Will Byrnes's Reviews > Among the Cannibals: Adventures on the Trail of Man's Darkest Ritual

Among the Cannibals by Paul Raffaele
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Apr 18, 2011

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Read from April 18 to 19, 2011

What could be worse than a dog eat dog world? Oh.

I was of two very different minds about this book.

Australian Paul Raffaele is a feature writer for Smithsonian. He has covered many parts of the globe in his work for that venerable institution. And he travels far for this work, looking into that darkest of human activities. He investigates special meat-eaters in New Guinea, India, Tonga, ancient Mexico, and Africa. We have a certain image in mind of what cannibals might look like. I mean in the real world, not the dark imagination of Thomas Harris or the psychosis of some of our more aberrant criminals. They would probably live on Pacific Islands, or remotest Africa or South America, use primitive technology and have acquired a taste for missionary over easy. Mostly, but not entirely the case.
Cannibalism of one kind or another had been common around our globe through the millennia, and yet the classic Western image of cannibals is a terrified white Christian missionary in pith helmet crouching in a large outdoor cooking pot, the logs burning fiercely as wild-eyed African warriors in grass skirts dance about him shaking their spears. Their glinting eyes show their eagerness to tuck into their human meal. In truth there is not one record of a missionary ending up in an African cook pot. The cannibals invariably ate one another.
The book offers interesting, surprising, and very disturbing information about a practice most of us (certainly me) thought had vanished from human behavior. The reasons for chowing down on such forbidden fruit vary. High on the list is to degrade and strike fear into one’s enemies. Another is to honor close relations. Some even consider eating human flesh a form of religiousity. The Korowai people of New Guinea justify their practices by maintaining that victims had already been killed by evil spirits and it was only the evil spirits that had taken over the body that was being devoured.

Kilikili says he has killed no fewer than 30 khakhua (male witches) - from Smithsonian.com

The practice is supposedly a thing of the past in New Guinea, but I would not like to place too high a wager on that. Raffaele’s looks at the practice in Tonga and Aztec Mexico are more firmly planted in the past. Unfortunately, there are still people-eaters today. There is a Hindu sect in India, the Aghoris, whose holy men chow down on you-know-what “as the supreme demonstration of their sanctity.” They even sit atop rotting corpses as a show of devotion and Raffaele reports some particularly unspeakable acts in which they engage, that I will not report on here.

An image of this cheerful Aghori is sure to help you sleep at night

And no, wiseass, it is not a self-portrait. I cannot really fold my legs like that for any length of time, and I keep my hair and beard much shorter these days. But there is worse to come. His report on the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army of northern Uganda takes the eating of human flesh to whole new level of depravity, a true heart of darkness. This information is the stuff of nightmares. Very disturbing.

I have a major gripe with the book. The cover is sprightly. It shows a hand reaching up out of a large cooking pot writing the book title. Lower down on the page is an icon that repeats inside as a section divider, a skull and crossbones in which the crossbones have been replaced with a knife and fork. One might get the impression that the information contained within would fulfill the silly graphics. We know that even such darkness can produce smiles. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (the stage version, not the very disappointing film), for example, is probably the only Broadway musical to have cannibalism as a central focus. Devouring scenery does not count. And while my personal favorite all-time Broadway show was rather dark, it still maintained a significant level of humor.

Todd: What is that?
Lovett: It’s Priest. Have a little priest.
Todd: Is it really good?
Lovett: Sir, It’s too good, at least.
And of course it don’t commit sins of the flesh
So it’s pretty fresh
Todd: Awful lot of fat
Lovett: Only where it sat
Todd: Haven’t you got poet or something like that?
Lovett: No, you see the trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased? Stick to priest.

And so on…

The light touch promised by the cover art for this book does not deliver as promised. There is nothing at all amusing about children living today who are forced to eat human flesh under pain of death. In that way the book offers a bait and switch, promising a light touch, but delivering a deep gouge.

I also found the author at times personally off-putting. While in Tonga, he felt it necessary to comment on his translator’s physical attributes in a way that came across as salacious.
Waiting outside and holding aloft my name printed in marker pen on a pad is a round-faced, bright-eyed girl who looks to be in her early twenties. She is clad in a Congo-style ankle-nudging cotton dress that fits tightly about her neatly rounded thighs, and a short-sleeved top printed with a spray of red orchids that clings to her firm high breasts. She has woven her hair in to strands festooned with colored beads. Unlike most of the women at the airport who are laden with fat and boasting the enormous bottoms that most African men are said to lust for, she is sleek and silky.
Either his editor was not doing a good job, or the author exercised an ill-advised veto.

Raffaele does not come across as a particularly deep thinker and this is not a scholarly investigation of a very dark side of humanity. There is only passing mention of the Catholic sacrament of Communion, in which practicing Catholics consume the body and blood of Christ. There is even less on the sundry cannibalistic psychopaths who have come to public notice. Are there any studies indicating when and where it might have begun? Raffaele does note that it existed in prehistory. Records go back at least as far as Herodotus (well before Soylent Green) of such culinary preferences, and it lasted into the 19th century, at least. How about a comparison with other species? How widespread is the practice in the animal kingdom. Are we really different from what we consider lower orders? For a more analytical look at the subject you might consider Carole Travis-Henikoff’s book, Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Tabboo. An NPR interview offers a taste of what she has to offer.

Among the Cannibals definitely offers new and intriguing information. Be forewarned that you will need a strong stomach to get through it all. But, because it was so much not what was expected, it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

To remove the taste, you might consider taking in a bit more of Sweeney. Another gem from the vaults is a song by Sheb Wooley that was actually a #1 hit when I was a tyke.

If you get an invitation to the Donner Party, I would pass.

And of course, every abomination must have an advocate, so you might want to see the modest proposal the folks at Zebra Punch offer, while humming their particular version of Barbara Streisand’s classic tune, about why we should
eat people.

There is an interesting item on cannibalism in Wikipedia

Raffaele’s article for Smithsonian Magazine, Sleeping with Cannibals, was the basis for the book

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05/07/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-31 of 31) (31 new)

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message 1: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Dude, this is some wild stuff! I LOVE Sweeney Todd, by the way. It's a masterpiece.

Will Byrnes I was so lucky to have seen the original, with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. Did not see George Hearn until a filming of the show was broadcast on PBS and then there was the concert performance, also with Hearn. I have seen one or two off-broadway performances, but have missed several as well. One of my best experiences was with the New York City Opera production. I was friends with the guy who played Sweeney in the B cast. He was quite good. There is a crucial scene in the show in which Sweeney changes from pissed off to actually deranged, and Stanley nailed it. After the show, I was able to go onstage and held in my hand one of the razors Sweeney uses. There was a rubbery bladder in the handle that was the source for on-stage blood-spewing. Waaaaaay cool! I used to sing the songs at home with my son. We would wander about the house with plastic knives held aloft, singing "Raise your razor, high, Sweeney..." It remains his favorite Broadway show as well. I was very disappointed in the Johnny Depp screen version. Although both Depp and HBC are fine actors, neither has the voice for their respective roles. In my fantasies, Sweeney is one of the few roles I play on stage. And if I ever write more than these reviews, I would love to pen a comedy/mystery that includes a restaurant called "Todd and Lovett's" in which the proprietors wear the stage costumes., with the servers in proper period garb. You know what would be on the menu. No, no, not that, but pies, lots of pies. :-)

message 3: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Can you hear my teeth grinding with envy that you got to see the Lansbury/Cariou production?! Back in the 80s I had the original soundtrack on cassette (GASP!) complete with libretto. I used to sing the songs at the top of my lungs when I was home alone. I just can't imagine any voices but theirs singing those songs.
As for the restaurant, I'd always be suspicious of pies with those names attached. ;-)

Will Byrnes Can't you imagine some snoterati foodie reviewer chatting up the place and it becoming the hip place to eat for people with too much money and too many piercings?

Will Byrnes Jeanette wrote: "Can you hear my teeth grinding with envy that you got to see the Lansbury/Cariou production?! Back in the 80s I had the original soundtrack on cassette (GASP!) complete with libretto. I used to sin..."
I was also annoyed that my lineup of cannibal jokes had to go back into the pot. Just can't summon too many smiles when the true horror of such contemporary madness is the subject.

message 6: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Yep, reality's pretty creepy, but I'll always love the one about the two clowns. :D

message 7: by Will (last edited Nov 20, 2013 04:52PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes I know the one about the two cannibals eating a clown. One turns to the other and says "Does this taste funny to you?"

But go ahead. I know you want to.

message 8: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Right, Will, that's the one I meant. I'm losing the use of my left hand and it distracts me sometimes when I'm typing. I meant two cannibals, not clowns.

Will Byrnes Ah well. My left hand is also fading somewhat, so I understand.

message 10: by Caroline (new)

Caroline oh too yukky.

message 11: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Food for thought

Laura Lynne Faulk Huh Jensen Judi to make sure I am excited y you end of you want to make sure I can get the things that are in a bit late for you to make a big fan of the things I yummy yummy in YYYYYYY BBC but the things you can do that are your plans for the things you can do to y'all going back to make it up and down the things you mom to get to read this feed is that a great deal on this one that I am so much better

message 13: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes huh?

message 14: by Mikey B. (new)

Mikey B. And now for something....


message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Mikey B. wrote: "And now for something....


Brilliant, per usual. Good to know the Royal Navy is getting things under control.

message 16: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Should have waited at least an hour after breakfast before I read your fine review, Will. URP!

message 17: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes All depends, I suppose, on what you et

message 18: by Jeff (new)

Jeff It wasn't my neighbor's liver and fava beans.

message 19: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Kidneys then.

message 20: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Did you know that one of the Donner Party survivors opened a restaurant?

message 21: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes So much better than one of the non-survivors opening one.

Did they have a family special?

message 22: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Also, he was the only member who spoke openly about the cannibalism. Doesn't seem good for business...

message 23: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Yikes!

Any links to share on this?

message 24: by Hanneke (new)

Hanneke Ah great, Will! Never forgot that line 'Soylent Green is people'. Totally freaked me out when I first saw that movie. You wonder how an author would feel compelled to write a book on the subject of cannibalism. You said that it was not a scholarly investigation, so is this to amuse and/or horrify?

message 25: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes I do not know how the subject was selected, but it began as an article for Smithsonian magazine.

message 26: by Wanda (new)

Wanda Will, maybe the article began with that nagging question on everyone's mind, "Will this taste better with Sriracha?"

message 27: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Season to taste

message 28: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King Will, Long time no see!

I loved your review as ever but as for the subject, cannibalism, well sorry but not for me...

And as for "An image of this cheerful Aghori is sure to help you sleep at night" - heaven forbid!

message 29: by cameron (new)

cameron Season to taste.... best comment ever.

message 30: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes cameron wrote: "Season to taste.... best comment ever."


message 31: by Rock (new) - added it

Rock Angel Occasionally I am so tickled while reading something diabolical (like a review on cannibalism) that my heart grows fond & despite myself a smile creeps up to my face ...

But enough about me. I meant to divert by bringing up the notion that human blood transfusions & organ/tissue transplants are seen by some as a form of cannibalism. (Definitely more sustaining than just passing meat through our gastrointestinal tract, which is short-lived.) Yet we're largely okay about it.

I've read this book on a downed airplane whose survivors ate their friends in order to live another day. They didn't lie about it & nobody gave them a hard time.

So what do we use to define good & bad? Should survival be the only requirement for acceptable consumption? There was this plastic surgeon who got into trouble because he used the gallons of fat liposucked from his patients to power his eco-car. Granted he didn't eat it, he fed his car.

Soon, we will be growing body parts. Is it then, a good thing, to self-cannibalize?

Disclaimer: I haven't read the book yet

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