On Cannibals and Sovereignty

This short essay explores the linkages between cannibalism and sovereign power. Much is updated but it remains based on what was originally a piece of MA coursework back in 2010. It emerged out of a close reading of the work of Giorgio Agamben on sovereignty, and a style of theoretical work which I find myself less engaged by today. There are many adjustments, things that would have been done differently: Ecology should have taken a more prominent role, and in particular I would like to have explored anthropological literatures more. The Eurocentricity of parts the narrative could also have been challenged.  It’s clear I will never probably achieve such a rewrite, so I offer this piece here simply because it might be better in the light of day than sitting on a hard drive, and it brings up what I think are still interesting linkages. I welcome comments, thoughts, and suggestions. 

Demoboros Basileus: Of Cannibals and Sovereignty


In Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Children we see an elderly man devouring a naked and dismembered body. Famously, and running counter to the mythology from which the scene is drawn, the body is that of an adult, but beyond this it is androgynous enough to deny any speculation on intended gender or identity. The old man is several scales larger than the body; the only thing indicating any element of the mythological in the scene apart from the title. Goya’s work emerged only after his death, produced in isolation sometime after the end of the Napoleonic wars, a reflection on two decades of nationalist violence, personal isolation, and encroaching silence.

The familiar frontispiece of Hobbes’ Leviathan shows an image of the defining form of sovereignty; a body made of a multitude of other bodies. The framework laid out by Hobbes and Rousseau defines the start of ‘modern’ political thought; sovereign will is the accumulation of peoples into a “form and association of  which will defend the person and goods of each member with the collective force of all” (Rousseau p60). This is a line of reasoning that emerges at the point of what Michel Foucault called Raison d’Etat; “a practice, or rather the rationalization of a practice, which places itself between a state presented as given and a state presented as having to be constructed and built” (2008, p4). This echoes Foucault’s work elsewhere, especially in Discipline and Punish, in which the aim of disciplinary power is postulated to be the normalisation of a social construct through the arrangement and inscription of human bodies. Saturn Devouring his Children, and Hobbes’ frontispiece share the same subject matter – the consumption of the lesser body by the greater body. There is, then, a conceptual and material linkage between the sovereign and the cannibal: the human body that is made of human bodies.

17th Century Orthodox Icon of St. Christopher

“You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second.” – Machiavelli

Until the emergence of such Raison d’Etat, in the discourse of Western Christendom the cannibal had primarily occupied the space of the monstrous on the outside of the political world. The Cynocephali, dog-headed humans, described as back as a far as Pliny, and who feasted on human flesh, were common in European medieval mythology, persisting even beyond 1492.  They appear on the maps of the middle ages, prowling the borderlands of the near east, sub-saharan Africa, and islands just across the world ocean; The Byzantine confusion over the identity of Saint Christopher the Canaanite/Canineite supposedly led to his depiction in Orthodox iconography as such a dog-headed monster. ‘Modern’ scientific treatises were still troubling themselves over the dog-humans at least as late as 1699, notably Edward Tyson’s work of early racist anthropology Orang- Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. To which is added, a Philological Essay Concerning the Pygmies, the Cynocephali, the Satyrs, and Sphinges of the Ancients. Wherein it Will Appear that They are all Either Apes or Monkeys, and not Men, as Formerly Pretended. But after the realignment of European geographical imaginaries following from the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the formation of European colonial capitalism, some kind of shifting from the curious monstrosities made by God upon creation to question humanity, to the human itself as the source of it’s own inhumanity, took place.

Unknown, ‘Cannibals on the Caribbean Island’ in Lorenz Fries, Uselegung der Mercarthen oder Carta Marina, Strasbourg: Johannes Grüninger 1525

Such a shift parallels the realignment of the state from the divine mandate to the conscious product of a constitutional process. Montaigne’s famous encounter with ‘cannibals’ from the ‘New World’ led him to opine on their habituated consumption of the flesh of their enemies:

They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices amongst their neighbours, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this.

Montaigne’s eyes, like those of the great philosophers of early colonialism, looked at the distinct cultural practices of the indigenous people of the New World and saw European man in a more primitive state, sharing in an infantile sense of vengeance in the defence of the honour of primeval sovereignty. The Europeans read their own crude drive for violent accumulation onto the cannibal, both condemning the barbarity of the colonial settler but at the same time justifying such actions as grounded in universal human conditions. While for Hobbesians the greater body consumed the lesser for the good of security and safety to guard against such barbarity, in the First of his Treatises on Government, John Locke argued:

“ But if the example of what hath been done be the rule of what ought to be, history would have furnished our author with instances of this absolute fatherly power in its height and perfection, and he might have showed us in Peru people that begot children on purpose to fatten and eat them. The story is so remarkable, that I cannot but set it down in the author’s words: “In some provinces, says he, they were so liquorish after man’s flesh, that they would not have the patience to stay till the breath was out of the body, but would suck the blood as it ran from the wounds of the dying man; they had public shambles of man’s flesh, and their madness herein was to that degree, that they spared not their own children, which they had begot on strangers taken in war: for they made their captives their mistresses, and choicely nourished the children they lead by them, till about thirteen years old they butchered and eat them; and they served the mothers after the same fashion, when they grew past child-bearing, and ceased to bring them any more roasters.” Garcilasso de la Vega, Hist. des Yncas de Peru, 1. i. c. 12.” (§55)

The cannibal native was degenerate on both counts: either as justification for originally authority that needed to be refined into pure sovereign will (Hobbes), or the cannibal was a dangerous warning about relying upon the state of nature as the basis for a new political system (Locke). The cannibal remained the go-to figure throughout the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ of Europe as the symbol of power let slip from constitutional convention, but also anomic vengeance: “A l’exemple du Saturne, la révolution dévore ses infants” (‘Like Saturn, revolution devours it’s children’), said French reactionary Jacques Mallet du Pan, while Jean-Paul Marat supposedly held that “men” had the right “to deal with their oppressors by devouring their palpitating hearts” (ironically the mummified heart of Louis XIV, beacon of the ancien regime, is supposed to have been accidentally ingested in 1848 by the  Reverend William Buckland). As recent moral panics around Islamic State fighters in Syria eating the body parts of their enemies has shown, the anxiety is still a live one. The coinage, however, is ancient: as the anthropologist Frank Lestringant notes, the ancient Greeks used to call tyrants demoboros basileus – eaters of people (p8).

The exception” Giorgio Agamben claimed in Homo Sacer “is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a member and cannot be a member of the whole in which it is included” (emphasis in original, 1998 p25). The demoboros, the ‘European’ cannibal, in consuming another, makes a decision based in this circumstance – to simultaneously deny the body of the eaten and incorporate it into the body of the eater – in one understanding of the ritual form of cannibalism the Freudian Eli Sagan suggests that the cannibal “eats the person who, by dying, has abandoned him” (Sanday, 1998, p11). Cannibalism is an act that occurs at what, using Agamben’s (1998, p27) words, is “a threshold in which life is both inside and outside” the consuming body of the juridical order. In order to exclude his children from supplanting him as sovereign of the gods, Saturn ingests them into his own body (in such an ultimately unsuccessful manner that his children are reborn whole after he is fed a boulder by subterfuge). The Sovereign, as Agamben understands it in Homo Sacer-that which decides upon exceptions, excludes by including, acts as the demoboros does.

Following Agamben’s framework as laid out in Homo Sacer, it is necessary to interrogate the previous claim through the concept of ‘bare life’. Agamben distinguishes between bios “a qualified life” and zoē is defined as “the simple fact of living” (1998, p1), later rephrased as bare life “life exposed to death…the originary political element” (emphasis in original 1998. p88). Bare life is created by the act of sovereign exception- Homo Sacer, the exemplary figure of bare life in Roman law is rendered “sacred insofar as it is taken into the exception”. As the sacred entity that cannot be sacrificed, Homo Sacer occupies a space that is the preserve of the mythological and mystical, the wargus, the wolf-man, or the cynocephalus.

These figures resonate in the passages from Plato which Agamben cites, recalling a trick played by priests at the Tomb of the Lykaon Zeus; “whoever tastes one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf…[likewise] a leader of the mob [dēmos], seeing the multitude devoted to his orders, does not know how to abstain from the blood of his tribe” (1998, p108). Here the demoboros erupts and consumes the multitude, at the point in at which  the figure of Homo Sacer and the Sovereign meet and become indistinct, occupying a shared space of internal externality. Within this space within and outside the law, the contrasting status of the Eucharist as a sacred act of flesh-eating, and the taboo status of Cannibalism also enter; the king is both sacred and foul, and the act of consuming the human body is both cleansing and abominable. It is important to note, however, that for Agamben this indistinction only reaches the form of the permanent State of Exception in the modern era- while the medievals saw the Cannibal as an occasional and contingent exception that confound distinction; for Agamben it is in the formation of a State of Exception that an exceptional cannibalism becomes the norm. The Cannibal is a tool for an understanding of the concept of Sovereignty, suitable not only because it is a recurring form in the Official Canon of European thinkers, but because it relates the philosophy of sovereignty to a continuum of philosophies of power centred on the body comprised of other bodies; the state-machine, the cyborg, the many-headed hydra, the multitude.

“Famine-Stricken and Plundered India” (Irish World, March 7, 1874)

Is this then pure metaphor? The historian Mike Davis has found that during the 1877 famine in British India a “a self-proclaimed Benthamite ‘Experiment’” was conducted in the relief camps offered to famine stricken Indians, where only the minimum rations necessary to conduct hard labour were provided, a regime which “provided less sustenance for hard labor than the diet inside the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp”(p38). All the while ships loaded with grain left India for the mills of England. Here the connection between the logic of modernism and the camp – the concept of the camp as the ‘paradigm of the modern’ in Agamben’s terms- is clearly apparent. Agamben notes that the basis of experimentation on the human body by “voluntary consent” is “simply meaningless for someone interned at Dachau” (p158); how can one truly agree to submit to such a regimen, when the choice is between two kinds of dying? In the Indian context a cycle of “decay and dislocation” (Davis, p47) appears combined with a famine cannibalism occurring outside the camps; “India, like Ireland before it had become a Utilitarian laboratory” (p31) argued Davis: what Swift had satirised with his Modest Proposal was, in the space of a generation, practical policy. An external cannibalism of necessity in the villages and farmland, was counterposed to a manifestation of a Liberal Utilitarian bios which acted to consume bodies through an explicit project of calculating bare life in the camps. An explicit turn to a Marx here reveals a confluence of sovereignty and capital, and the endgame of ‘European’ thought; the dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, is facilitated through the bio-political logistics at work in the formation of colonial sovereignty.

In an essential essay on colonial power, Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe writes:

contemporary experiences of human destruction suggest that it is possible to develop a reading of politics, sovereignty, and the subject different from the one we inherited from the philosophical discourse of modernity. Instead of considering reason as the truth of the subject, we can look to other foundational categories that are less abstract and more tactile, such as life and death.

The European imaginary of the cannibal as both the core and the periphery of the sovereign project is the fusion of these categories. It is the project of the ‘human’ in it’s absolute form: the living made of the dead. In The Open Agamben points in the direction of a medieval puzzle concerning the anthropophagus whose fate upon the ressurrection and final judgement is unclear; will the bodies of their victims be resurrected, thereby denying the cannibal the molecular substance needed for resurrection and judgement? Surely there can be no future for the sovereign power that operates in such a manner, but in a cruel turn, it certainly also escapes judgement: it must be dismantled in order that the very substance it is made of might bear witness against it.


Agamben, G. The Open translated by Kevin Attell (Stanford University Press, California: 1994)

Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen ( California: Stanford University Press 1998)

–  State Of Exception trans. Kevin Attell  (University of Chicago Press 2005)

Davis, M.  Late Victorian Holocausts; El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World  (London:Verso 2001)

Foucault, M.  Discipline and Punish trans. A. Sheridan Penguin, (London: Penguin 1998)

-The Birth of Biopolitics  trans. Graham Burchill (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2008)

The Will To Knowledge: The History of Sexuality volume1  (London: Penguin 1998)

Hobbes, Leviathan Oxford World’s Classics

John Locke, Two Treatises on Government Cambridge University Press

Mbembe, A. (2003) Necropolitics 

Montaigne, Of Cannibals

Phillips, J. ‘Cannibalism qua Capitalism’ in Cannibalism and The Colonial World eds. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iversen (Cambridge University Press 1998)

Reeves Sanday, P.  Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (Cambridge University Press 1998)

Rousseau, J-J.  The Social Contract trans. Maurice Cranston (London: Penguin 1968)


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