Cannibals Understood Etiquette


It’s been such a long time since I’ve posted, but I’ve been super busy writing about cannibalism (among other things). I learned things that can’t be unlearned about the subject and have a new found respect for our society’s ability to layer on civility so thickly that we really don’t have any yearnings for human flesh anymore. Yay us. We’ve done at least one thing right.

I’m not kidding. Margaret Visser – or the Great One, I like to call her – writes in The Rituals of Dinner (a book I urge – nay, demand – you to read), “The Aztec cared intensely how they ate people and also whom they ate, when, and where. Every gesture of the sacrifice was laid down as ritual….what they saw as neatness and propriety governed every gesture.” She goes on to say that somewhere in our primal brains, the fear of being eaten remains. “Behind every rule of table etiquette lurks the determination of each person present to be a diner, not a dish. It is one of the chief roles of etiquette to keep the lid on the violence which the meal being eaten presupposes.”

But what strikes me the most about what she says is that the cannibals had a set of rituals and etiquette rules that were followed to the letter for fear of upsetting their deities. Although we have some rituals in our lives around our meals, there is here in North America among us “mangia cake” no real collective dining rituals.

In my house I have a few rules. We eat at six. Everyone must sit at the table. No one starts eating until everyone has been seated. No phones, EVER. The phone isn’t answered. No one leaves the table until everyone is finished. And absolutely NO STRIFE is permitted. Any discussion that starts to get angry, I kind of shut down. The dinner table shall not be a battle field, so sayeth the mom.

But I’ve been to many a home for dinner where these rules are foreign to them. I roll with it, man. Hey, someone’s feeding me! There is nothing sweeter. I start to wonder in these situations if I’m too rigid, but I really, really like dinner with my family. I really, really, really like that they understand what’s expected of them so that we can concentrate on the important things, like talking to each other and laughing, and hopefully enjoying the food.

So I wonder – is the fear of being eaten stronger with me than others? Is there somewhere in my primal brain a piece of genetic memory saying, “Be polite, for the gods’ sake! You’ll be eaten!” If the fear of being the dinner rather than the diner is the thing that propels a society towards civility, then so be it. We could all use a few more manners around this place.


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