Utopian Dreams

Note 5: Cannibalism as Sacred and Profane Discourse. 3/12/99

In book five of his treatise Against Heresies, Irenaeus undertakes the task of refuting certain heresies that arose in the first century of the Christian era over the issue of the true meaning of the Eucharist. The issue was complex. Tertullian had argued that the human soul was a corporeal substance which had come to (wo)man when God breathed the breath of life into the handful of dirt he used to fashion human flesh. He distinguishes his perception of the corporeal substance of the soul from various Greek philosophers who also described it in material terms:

"I am not referring merely to those who mould the soul out of manifest bodily substances, as Hipparchus and Heraclitus (do) out of fire; as Hippon and Thales (do) out of water; as Empedocles and Critias (do) out of blood; as Epicurus (does) out of atoms, since even atoms by their coherence form corporeal masses; as Critolaus and his Peripatetics (do) out of a certain indescribable quintessence." (Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 4)

Tertullian goes on from this point to call upon the Stoics, namely Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, all of whom had argued that breath was a substance of material reality which constituted the true nature of the human soul, to support his position that the soul was a corporeal substance with a decidedly spiritual aspect. The simple truth, of course, is that this perception of the soul is essentially contradictory, since breath, even, or especially, the breath of God, implies an immateriality that is more logically perceived as incorporeal. Tertullian, however, is forced to assert the material and corporeal nature of the soul because unless the soul has material reality it cannot receive punishment for the evil a person has committed and cannot receive blessings in heaven for all the good a person does in his/her life. Tertullian puts it this way: " For whatever is incorporeal is incapable of being kept and guarded in any way; it is also exempt from either punishment or refreshment" (Chapter 7).The concepts of punishment and reward were so significant in early Christianity, one supposes, that an illogical, if not ridiculous, argument in the service of explaining how punishment or reward was to be meted out in the afterlife was perceived as being more important than sensible or logical discourse was.

One of the problems this argument about the nature of the soul engendered was the fact that many people in the early days of the spread of Christianity into Europe accused Christians of practicing cannibalism. That notion arose on the strength of arguments relating to the soul's corporeal nature. Irenaeus argues, for instance, that

"When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which flesh is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?--even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that "we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones." He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; but he refers to that dispensation by which the Lord became an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,--that flesh which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body." (Chapter 2)

This statement clearly suggests that there is more than a symbolic or allegorical meaning attached to the ingestion of the blood and flesh of the human Savior by sinful (wo)man in the sacrament of Holy Communion. The idea that the flesh and blood of human beings are nourished by the Euchirst means that the ingestion of the elements of the Mass has a substantial physical and material impact on anyone who participates in its ritual. If nothing else statements like this one spread the impression that Christians believed they were eating an actual substance composed of human flesh and human blood when they enacted the ritual of Communion. This language, then, caused many people to believe that Christians were practicing cannibals.

Sir George Peckham, who wrote and delivered an argument in favor of the colonization of the Americas to Queen Elizabeth I in 1582, claims that a certain David Ingram, who had spent 11 months in the New World, reported that

"the Savages generally for the most part, are at continual war with their next adjoining neighbours, and especially the Cannibals, being a cruel kind of people whose food is mans flesh, and have teeth like dogs, and do pursue them with ravenous minds to eat their flesh, and devour them."

Peckham uses this report as a justification for protecting native Americans by "force of arms" from their dangerous neighbors. Montaigne (1533-1592), the French essayist, at about this same time, also reported the widespread existence of cannibals in the New World. Columbus, as soon as he landed in Hispaniola, began an extended search for cannibals in the near regions of his first landfall. As I have noted elsewhere in this document, the Eurocentric impulse to believing that there were cannibals among native American tribes was an immediate and persistent theme in logocentric discourse about the New World that lasted until at least the end of the sixteenth century. There are several ways to evaluate and address this issue. On the one hand, it is possible to argue that European Christians, when confronted by a vast continent inhabited by a firmly entrenched indigenous population clearly in possession of civilized social conventions, even if those patterns of behavior were radically different from those of the Old World, the possibility nevertheless presented itself that these people were a lost "tribe" of fellow believers in the risen Lord and Savior of sinful (wo)man. Since Christians had long been accused of practicing cannibalism, it seems only natural, in a perverse kind of way, that they embraced the idea they would be able to identify others of their kind by searching for people who ate human flesh. When Columbus began asking for cannibals in Hispaniola, he may have expected to find direction to a lost group of Christians living in isolation from the rest of Europe in the New World. Francis Bacon, in The New Atlantis, makes an argument of this kind in 1626.

Another possibility which suggests itself concerns the idea of fashioning an excuse to pursue an active course of genocide and annihilation against the inhabitants of the New World to facilitate the confiscation of the land and material wealth of the indiginous population. The reasoning involved in this supposition is fairly direct and straightforward in a totally insidious sort of way. Since Christians had been given the right and duty to consume human flesh and blood in the Holy Sacrament of Communion, given that duty directly by the will of their omnipotent God, by the sacrifice of the Word made flesh among them, that act of ritual cannibalism was wholly conceived as the most sacred act any human being could perform. If, on the other hand, however, a race of men were discovered who consumed human flesh outside the dispensation of God's grace, a race or tribe of men, for instance, who had "teeth like dogs," then a truly profane practice of unholy cannibalism could be said to exist among those people who pursued human flesh like any other source of food. The inversion, as it were, of the most sacred institution of Christian belief into the most despicable act of human depravity would clearly demonstrate the difference between the highest good possessed by Christian soldiers and the lowest evil of the people God had commanded them to war against. The fact that Peckham connects the existence of cannibals in the New World with the idea that "force of arms" must be employed to protect the less depraved natives from them makes it clear that this line of reasoning and justification was already in place as early as 1582.

At the bottom of this compulsion to paint native Americans in the worst, most horrific, light was the recognition by early explorers of the New World that its vast and unspoiled wealth was destined to become a truly saving grace for many of the deplorable conditions that existed in Europe at the time. Peckham notes that "the trade, traffic, and planting in those countreys, is likely to prove very profitable to the whole realm in general." Compensation to the natives for the material gain taken by the English from the land and people there would take the form of being brought to the light of Christian belief. Peckham puts it in these terms:"And if in respect of all the commodities they can yield us (were they many more) that they should but receive this only benefit of Christianity, they were more then fully recompensed." So, in exchange for the entire expanse of the continent of the Western hemisphere, the English thought that being Christianized was all the just compensation any reasonable savage should expect to receive.

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