Cannibalism, the act of eating the flesh of your own species, is considered taboo in most cultures. As such, it's long been a focus of fascination, woven into myths and stories in a variety of ways. Creepy mythological cannibals come in many guises, hail from all parts of the world, and appear in all different belief systems.
Cannibals in mythology, unrestrained by reality, are often more disturbing than those in real life. Sometimes, they take the form of humans, and other times, they walk the line between human and creature. No matter what form they come in, they share a hunger for human flesh, or the desire to feed someone else human flesh. Sometimes, these cannibal myths can even lead to real-life cannibalism.
Cronus, the god of time in ancient Greek mythology, 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 devour them as soon as they were born. By the time Zeus (the youngest) finally arrived, the children’s mother, Rhea, was fed up and fed her husband a stone instead. Her trick was successful. Zeus grew up and later convinced his father to regurgitate the other children back to life.
Greek mythology has served as inspiration for many artists, such as Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, who created this painting of Saturn (the Roman name for Cronus) titled "Saturn Devouring His Son."
The Kombai people of Papua New Guinea have a myth about the Khakhua-Kumu (sometimes called Suangi), but it's a myth with some very real-world consequences. "Khakhua-Kumu" is the name given to men who practice witchcraft. It's believed that they consume both the body and the soul of their targets.
Because Khakhua-Kumu are both the stuff of legend and believed to exist in the real world, if a person is able to name the Khakhua-Kumu that went after them, then the person’s family must slay and consume certain organs of the accused Khakhua-Kumu in order to free the deceased's spirit. The Kombai believe that the soul lies in the brain and the stomach of a person. As such, these organs of an alleged Khakhua-Kumu are consumed so that the witch is wiped out. This modern-day cannibalism still exists as living Kombai tribe members attest to having eaten Khakhua-Kumu.
The wendigo (sometimes spelled windigo) is a creature from Algonquian myth . Sometimes described as a cannibalistic monster, other times presented as an evil spirit, it's a fearsome beast associated with extreme hunger, winter, and the cold. Native author and ethnographer Basil Johnston describes the mythical creature:
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.
Basil says that non-native people typically translate Wendigo to mean "cannibal monster," however, some native groups translate it to mean "the image of excess" or a fool. The Algonquian believe that a person who consumes human flesh is at risk for being possessed by the wendigo, thus, reinforcing the cultural taboo of cannibalism. The creature is the basis for a syndrome known as Wendigo psychosis , which involves a person becoming mad after excessive amounts of time living indoors with little food during the bitter cold, causing the sufferer to develop an intense craving for human flesh.
Erysichthon is a unique sort of cannibal, famous for devouring the most shocking of target - himself. In Greek mythology, Erysichthon, also sometimes called Aethon, cut down trees in a sacred forest belonging to the goddess Demeter in order to build himself a feast hall. As punishment, Demeter placed the spirit of insatiable hunger, Limos, in his stomach, which meant that the more he ate, the hungrier he got. Driven by intense hunger, Erysichthon sold all of his possessions, including his own daughter, to acquire food.
Eventually, poor, homeless, and driven mad by his hunger, he began to gnaw on his own limbs and ended up eating himself.