Welcome to October, month of Halloween! Every Friday, we will discuss scary things. This week’s scary thing is giants, and specifically the proper use of the word cannibalism.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that in both ancient history and folklore, giants are more horror creature than fantasy creature. Part of the reason for this is that they eat people. My question for you is, Can we properly call them cannibals?
But first, a detour about eating blood
In my second book, The Strange Land, the people group whose adventures I am following (I think of them as “my” people) tell stories of giants who eat people and animals indiscriminately. Their euphemism for them is “blood eaters.”
Some religions have a taboo on “eating meat with the blood still in it.” In Indonesia, there is a special word for such meat. If you want to eat, say, a chicken, the word for the animal and the meat is ayam. But that’s only if the bird has been killed properly and bled out. If these rules have not been followed, it is ayam bangkai, which translates as “chicken carrion” or “corpse chicken.” If you are a devout Muslim, you would not eat meat without knowing that it has been butchered in the proper manner. Otherwise, you could accidentally defile yourself by eating ayam bangkai or some other kind of bangkai.
Obviously, this rule goes way back, at least to Leviticus:
“Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood — I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None among you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.’
“Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood.”Leviticus 17:10 – 14
There is a similar passage in Deuteronomy 12:23.
Here in Leviticus, God gives two reasons for the taboo on blood-eating. First of all, the blood is important to the sacrificial system that He had set up for the Israelites. “I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar.” This blood was a key part of God’s solution for dealing with the people’s sins. Obviously, to eat such a thing for mere physical nourishment would be to take lightly the evil in one’s own people, family, and heart, and to disrespect the sacrificial system and, by extension, the One who set it up. Note that God does not expect the other nations, to whom He has not yet given this sacrificial system, to abstain from blood, unless an individual foreigner happens to be living among the Israelites, and therefore presumably learning about and also benefiting from that system.
The other reason, which seems to be implied here, is that eating or drinking an animal’s blood shows disrespect for the creature itself. “The life of every creature is its blood.” Even when out hunting, and not bringing an animal for sacrifice, He tells them to bleed out the body and to cover the blood with earth, as if to symbolically give the animal a proper burial before we take it home and eat it.
Apparently, avoiding eating an animal’s blood is the respectful, civilized, human thing to do. This is very different from the usual picture we are given of ancient people, where they club something in the field and then tear right into it with their teeth.
I have described elsewhere how Genesis 6:1 – 4 tells of spiritual beings interbreeding with human women, producing a race of giants who terrorized the earth. This would have been before the Flood (and was probably a major reason for the Flood), which makes the time frame very ancient indeed. The extrabiblical book of 1 Enoch tells us,
“and when the people were not able to sustain them [with agriculture], the giants dared (to attack) them, and they devoured the people. And they began to sin with birds and wild animals and reptiles and fish, and to devour one another’s (!) flesh, and drink blood.” (I Enoch 7:2 – 6, quoted in Giants by Doug Van Dorn, p. 60)
This horrifying practice was apparently common knowledge even as “recently” as the time of the Exodus, which is still ancient history but is now within the realm of recorded history, not just dim memories. When the Israelites arrived on the border of the land of Canaan, having escaped from Egypt, Joshua sent twelve men to spy out the land. They came back and reported “it is a land that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32 -33). That’s why they were so scared. Even after having seen God’s ability to deliver them from the merely human inhabitants of Egypt, they recommended not entering the promised land for their own safety.
I am not arguing that the Biblical taboo on eating blood was given because the giants ate blood. I see it in reverse: eating blood — like eating people, like bestiality — was just one of many obvious and intuitive taboos in ordinary human morality which the giants either were unable to perceive or perversely sought to break.
This picture of giants as somehow paranormal and as eating humans and/or drinking their blood is well attested in world folklore. Polyphemus, the cyclops who captures Odysseus and his men in the Odyssey, will literally pick up a human and eat him alive. And he’s not hunting them like animals. He is fully aware that the sailors he has captured are persons and can talk, and he doesn’t care. He likes Odysseus, and so promises to eat him last.
Beyond Polyphemus, Van Dorn points out in his book that cultures all around the world have stories about paranormal creatures that seek to drink human blood, though they are not always portrayed as giants.
About the word “cannibal”
Surely, cannibalism has to be one of the last taboos. Even if you have been exposed to the concept before, it never seems to lose its shock value. (“Soylent Green is people!!!“)
On the other hand, the idea of a giant eating people, I believe has lost its shock value, though maybe it shouldn’t have. We associate it with fairy tales. After all, how scary can a character be if he lives in the clouds and goes around saying Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum?
To recover the shock value, I propose using the term “cannibal giants.” But there’s a problem. Technically, cannibalism means eating your own kind. Technically, these giants aren’t human. So, is this hyperbole only slightly less serious than that committed by every earnest 13-year-old vegetarian who calls her parents “cannibals” for eating something was that once sentient?
I argue no, for two reasons. For one thing, giants are clearly humanoid. They look like people (more or less). In Genesis, they have human mothers. Critically, like Polyphemus, they can talk. If they were less human-y, it wouldn’t make sense to call them cannibal. We would call them man-eating, like a man-eating tiger, which would still be scary, but not as much so, because it would be done more innocently somehow.
Secondly, the word cannibal actually has two subtly distinct senses. One, indeed, is the idea of eating one’s own kind. So we can say chickens or spiders are cannibals, or we can talk about someone cannibalizing their own ideas. But the other meaning is just eating people, who are a thing which should not be eaten, and I think this its primary meaning. Once that line has been crossed, humanity itself is now somehow defiled. We have been shown that it’s possible to think of people not as sacred bearers of the image of God, irreplaceable individuals, eternal embodied souls … but as a substance. A food source. We are being invited to change the way we view ourselves and our fellow humans, and this is true whether that ancient taboo is being broken by actual humans, or just by creatures that look sort of human and can talk and, frankly, ought to know better.
Neither one is great.
So I am going to go ahead and call these giants cannibals.