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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 10. Tasting the Dead

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43881


In this chapter I will explore the various meanings behind acts of cannibalism, the deliberate ingestion of human flesh. The use of the human dead as food made acceptable through ‘culinary ritual transformation’ (Classen 2012: 97) has occurred in numerous cultures, and for various reasons. Excluding dietary reasons born from extreme survival situations, there are many motives for ritual human cannibalism including cannibalism as acts of aggression, and as acts of compassion. Much of the ethnographic information which detailed this activity was mediated through a Christian lens and placed the act and the cannibalistic peoples, such as the Tupinambá of Brazil, as people religiously and morally opposed to the norms of the colonisers (Forsyth 1983, Bôas 2008). The Tupi regularly engaged in inter-tribal warfare where selective captured warriors were eaten, and as such cannibalism in this context (exo-cannibalism) can be considered an act of aggression against a foe. For the Amazonian Wari’ meanwhile, as well as practicing exo-cannibalism by eating body parts of their defeated enemies as a form of ritual abuse, the ingestion of parts of deceased members of one’s own community (endo-cannibalism) was also practiced, although here as a form of funerary compassion to help severe ties between the living and dead (Conklim 2001). However, the perceived binary division between Tupi and Wari’ acts of cannibalism is overly simplistic, and in this chapter, I aim to complicate this seeming duality. Further, I aim to complicate the perceived colonial notions that the ingestion of human body parts was morally opposed to colonial norms by exploring the early-modern European practice of medical cannibalism. Mummia, human flesh, was regularly ingested in early-modern Europe as a medical cure. The earliest extant evidence for this practice dates to the thirteenth century with the noted sixteenth century physician Paracelius (1491-1541), terming it the noblest of medicine (Noble 2003). A recipe for making a mummy oneself even appeared for the English Pharmacopoeia Londinensis by William Salmon (1678) and indeed it was not until the 1824 edition that corpse medicine no longer featured in this medical work. As such the literal taste of death is not so far removed from our own history.

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