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Fantasies of ogres who transgress the taboo of cannibalism have come in many guises, long before today’s thrillers about serial killers. On the 25th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs – featuring the chilling Dr Hannibal Lecter – here are five grisly cannibal feasts.
1. Lycaon in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (cAD8)
Lycaon, a legendary king of Arcadia, kills and cooks a hostage in a pie, serving him up to a passing guest. But the guest is none other than Jupiter, and, for the Greeks, flouting the rules of hospitality is almost worse than murder. Lycaon is punished: in the first of the book’s metamorphoses, he becomes a werewolf condemned to live as a ravening outcast forever.
2. “The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass)” (c1520), by Agostino Veneziano
This terrifying, naked hag, her hair streaming out behind her in flames and smoke, is reaching out to devour another of the babies impaled on the ribs of her chariot of bones. She’s one of many child snatchers, figures who embody widespread anxieties about infant mortality. Evoking them acts to placate them: monstrous amulets were hung on cradles to avert the danger.
3. Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare, late 16th century
One of Shakespeare’s earliest and most violent and gory plays, it has caused audience members to pass out during the scene in which Tamora, Queen of the Goths, unknowingly banquets on her own children. She has been tricked by Titus, who is avenging the rape and horrific mutilation of his daughter as well as the murder of two of his sons.
4. “Saturn devouring one of his sons” (1821-23), by Francisco de Goya
Painted during Goya’s ‘black period’, Saturn is shown devouring one of his children. He is a colossus, hoary and unkempt with his eyes rolling in his head, showing the whites, as he tears with his teeth into the body of a small figure. The only colour in the painting is the red of blood. This image is a cry of protest – an allegory of the horrors of wars and massacres the artist had lived through.
5. The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (1908), by Beatrix Potter
Mr Samuel Whiskers and his wife Anna Maria capture Tom Kitten, cover him with butter and roll him in pastry – “the rolling-pin went roly-poly, roly …”. The rats are concerned, however: “I do not think it will not be a good pudding. It smells sooty.” Although not strictly speaking cannibalism – human on human – children identify with Tom and shiver and squeal before he narrowly escapes.
Marina Warner, Professor of Literature at the University of Essex, was talking to Harriet Crawford