Psychodynamics of Cannibalism and Wendigo Psychosis

The desire to eat another human is usually a means to another end. People who want to eat human flesh are generally pursuing 3 outcomes — preserving a relationship with a lost loved one, solving ambivalent feelings towards someone, or acquiring vitality or courage.

Pursuit of one of these outcomes, often in combination with other outcomes such as nourishment, seems to be involved in the wendigo disorder, in depression and schizophrenia in other societies, and in ritualized cannibalism. Cannibalism isn’t a mental illness but can be an expression of one.

Fenichel, a psychoanalyst, argues, “The ideas of eating an object or of being eaten by an object remain the ways in which any reunion with objects is thought of unconsciously.” He believes that cannibalism is unconsciously a way to preserve a relationship.

In people of many societies, cannibalistic impulses arise and are ritually gratified when a loved one dies. Consumption of the body of the deceased by their nearest relatives occurs in Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific, and among South American Indians. Participation in such a ritual isn’t regarded as evidence of psychopathology.

Many Panoan tribes of the Jurua River Basin ate the roasted or boiled corpses of their relatives. In 1800, the Capanahua were said to eat their dead parents; the Cobino and Setebo also ate dead relatives. Among the Guayupe, after a period of wailing, the new chief was given the ashes of the former head-man to drink. They believe that ritualistic cannibalism endows the consumer with magical superpowers.

The desire to eat human flesh may arise from the underlying desire to acquire some characteristic possessed by the person to be eaten. Nimuendaju writes of the Apiaca, “the boys were urged to partake of the flesh that it might instill in them a spirit of courage.” Among the Cubeo, women eat the penises of warriors slain by their husbands in order to become fertile

Wendigo psychosis is a disorder speculated to be specific to the people of the northern tribes of Algonkian-speaking Indians. This disorder is marked by the desire to eat human flesh — a desire repugnant to these people which was gratified by more than half of the reported individuals. They deemed this to be a consequence of possession by the wendigo spirit.

There are two cultural features unique to the Northern Algonkians which appear to be of significance in producing wendigo behavior. The first of these is the extraordinary importance attached to following one’s dreams without consulting others. The second feature is the absence of alternative patterns for displacing cannibal desires from members of the band or for expressing them symbolically.

The finding that a majority of the individuals who became cannibals did so along with at least one other person is consistent with the hypothesis that the outcome of a case of incipient wendigo psychosis depends on the degree of control of their own impulses exercised by the people who are close to the patient. 36 individuals were involved in group cannibalism of the 52 people who ate human flesh.

Ethno-specific, ritualistic, and psychotic consumption of humans indicate that the peculiarities of individual deviant behavior are products of cultural and social factors as well as of individual psychodynamics.

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