Further Thoughts on Cannibal Attacks

More discussion following the recent posts about the Miami cannibal attack. Thanks to James Smith for his thoughtful contributions.

James Smith: Speculation being what it is, it's hard to say--but there's certainly precedent (think the Vikings, to  name just one group) for somebody consuming some  mind-altering drug or combination thereof and believing  themselves to be a wolf, bear or other dangerous animal  admired for its fighting prowess...the difference is, ancient  people did this as a function of their society, not acting  out on their own. 

Gordon Grice: Hard to know how much of history is true, but  there are precedents in chronicles and myth for "anti-social"  predation on fellow humans. Sawney Beane and his clan come to  mind. 

James Smith: While Sawney Beane's story is a little confused  as to exact time (probably due to confusion between James I  of Scotland or James VI of Scotland/I of England) and  probably prone to some exaggeration, there is no real reason  to doubt its essential points. I actually had a pet kingsnake  named Sawney when I was a teenager (the reason for the name  is, I'm sure, obvious.) The Beanes, though, didn't seem to be motivated (from what we  can gather) by psychosis or drugs...Sawney and his wife  simply fell back on eating people during lean times and  taught their children and grandchildren that this was normal.  It has sometimes occurred to me that the legends of  werewolves and child-eating witches probably represent  earlier societies' attempts to rationalize and explain the  deviant behavior of anti-social predators, a la Albert Fish, for instance. 

Gordon Grice: That's an interesting idea, James. Probably the best evidence for it is scarcity of serial killer stories in history prior to the Victorian era. I've heard that fact used as a basis for arguing that serial murder is a modern phenomenon, but it seems more likely to me that myths of ogres and the like are earlier ways of understanding aberrant murder and cannibalism. I'm skeptical of the specifics about the Beanes, as the whole story seems to reek of ogre-mythology. But the premise that people could establish a cannibal custom within a society that abhors it has precedent in well-attested cases like that of Fritz Haarman. (It also has precedent among chimpanzees, by the way.)

Werewolves as real-life cannibals also makes sense to me. Our friend Guy Endore implies just such a connection in his novel The Werewolf of Paris, which plays lycanthropic variations on the case of Sgt. Bertrand. In fact, even in Roman times it seems as if lycanthropy was an explanation, or maybe just a metaphor, for drunkenness and rape. (There's the drug connection again.)

I'm skeptical regarding the witchcraft part. When William Arens reviewed the literature on cannibalism, he found it was often attributed to a culture by its enemies, but in most cases, other evidence was lacking. I think that's what's at work in reports of witchcraft practices. In the Renaissance, accusations of witchcraft were frequently leveled against heretical sects. Baby-eating was part of that slander; it was a way the Church had of demonizing its enemies. The same accusations were made against Jews. So I suspect those particular allegations were politically motivated, not based on any reality. I also suspect that sort of motive behind the accusations against, for example, Gilles de Rais, who supposedly murdered hundreds of children for giggles. 


  1. Talking to a Panamanian friend just days ago, we got into the subject of supernatural creatures native to our respective countries. Interestingly, in Mexico we have stories about witches, werewolves (or rather, nahuales, which don´t have to change into wolves specifically), and vampires, but in Panama, it seems that the three of them have been fused together. So in Panama you get witches that suck blood, eat human flesh and shapeshift into dangerous animals. Mexican witches are simply women (or men) who practice sorcery; in Panama they seem to be a completely different beast so to speak...

  2. That's interesting. I think it has been the movies, more than anything else, that made these creatures into separate tropes in Western culture. For example, in Renaissance Europe, the ability to transform into animals was regarded as one proof of witchcraft; the official manual of witch-hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum, recounted incidents of this power, including, as I recall, one witch who could turn into a donkey. Even as late as the 1931 film of Dracula, there's mention of the vampire's power of turning into a wolf. It was only later that vampires began to limit their therioanthropic exploits to being bats.

  3. Yeah, the line was rather blurry in past times. In Greece, werewolves were said to turn into blood-sucking hyenas after being killed. As if turning into a werewolf alone wasn´t bad (or good, if you're into that stuff) enough...

    PS- In Coppola's version of Dracula from the 90s, Dracula still does turn into a wolf (as well as a bat-like demon creature).

  4. That would be the striped hyena, I suppose? I don't think it is still found in Greece, but has been within historic times. I've read that witchcraft and were-hyenas are closely linked in parts of Africa.

    Speaking of the Coppola Dracula, it's a therioanthropist's delight. I remember, besides the wolf, a transitional werewolfish form, and also Dracula being formed of many rats. (Maybe it's about time to run your article on nahuales.)


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