The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 9 November 2008

40. Sometimes a morbid kindness

Like many overgrown boys, I thrill to the sensational exploits of television survival artiste Bear Grylls. He may not have the nut-gathering, bucolic charm and authenticity of Ray Mears, but he has a far more rugged name. A recent programme did display a somewhat Morissette-ish tendency in his language, by his declaring how 'ironic' it would be if, after all the lions, tigers and bears he has wrassled with in his career, his life was brought to an untimely end by the toxic sting of a bee. My own feeling is that it would really be far more ironic if Bear choked to death on a pillow mint in one of those luxury hotels he stays in during his extreme adventuring.

I cannot help but wonder if, when he's skinning a skunk or drinking his own piss from a snakeskin, we can't see a certain nameless gleam in Mr Grylls' eyes, as he looks towards his cameraman and solitary companion in the wilds. Have I pushed myself far enough? he seems to be thinking. Is there not a further, more sublime realm of the will to survive yet to be breached? Are there not sweeter meats than raw toad at hand?

"Man, being by nature carnivorous as well as frugivorous, and human flesh being not unfit for human food, the question first arises why mankind have generally not only avoided it, but have looked with horror on exceptional individuals and races addicted to cannibalism. [...]

"The pricipal [causes of infractions of this aversion] have been the pressures of famine, the fury of hatred, and sometimes even a morbid kindness, with certain motives of magic and religion, to which must be added the strong tendency of cannibalism, once started in any of these ways, to develop a confirmed appetite which will afterwards be indulged for its own sake.

"I. Famine.-The records of shipwrecks and sieges prove that famine will sometimes overcome the horror of cannibalism among men of the higher nations. Thus it is not surprising that savages, from their want of food adapted for storing as well as from their reckless improvidence, should in severe climates be often driven to this extremity. For examploe, it is known that the miserable natives of Tierra del Fuego, when starving in winter, would throttle and devour the oldest woman of the party ; when asked why they did not rather kill their dogs, they replied, "Dogs catch otters !"[...]

"III. Morbid Affection.-Cases of the dead being devoured by relatives and friends (especially children by parents) from a sentiment of affection are recorded among low savage tribes [...]. As lately as the 13th century, William of Ruysbruck was told that the people of Tibet had till recently kept up this custom of eating their deceased parents, and still used their skulls as drinking cups [...].

"IV. Magic.-Few notions belonging to primitive savage magic are more intelligible or more widely spread than the belief that the qualities of any animal eaten will pass into the eater. [...]An English merchant in Shanghai, during the Taeping siege, met his Chinese servant carrying the heart of a rebel, which he was taking home to eat to make him brave [...].

"V. Religion.-One of the strongest reasons for considering anthropophagy as having widely prevailed in prehistoric ages is the fact of its being deeply ingrained in savage and barbaric religions, whose gods are so often looked upon as delighting in human flesh and blood. The flesh of sacrificed human victims may even serve to provide cannibal feasts. The understood meaning of these rites may be either that the bodies of the victims are vicariously consumed by the worshippers, or that the gods themselves feed on the spirits of the slain men, their bodies being left to the priests and people. [...]

"VI. Habit.-The extent to which anthropophagy has been carried among some nations is, no doubt, mainly due to the indulgence of the appetite once aroused. In such cases this reason is openly avowed, or some earlier motive remains rather in pretext than in reality, or the practice is justified on the ground of ancestral custom. It seems, for instance, that the cannibal feasts of old Mexico had become in themselves acceptable to the people, and that we must refer the sickening horrors of Fijian anthropophagy more to sensual gratification than to any religious motive. [...]

" As to the history of anthropophagy, the most interesting question is whether at any early period it was ever a general habit of the human race. [...]It has been well argued that had the men of the quaternary period been cannibals, we should find the bones generally cracked for the marrow like those of beasts, which is not the case [...].The discovery of some few ancient human remains, the state of which seems to indicate that the flesh had been eaten, may perhaps be taken to show that prehistoric savages were in this respect like those of modern times, neither free from cannibalism nor universally practising it. During later ages, it may have even increased rather than diminished with the growth of population,—its greatest excesses being found among high savage tribes or nations above the savage level. But with the rise of civilization to its middle and upper levels, it is more and more kept down by the growing sense of the dignity of man, and eventually disappears, as we may hope, irrevocably."

(From the article CANNIBALISM by Edward Burnett Tylor, LL.D., D.C.L., F.R.S., Keeper of the University Museum, Oxford. Find this article in full at

Incidentally, what a great and innocuous-seeming word Anthropophagy is. My advice to the likes of Herr Miewes, wishing to avoid the inevitable stigma and social baggage associated with the terms 'cannibal' and 'man-eater,' would be to introduce themselves as an anthropophagist and move quickly on to the subject of what an astounding fellow that Born Survivor chap is.
[This post has been edited for added Bear Grylls content]

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