Given the cancellation of Hannibal, America’s beloved cannibal, a few year back, it begs the question: Why has everyone cancelled cannibals? And where does cannibalism in popular culture differ from cannibalism throughout history?
Nerds, this post is going to be tough to….er, swallow.
What’s the Big Deal With Cannibalism in Popular Culture?
In 2012 custom officials in South Korea seized thousands of suspicious-looking pills. Upon investigation, they discovered the pills were filled with powdered human flesh. The pills were being trafficked as a medicinal “cure-all”, and specifically, were thought to be the remains of still-born babies, that had been dried and crushed into powder.
Upon discovery, the new guy immediately began puking in the corner while even the strongest stomached official was flooded with disgust, anger, and sadness. I mean, there are just no words.
The above is a true story, but we also see the fictional depiction of cannibalism in popular culture as well. Of course, there was the previously mentioned Hannibal that has been on TV for years, and in movies for years before that. And one of the best comics of recent years is Chew, which is about a detective who solves murders by eating a bit of the victim’s flesh.
Gaming has seen its share of cannibals. Aboleths in D&D eat their parents to absorb their memories. Then there were a group of cannibals in The Last of Us. Yet it is the Fallout series that gives gamers their best taste of cannibalism.
But the popular culture property that bit most deeply into cannibalism has been The Walking Dead. The scene in Terminus where the victims were being “prepared” was truly one of the only scenes in the entire run of the series that was difficult for me to watch. And I became the new guy puking in the corner after witnessing the fate of poor Bob.
So, cannibalism is gross and I hope we can all agree on that. Please, Lord, I hope we can all agree on that.
But what of the historical nature of cannibalism? Was it always seen as gross?
Cannibalism in Popular Culture: Where it Differs From History
Recent research claims that Europeans saw no issue with cannibalism well into the 19th and even into the 20th century.
In the 1880s it was reported that Europeans created candles made of human fat and made remedies out of crushed skull powder. It is less certain what that type of remedy would cure. Going back a little further in time, even King Charles II of England sipped ‘The King’s Drops,” powdered human skull mixed with alcohol.
The book Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture details that many Europeans – from royalty to scientists – routinely ate remedies containing human bones, fat and blood in order to solve everyday complains from headaches to epilepsy.
Chirurgeons brewed a drink for brain bleeding that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate. Meanwhile, the moss that grew over a buried skull, called Usnea, was used to cure nosebleeds and epilepsy. And watch out chubsters: German doctors soaked bandages in human fat because that was thought to cure gout.
In France a recipe from 1679 was found that describes how to turn blood into marmalade.
Then, of course, in eastern Europe the well-known Vlad and his companions had no ethical or moral concerns about drinking blood, a historical case of cannibalism that has been fleshed out into modern day vampire stories. Most adherents advocated drinking blood fresh from the body, but poor people could pay a small price for a cup of warm blood, served seconds after executions.
Seriously, there are no words. Can we please all be in agreement that this is gross?
While Europeans ate cadavers to cure their physical ailments, the same culture sent missionaries and colonists to the New World to cure indigenous people of their purported barbaric cannibalism, some of which was entirely fabricated as a convenient rationale for conquest.
The fact that most of our grandfather’s grandfathers may have nibbled on a neighbor stayed hush hush because cannibalism didn’t fit in with the European self-image. In medieval times, cultural enemies were commonly depicted as cannibals or giants. “Witches, Jews, savages, Orientals, and pagans are conceivable as—indeed, must be—cannibals; but in the 12th-century medieval imaginary, the Christian European subject cannot.”
Indeed, the word cannibal first entered the English language in the mid-16th century by means of Spanish explorers, deriving from the Spanish word Canibales, which was used by Columbus in his diaries to describe indigenous people of the Caribbean islands who were rumored to be eaters of human flesh. It should be noted that in his diaries, it is clear Columbus didn’t initially believe the rumors.
But the name stuck: Cannibal became a popular term used to describe people in the New World. It was certainly sexier than the Greek and then Latin word “anthropophagi,” which a 1538 dictionary defines as “people in Asia, which eate [sic] men.”
So in example after example, Europeans viewed other cultures as cannibal savages, while cannibalism was happening in their neighbor’s kitchen. This is all chronicled in another book, magnificently titled: Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians.
Cannibalism in Popular Culture: Final Thoughts
Thankfully, as science rose to prominence the practice of cannibalism died out. But we’ll always have it in pop culture and throughout the genres us nerds love, whether it be flesh-eating zombies or blood-drinking vampire. And I can drink to that.
But I will stop here because I don’t want to write enough for a Wikipedia page on cannibalism. Besides, it’s gross and I’ve already written enough to satiate even the hungriest nerd’s appetite for cannibalism.
Just know that the next time you are watching The Walking Dead or playing Fallout, that those stories of cannibalism had their origins in some historical places. Like many of our ancestors.
In closing, go hug your loved ones and tell them you’ll do everything you can to protect them, ’cause cannibalism, man, that’s some creepy stuff.