Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System

Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System. 1986. New York: Cambridge University Press. Translated into Japanese and Chinese.

From the Book Jacket

The practice of cannibalism is in certain societies rejected as evil, while in others it plays a central part in the ritual order. Anthropologists have offered various explanations for the existence of cannibalism, none of which Peggy Sanday claims is adequate. In this book she presents a new approach to understanding the phenomenon. Through a detailed examination of ritual cannibalism in selected tribal societies, and a comparison of those cases with others in which the practice is absent, she shows that cannibalism is closely linked to a people’s orientation to the world, and that it serves as a concrete device for distinguishing the “cultural self” from the “natural order.” Combining perspectives drawn from the work of Ricoeur, Freud, Hegel, Jung, and symbolic anthropology, Sanday argues that ritual cannibalism is intimately connected both with the constructs by which the origin and continuity of life are understood and assured from one generation to the next and with the way in which that understanding is used to control the vital forces considered necessary for the reproduction of society. She reveals that the presence or absence of cannibalism in a culture derives from basic human attitudes toward life and death, combined with the realities of the material world. As well as making an original contribution to the understanding of a significant human practice, Sanday also develops a theoretical argument of wider relevance to anthropological analysis in general. The book will appeal to anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and other readers interested in the function and meaning of cannibalism.

From the Preface

I suggest that rituals of cannibalism summarize and express an ontology, provide a model for individuation, and control violent emotions. In these rituals the human body is the medium of a conceptual framework–a physiologically based ontology that regulates as it regenerates social, psychological, and, sometimes cosmological categories. The somatically based ritual symbols of cannibalism stamp the psyche and the social order in ritual acts that transform inchoate psychic energy, formulate self-and social- consciousness and, in some cases, transmit vital essence into social categories. The basic psychological mechanism that seems to be involved here is individuating by physically differentiating oneself from primordial, inchoate energy. Inchoate psychic energy is transformed by projecting inner feelings onto outer persons where the feelings can be clarified and given social form. Usually the rituals are motivated by concerns about the replacement of personnel or about transmitting psychobiological substances from the dead to the living or from humans to the gods.

In my argument, ontological considerations take precedence over the utilitarian concerns given priority in the materialist (ie. protein deficiency ) point of view. Such considerations frame a people’s response to stress. This is not to say that the environment plays a passive role; indeed, it plays a most active role. As people express a language of emotions in communicating with one another, the lexicon for this language may be inspired by attributes of the external environment as well as by attributes of significant others. It is from this process of communication that the symbols predicating the relationship between self and other emerge. Thus, I suggest that attributes of the environment play largely a symbolic, not utilitarian, role in rituals of cannibalism [pp. xii-xiii]