Monday, August 20, 2007


I finished book I today. Herodotus has, I think, at least two instances of cannibalism in this book. The most notable, and the most extended occurs in the story of Cyrus. In fact it resembles closely the feast attributed to Atreus. A boy is killed, and his body cooked and served to his father, or to his family, and his hands and feet are reserved. Upon completion of the dinner the unsuspecting relatives are presented with their children’s hands and feet. Similar gruesome activities are recorded in literature. Titus Andronicus includes something similar, Dante depicts Ugolino gnawing upon the head of Ruggieri. Ugolino, while imprisoned with his children, is supposed to have been driven by starvation to eat their dead bodies. Boccaccio has at least one tale (4th day, 9th tale) that features cannibalism, while another features a dismemberment that passes into English Romantic literature as the basis for Keats’ poem about the pot of basil. There has even been a report of Al Qaeda baking and serving a child to its parents.

Just how much of this is actually historical, and how much of it is a libel? You could probably argue that the instance given by Herodotus occurred long before his birth, and could be a libel by one party on another. St. Thomas More, when he acted in his role as a Tudor apologist, libeled Richard III by suggesting that he killed the little princes. A libel repeated by Shakespeare. You could also say that based on the number of jokes and cartoons about cannibalism that it represents a repressed desire that is endemic in the human race.

According to some of the things I’ve read cannibalism, to the extent that it is believed to have been practiced by primitive peoples, is generally said to have been something that occurred in the past, or to have been practiced by others. Confirmed instances of historical cannibalism, the Donner party, the whale ship Essex, the plane crash in Peru some years back, and more recent instances in Maoist China and N. Korea have the appearance of being more of a survival mechanism rather than a means of revenge, or of some psycho-sexual disorder. On the other hand there have been notable instances of it appearing along with psycho-sexual disorders. Albert Fish and Jeffrey Dahmer are two prominent examples of this phenomenon.

The Grecian instances of cannibalism, if I understand things correctly, should probably be thought of as belonging to the distant past. These things are now taboo and forbidden. The Asian peoples, however, have done these things with recent memory, or at least recent as far as Herodotus is concerned.

Herodotus, thus far, does not show any concept of an idea of progress, but I think by emphasizing the story as he does that he serves up a contrast between the relative savagery of the East, and the emerging sophistication of the West. So I suppose that in a sense it does function as a libel.