Crazy people have always reflected their own society’s pathologies. In a pre-modern era, crazy people thought they were the Devil or, perhaps, the Hammer of God. In the atomic/space exploration age, insanity tended to involve aliens. People thought they were abducted, thought aliens were among us, or thought that they were themselves aliens.
What are we to make of modern crazy people, though? They’ve taken all of the old pathologies — Devil worship, hammer of God, aliens — and added a new twist: cannibalism. Just in the past few days, we’ve had one guy eat off another’s face, although he didn’t live to tell the tale; a Maryland man dine upon his roommate; and a Devil-worshipping gay porn star film himself murdering his lover, whose flesh he later ate. A few years ago, a Canadian man killed and ate a fellow traveler on a bus, claiming his victim was an alien. Richard Fernandez has collected other recent cannibal stories that are impossible to ignore.
What the heck zeitgeist is this that sees so many insanities end with cannibalism?
Cannibalism is nothing new. Starving people have routinely resorted to cannibalism. In the Soviet Ukraine, when Stalin implemented policies that deliberately starved the peasants off their land, “an orphan was a child whose parents hadn’t eaten him.” The Donner party survivors reputedly ate those who died. When a plane crashed in the Andes, the survivors also turned to cannibalism.
Cannibalism also has a long medicinal history. Stealing gold wasn’t the only reason grave robbers pillaged Egyptian mummies. Powdered mummy was an important part of many pre-modern medicine chests. Blood from a hanged criminal was also believed to be good for people.
Many religions have also promoted cannibalism. The Aztecs were notorious for their human sacrifices, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands for important religious festivals. This not only kept enemies in line, but it also ensured that a society that had systematically stripped the surrounding landscape of animals, was still able to get the iron and protein necessary for survival. Pagan tribes throughout Europe (and the Americas) also engaged in cannibalism, believing that they strengthened themselves by eating their enemies’ flesh and blood.
The first religion to take a stand against cannibalism was Judaism. The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac — which, of course, ends without any sacrifice at all — saw the Jewish people put to rest any notions of satisfying God with human flesh. Jews took that idea and made it concrete when they institutionalized rules that barred body mutilation (no tattoos or piercings for religious Jews) and required that bodies get buried within 24 hours of death, thereby depriving surrounding pagan tribes of the opportunity to mutilate and eat Jewish bodies.
The genius of Christianity (and I have no idea whether this was accidental or on purpose) is that Christians understood, and were able to convince others, that Jesus Christ was the last and best blood sacrifice. By drinking the wine and eating the wafer at the sacrament, the potency of actual cannibalism was transmuted into the even more potent effect of symbolic cannibalism. And that was the end of ritual cannibalism in the Judeo-Christian culture.
Proscribed by Jewish law, and elevated to the ultimate non-corporeal mingling with God under Christian doctrine, Westerners not only did not want human flesh, they disdained it. They’d eat it medicinally or under starvation conditions, but theirs would not be the hands that struck the death-blow. Instead, the more superstitious or desperate among them might take advantage of an already dead body, be it a hanged criminal, a thousand-year old mummy, or a dead comrade in the Ukraine, the Sierras, or the Andes. Killing for blood . . . a big Western cultural no-no. (The recent market in dead babies in Asia shows that this cultural no-no is certainly not universal, but it has taken hold in most parts of the First World, and the pseudo First World.)
So, where are we? Judeo-Christian culture proscribes cannibalism. We no longer believe in the medicinal use of already dead bodies. And none of the killers mentioned at the beginning of this article were starving. Instead, they were crazy. So why is cannibalism resurgent?
And while I’m asking that, what’s with the Zombie craze? This is not an irrelevant question. Not only are zombies the un-dead, they also dine on human brains. They’re somehow part of this zeitgeist that has Western culture seeing itself as cannibalizing itself. But while normal people joke about it, and watch scary movies, the crazy people are on the move, looking for their next meal.
I don’t have answers. I just have questions. Do you have answers?