Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Among the Cannibals, Part 1

A few months ago my sister and I had a conversation about whether or not the depiction of cannibals in Crusoe was racist. We sort of suspected it was, but not knowing a great deal about cannibals, it was hard to say. So, not long after, when I saw a book called Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man’s Darkest Ritual at a library sale, I of course took it home with me to see what I could find out.

The problem with buying books that randomly present themselves at library sales is this: they might not be the best books on the subject. The number one requirement for a book about cannibalism should be that the author does not put a blanket condemnation of cannibalism in the second sentence of the introduction. So it was clear right away that I wouldn’t be getting anthropologically reliable information. The author, Paul Raffaele, is a well-travelled, well-read, and experienced journalist, and I was constantly surprised that his approach to this subject wasn’t more nuanced.

As the book went on, the author’s personality began to grate on me. First, I get the feeling that his idea of being subtle is shouting, “SO. ARE YOU A CANNIBAL OR WHAT?” Cannibals are going to be pretty sensitive about cannibalism, especially when they’re talking about it with someone who considers it to be a taboo. If you want them to let you in, you have to pretend you are not completely horrified by what they do. Second, it is awkward when the author feels required to describe the body of any woman he meets. He does this with men, too, but there’s a difference between “He was naked except for a leaf” and “Let us discuss the precise state of her breasts.” One could be a salient detail, one definitely is not. This is one of many things that make me think this book could have used a really good editor, and didn’t get one.

Raffaele wrote the book for two reasons. He wanted to argue against an anthropologist named William Arens, who asserted in 1979 that ritual cannibalism never actually happens—it’s all a mixture of lies and legends coming out of the clash between Westerners and the cultures they don’t understand. Raffaele also wanted to find and talk to cannibals who aren’t psychopaths because . . . I don’t know why. Because they’re novel, I guess. Honestly, he seems so disgusted by “man-eating” that it seems strange to me that he decided to write a book about it.

He starts in New Guinea, where the Korowai tribe are known cannibals. They don’t understand disease, so their belief system has to explain it. When someone gets sick and dies, they believe that a man in the community must have been possessed by a murderous demon and is eating the sick person from the inside out. These men are called khakhua, or witch-men. Any unfortunate individual named as a khakhua is believed to die when he is first possessed. He becomes a monster in human form, but he is no longer human. Therefore, to hunt him down, stone him to death, and eat him is not only acceptable but necessary.

The Korowai, Raffaele and I agree, are not raving psychopaths. They practice cannibalism within very narrow parameters. They do say the meat tastes good, especially the brain, but it isn’t like they randomly eat people out of hunger. It’s a matter of revenge. They eat the khakhua because the khakhua has eaten his victim.

The next stop on the cannibal express is weirder. In Benares, India, the holy men of the Aghor sect of Hinduism live on the edge of the Ganges, where they eat the flesh of the bodies that have been brought there to be cremated. (Interestingly, they like brain best, too.) The rationale behind this is that ignoring cultural conventions and engaging in taboo behavior separates you from society—and therefore allows you to become divine. Frankly, cannibalism is not the most shocking of the things they do, but none of it is harmful, exactly. They don’t murder people, they just nibble on them, and whatnot, after they’re dead. Given that there are other paths to holiness, it’s hard to explain why one would choose the path that involves doing everything your society finds repellent, except to say that sometimes human beings are just like that. But even the Aghor sect only eat people within certain religious parameters.

In part two we shall discuss Tonga (briefly), Uganda (depressingly), and the Aztecs (violently), and try to remember what actually happened in Crusoe so that this incredibly long post will have a point.

Read part two here.

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