Category Archives: Religion

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

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We were no different from the doves above us. We could not speak or cry, but when there was no choice we discovered we could fly. It you want a reason, take this: We yearned for our portion of the sky.

Masada, the word summons up images, war, Romans, Zealots, slaughter, mass suicide. A place of national pride for some, historical and archaeological controversy for many, a bit of Python mockery to others. On visiting the place itself Alice Hoffman was inspired to wonder about the experience of the women who had lived and died there. The result is The Dovekeepers. She uses the writings of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as the foundation for her tale. (The Monty Python crew used Josephus’s writings as well, for a very different purpose, in Life of Brian.)

The four primary characters meet at Masada, where they are assigned to care for the doves. There are those who might consider this a hardship post, regarding doves as dirty, disgusting, filthy, and lice-ridden, or as rats with wings, but they are also a source of fertilizer, meat, eggs, and maybe a bit of hope. No one is designated as the concierge.

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Alice Hoffman

The four are Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah. Yael is notable for, among other things, her coloring. Her father, Yosef bar Elhanan, is a notorious assassin, a member of the Sicarii , a blade-minded branch of the Zealot movement. They do unpleasant things to Jews who collaborate with the occupying Romans. He was known not only for his effectiveness with sharp objects, but for his talent at going unnoticed. He did notice, however, that his wife died giving birth to their second child, Yael, and, possessing a mind and heart not nearly as honed as his weapons, he blames her. Thanks, Dad.

All the while I was growing up I wondered what it might be like to have a father who wouldn’t turn away from the sight of me, one who told me I was beautiful, even though my hair flamed a strange red color and my skin was sprinkled with earth-toned flecks as though I’d been splattered with mud. I’d heard my father say to another man that these marks were specks of my mother’s blood.

Their relationship is, shall we say, strained. Big brother, Amram, however, is the apple of papa’s eye, (I know, shocking) even follows him into the family business. That business involves doing in a Roman general, which gains them the attention of the occupying force and the family is forced to beat a hasty exodus from Jerusalem. They team up with another Sicarii family, headed by Jachim ben Simon. Things get complicated. They all endure a trial by heat, sand and misery on their trek, offering witness to others’ tales of sundry Roman atrocities as well. It is a road of self-discovery for Yael, and she arrives at Masada much changed from who she was when she had set out.

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Rachel Broshahan as Yael – from CBS

Revka had a nice family. Hubby was a baker. Her daughter was married to a nice studious young man. They had two boys. Romans sacked their town, murdering Revka’s husband while slaughtering anyone within reach. Revka is forced to become a refugee. Further atrocities are visited on her family. While she gets a measure of revenge on the latest evil-doers, she darkens her own soul. Her grandchildren have become mute and her nice-young-man of a son-in-law has become a psycho warrior.

Aziza and her mother were sexually assaulted when Aziza was still a child. Mom decided to raise her as a boy to reduce the likelihood of that happening again. She becomes a bad-ass warrior. Her brother not so much. There is a scene that could have been pulled from Robin Hood in which Aziza demonstrates her proficiency with a bow and arrow. Also gawjuss. Think Xena, at least I did. (you sprouts out there might conjure Katniss)

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Kathryn Prescott as Aziza – from CBS

Last and definitely not least is Shirah. A witchy sort, with a book of magic spells, great hair and ravishing beauty. She comes from a line of women in a particular line of work, but her mother sent her away from their home in Alexandria when she was young, as an anti-them pogrom was going on, to stay with relations in Jerusalem. Things do not go well for her there. She meets The One, but there is a mess with him being already married, and not up to standing up to his parents, and her being, oh, twelve. She later finds someone with whom to share a home, pops out a few progeny, but is now a single mom in Masada, doing the odd spell to help female residents with this and that, and still looking up to the goddess Ashtoreth for her main religious sustenance. But what’s the deal with her and the hunky head of the Masada warriors, Eleazar Ben Ya’ir? And what’s up with his seriously creepy wife?

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Cote de Pablo as Shirah – from CBS

So that’s the four. We know (you know, right?) that things do not go well for the residents of Club Masada. The story is in tracking the progress of the place’s demise and how the four got there, and how they cope with the stresses that are steadily building. We are also given a bit of a tour, and get a sense of place beyond the stick figure general notion.

Hoffman definitely has an inclination towards incorporating history into her work, whether of the maritime sort in Blackbird House or a bit of Transcendentalism in The Red Garden. She is also fond of incorporating dollops of magic into her tales, sometimes more than a little. She usually tells tales of women who are forced to cope with challenging circumstances. And she is quite fond of fairy tales. It will come as no shock that this novel is very much in keeping with her previous work. What makes it different is its ambition, scope, and length. It is not a huge book, at 500 pages or so, but is bulkier than her previous work.

First, and probably most important, it is an engaging read. Her main characters are interesting, all strong in their way, and worth finding out about. The story moves along at a decent pace, most of the time. Place is of obviously central import and is given star treatment. I would not say that you could matter-transmit yourself to the fort and know your way around, but you might see places that look familiar and wonder how you knew about them. Hoffman mixes martial material of different flavors, blending some warriors in combat with the more appalling laying waste of defenseless civilians by armed sorts from both sides. There is romantic entanglement aplenty, but my guy-genes did not feel much inclination to generate spew. It all worked pretty well.

She may have overdone it a bit with her imagery, IMHO. Yael, in particular, is associated with, among other things, a Flaming Tree image. Red hair, get it? There are other bits of significance associated with this, but it seemed to me that it was popping up like one of those birthday candles that won’t go out. Yael is also associated with lions, in various guises, a love interest, an encounter with a feline or two in the desert, a kittie held captive by the occupying army. As a host to six of the creatures, I know that, however much we may love and be fascinated by them, sometimes you need to step back a bit. Maybe it is just that in a longer book there are more mentions than one is used to from Hoffman, who knows her way around imagery. I do not recall feeling bugged by other such strands. Watch for image streams relating to serpents and boids, sorry, birds (I am from Brooklyn, after all) Hoffman associates some elemental aspects with her characters, which seemed very fairy-tale-ish and ok. Shirah is associated with water, for example, and that aspect was used in moderation and worked quite well.

Magic most definitely plays a part here. Spells are cast and have the expected impact. Of course some of what works is an expert’s knowledge of science, and that seems like magic at times. It is suggested that one character’s cloak has a feature may make it a likely ancestor of a similar garment used in Hogwarts. One expects magic in AH’s novels. This is all good.

For her historical basis, Hoffman relies on the writings of Flavius Josephus. Here we get into a bit of controversy. The tale of mass suicide that is Masada appears not to have a particularly strong foundation in archaeological research. It was fluffed at a time when it served well as a symbol of Israeli determination and nationhood. Evidence that proves that the events Josephus describes actually occurred is less than entirely persuasive. While there are certainly elements of Josephus’s tale that have a basis in reality, others might constitute a bit of playing to his audience. We all have our national myths. Think George Washington and the Cherry Tree, Paul Revere’s ride, WMDs in Iraq. I do not fault Hoffman for centering her tale around a historical event that is less than universally accepted. Myth is what she does. And she has done an outstanding job with this one. Whether one sees the source material as ancient history or a mythologization of a less exceptional reality, the story she spins around that core is a compelling one.

I have only read a handful of Alice Hoffman’s adult books, so cannot claim a deep knowledge of her oeuvre. But I would put my shekels on The Dovekeepers being the crowning achievement of her career. (One might say it is the feather in her literary cap. I wouldn’t, but some might.)

Review posted – 3/28/15

Pub Date – 10/4/11

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

Here is a reading guide from Hoffman’s site

The CBS mini-series is due any day now. The series makes do with three of the four primary characters, (sorry Revka) and Josephus is not a character in the book.

Oy, there are so many unfamiliar words used in this story that it would be a useful thing to have kept track of them. Sorry, kids, I did not. However, AH does collect some of those in a glossary on her site. It is not comprehensive, though. There are plenty more in the book.

A documentary that looks at the historical event: Time Travellers: Myth of Masada

Here is a nifty site if you are interested in this particular sort of boid bird

A couple of songs that seem, vaguely, suitable

Yes, yes, I know the title of the song is Edge of Seventeen, but I imagine most of us think of it as The White Winged Dove

A favorite from a non-Jewish Prince

And then there is Monty Python, noted at the top. Here is a site that not only links to the infamous Python suicide scene from Life of Brian, but offers a look at a scene, cut from the film, that had been intended to set it up.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Religion

How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman

book cover And it came to pass that I read and ye shall learn of a pretty amazing book. Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman takes on the subject of how, in history, the notion of Jesus as god developed. Was it there from the beginning? How did it arise? What does it even mean? Was he considered divine by believers before conception, at conception, at baptism by John, when he died on the cross, when he rose from the dead, when he headed upstairs to the executive offices? And the answer? Yes.

As with many mysteries there is a paucity of physical evidence. One might consider Ehrman’s task a very challenging episode of [Incredibly] Cold Case Files, or maybe fodder for a new version of a favorite show (as if there are not enough already) CSI Antiquity.

Not much to work with here as far as physical evidence goes, but Ehrman does apply his considerable skill to analyzing what documentation we have, tracing provenance, to the extent possible, applying what we know of the period(s), and lasering in on crucial questions.

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The author

Ehrman makes it very clear that he is not about trying to turn anyone away from a particular set of beliefs.

I do not take a stand on the theological question of Jesus’s divine status. I am instead interested in the historical development that led to the affirmation that he is God.

Or who said what, and when, where and why did they say it? And who saw what, where, when, how and why?

My knowledge of the period is extremely limited. Twelve years of Catholic school taught me a lot more about obedience than it did about biblical scholarship, and while I have read the odd book here and there about the period, I claim no particular expertise, so am not in a position to offer a particularly educated consideration of the information presented here. Ehrman, on the other hand, has written vast amounts on things biblical. I refer you to his considerable bona fides, here. I am inclined to give his very accomplished, educated interpretation of the material he examines a bit more weight than I might the opinions proffered by individuals boasting lesser scholarly accomplishment.

Key, of course, is the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Without that there is no such thing as Christianity, as prophets and Messiahs were sold by the gross at the dollar-store equivalent of the era. In fact, Ehrman opens his book citing an unnamed individual whom one might expect is JC, as the details are incredibly reminiscent. But no, it turns out to be another prophet entirely. (No, not Brian) His pilot was not picked up by the world at large, so you might find him in the antiquity channel’s version of “Brilliant but Cancelled.” And he was not alone. But, since any Tom, Dick, and Appolonius could claim to be a prophet, it was the claim that Jesus was resurrected that was key to a long run, and Ehrman focuses on that.

He looks into the details of Jesus’s death and supposed return. For example, how likely was it that he was buried at all? The answer will surprise you. How about the likelihood that someone who had just tried to have him done in would arrange a burial? How likely might it be for wanted criminals, as the apostles were, to stick around after their chief had been so harshly treated? It continues, but you get the idea. Each tiny piece needs to be examined.

One of the things that Ehrman does consistently and well is to define terms. Divine? In what sense? There is a lot of variety in levels of divinity. Ehrman points out a pyramidal structure common to many religions, and how supposedly monotheistic faiths shuck and jive trying to explain how the multiple divine entities in their religions do not violate the monotheism-shrink-wrap guarantee covenant (it’s in the mouse print). He applies his piercing logic to notions of resurrection as well.

For [most ancient people—whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan] the human realm was not an absolute category separated from the divine realm by an enormous and unbridgeable crevasse. On the contrary, the human and divine were two continuums that could, and did, overlap.

(Bette Midler knows about that, for sure) So what was it that was supposedly seen?

It was widely believed in antiquity that the spirit we have within us was also made of “stuff.” It was material. But it was very highly refined material that could not be seen with the eyes. (Kind of like what people think when they imagine they’ve seen a “ghost”—there’s something there, made of stuff, since it can be seen, even though it’s pure spirit.) When Paul speaks of a spiritual body, then, he means a body not made up of this heavy, clunky stuff that now makes up our bodies, but of the highly refined, spiritual stuff that is superior I every way and is not subject to mortality.

Who knew there was such a level of detail to consider? Was the risen Jesus made of chunky human flesh or the sort ectoplasm more usually associated with someone like, say, Slimer . Or was he some ethereal non-substance?

And what about the veracity of the stories that were told of the supposed resurrection?

Even apart from the fact that they were written forty to sixty-five years after the facts, by people who were not there to see these things happen, who were living in different parts of the world, at different times, and speaking different languages—apart from all this, they are filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled. In fact, the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail in their resurrection narratives

So, we are relying, in the gospels at least, on an inconsistent story, from multiple non-witnesses, that was the end result of a decades-long biblical version of the game telephone? These days, of course, you can probably become a god, or at least obtain, Wizard-of-Oz-style, a document attesting to your divinity, by sending a certain sum to a particular web site. (GodsRUs.com would be my guess). It was so much more complicated back then.

So, what might be less than divine in Ehrman’s examination? Well, we are digging through some very old material here, and it is not surprising that in a book focused in the Middle East a bit of sand gets in. The level of detail does, on occasion, cause one’s eyes to ascend to another level of being. But I found this a fascinating, and educational read, opening up many notions to consideration that I had never really thought about. Whatever it may do for your spirit, this book will definitely stimulate your brain.

Whether you find this examination of history divinely inspired or deserving a place on the lower levels of you-know-where, it is certainly a fascinating look at a critical element of history, and, by implication, religious belief. But don’t take my word for it. See, feel and read it for yourself. And if it doesn’t work for you the first time, hey, you can always come back to it.

Posted May 23, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Ehrman’s blog, Christianty in Antiquity

Check here for a very nifty collection of audio and video clips of the author

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, Reviews

The Bees by Laline Paull

book coverThe Bees is a powerful tale of what life might look like to a hive member. This is not your kids’ Bug’s Life, but a very grown-up, compelling drama that includes both sweetness and considerable sting. There are several elements that might make one think of Game of Thrones Drones. Corruption on high, battles of succession, sinister enemies, both in the hive and outside. Not only must all men die but winter is coming, twice. There is also a lot of religious reference here. This sits atop a marvelous, deep portrayal of a world that is very alien. And to top it off we are led through this journey by a character who, while far from perfect, is a very good egg, or was.

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Bee life cycle

Of course Flora 717 might not have been considered a wonderful egg to those around her. She was born to the Flora caste, a group responsible for, ironically, cleaning up, a sanitation caste, essentially untouchables. But this Flora is a bit different. She is larger for one, possessed of great determination, curiosity, and a capacity for speech that is mostly suppressed among her peers. Still she is different and that is not usually allowed. The police are about to remove her (Deformity is evil. Deformity is not permitted.) when a Sage intervenes. Sages are the priestess class. Their intentions however, are not entirely holy. This Sage takes Flora under her wing, and the story is on. Sometimes it is good to spare the deviants, and experiment a little. We get to see many aspects of hive life through Flora’s five eyes, but also through her six feet, which are able to interpret vibrations in the floor, and her antennae, which she uses to sense scents and for more direct communication with other bees. That Paull can make the very alien sense environment of bees understandable to those of us with only four limbs and no antennae at all (well except for our friends in intelligence) is a triumph on its own. The Hive Mind is considered for its positive and negative aspects as well.

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Laline Paull

Paull tells about the origin of the story on her web site

A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation.

Her feeling of loss is very much present here. Bees are not the longest lived creatures on the planet, and more than a few see their end here. But there is another element as well, from a recent interview posted here on Goodreads,

Becoming a mother changed me and made me stronger—but evolution is never easy. I didn’t write Flora from an intellectual perspective but in a very visceral way: Motherhood made me a more passionate person—or allowed me to express that innate side of myself much more. So perhaps that’s why Flora works as a character: There’s primal truth in her motivation. She accepts her life one way, but then a forbidden force takes possession of her. Called love.

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Religious nomenclature permeates the tale. The Queen is not only a temporal ruler, but is considered divine as well. This is helped along by her ability to produce pheromones in vast quantity that can soothe her hive family. There are sacraments in this world, a catechism, rituals, prayers, some of which will sound familiar. There are also some virgin births. And what would religion be without a little human sacrifice, or in this case bee sacrifice. It is a place in which religion is joined to politics to generate Orwellian mantras like Accept Obey Serve, Desire is Sin, Idleness is Sin, From Death comes Life Eternal, and the like. And, of course, there is some Orwellian behavior. Life is held cheaply, particularly for those not of the favored groups, and the jack-booted police that enforce the rules are definitely a buzzkill. The death penalty is more the norm than the exception, and it is often applied immediately and energetically.

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Western honey bee

Flora’s explorations of the world are entire adventures on their own, as she encounters not only adversaries like wasps, spiders and crows, but man-made hazards as well. On the other hand she experiences the longing of the flowers, and the expanded internal horizons that result from expanding one’s horizons externally. She has a particular longing of her own, which fires the engines of her determination.

The Bees is a fast-paced, engaging, invigorating tale that will have you flipping pages faster than a forager’s wings. You will come away not only with the warm feeling of having shared a remarkable journey but will find yourself eager to learn more about our buzzy brethren, well, except for Nicolas Cage. And you might even find yourself tempted to get up and do a

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Waggle Dance

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

In Paull’s site there is a photo of a Minoan palace map that informed her hive layout. Worth a look .

The May 2014 GR newsletter features a brief interview with Paull

That buzzing in your ear might be more cause for concern that you’d realized. New project aims to upload a honey bee’s brain into a flying insectobot by 2015

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Literary Fiction, Religion, Reviews, Science and Nature

Among the Cannibals by Paul Raffaele

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What could be worse than a dog eat dog world? Oh.

I was of two very different minds about this book.

Australian Paul Raffaele is a feature writer for Smithsonian. He has covered many parts of the globe in his work for that venerable institution. And he travels far for this work, looking into that darkest of human activities. He investigates special meat-eaters in New Guinea, India, Tonga, ancient Mexico, and Africa. We have a certain image in mind of what cannibals might look like. I mean in the real world, not the dark imagination of Thomas Harris or the psychosis of some of our more aberrant criminals. They would probably live on Pacific Islands, or remotest Africa or South America, use primitive technology and have acquired a taste for missionary over easy. Mostly, but not entirely the case.

Cannibalism of one kind or another had been common around our globe through the millennia, and yet the classic Western image of cannibals is a terrified white Christian missionary in pith helmet crouching in a large outdoor cooking pot, the logs burning fiercely as wild-eyed African warriors in grass skirts dance about him shaking their spears. Their glinting eyes show their eagerness to tuck into their human meal. In truth there is not one record of a missionary ending up in an African cook pot. The cannibals invariably ate one another.

The book offers interesting, surprising, and very disturbing information about a practice most of us (certainly me) thought had vanished from human behavior. The reasons for chowing down on such forbidden fruit vary. High on the list is to degrade and strike fear into one’s enemies. Another is to honor close relations. Some even consider eating human flesh a form of religiousity. The Korowai people of New Guinea justify their practices by maintaining that victims had already been killed by evil spirits and it was only the evil spirits that had taken over the body that was being devoured.

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Kilikili says he has killed no fewer than 30 khakhua (male witches) – from Smithsonian.com

The practice is supposedly a thing of the past in New Guinea, but I would not like to place too high a wager on that. Raffaele’s looks at the practice in Tonga and Aztec Mexico are more firmly planted in the past. Unfortunately, there are still people-eaters today. There is a Hindu sect in India, the Aghoris, whose holy men chow down on you-know-what “as the supreme demonstration of their sanctity.” They even sit atop rotting corpses as a show of devotion and Raffaele reports some particularly unspeakable acts in which they engage, that I will not report on here.

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An image of this cheerful Aghori is sure to help you sleep at night

And no, wiseass, it is not a self-portrait. I cannot really fold my legs like that for any length of time, and I keep my hair and beard much shorter these days. But there is worse to come. His report on the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army of northern Uganda takes the eating of human flesh to whole new level of depravity, a true heart of darkness. This information is the stuff of nightmares. Very disturbing.

I have a major gripe with the book. The cover is sprightly. It shows a hand reaching up out of a large cooking pot writing the book title. Lower down on the page is an icon that repeats inside as a section divider, a skull and crossbones in which the crossbones have been replaced with a knife and fork. One might get the impression that the information contained within would fulfill the silly graphics. We know that even such darkness can produce smiles. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (the stage version, not the very disappointing film), for example, is probably the only Broadway musical to have cannibalism as a central focus. Devouring scenery does not count. And while my personal favorite all-time Broadway show was rather dark, it still maintained a significant level of humor.

Todd: What is that?
Lovett: It’s Priest. Have a little priest.
Todd: Is it really good?
Lovett: Sir, It’s too good, at least.
And of course it don’t commit sins of the flesh
So it’s pretty fresh
Todd: Awful lot of fat
Lovett: Only where it sat
Todd: Haven’t you got poet or something like that?
Lovett: No, you see the trouble with poet is how do you know it’s deceased? Stick to priest.

And so on…

The light touch promised by the cover art for this book does not deliver as promised. There is nothing at all amusing about children living today who are forced to eat human flesh under pain of death. In that way the book offers a bait and switch, promising a light touch, but delivering a deep gouge.

I also found the author at times personally off-putting. While in Tonga, he felt it necessary to comment on his translator’s physical attributes in a way that came across as salacious.

Waiting outside and holding aloft my name printed in marker pen on a pad is a round-faced, bright-eyed girl who looks to be in her early twenties. She is clad in a Congo-style ankle-nudging cotton dress that fits tightly about her neatly rounded thighs, and a short-sleeved top printed with a spray of red orchids that clings to her firm high breasts. She has woven her hair in to strands festooned with colored beads. Unlike most of the women at the airport who are laden with fat and boasting the enormous bottoms that most African men are said to lust for, she is sleek and silky.

Either his editor was not doing a good job, or the author exercised an ill-advised veto.

Raffaele does not come across as a particularly deep thinker and this is not a scholarly investigation of a very dark side of humanity. There is only passing mention of the Catholic sacrament of Communion, in which practicing Catholics consume the body and blood of Christ. There is even less on the sundry cannibalistic psychopaths who have come to public notice. Are there any studies indicating when and where it might have begun? Raffaele does note that it existed in prehistory. Records go back at least as far as Herodotus (well before Soylent Green) of such culinary preferences, and it lasted into the 19th century, at least. How about a comparison with other species? How widespread is the practice in the animal kingdom. Are we really different from what we consider lower orders? For a more analytical look at the subject you might consider Carole Travis-Henikoff’s book, Dinner With a Cannibal: The Complete History of Mankind’s Oldest Tabboo. An NPR interview offers a taste of what she has to offer.

Among the Cannibals definitely offers new and intriguing information. Be forewarned that you will need a strong stomach to get through it all. But, because it was so much not what was expected, it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

To remove the taste, you might consider taking in a bit more of Sweeney. Another gem from the vaults is a song by Sheb Wooley that was actually a #1 hit when I was a tyke.

If you get an invitation to the Donner Party, I would pass.

And of course, every abomination must have an advocate, so you might want to see the modest proposal the folks at Zebra Punch offer, while humming their particular version of Barbara Streisand’s classic tune, about why we should
eat people.

There is an interesting item on cannibalism in Wikipedia

Raffaele’s article for Smithsonian Magazine, Sleeping with Cannibals, was the basis for the book

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Filed under Non-fiction, Religion, Reviews, Science and Nature