Bits and pieces on anthropophagous animals

attempt2Many illustrations of the Last Judgment and Resurrection depict animals regurgitating human parts (the illustration for this post, taken from the nineteenth-century tracing of the Hortus deliciarum, is one such image). In these depictions, humans – or parts of humans – emerge only from animal mouths; they do not emerge from animal anuses, nor are they shown to be exuded or otherwise reconstituted from animal flesh. Regardless of what might have been thought to happen to human flesh during the term of the anthropophagous animal’s life, in the visual representations, humans have not passed through digestive tracks; they have not been assimilated; their flesh remains their own, promised to them for the coming Eternity. Seemingly like the en-whaled Jonah, they rest unaltered, if not wholly intact, in the belly of the beast until the Creator sees fit to undo the eating by bringing them back out the way they went in.


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In the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch penned his Epistle to the Romans, a brief work in which he enthused over his coming martyrdom, eagerly hoping that the beasts of the arena would do their duty and devour him:

Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God. Entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may not be found troublesome to any one.

This passage has been interpreted as one in which Ignatius turns his body, through martyrdom, into the Eucharist; Bynum tracks its efforts to promise continuity of self even in those moments when it seems to be in danger of utter dissolution (Resurrection 27). Ignatius pictures the “breakings, tearing . . . . separations of bones[,] . . . . cutting off of members[, and] . . . bruising to pieces of the whole body” that he will undergo. Yet Ignatius describes his final end also as something far more mundane: he is wheat turned into bread; he has, in a common image, fallen asleep; he is the body laid to rest in the tomb of these beasts. The latter image is especially arresting. He hopes that nothing will remain of him – no relic – over which any Christian might expend any care. Presumably such a hope would be vain for the arena, given that even the most ravenous — or fastidious — of beasts leave behind scraps of carrion; but it would not be a vain hope for a burial, as even the sloppiest of burials tend not to leave pieces behind. Although Ignatius will be devoured by beasts, he resists the wildness of it by imagining what is meant to be a humiliation as a banal, albeit pious, terminus of his life. He undoes the coming dispersal of his limbs into multiple animal stomachs through a metaphor that transforms these numerous temporary receptacles into a single tomb that will preserve his remains until the Last Judgment. In a manner of speaking, that burial is precisely what happened. After his martyrdom, nothing remained of him “but the harder portions of his holy remains,” which “were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by grace which was in the martyr.” His humble request that he not be preserved in the form of relics has not been honored, but the fact of his having been killed and consumed by animals is at least counterbalanced by his osteal preservation. He has been reassembled preparatory to the coming resurrection, and until then, his remains, his self partially in abeyance, will be preserved by the church. This end and enduring postmortem existence is presumably what he would have come to even if he had not been consumed by animals: his flesh would have turned to dust, his bones kept.

BARTSCH_800050The above story is the Greek version of Ignatius’s death. Some, but not all, versions translated into Latin (beginning with the Elogium ex Martyrologiis Adonis, translated into Latin by Bede) conclude differently. A typical version of this tradition follows:

Finally, after this, that he had been tormented by fire, and by beating and prison, the emperor did send for the Romans in a place and there did do set S. Ignatius, and did do bring thither two lions for to devour him. But he had never dread for death ne for other torments, of which he had suffered many, but was always comforted for to die for the love of Jesu Christ. And he said at the last: I am wheat of Jesu Christ, which ought to be grounden between the teeth of these beasts, by which I may be pure bread for to be presented to my Lord; and anon the lions came and strangled him without tearing of his flesh, or anything hurting it (in the Latin, præfocauerunt eum tantummodo, & non tetigerunt carnes eius), wherefor Trajan had great marvel and departed from the place.

What was originally a story in which a saint triumphs over eating is eventually altogether purged of eating. It becomes one of the many stories in which large predatory animals, otherwise notoriously anthropophagous, refuse to eat saints: e.g., the story of Cerbonius, Bishop of Populonia, who, in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, is condemned to be eaten by a bear, but the bear only licks the saint’s feet and hands, acting “with a heart almost human”; or the stories of Vincent, Gordian, Primus, Felicianus, and Justina in the Golden Legend, all of whose exposed bodies remain uneaten by animals; or, even, although this is somewhat far afield, the assertion by a fourteenth-century cynegetic manual that Acteon’s dogs, even though their master had been transformed into a stag, refused to eat him. Both versions of Ignatius’s martyrdom essentially tell the same tale of the failure of animal violence: in each, Ignatius resists being eaten and incorporated, in one by imagining his own swallowed body as a buried body, in the other by showing, even before the resurrection, the perdurability of flesh promised him for Eternity: subject to the power of God, the lions may only smother, so respecting the integrity of the sacred body. In the earlier narrative they may tear the saint to pieces, but nevertheless his relics persist. At any rate, what the lions ate would cease to be theirs once the lions passed into the nothingness of a merely animal death. Animals may be able to eat humans, digestion might join human with animal flesh, but this transformation is temporary: they cannot retain this human as their own flesh. Because the animal was temporary, and the human eternal, the devouring lions of the earlier legend might as well be the smothering lions of the Golden Legend.


Fuller cite for the Actaeon objection, by the way, is Gace de la Buigne, Roman de Déduits, “est bourde, si com je cuide, / que les chiens mengerent leur maistre” (I think it is a lie that dogs ever ate their master). This objection also appears as early as the time of Aristotle, in Palaephatus. On Unbelievable Tales Jacob Stern, trans. Wauconda, Illinois: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1996:

“They say that Actaeon was devoured by his own dogs. But the story is false, for a dog is most affectionate toward its master and provider, and hunting dogs in particular fawn on everyone” (38).

This book also has the following marvelous (or disenchantifantastic) passage:

“What is said about the Centaurs is that they were beasts with the overall shape of a horse — except for the head, which was human. But even if there are some people who believe that such a horse once existed, it is impossible. Horse and human natures are not compatible, nor are their foods the same: what a horse eats could not pass through the mouth and throat of a man. And if there ever was such a shape, it would also exist today” (30). –

…of course, the less interesting, but perhaps more accurate explanation, for the ‘human bits from animal mouths’ bit is that the animal mouth is a variant of the Hell Mouth, and Resurrection of the Flesh is conceived as a kind of Harrowing…

At any rate, that’s the kind of CYA I think I’d have to do were I ever to assemble some of the above things into an actual publication. –

Per Augustine: they may have been fully digested, but they’re nevertheless shown coming out the way they came in. It’s the exact reversal that interests me, a reversal despite the fact that many theologians knew–not the best verb, here, I know–perfectly well that the flesh of humans eaten by animals would be assimilated into animal flesh. In other words, I’m interested in the fact that what should be understood as a reconstitution is instead portrayed as an undoing, since the undoing strikes me as somewhat less miraculous. There seems to be a failure to imagine in visual form the very imaginative/doctrinal construct so necessary to the conviction of the lived and postmortem and coming Eternal permanence of self, as if the illustrators could not imagine how human flesh, mingled with, assimilated to, whatever, with animal flesh, could emerge, not from the mouth, but from the alien flesh that had become, in a (horrific) way, its own.

Per Ignatius: My notes on this, from the Acta Sanctorum, has the following instances in which Ignatius gets torn to pieces and devoured by the lions:

Simon Metaphraste:
dimissi leones eum statim dilacerarunt & deuorarunt

From Menaeis et Anthologio Graecor

Vnde productus in amphitheatrum a dimissis contra se leonibus discerptus est

Which may be compared to the Bede translation (the significant part quoted above, præfocauerunt eum tantummodo, & non tetigerunt carnes eius) and something the Acta Sanctorum lists only as Ex vetustissimis Mss. Latinis , which, likewise, says, & ex vtraque parte super eum incidentes præfocauerunt eum tantummodo, & non tetigerunt carnes eius.

What interests me is that in some stories–the earlier ones?–Ignatius gets torn to pieces and devoured; in the later ones, he gets killed, sometimes after several other torments(in a typical fashion) fail to kill him, but the lions only smother him (tantummodo is common, as if either to stress the miracle, or to stress the departure from generic expectations, I’m not sure), and, as the passiones make a point of mentioning, the lions do not eat him. This last point is especially interesting because it contradicts Ignatius’s wish to be consumed and to have the lions’ bodies be his (singular) tomb.* In other words, in the original story, we have a tension between Ignatius’s dismemberment and the reunification that the resurrection will effect, a tension given voice, but subtly, by the metaphorical transformation of multiple leonine stomachs into one tomb. In later stories (and I’m pretty sure they’re later), what’s only latent in the original becomes explicit: Ignatius never gets dismembered at all. On the one hand, he joins the set of saints whom animals refuse to dismember; on the other hand, the change introduces a willful incoherence into the passion that, to my mind, isn’t in fact so much introduced as heightened. He wants to be dismembered–as in the Bede passion, frumentum Christi sum, dentibus bestiarum molar, vt panis mundus inueniar–but the lions refuse it.

think that the average medieval person [and even the medieval theologian] knew, for a fact, that animals and even other humans could consume, digest, ground to bits,

Consume and ground to bits, yes, but nonetheless, there are some theologians who denied the capacity of animals to assimilate human flesh. Peter of Poitiers declared that neither humans nor animals assimilated anything to the truth of their nature. His argument’s a bit more extreme than other people who took similar positions, since in so doing, he preserves a continuity of selves even for nonhuman animals. In the second century, Athenagoras declared that creatures can assimilate only food that’s proper to them. Iirc, animals can’t assimilate human flesh, because eating people is not proper to animals (and, he added, that anthropophages will eventually starve to death if they subsist on a diet of only human flesh, since people shouldn’t eat people: Augustine countered by claiming that he’d seen people grow fat by eating people: I accept that Augustine’s making a point, but I don’t believe at all his claims of being a witness). William of Auxerre and Alexander of Hales revive Athenagoras’s argument (whether directly or not, I don’t know) in the 13th century. Quoting Alexander from Reynolds’ Food and the Body, 167, “there is an order in nature such that simple substances nourish plants, plants nourish beasts, and plants and beasts nourish human beings. Since human flesh is intended only to convert food and not to be converted as food, it is not appropriate nourishment for human beings [NOR, says I, for beasts, by implication]. But human flesh that has been generated from appropriate nutriment is not in the fullest sense the proper flesh of the one who has generated and possesses it: it has come from proper nutriment, but it is not proper flesh.”

* I’m reminded of the death of the wolf Ysengrimus, his being torn to pieces by the sow Salaura and her brood. Here’s my notes in part on that episode, Salaura says, ” ‘So let there be a change of names in both of us: you can be my Jonah and I’ll be your whale'” (537) (. . . . Mutetur nomen utrimque: / Sis michi tu Ionas et tibi Cetus ego. . .'” (ll. 374-5). Speaks of eating him as his ending up in her collection-box. Speaks of him as becoming a kind of relic and her stomach as a reliquary. He is parceled among the herd and “the pigs allowed less to survive that the least portion of a flea that has been cut into eight parts” (541) “parte minus minima porci superesse tulerunt, / Si fuerit partes sectus in octo pulex” (ll. 441-2) (from Mann, Jill. Ysengrimus: Text with Translation, Commentary, and Introduction. Mittellateinische Studien und Texte 12. Brill: Lieden, 1987). –

Nonetheless, it’s only a kind of body/self. As I’ve written here before, since the perfected body is a body preserved from all flux, what kind of body is it anyway? It’s a body that, in being purged of flux and weight, is not much of a body at all. All that has been preserved of the body is its borders, but that too is a reaction to ‘problem’ of the body, to wit, the permeability of its borders, where, in eating, evacuation, and, in fact, interacting with the world to form various assemblages, the membrane between inside and outside all too readily gives itself away as illusionary. In other words, a body with sure boundaries isn’t much of a body, either.


Now, the thing with Ignatius that I’ve never been able to answer satisfactorily is why the change in the story. The end result is the same–except in only one does he actually get to be, as he desires, torn to pieces–but the way there is startlingly different. Why the change? Being unable to answer that is in part what led me to cut that stuff from my diss. – See more at: