Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

Now that Christmas dinner is a distant memory, it is time to consider Armin Meiwes, on trial in Germany for killing and eating a 'willing' victim, Bernd Brandes. Since the ancient world regarded cannibalism with the same horror that we do, enemies of Christianity quickly exploited Christ's injunction 'Take, eat, this is my body' to claim that early Christians ate babies. Some pagan cults even forbade animal sacrifice because they believed that, on death, men's souls might return in animal form (Pythagoras told someone to stop beating a dog because he recognised a friend's voice in its bark); in other words, a sacrifice to the gods could entail cannibalism.

We hear of genuine cannibalism only in extreme circumstances. When the Athenians besieged Potidaea (429 BC), the city surrendered after the food ran out, but not before some Potidaeans had tasted human flesh (according to Thucydides, in a tone of palpable disgust). The exception (according to Herodotus) was the Massagetai (from modern Turkman), who imposed a maximum age. When it was reached, the oldie was sacrificed by relatives, boiled and eaten. Such a death, Herodotus remarks, was regarded as 'most blessed'. Myth, always keen to explore what happens when humans go to extremes, associated cannibalism with another horror, incest, as if forbidden sexual contact and forbidden food were somehow analogous. …

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