Eating the Enemy: A Savage Act, But Not New

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The horrific images of a Syrian rebel commander eating the heart of a dead government solider sparked global outrage and calls that the rebel, identified as Abu Sakkar, the commander of the Independent Omar al-Farouq brigade, be classified as a war criminal.

The shocking propaganda video, the latest installment of a war that has seen more than 80,000 killed since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011, does have historical precedents.

Indeed, enemy eating is as old as time. The Scythians, Chinese, Maoris, Iroquois, Ashantee, Aztecs, Anasazi and many others are known to have eaten the hearts and other body parts of slain enemies.

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Prisoners of war were claimed to be the main source of food for the Aztec gods. In this case, however, exocannibalism, the eating of enemies or strangers, was a key part of a religious cosmology. The Aztecs believed the sun god had to be fed with the still beating hearts of human beings. Without cannibalizing the defeated enemies, they believed, their world would collapse.

Other cultures did not rely on religion to explain such savagery.

In most cases, eating the enemy was an extreme form to obtain complete revenge over one’s foes. It was also aimed at absorbing the qualities of the deceased rivals.

While the heart was eaten to gain courage and power, other parts of the body such as the brain and tongue were swallowed to assume knowledge and bravery.

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“Of the heart of a celebrated enemy, the king and his dignitaries are said to partake,” the London encyclopaedia wrote in 1829 when describing the customs of the Ashantees in Western Africa.

“They make a practice of cutting out the hearts of some of the slain, which they mix up with consecrated herbs, and after much ceremony, compel those who have never killed an enemy to eat part of the horrible portion,” the report stated.

Several North American native tribes are believed to have eaten the enemy’s hearts. Indeed, there are reports of Sioux reducing to powder the vital organ of a dauntless opponent and swallow the powder hoping to gain his courage.

More recently, former Liberian President Charles Taylor — sentenced last year to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting rebels in Sierra Leone during the 1991-2002 civil war –was accused of ordering his militias to eat the flesh of captured enemies and UN soldiers. Taylor himself reportedly ate the heart and livers out of dead soldiers.

Image: Syrian rebels run away from heavy shelling in Homs province.