Fair warning—this article will discuss endocannibalism, defined as eating the flesh of one’s own family or tribe, usually after death. If you think you have the stomach for this topic, carry on. If not, no one will hold it against you.
The ancient historian, Herodotus (5th century BCE), has an odd relationship with the history community. On the one hand, he is considered the father of the field of history. On the other hand, much of his historical writing was biased, exaggerated, fantastical and inaccurate. Herodotus’ antics, however, can be largely excused if he truly was the first historian—he would have had no other standard with which to guide his own historical method and style. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly sparked the Hellenistic’ world’s interest in history and inspired a long line of historians.
Herodotus’ descriptions of India are also looked upon with great interest. After all, he wrote one of the first Western descriptions of India. Yet, in his description of the Indian culture, like many other non-Greek cultures he described, his observations could often be quite peculiar.
In the third book of Herodotus’ The Histories, the historian gives a plea for cultural tolerance. He explained that every culture has a bias in favor of their own ways and customs. To Herodotus, it was ok and natural to prefer your own way of life over that of another, as long as you still showed respect for the cultures of others. As an example to this point, Herodotus wrote of funerary ceremonies found in different cultures. In the example, the ancient Greek custom of burning the dead was compared to a community in India that Herodotus named as the Callatiae.
According to Herodotus, the Callatiae were an endocannibalistic society—they ate the flesh of members from their own community. Apparently, in that tribe of ancient India, the children of a deceased man or woman would consume the flesh of their dead parent. Herodotus did not mention how much human flesh was consumed, but he did write that the Callatiae believed their custom was wholly proper—the Callatiae believed the Greek tradition of burning the dead was equally as ghastly as the Greeks assumed endocannibalism to be.
Even though the claim of ancient Indians eating the flesh of their deceased parents may sound far fetched, it may very well be a true and accurate statement. In fact, endocannibalism was at one point found in multiple cultures around the globe. In the South American regions of Brazil and Peru, the Matsés (Mayoruna) and Wari tribes were thought to have practiced endocannibalism at one point in their past. More convincingly, the outcast Aghoris religious group (still in existence, today, in northern India) is still believed to consume the flesh of dead humans in their pursuit of spiritual power and enlightenment.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002).