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(kăn`ĭbəlĭzəm) [Span. caníbal, referring to the Carib], eating of human flesh by other humans. The charge of cannibalism is a common insult, and it is likely that some alleged cannibal groups have merely been victims of popular fear and misrepresentation. Nevertheless, archaeological research suggests that ancient societies did practice cannibalism, and it has been observed in Africa, North and South America, the South Pacific islands, and the West Indies. Widespread cannibalism is usually not found in state-level societies, which have the means to tax and control surplus labor. Nevertheless, one of the most famous cases of cannibalism is that of the Aztecs, who sacrificed their prisoners of war and undoubtedly ate some of them. According to available evidence, most authorities consider the partaking of human flesh almost always to be a ritual practice. A minority of anthropologists, however, believe cannibalism emerged as a cultural response to chronic protein shortages. In modern Western society, cannibalism is commited only by the deranged or by people who otherwise face death from starvation (see Donner PartyDonner Party,
group of emigrants to California who in the winter of 1846–47 met with one of the most famous tragedies in Western history. The California-bound families were mostly from Illinois and Iowa, and most prominent among them were the two Donner families and the
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). In contrast, various traditional cultures are known to have encouraged their members to eat part of their kinsmen's corpses out of respect for the deceased in a practice known as endocannibalism. For example, Foré women of New Guinea, who dispose of the dead, ritually ate their deceased relatives' brains. Some anthropologists believe that head-huntinghead-hunting,
practice of taking and preserving the head of a slain enemy. It has occurred throughout the world from ancient times into the 20th cent. In Europe, it flourished in the Balkans until the early 20th cent. The practice often has magico-religious motives.
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 evolved from cannibalism. Among a few peoples the head of the enemy is preserved and the rest of the body or selected parts of it are eaten; this may represent a connecting link between cannibalism and head-hunting. The term cannibalism is also used in zoology to describe species who prey upon their own kind, such as lions, crabs, ants, and some kinds of fish.


See P. Brown and D. Tuzin, ed., The Ethnography of Cannibalism (1983); A. W. B. Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law (1984).


1. (galactic cannibalism) The swallowing of one galaxy by a larger galaxy. It occurs especially in the center of a cluster of galaxies, where successive acts of cannibalism in the early history of the cluster have probably contributed to the size of cD galaxies, the most massive galaxies known.
2. (stellar cannibalism) The process by which a giant star in a close binary system can swallow its companion. See common envelope star.



(1) The practice of eating human flesh, widespread in the past among certain tribes and peoples. There were two basic forms of cannibalism: as a source of food and as a religious and magical ritual. Cannibalism as a source of food, as shown by excavated bones that had been burned and split open for extracting the marrow, probably was practiced in the early Stone Age. Later on, with the development of the primitive communal system, the improvement in production, and the increase in food resources, cannibalism as a source of food survived only as an exceptional phenomenon caused by famines. Numerous tribes and peoples practiced religious and magical cannibalism: they ate various parts of slaughtered enemies, prisoners of war, and deceased kinsmen (endocannibalism). The custom was based on the conviction that the victim’s strength and other properties would be transmitted to the eater. Vestiges of religious and magical cannibalism have survived in certain rites of modern world religions—for example, communion (the eating of bread and wine symbolizing the body and blood of Christ) in Christianity.


(2) The eating by animals of members of the same species.Cannibalism is one of the manifestations of intraspecific competition and a factor in natural selection. It is most often observed with unfavorable environmental conditions: an overconcentration of population and a shortage of food or water. Thus, in harsh winters when small mammals have died off, wolves, lynxes, and other large carnivores sometimes eat one another. A lack of food or other bad conditions will cause females to eat their young. Mealworm beetles (Tenebrio) feed on their own eggs when their population density becomes high, thereby preventing an increase in the population. Those species that have a more expressed inclination for cannibalism are more likely to survive than other species under unfavorable conditions. Instances are also known of permanent, or obligate, cannibalism that develops in evolution as a useful adaptation. Thus, female karakurts and praying mantises eat the males after mating.

The male American salamander satisfies its hunger by consuming a portion of the eggs from the clutch it is guarding. The parasitic larvae of certain ichneumon flies (Galesus) attempt to destroy their colarvae since the host can sustain only one specimen of the parasite. Certain predatory fishes (for example, the Balkhash perch) consume their young and thus can subsist in a body of water when there is no other food for them.


Mekhanizmy biologicheskoi konkurentsii: Sb. st. Moscow, 1964. (Translated from English.)


What does it mean when you dream about cannibalism?

Cannibalism often represents an insatiable lust to own and possess the life force of the victim(s). Being the victim of cannibalism denotes that the dreamer may feel “eaten alive” by work, a relationship, or a condition in his or her life. Like incest and murder, cannibalism represents the worst form of something forbidden.


account of cannibalism among air crash survivors. [Am. Lit.: Alive]
chieftain of Laestrygones, man-eating giants of Italy. [Gk. Lit.: Odyssey; Rom. Lit.: Metamorphoses]
Beane, Sawney
highwayman who fed his gang on victims’ flesh. [Br. Culture: Misc.]
black giants
kill, roast, and devour Sindbad’s companions. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights in Magill II, 50]
his name is anagram of cannibal. [Br. Lit.: The Tempest]
eats child who is product of incestuous union with daughter Harpalyce. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 114]
swallowed his children at birth; they lived again when he was forced by Zeus to disgorge them. [Gk. Myth.: EB (1963) VI, 747]
Donner Party
of 89 emigrants to California, 47 survive by eating others (1846-1847). [Am. Hist.: EB, III: 623]
Hansel and Gretel
fattened up for child-eating witch. [Ger. Fairy Tale: Grimm, 56]
man-eating giants encountered by Odysseus. [Gk. Lit.: Odyssey]
female spirit in serpent form; devours children. [Gk. Myth.: Zimmerman, 146; Br. Lit.: “Lamia” in Benét, 563]
turned to wolf for cannibalistic activities; whence, lycanthropy. [Gk. Myth.: Espy, 37]
Modest Proposal, A
Swift’s satire suggesting that children of the poor be used as food for the rich (1729). [Br. Lit.: “A Modest Proposal” in Harvey, 793]
Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The
for four days, survivors feed on Parker’s flesh. [Am. Lit.: Poe, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” in Magill I, 640–643]
cut up and served as meal to gods. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 817]
wife Procne murders son Itys and serves him to Tereus. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 144]
Thyestean banquet
banquet where Atreus serves Thyestes’ sons to him as food. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 1081]
when his children die of starvation in prison, he devours them. [Ital. Poetry: Inferno]


This dream may reflect dark, destructive, and forbidden desires or obsessions. Cannibals literally consume other people’s lives and, along with it, their energy. When interpreting this dream, consider those things that consistently drain you and take away from your enthusiasm and the general quality of your life. It may be any number of things, such as career or a relationship. However, realize that you are not a victim of life, but rather its creator. Thus, make changes that will increase your energy, but not take away from others. Some believe that dreaming about cannibalism is warning the dreamer to stay away from things that are destructive and less than honorable.