When Mike asked if I wanted to get involved in his project about the Laestrygonians, I was already well aware of their role in The Odyssey. The shock of the event isn't just because Odysseus’ men are killed in their dozens. They are eaten. This is an incredibly visceral image, and for sheer depravity it is arguably unmatched by any other part of the poem.
Cannibalism is a fear that is written into our consciousness. Take a look at the classic model of a monster; big teeth are an important part of what makes them scary. But it is more than that. The act of eating another human sets off very clear chemical signals of revolt and disgust. This is not a crime we debate, but one with an intrinsic negative emotion attached, and because of this emotive response, it is a perennial part of world mythology and storytelling.
Many fantastical creatures have cannibalism sewn into their identity. The Wendigo in Native American mythology, Lamia in another Greek myth, and the ghouls and vampires across literature all feast on human flesh. You get a sense that their stories have lasted so long because these creatures are not just out to scare you; they are out to eat you too.
Then there are the fictional figures who skirt closer to reality. Sawney Bean, the Scottish cannibal, was supposedly behind the deaths of over a thousand people. He hid in a cave with his family and preyed on nearby visitors. While we can debate the veracity of his existence, his place in folklore is guaranteed. Hannibal Lecter, the civilised, multi-degreed, dinner-party-serving man-eater, is terrifying because you could imagine him living next door to you. Indeed, he was written as an amalgamation of several real-life cannibals, and his character is designed to remind us that that though we may find it horrific, there are people out there, in our world, who have tasted the forbidden flesh.
Cannibalism forms a part of apocalyptic and futuristic fiction across the board; it tends to crop up wherever the need for survival outweighs the need for society. Few of the Western folk canon’s monsters are truly “apocalyptic” in nature, but it is no surprise that one of them is founded on the fear of cannibalism. Zombies violate two of human society’s most monolithic taboos: the separation of the dead from the living, and the special value we place on human life. These taboos are intertwined inextricably, because they go to the heart of how we identify as a species. “Human life” is an emotive term, and the “human” part implies “human and only human”; we must be different from the creatures that we eat, enslave or fear. To blur or break that distinction is to pluck apart the slender assertions which allow us to forget that we are animals.
Modern media has embraced the taboo in many and varied ways. Even the relatively homogenous flood of zombie stories has explored human-on-human cannibalism – The Walking Dead provides a particularly striking example.
Undead hordes aside, we also have the Italian cannibal movies of the 1970s (which echoed popular myths about South Sea Islanders), as well as 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, the entire premise of Soylent Green, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, and of course Hannibal himself. This litany barely scratches the surface. Cannibals have haunted our imaginations since the dawn of art, from The Odyssey, to Theodorus De Bry’s 16th-century woodcuts, to the 2010 video game Red Dead Redemption. Cannibalism is a transmedia terror, the underlying idea made scarier by the sheer variety of its independent manifestations.
Why have humans throughout history chosen cannibalism as a storytelling technique? It may seem there is no clear link between the above stories. However, I believe that all of them use the device to invoke similar ideas, and that the horror of the cannibal taboo is fundamentally paradoxical.
Firstly, cannibalism is one of the purest expressions of man’s inhumanity to man. By definition, it requires not just a human victim, but a human perpetrator. It’s interesting to note that Lecter and Leatherface are on completely different ends of the spectrum when it comes to intelligence, and yet they are linked by their desire to break this taboo. Whatever your place on the social ladder, you too could become a monster.
But while unavoidably human in nature, cannibalism is also a clear depiction of “the other”. With a few notable exceptions, the cannibal narratives we’ve described tend to share a remoteness from “civilisation”. Humans eat human flesh in the rainforest, in the lands at the edge of the world, in the South African jungle, in the Scottish Highlands, in the Nevada desert or in the bleak and desolate future. It happens wherever the moral web of civilisation is thin and weak. It is a symptom of society’s breakdown, and a terrifying reminder that the social safety net is gone.
As a narrative device, cannibalism functions as a way to introduce terror to a story, working largely free from rational concerns. This is why Homer chooses to turn the citizens of Lamos into cannibals. To a maritime civilisation, the risk of savage hostility on foreign shores was real and practical, and the pan-Hellenic hospitality tradition of xenia can be seen as a collective effort to allay this. But good stories are emotive, and taboo-smashing is as viscerally and vividly emotive as it gets. To make cannibals of the Laestrygonians is to repaint a tale of rational risk in the primary colours of fear and disgust.