It's easy to be fascinated with cannibals. It's one of the ultimate taboos - the idea of eating another human's flesh. Just thinking about it is enough to make your spine shiver or kick your gag reflex into action. But cannibals come into stories in different ways. You hear real stories of people forced into cannibalism by horrific circumstances as well as tales of cannibalistic serial killers who are truly deranged. However, cannibals are also prevalent in myths and legends. Creepy mythological cannibals come in many guises, hail from all parts of the world, and appear in all different belief systems.
But cannibals in mythology, unrestrained by reality, are often a whole new level of disturbing. These cannibalistic creatures are sometimes actual humans, and, other times, they walk the line between human and spirit. Always though, they share a hunger for human flesh - or, at the very least, the desire to feed someone else human flesh, which can be even creepier. And sometimes these cannibal myths can lead to real life cannibalism, and that can be the creepiest of all.
These unsettling mythological cannibals might make you think twice the next time an enemy invites you for dinner because, you know, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
Cronus, Who Ate (And Vomited Up) His Own Children
What’s worse than cannibalism? Cannibalism with regurgitation, perhaps? Cronus, the god of time, was the father of Olympians Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. Fearing that his children would ruin him like he did his father, he decided to eat them as soon as they were born. By the time Zeus (the youngest) finally arrived, the children’s mother, Rhea, was sick of this and fed her husband a stone instead. And the craziest thing is, that trick worked. Zeus was able to grow up and later convinced his father to vomit the other children back to life. Talk about awkward holiday dinners.
As if that wasn’t enough, this myth gets morbidity bonus points for inspiring some truly disturbing pieces of art, like this painting by Goya of Saturn devouring his son.
The Wendigo, Who Craved Flesh To Save Itself From Starvation
The wendigo (sometimes spelled windigo) is a frightening creature from Algonquian myth. Sometimes described as a cannibalistic monster, other times presented as an evil spirit, it's a frightening beast associated with starvation, winter, and the cold. In its own strange way, the wendigo blurs the line between starvation and gluttony as is clear in this description from Candian scholar Basil Johnston:
“The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tightly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody... Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.”
As if that's not creepy enough, there's another really scary bit. The creature is the basis for a syndrome known as Wendigo psychosis, which involves an intense craving for human flesh and a fear you might act on it. Spooky.
Khakhua-Kumu, Male Witches Who Must Be Eaten As Their Punishment
The Kombai people of Papua New Guinea have a myth about the Khakhua-Kumus, but it's a myth with some very real-world consequences. "Khakhua-Kumu" is the name given to men who are accused of being witches. Unusual in the fact that they are thought to eat both the body and the soul of their victims, they are believed to dispose of their victims in a particularly terrifying manner. After eating the organs and drinking the blood, they stuff the body with leaves and grass, creating horrific human scarecrows.
Because Khakhua-Kumua are both the stuff of legend and believed to exist in the real world, if a victim is able to name the Khakhua-Kumu that attacked them, then the victim’s family must kill and eat the Khakhua-Kumu in order to free the victim’s spirit. A supposed cannibal that begets more real-life cannibals - definitely scary.
Erysichthon, Who Got So Hungry He Ate Himself
Erysichthon is a unique sort of cannibal, famous for devouring the most shocking of victims - himself. In Greek mythology, Erysichthon, also sometimes called Aethon, cut down a huge oak in Demeter’s forest and killed a nymph, who cursed him as she died. To add to his woes, Demeter placed the spirit of insatiable hunger, Limos, in his stomach, which meant that the more he hate, the hungrier he got.
Eventually, driven mad by his hunger, he ate himself - a prospect that is definitely a new level of terrifying.