The eating of human flesh by other humans. It has been practiced in a variety of places throughout human history for many reasons, only some of which can be considered religious. In extreme circumstances it has been done just to survive. In some cultures parts of the bodies of defeated enemies have been eaten simply to degrade them and demonstrate the completeness of the victory. In other instances, though, elements of religious or at least spiritist belief have come in, through the association of cannibalism with war, sacrifi ce, and kinship or alliance between the living and the dead and between different tribes.

Among certain South American and African tribes, for example, the bodies of killed foes were reportedly cooked and eaten, or burned, reduced to powder, and put in drinks. This was said to protect the victors against attacks by the souls of the deceased, and also to be a way of acquiring their energy. Other tribesmen have disapproved of the practice but claimed it is done by witches and sorcerers in order to gain magical power. In still other societies, such as some in New Guinea, parts of the bodies of relatives, who had died naturally, were eaten as a benign way of expressing kinship and assuring their REINCARNATION within the tribe.

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Cannibalism has also sometimes been a part of religious sacrifi ce. In Fiji the communal eating of cannibal victims who had been sacrifi ced to a major god was said to be a way of cementing an alliance between chiefs. Among the Aztecs of Mexico reports have alleged that the bodies of the victims whose hearts and blood were regularly offered to nourish the sun were then eaten by priests and nobility. To eat offerings, human, animal, or plant, presented to the gods is widely considered a means of having communion with that god and with other worshippers.

Recently some scholars have argued that accounts of the practice of cannibalism, repellent to most people, are greatly sensationalized. Cannibalism has rarely if ever been reliably observed fi rsthand, it is said, and accusations of human-eating have come from informants whose real motive was to slander rival tribes, or from tellers of tall tales who enjoyed shocking their listeners. The stories were then still more exaggerated by Western colonialists to smear their “native” subjects as barbaric and depraved, and so justify white rule.

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Doubtless there is much truth to this. The majority of anthropologists and religion scholars, however, still believe that cannibalism has sometimes been engaged in for religious reasons, though probably not as often as was once thought.