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Post New Zealand and Cannibalism: The Brainpot
Created by Ronald Hilton on 02/03/01 10:49 AM

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New Zealand and Cannibalism: The Brainpot (Ronald Hilton, USA, 02/03/01 10:49 am)

Anthropologist Margaret Mackenzie writes:

"A postcard and even a book of photography as the source certifying the existence of the putative 'brainpot' pool in New Zealand prompts me to share Michael Bassett's reservations about it. It is credible as a title to cater to tourists' titillation reassuring them that they are witnessing stereotypes of the exotic primitive, and in that category cannibalism is especially salacious. Cannibalism itself, however, is seldom salacious and usually somewhat sacred to its participants. It is, for example, sometimes symbolic of absorbing the bravery of the spirit of a vanquished warrier--thus in its way respectful and ritual. Studies of cannibalism in Papua New Guinea led by D. Carleton Gajdusek--for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1976--in association with anthropologists, led to the discovery of slow acting viruses. This was the indispensable foundation for the identification of HIV/AIDS many years later. In Papua New Guinea, the mysterious wasting fatal disease 'kuru' was hypothesized to be transmitted by women to their children because the women were given the human brains to eat--a hypothesis that I believe has not been sustained subsequently. Nevertheless, there would seem to be an ominous evocation of what is happening in Mad Cow Disease: animals given brains of other animals in their feed. This is attributed to the appearance of Jacob Kreuzfeld disease in humans. To call a pool named 'brainpot' a place for cooking brains of humans may not itself be accurate--it may have been named for its own shape. In Tibetan Buddhism there is a ritual called 'Chod' in which the skull is conceptualized as a cooking pot. It is a meditation to disempower one's enemies by sweetness instead of by conquest. Formulated by a woman about the fourteenth century, it remains one of the only rituals in the central practices of Tibetan Buddhism that originates from women. To summarize it shallowly: The meditators visualize their enemies lined up in front of them, then they visualize removing their own skulls, upending them as a cooking pot above a fire, and placing into them their own organs. They cook them slowly to a delicious nectar, which they feed to their enemies. The demons fall asleep in blissfully satisfied peace. The meditators reassemble themselves and go about their day. By the time the demons awaken, they can repeat the visualization ritual. Since our demons usually eat us alive anyway--demons such as jealousy or inadequacy or resentment for example, I must say that it seems to me not too bad an idea to preempt their voraciousness and tame it."

My comment: Gajusek is an immensely productive microbiologust who shared the Nobel Prize with Baruch S. Blumberg for work on the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases. He co-authored a book on kuru with Judith Farquahar (1980).

The word cannibalism opens a can of worms. Embarrassed anthropologists try to deny it (rather like modern Holocaust deniers) or to justify it as a ritual. Perhaps a time will come when the Holocaust will be described as a ritual killing of Jews. Christians can take credit for ending cannibalism in many parts of the world. At the same time, the theory that some victims were willing brings us to the death of Christ, who was not happy about being crucified but willing to endure his fate. His words at the Last Supper gave rise to the mass and the doctrine of transsubstantiation, which divided the Church at the Reformation. It is hard for us to understand the bloodshed to which the word "mass" gave rise. The Episcopal/Anglican Church kept the ceremony without the dogma and used the word "communion". It was a secondary early-morning service, but the Anglo-Catholic movement moved it back to its important place. In Catholic churches, the priests often make remarks based on transsubstantiation, but the faithful probably never give it a thought. The innocent cannibalism, supposed to endue them with the virtues of Christ, is a central symbol they respect and which hold the Roman Catholic Church together.


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