533.  Later Young prince Manco, son of Huayna-Capac, arrived and denounced Chalcuchima, who refused to become a Christian and was burned to death. In 1535, when Cuzco would not surrender to Pizzaro, Hernando Pizarro ordered women natives killed. In 1539, the Spaniards captured the Inka high

Pizarro marches on Cuzco

priest Villac Umu in October and executed him with Tiso and fifteen commanders the following month.  Discrimination against mestizos became official in 1549 when Carlos V decreed they could not hold office nor have Indian servants. He also forbade coercing natives to work but allowed it if they were paid. In 1551 the University of San Marcos was founded in Lima, and the first ecclesiastical council of Lima condemned the use of coca, education became marginalized and the conduct of inquiry and opposition to current thought discouraged with the whip and execution. Rectors and professors were selected not for intellectual abilities nor for knowledge, but, as it is today, because they were friends with the conquerors or received royal patronage, a situation that further eroded education in Perú, to the point that today not a single university, with the exception of the Pontifical University in Lima, ranks above 5000 in the world. Worse yet, in 1532 the Andean population had been about nine million, but by 1590 only about one and a half million survived by submitting to the Christian yoke.)

Spanish Inquisition slaughtering all heathens in Mexico of all ages

In order to preserve the power and values of the status quo, in a given society, sacrificial violence must be brought against those who live outside the society. From this the psychological concept of social deviance emerged long before it was written down and codified (see: Social deviance : readings in theory and research / edited by Henry N. Pontell; 3rd edition, Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c1999; סטייה חברתית / ש. גיורא שוהם ; עברית, דבורה מורג;  Tel-Aviv: Agudat ha-studentim, Universiṭat Tel-Aviv, [1978]; Kai T. Erikson, Wayward Puritans : a study in the sociology of deviance. Boston : Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, c2005.) In the case of mortuary cannibalism, the dead of one’s own people must be eaten, to preserve the power of tribal values against the ravages of time and bodily mortality. Among the Hua, of New Guinea, for instance, mortuary cannibalism serves to assimilate the spirits of the dead back into the living—a concept in vogue in first century cloistered communities in Israel. It was also used to preserve an elaborate reciprocity of balance and submission among power relationships between males and females. While females in most societies were given little notice, save as housekeepers and child bearers, in Hua society women were important as without women there would be no future generations. For this reason, women were as quick to cannibalize their dead as were men willing to eat their women. The devouring of dead males by females, the Hua believe, insures the tribe of regeneration, and follows the rituals of most ancient agricultural communities.

Maori (New Zealand) cannibal

One example in particular can be found practiced in the funery rites of certain Melanesians. In their society, this act of ritual cannibalism is observed as an essential act upon an ambiguous attitude of death by maintaining ties to the deceased and with the ancestors who oversaw the continuation of the family line. While some argue that this ritual reveals a level of disgust and fear of death at the same time, this cannot be empirically proven. (William A. Haviland, Anthropology (10th ed. Belmont, CA : Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, c2003, 376) Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who actually witnessed this type Melanesian ritual, described the act to be an “approved” collective means for individuals to express these feelings of grief and fear of being separated from the original family source while still maintaining social cohesiveness, thereby preventing disruption of society. (Haviland; 377; the 13th edition is subtitled The Human Challenge pub. 2010). The Wari, it is found today, use cannibalism to stay closer to their ancestors and thus to god (Ritual and belief: readings in the anthropology of religion / edited by David Hicks; 2d ed.;  Boston: McGraw Hill, [2001], pp 220-223.)

All civilizations have illustrations and other art forms depicting the bereaved and the faithful eating the body of their dead: be it a lord, a god, or a son of god. It is not only in Mesopotamia nor in Mesoamerica, but there remain many African tribes who practice cannibalism (see, for example: Idi Amin: and both before and after his conversion to Islam while ruling Uganda) . Remains of Peking Man, discovered in 1972 near Choukoutein in China, and possibly half a million years old, show evidence of human skulls split open and their brains extracted. This practice was especially true in Europe, as well.

The Christian St Jerome wrote of cannibalism in Scotland in the 4th century CE (Jerome. “Against Jovinanus.” Book 1: Why should I speak of other nations when I myself, a youth on a visit to Gaul, [I] heard that the Atticoti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and that although they find herds of swine, and droves of large or small cattle in the woods, it is their custom to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds and the breasts of their women, and to regard them as the greatest delicacies?). Yet Jerome sees nothing peculiar with the British eating human flesh while praising a similar practice in his own community.



Filed under Church history, Evangelical Christianity, Perú, Roman Catholicism

3 responses to “Cannibalism: Part 1

  1. Joe Besse

    A novel I read about 15 years ago “Aztec”, by Grey Jennings, delt heavily on this subject. Not so much on cannibalism, but the conquering of the natives by use of the sword and Bible. More sword than the book, but using the Bible as justification for plunmdering the New World. Nothing has changed. We’re still doing it.

  2. Actually, the “Aztecs” didn’t call themselves that and would have been loath to, since the designation is derived from Aztlan, a legendary place they claimed to have escaped from and turned their back on. Those whose capital was in today’s Mexico City were the Mexica. The other two Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups in the Triple Alliance that was the empire were the Acolhua of Texcoco and the Tepanec of Tlacopan. But Alexander von Humboldt in the early nineteenth century didn’t think it a good idea that those conquered by Cortes be called “Mexicans” because that might cause confusion or might generate pride in Mexico toward those Indian ancestors. He also wanted a simple, singular name for all three groups in the Triple Alliance. Prescott and others followed suit by continuing to call them Aztecs. But historians today are increasingly shying away from the term. (Source: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, p. 124 and elsewhere.)

    • Absolutely correct. I used the word “Aztec” only because it is well known. It is difficult to write about a people using the name the group uses to identifies itself, but I realize now that it is important to do that–and put in brackets its more common (and incorrect) name. Thank you for your comment.

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