It was Isaiah Bunter
Who sailed to the world's end,
And spread religion in a way
That he did not intend.
He gave, if not the gospel-feast,
At least a ritual meal;
And in a highly painful sense
He was devoured with zeal.
(from) The Higher Unity G. K. Chesterton
Cannibalism originally referred to the consumption of human flesh by other humans, but has since been expanded to mean any individual feeding on members of its own species. By way of disambiguation the eating of humans by non-humans is properly called anthropophagy1 (or, by way of dark humour, "humanitarianism") and the consumption of blood (as, for example, by vampires) haematophagy2. The word itself is derived from the name of the Caribee Amerindian tribe3 who were famous cannibals. Of which more later. In settings with more than one sapient species it is normal (but not compulsory) for the definition of cannibalism to be extended to the consumption of any sapient by any other, whatever the implications of such a classification may turn out to be.
In some species - notably several kinds of invertebrates - cannibalism seems to be an inevitable part of life: the female praying mantis normally consumes the male following (and indeed during) mating, and this is (at least in biological terms) a sucess for the male.
In other species, cannibalism is less frequent and occurs for a variety of reasons. Amongst most societies of sapients it will tend to be hedged around with a great variety of restrictions - not altogether suprising as it becomes hard to run a society if everyone is sizing his neighbour up for the pot. The most common restriction seems to be a very strong taboo against cannibalism, whilst other cultures accept the phenomenon but place strong stipulations on how, when and why it can occur and taboo any occurences beyond these bounds. These tend to divide into exocannibalism (consumption of those not belonging to the consumer's social group) and endocannibalism (consumption of individuals from the consumer's social group) - the two seem to be almost mutually exclusive in real life. Cultures of unrestricted cannibalism are largely fictional and would be sub-functional at best.
As for reasons for cannibalism, the following would seem to be an (inexhaustive) list:
- Desperation based: occuring even in cultures where cannibalism is strictly taboo, starving individuals consume the flesh of others. This sort of consumption occurs fairly frequently in situations of famine, deliberate starvation4 and of isolation (such as that of shipwreck mariners).
- Predation based: a form of exocannibalism which regards individuals not belonging to the consumer's own social group as merely another sort of prey animal. In some cases the consumers may fail to recognise the "personhood" of their victims and do not consider the predation cannibalistic. This seems to be fairly rare but examples exist in real-world history5. In general, humans make a poor form of livestock - being slow breeding, dangerous prey and few societies are likely to thrive with cannibalism as a primary source of meat except in some hypothetical scenario in which a small group feeds on a much larger host population which, for some reason, fails to eradicate them.
- Conquest based: usually exocannibalism, by which enemies captured or killed in warfare are consumed, in part or whole, by those that defeated them. Normally distinguished from predation based cannibalism by a state of mutual conflict rather than one group hunting the other for food. The motive for this may vary - it may be predatory, with the enemy serving as a welcome dietary supplement, or exulatative, with the enemy furnishing a victory feast. It may also serve to humiliate the enemy by reducing them to animal status as prey. Another option may be that it serves a ritual function and allows the conquerors protection from the spirits of the dead (either by destroying them, adopting them into their own spirit group or otherwise subduing them) or to adsorb some beneficial aspect of the dead men. Being eaten may even be a compliment.
- Vengance based: related to conquest based cannibalism, but less organised and possibly even exploiting an anti-cannibalism taboo. Normally this involves the offended party hunting down and eating part or all of the offender, most likely for the terror inducing effect that this will have on other potential offenders (and, for the duration of the hunt at least, the current one). A darker version of this involves tricking an enemy into eating their own friends, relatives or allies. Darker still involves engaging in one or both of these whilst the victim is still alive - or even forcing them to eat their own body parts.
- Funerary cannibalism: this is an endocannibalism in which members of a community consume part or all of their own dead as part of the funeral rites. This may occur generally or may be limited to high status individuals or those who die without issue.
- Deviant cannibalism: this form of cannibalism occurs in societies with a cannibalism taboo by individuals who are either compelled by a mental disorder or who knowingly violate the taboo for reasons of "art", sexual perversion or a simple desire to offend.
- Ritual/magical: cannibalism can also occur as part of ritual magic, either as part of a human sacrifice or to adsorb some element of the victim that the cannibal desires to possess - many of the most powerful identity theft magics involve eating part or all of the victim - the flesh to steal their appearance and the brain to steal memories. The worst workings leave the victim alive so that the process can be repeated. Cannibalism can also serve to enslave the victim's spirit if used as part of a suitable working, although the victim must usually start the ritual alive…
- Technically the custom of consuming the placenta after a birth probably counts as a form of endocannibalism as well, albiet distinctly entry-level as forms of cannibalism go.
- Industrial Cannibalism: thankfully still confined to the realms of speculative fiction (…as far as we know), this is where soylent soy comes from. For logistical reasons this is usually confined to the recycling of corpses and thus might be considered a hybrid of funerary cannibalism. It is an open question how far a corpse must be processed before it stops being a corpse. An unpleasant variation on this is the occasional idea that some human corpse extract is being added to junk food to make it addictive (or merely to spiritually corrupt those who consume it). Furthermore, how about tank meat grown from human cells - is it cannibalism to eat that?
It is an open question as to whether the consumption of humans by lycanthropes and similar part-human species is cannibalism or anthropophagy … a lot will depend on where you draw the lines.
In some traditions, the consumption of human flesh in life can transform the offender into a ghoul. Whether this occurs before or after death will depend on your ghouls. Other monstrous creatures associated with cannibalism include the wendigo and the Black Tamanous6.
For any society with a cannibalism taboo, accusations of being cannibal make a very effective blood libel against a group that is to be oppressed - the Romans used rumours of cannibalism as part of the Eucharist to aid the suppression of the early Christian church and the Church of Rome (and later Islamic clerics) recycled much the same accusations against the Jews. The cannibalistic habits of the Carribbee Indians were used to justify their enslavement by their Spanish conquerors and this was then used as precedent to enslave any other tribe that could be accused of cannibalism thereafter. Likewise in Africa it was relatively common for a tribe making contact with European explorers to attempt to deter the newcomers from meeting their rivals (and possibly allying with them instead) by accusing those rivals of being cannibals. Interestingly, the suspicion of cannibalism in Africa could run both ways - with the Triangular Trade at its height, the tribes dealing with European slave traders had no notion what their clients needed so many people for and, in some cases, suspected that they must be eating them7.
- Adlet - a race of allegedly cannibalistic creatures
- Armin Meiwes - a German cannibal who sought out and found a willing victim
- Black Tamanous - a specialised, cannibal-eating monster.
- Ghoul - being a cannibal will allegedly turn you into this creature
- Wendigo - or one of these…
- Event/News: 'Cannibal' killer commits suicide
- News: Otty Sanchez, Woman Accused Of Killing Newborn, Ate Brain
Game and Story Use
- Cannibalism is a common - if rather hackneyed - way of thumbnailing a primitive tribe as villains.
- Whilst it may be fun to have your PCs fleeing cannibal head-hunters in the jungle, consider subverting it.
- For example, make the cannibals your PCs allies (as in Patrick O'Brien's novel Clarissa Oakes8) - a perfectly respectable tribe who just happen to eat their enemies.
- Remove the primitive aspect - make the cannibals highly civilised people who use funerary cannibalism.
- Of course primitive tribes that eat people don't need to be jungle dwellers - American folklore also contains plenty of cannibal red-neck clans (probably based on the semi-historical Scottish bandit Sawney Beane).
- And then there are the C.H.U.Ds.9 from the eponymous filmy and similar urban degenerates. Or the pot shops of George R. R. Martin's Flea Bottom, where at least one murder victim is known to have disappeared into the stew consumed by the city's poor.
- Whilst it may be fun to have your PCs fleeing cannibal head-hunters in the jungle, consider subverting it.
- Even the Nazis never stooped so low as to feed their victims to one another … at least not on an industrial scale … but it's easy to imagine an equivalent concentration camp commandant making the intuitive leap.
- Can be a shocking NPC in a modern campaign:
- a cannibalistic serial killer makes a suitably disturbing enemy
- an autocannibalistic madman would be a terrifying NPC whether hostile or not.
- Deliberately transgressive cannibalism - such as performance artists consuming the body parts of willing, deceased persons can also be used to illustrate a decadent society or just used as characterization for a deviant.
- On the subject of decadence, cannibalism could also be a trait of a suitably decadent evil empire (one step further in treating their slaves as livestock) or even a single powerful family of deviants (like the Delapores in H. P. Lovecraft's The Rats in the Walls).
- Other decadent cannibals might include the White Glove Society from Fallout: New Vegas and the (admittedly unwitting) gourmands dining on "Lamb Armistan" in The Speciality of the House.
- This can be one of the disadvantages of possessing the power of regeneration.
- Those who watched District 9 will probably recall the Nigerians eating the "Prawns" to try and adsorb their powers (not least the ability to operate "Prawn" weapons). This phenomenon is an example of ritual/magical cannibalism that is - to a degree - truth in television (if you watched the film on a television); trying to gain magical powers by eating people is relatively common in several African magical traditions.
- Funerary cannibalism could be an interesting surprise to spring on your PCs … they didn't realise that being invited to the funeral meant eating the deceased, but it might be necessary to collect a legacy.
- An example of this occurs in the webcomic Digger, where the eponymous protagonist attends a Hyena funeral … particularly upsetting for the character in question given that she is an entirely herbivorous wombat…
Ed: "Digger-mousey is a plant eater yes? Is not eating meat at all?"
Ed: "Learn fast."
- A society that uses funerary cannibalism as a form of sky burial would be interesting (this Arcanist used it for a pseudo-Himalayan nation in one setting) … even more so if it lead to a lot of ghouls hanging about (a spin-off of the example nation actually worshipped a ghoul-god).
- And then there's the story of the explorer in South East Asia who mistook a public cremation for a barbecue and helped himself to a cut of the roast…
- Another application of vengeance based cannibalism: a culture might force murderers to eat the body of their victim, possibly in public. This would seem to be an incentive to kill very small people and then be caught (if at all) either very quickly or after a very long time.