Review: This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Maori Cannibalism

Paul Moon, Penguin, 2008, 304 pages, 3 of 5 stars

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-10-28-29-pmExactly 130 years ago some Swiss missionaries living just a stone’s throw from our village drew attention to some particularly gruesome scenes of cannibalism in Elim.

The missionaries recorded most of these accounts in their private journals. And yet, the modern author (and revisionist) I was reading–now looking back at such claims–believes this material was most likely invented. “Missionaries embellish,” he would say cynically. “Foreign churches expect dramatic stories.” On and on.

Fast forward now to this book. I typically read the last chapter first. It’s one of the privileges of reading non-fiction. So when I picked up This Horrid Practice, I was struck by Moon’s conclusion about modern historians who like to whiteout the ugly parts in foreign cultures:

The revisionists would argue that reports of cannibalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were frequently made to excite audiences back in Europe–that their creators used the widespread ignorance of many indigenous cultures to conceal their falsifications….It all seems to make sense, but it is all totally wrong.

Anyone who takes jabs at post-modernists and multi-cultural progressives has my ear. So I decided to start from the beginning and read the whole thing through. Here’s what I found.

Moon’s goal is to give a comprehensive account of cannibalism on pre-civilized islands of Polynesia. He’s skeptical of today’s academics who have no categories of right and wrong. “But certainly cannibalism is wrong,” you say. But would it really surprise you that writers from today’s Ivy League even find this worthy of applause? It’s this crowd that Moon attacks.

Moon’s study of cannibalism is fascinating. Why did they eat others? Was it due to hunger, or something else? And what role did British literature play in it all? Why did abolition of the practice take so long? He addresses these questions and more.

Moon argues cannibalism was not at all due to a shortage of food, but was instead a means of striking fear in the enemy. The symbolism is obvious.

The primary purpose of the practice was to debase the enemy to the greatest extent possible by allowing his or her remains to be eaten, digested and emerge through the anus in the form of excrement.

I have no reason to believe the author is a Christian, so I cannot expect him to tie the book to Scripture. Still, this work reminded me of the hideousness of our sinful hearts outside of Christ. It made those OT passages of judgement upon disobedient Israel all the more vivid.  “You want to sin?” God says. Your reaping will be exponentially worse than the momentary pleasure of sowing.

I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor… (Jer. 19:9)

Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers. And I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds. (Ezek. 5:10)

Horrid was an unusual read for me. I would recommend it especially to those who want to understand the context of pre-European society in the South Seas and the challenges missionaries faced when ministering to them.

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