Cannibal: Part Four



One reason for the Inuit fear of cannibalism was its very real threat.

The truth, however, is that while Inuit believed the Athapaskan and Algonkian Indians to be cannibalistic, the real cannibalism occurred instead as aberrations that cropped up among Inuit themselves. There may be a kernel of truth within the ancient Inuit stories of hunters lost out on the land, accidentally blundering into a “strange” people whom, it turns out, want him as quaq.

Yet while such “lost among the cannibals” tales constitute wonderful horror folklore — occurring the world over — it seems far more likely that the real cannibals were individuals born of madness and starvation.

Knud Rasmussen, in his informative travels, was told of many instances of cannibalism by various Inuit peoples, the most lurid of which is perhaps that related by Qaqortingneq — an old camp leader of the Netsilingmiut — regarding a middle-aged man named Tuneq:

One winter, many years ago, hunting was a failure. Day after day went by and nobody had anything to eat. People died of hunger or froze to death, and the quick lived on the dead.

Then Tuneq suddenly became disturbed in his head. He began to consult the spirits, and it was not long before he began to do so through his own wife. He used her as a medium: qilaq. He did it in this way: he tied a line to one of her legs and made her lie on the platform; then he tugged at her leg and let the spirits answer through her leg. He did this often, and it was not long before he said he had received the answer that he was to save his own life by eating his wife.

At first he only cut small pieces from her clothing and ate them, drinking water with it to help him to swallow it. People who saw him say that he behaved like a man possessed of a wild and evil spirit. Bigger and bigger were the pieces he cut from her clothing; at last her body was quite exposed in many places.

The wife knew that the spirits had said her husband should eat her, but she was so exhausted that it made no impression on her. She did not care. It was only when he began to feel her, when it occurred to him to stick his fingers in her side to feel if there was flesh on her, that she suddenly felt a terrible fear; so she, who had never been afraid of dying, now tried to escape.

With her feeble strength she ran for her life, and then it was as if Tuneq saw her only as a quarry that was about to escape him; he ran after her and stabbed her to death.

After that, he lived on her, and he collected her bones in a heap over by the side platform for the purpose of fulfilling the taboo rule required of all who die. He was going to hold death-taboo over her for five days.

But people say that the ghost of his wife often walked through her own bones, Tuneq waking up at night as the bones he himself had gnawed began to rattle. Sometimes they moved up and down, and it happened that the man sitting up on the platform would be hauled off during the night by some invisible power. And when he then suddenly awoke there was no one in the snow hut, only the bones lying over by the side platform, rattling.

— Knud Rasmussen The Netsilik Eskimos, Reports of the Fifth Thule Expedition, Vol. VIII. Copenhagen. 1931: 137

For me, the story above (which Qaqortingneq and Rasmussen both seem to relate with ghoulish delight),affirms my suspicion that the tales of the cannibal “societies” are merely that, since they seem to follow a universal folkloric pattern that occurs from Africa to Asia.

Meanwhile, the stories of true cannibalism, as above, are obviously cases of isolated, monstrous behaviour, rather than of monstrous culture.

But, then again, I haven’t gotten to the Indians yet. There still remain the Mohawks and the Aztecs. Were they cannibal cultures, or were such accusations fabricated by priests and explorers?

I guess I’ll have a look at it all next week.


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