The term “cannibal” is said to be derived from “canibales,” a Spanish word meaning “bloodthirsty.” This is supposed to have been the term that Christopher Columbus and his men applied to the reportedly man-eating Carib Indians they encountered in the West Indies. It is believed that the practice of cannibalism was widespread in pre-historic times and among primitive tribes in historic times. In this article, we are not concerned with cannibalism as it is practiced merely for the purpose of nourishment by some groups, but with its incidence in the magical and religious rituals of traditional peoples.
The basic theory of magical-ritual cannibalism is simple. There is a “spiritual” element in the living body which energizes the body and confers on the body it’s unique psycho-spiritual and physical properties. Eating flesh raw and warm allows the consumer to incorporate the spiritual essence of the victim into himself, and thus, in a literal sense, increase his own stores of spiritual life-essence.
The association of witchcraft with cannibalism, especially the killing and eating of the flesh of infants, is an almost universal one. It would appear that infant cannibalism, in magical-religious ritual, had its origin in the dualistic philosophy of the female dominated spirit possession fertility cults of prehistory. Specialists in prehistoric cultures have noticed the prominence of women in prehistoric societies, in contrast with historic societies. There is significant evidence that prehistoric fertility cults were mostly officiated by women priestesses.
Prehistoric cultures had a simple heterosexual metaphoric formula which survived into historic times: the metaphoric expression of the duality of the spiritual and the physical in the duality of sexes, but which too easily lends itself to literal re-interpretation. In these scheme, women ( women as “weaker vessels,” in Pauline language recaptures the essence of traditional mystical thought about women), on heterosexual analogy, were considered best suited as spirit possession mediums, as they are especially prone to the intromissive action of possessive “male” spirits of the atmosphere. The physical evidence for this was, of course, in their sexual reproductive equipage which seemed to suggest a living “vessel” available for intromissive access by masculinized spiritual essences of nature. That explains why, in many traditional cultures, the role of priestess and medium to male possession deities is often reserved for women.Thus, we find among the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Sibyl, or prophetess, who officiated the mysteries of the male possession deity Apollo. In the heterosexual dualistic scheme, the physical, psychological and sexual potency of the male becomes an analogy for the potency of unseen masculinzed spirits of the atmosphere. It did not require a significant inferential leap for magic-superstition steeped female ritualists to consider that gorging on male flesh would enhance stores of positive spiritual power representing the admired psycho-spiritual virtues of masculinity. There is sufficient reason to believe that widespread folktales of nocturnal rituals, in which female “witches” fed on the flesh of young males, had its roots in the actual practice of the female dominated spirit-possession cults of antiquity.
But, of course, though tradition insists that women dominate the art and practice of witchcraft, the practice is not exclusively female. A man who wants to prolong his life and live, like the Cumaean Sibyl, for a thousand years, might imbibe the “life-force” of another man he had killed in battle by having the flesh for his dinner. This was very common practice among warrior groups on the African continent in pre-colonial times. Wallis, in his Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection, refers to evidence that ritual cannibalism might have been, in early times, a part of rites in which the king personally slaughtered, in sacrifice to the gods, prisoners captured in war. The belief that gorging on the raw warm flesh of human beings(preferably male) may lead to a large store of life-force and consequently longevity explains why, in all traditions, witches are usually old women looking to live forever by feeding on the flesh of infants. One might also note the association, in some cultures, of white fat with the life-force. The grotesque steatopygy of prehistoric mother-goddess figures might be representative of Cumaean Sibylic longevity in cannibal priestesses who fed fat on human male flesh.
What strikes one as rather curious is the echoing of this ancient “barbarism” in the New Testament Gospel According to St. John: “Truly, I say to you; except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up in the last days.” While it is difficult to imagine a Jew as having said such words let alone meant them in literal terms, some Christian denominations have taken Jesus’ statement literally. Partaking of the Eucharist is believed to involve literally partaking of the flesh and blood of the risen Christ.