Justin Martyr and St. Ignatius: Constituting Cannibalism. 3/10/99
When Columbus reached the shores of Hispaniola 500 years ago, one of the first questions he asked, as soon as he could find a way to communicate with the natives occupying the place, was where on the island, or in the region, would he be able to find the cannibals (See Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797, Methuen, 1986, pp. 16-24; 78-87). That may seem like a normal question to ask after traveling half-way around the world in a boat hardly more expansive than most small houses, normal if you are European, but to me, and I assume as well to most other people of native American descent, especially the natives of Hispaniola at the time, that question is more than simply bizarre, that question borders on the truly incomprehensible. (This may actually have been Columbus's second question to the natives; his first question would have been: "where do you subhuman animals keep your gold?") I have spent some considerable time trying to understand why Columbus believed he was going to find cannibals in India, and/or China, which is where he thought he was when he asked the question, and seemed somewhat intent on finding, rather than avoiding, them when the natives directed him to another nearby island in the chain. He sailed around for several weeks or months from one island to the next looking for cannibals. The natives, at each place he stopped, pointed off toward another place just over the horizon, probably as much to get rid of him as anything else, and rightly so too, since that is exactly what any reasonable person would do if someone came to the door asking to see the local cannibals, that group or tribe of people who survived by eating human flesh. If someone came to my door asking if there were any cannibals in the neighborhood, I'd probably call the police, especially if it seemed like the searcher was interested in joining their ranks, rather than avoiding their territory.
After many years of contemplation (I could lie outrageously here by saying that I have thought of nothing else for twenty years to enhance the dramatic effect of revealing the solution to this intriguing sociohistorical problem), coupled with several lengthy excursions into remote libraries and databases in pursuit of obscure documents related to the esoteric issues of cannibalism, I stumbled, literally, and completely by accident, into an explanation for Columbus's obsession with finding cannibals in the New World. The documents I found are not all that obscure. (I found them all on the Internet.) The sequence, however, of their juxtaposition in the relative space and time of my uncovering them, reading them, and linking them together, as a solution to the question of Eurocentric obsession with cannibalism, may be as irrational in appearance as the problem they seek to solve. I'm assuming here that most people well-versed in the ideology of Eurocentric discourse, in logocentric thought processes, do not find Columbus's apparent obsession with cannibals in the least bit strange. I find it excessively bizarre, not because I'm familiar with European philosophical traditions, but because I am well-versed in native American perceptions of reality. My sense here is that I'm troubled by the search for cannibals in the Americas because I'm a native of the land where Europeans expected to find them. I have always already known that there are not, and never have been, any tribes of cannibals in the Americas. My question is: why would anyone look for them here?
Three different texts can be used to fabricate something of an answer to that question: Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis; Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew; and St. Ignatius's Epistle to the Romans. I have commented elsewhere in this document on the ideological content of Bacon's treatise on the New Atlantis and need to summarize only a few points from that more expansive discussion here. Bacon's work appeared in 1626 and cannot be said to have influenced Columbus's search for cannibals in the New World. Bacon, in fact, does not mention the subject of people who eat human flesh at all. Either one of these two facts would seem to exclude his work as having any relevance to the question before us and in hand and both together may suggest that I am about to stretch a point beyond any reasonable credibility. Bacon's idea that a Newer World, newer yet than even the one Columbus invaded, rested still more distantly to the west in the Pacific ocean, out beyond Peru, as it were, since that is where Bacon's sailors began their journey, and that this newer world had some relationship to the Americas, to the fact that Europeans were hoping to find cannibals everywhere in the Western hemisphere, reaches its own logical resolution and ideological closure in the fact that the New Atlantis was populated by Christians of a purer and more perfect kind than any who existed in Europe at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
New Atlantis got its Christian ideology soon after the crucifixion of Christ when a brilliant shaft of light with a cross affixed to its upper regions appeared over the ocean on the eastern side of the island. When the natives investigated the vision, they found a wooden ark floating in the sea which contained the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and a few other documents that European Christian did not possess themselves. Bacon does not specify what these other documents were and the purpose they serve is to reinforce the notion that the New Atlantis version of the Christian Faith is better by virtue of being more Wordy, as it were, more Logos-driven and -saturated, than its European counterpart. Another aspect of this same delusional thinking that matters here is the fact that most medieval Christians during the first millennium believed that the Garden of Eden existed somewhere out there toward the west of the European land mass. Many people believed initially that the Americas might be the lost paradise of Eden. My sense is that Columbus, as he came to realize that he might not have reached India and/or China, thought he might have stumbled into Eden itself. There is no other explanation for why he began to ask the natives of the New World if there were any cannibals living in the neighborhood. When he, Columbus as a kind of surrogate composite entity who represented the whole of the Christianized world at the time, did not find any actual cannibals in the New World, it became obvious to him, and to the rest of Europe as well, that he, and they, had certainly not found Eden after all. Proof that the Americas were not, and could not be, Eden was explicitly revealed by the absence of cannibals anywhere in the newly (dis)covered continent.
While this assertion may appear to be insupportable from any known facts arising from the long history of Christian discourse in Western Europe, the idea that the absence of cannibals in the New World led naturally and inevitably to the realization that Eden had not been found was so firmly inscribed in Christian ideology that no one alive during the first several centuries after the first voyage of Columbus even needed to be told that the Americas were not Eden. This fact can be ascertained from St. Ignatius's Epistle to the Romans, which was written some time around 107 A. D. just before he was martyred at the Colosseum in Rome. Ignatius was one of those Christians who were fed to the lions. His letter to the members of the Church in Rome was sent in advance of his arrival there to fulfill his ardent desire to become a martyr for Christ. Trajan, the emperor of Rome at the time, was willing enough to persecute any number of Christians for their perceived crimes against the empire, but Ignatius took the issue into his own hands and traveled from Antioch, where he was active in the Church, to Rome, on his own initiative, where he made himself available for the spectacle of being fed to the lions. He even picked the day of his consumption to coincide with a festival that assured him a larger crowd than ones that usually attended such events. Ignatius believed, as did many Christians at the time, that the only sure way to achieve entry into eternal life was by becoming a martyr to the cause of spreading the faith among non-believers. The Chapter headings from his letter illustrate the point: "Chapter 2: Do Not Save Me From Martyrdom"; "Chapter 4: Allow Me To Fall A Prey To The Wild Beasts"; and "Chapter 7: Reason Of Desiring To Die."
In Chapter 7 he gives this as his reason for seeking death:
"I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life."
As we all know, understand, and believe, of course, Ignatius's reference to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God, who was also perceived as being completely human in the eyes of the Church, was meant to be taken symbolically, allegorically, metaphorically, and was never taken by anyone in a strictly literal sense. Well, maybe for the most part, that statement was never taken literally.
Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, asks Trypho the following question:
"have you also believed concerning us, that we eat men; and that after the feast, having extinguished the lights, we engage in promiscuous concubinage?"
So, while it might be true that people in general did not associate the ritual of the Mass with an act of cannibalism, it is certainly obvious that at least until the middle of the second century, Justin apparently was martyred in 165 A. D., many, maybe even most, non-Christians either did believe that Christians were cannibalistic, or made that accusation against them in order to encourage the state of Rome to persecute them. Trypho himself responds to Justin's question in the following way and in complete consistency with what anyone would expect from a character imagined by the Martyr:
"This [ignoring Jewish law] is what we are amazed at," said Trypho, "but those things about which the multitude speak are not worthy of belief; for they are most repugnant to human nature."
That a "multitude" speaks of Christians as cannibals, whether Jewish people behind the mask of a fictional character named "Trypho" did so or not, is impossible from this statement to determine. The idea is at least one actively present in Justin's mind (imagination?) when he composed his Dialogue with a Jew. The fact that he brought the subject up himself seems to suggest that enough people were saying such things about the early Church that he felt compelled to defend Christians from the false charges circulating in society about the nature of the strange cult that had appeared among them. And Christianity was precisely that: a strange cult. Whatever else one might find to say about pagan religions at the beginning of the first millennium, they were certainly life-affirming, since most of them were fertility cults of one kind or another. As Ignatius makes perfectly clear, however, Christianity adhered to an opposite view and was, at best, a religious faith that actively pursued death, that never affirmed life. Life and nature were perceived by Christians as being evil and to affirm life was the same as choosing eternal death and damnation; to deny life was to choose eternity over what Christians considered to be spiritual death.
When Columbus inquired about cannibals he was looking for people who ate the flesh and drank the blood of their human Savior, just as he and the rest of his sailors did. The fact that Francis Bacon's version of the Myth of Eden did not appear until 134 years after Columbus began searching for cannibals in the New World only demonstrates how ingrained the idea was in Eurocentric discourse. The pillar of light on the eastern shore of the island, which initially held the natives of New Atlantis back from approaching the ark, until their purity of heart could be measured, is meant to represent the flaming sword God established to protect against corrupt humans from regaining access to the tree of life ("So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." Genesis 3:24). Precisely what those other Christians were supposed to be like is difficult to imagine but one can read from Bacon's account of the New Atlantis, the real Eden, if you will, that they would have been somehow better and more complete than European Christians were thought to be. Since Bacon has his searchers sail from Peru, and since native Americans were not cannibals, they were also certainly not the lost tribes of Christians that Europeans expected to find in Eden. Native Americans, because they did not live up to Eurocentric expectations, became a totally expendable commodity. They became objects of slavery and genocide simply because they did not eat human flesh in a religious ritual anything like the celebration of the Mass.
While an issue like cannibalism may not be the most significant one there is with regard to questions about the nature of the first encounters between Europeans and native Americans, it does nevertheless establish a useful background for understanding that Christians and Europeans, where they are not both simultaneously, almost always referred to the practice of eating human flesh as an attribute consistently present in native American tribes. Calling the Other a cannibal assured the audience of that assertion that the people in question were vicious, brutal, savages who did not deserve, and could not be allowed, to occupy a place in the Christian society that was being crafted in the Western hemisphere. No other "proof" was thought to be necessary, since the unregulated, non-ritualistic consumption of human flesh was all the evil anyone had to establish to justify the extermination of its practitioners. Making the Other evil is the first step on the road to their ultimate annihilation, a fact as clear and present in Judeo-Christian tradition as the promises Yahweh made to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land (Deuteronomy: Chapters 7, 8, 9). Native Americans in the Western hemisphere fell victim to the same ideological commonplace that destroyed the first Palestinians 5,000 years ago.
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