Herodotus and the Cannibals

By Murphy, E. M.; Mallory, J. P. | Antiquity, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Herodotus and the Cannibals


Murphy, E. M., Mallory, J. P., Antiquity


In his 5th-century BC Histories, Herodotus provides us with one of the earliest written accounts for the practice of cannibalism (White 1992: 7). Cannibalism or anthropophagy are terms which imply the use of parts of the human body for food (Zivanovic 1982: 192) although the definition may include anything from consuming the ashes of a cremated relative to devouring the barbecued limbs of one's enemies (Myers 1984: 149). The objective of this paper is to examine the references pertaining to cannibalism in Herodotus, review the various theories that have attempted to account for these references, and propose a new explanation for this cultural motif.

The accounts of Herodotus

In describing the behaviour of the Androphagoi (man-eaters), Herodotus tells us that this tribe dwelling north of the Black Sea are `the most savage (agriotata)' of all those in the region since they possess no laws. They are nomads who dress like Scythians but speak their own language. Most importantly, they are the only one of the societies in the region to eat people (anthropophageousi) (4.106). The critical question of whom specifically these Androphagoi dined upon is left unexplained. This is not so in Herodotus' other accounts.

Describing the mortuary practice of the Issedones (FIGURE 1), one of the peoples of the steppe-lands commonly located either in the southern Urals or more often immediately east of the Urals on the Isset, a tributary of the Tobol, Herodotus relates (4.26; Godley 1938):

It is said to be the custom of the Issedones, that whenever a man's father dies, all the nearest of kin bring beasts of the flock, and having killed these and cut up the flesh they cut up also the dead father of their host, and set out all the flesh mingled together for a feast.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In his description of the Massagetae of western Central Asia, he tells us (1.216; Godley 1938: 271) that:

When a man is very old all his kin meet together and kill (thuousi) him, with beasts of the flock besides, the boil the flesh and feast (kateuokheontai) on it. This is held to be the happiest death; when a man dies of a sickness they do not eat him, but bury him in the earth, and lament that he would not live to be killed.

While both the Issedones and Massagetae are generally presumed to have been Iranian-speaking, Herodotus also attributes cannibalism to two tribes living immediately south of the Indus: the Kallatiai, who `devour (katesthiousi) their parents' (3.38), and the Padaioi, described as nomads who eat raw flesh, among whom when `one has come to old age, they sacrifice (him) and feast (kateuokheontai) on his flesh' (3.99).

That endocannibalism -- the consumption of one's own deceased -- is a topos in Herodotus is most clearly seen in his account of how Darius, King of Persia, summoned the Greeks and asked them `what price would persuade them to eat their fathers' dead bodies'; the Greeks replied that there was no price that would entice them to behave so (3.38). In short, the consumption of one's own deceased was most definitely unacceptable to the Greeks and a practice that was to be associated with foreigners. Herodotus' description of cannibalism was adopted by later authors to be reapplied to more distant peoples. Strabo relates how the inhabitants of Ireland are even more savage (agrioteroi) than those of Britain `since they are man-eaters (anthropophagoi) ... and since they count it an honourable thing when their fathers die, to devour (katesthiein) them' (4.5.4). He provides a further example of cannibalism in his description of the Derbikes of the Caucasus region (11.11.8; Jones 1923):

When men become over 70 years of age they are slaughtered and their flesh is consumed (analiskousi) by their nearest of kin; but their old women are strangled and then buried. However, the men who die under 70 years of age are not eaten, but only buried. …

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