Parergon 37.1 preview: Taboo or Magic Practice?

We asked contributors to the current issue of Parergon to give us some additional insights into their research and the inspirations for their articles. In this post, Andrea Maraschi at the University of Bari, Italy, discusses ‘Taboo or Magic Practice? Cannibalism as Identity Marker for Giants and Human Heroes in Medieval Iceland’. DOI: 10.1353/pgn.2020.0056

My name is Andrea, and I am currently teaching Medieval History at the University of Bari, in Italy. My research career started at the University of Bologna with studies on food habits in medieval times, but I soon realized that I did not want to commit to one field of studies only. My passion for medieval society was growing fast, and when in 2014 I won a postdoctoral fellowship from the University of Iceland, I began to examine connections between food and magic practice in the medieval North. This article represents one of the first results of the wonderful working experience I had in Reykjavík, and it is focused on the role of cannibalism in Old Norse literature. Now, cannibalism had long intrigued me as an extreme response to hunger and famine in the Middle Ages, and – as such – I used to associate it with desperation and survival instinct. Reading the Old Norse legendary sagas, however, it struck me that cannibalism was described as a marker of Otherness and as a response to survival instinct only in the case of certain peculiar creatures: trolls, that is, caricatured representations of the uncivilized. However, the human protagonists of the sagas practice cannibalism not for the sake of survival, but to absorb magical powers from the eaten: to them, anthropophagy is a prestigious form of knowledge which is handed down from father to son.

Not all scholars agree as to the usefulness of legendary sagas as sources to understand the mentality and culture of saga writers: after all, fornaldarsögur abound with strange creatures and supernatural elements. This nonetheless, in my article I argue that scenes of cannibalism suggest that there is more than mere fantasy at the heart of such stories. Giants symbolized the idea of “barbarian”: they were huge, awkward, they lived in caves or small huts, they did not know politics, they ate human beings. In other words, they were the antithesis of civilization, but of a historically reliable idea of civilization. Indeed, the Old Norse trolls ate horses as well. Horsemeat was a critical bone of contention at the time of the conversion of Iceland, and the Church often associated its consumption with pagan rituals. The Old Norse trolls may be, then, caricatured representations of the pagan “uncivilized” past, from the perspective of the Christian saga authors. However, there also emerges a “civilized” and dignified version of cannibalism which was practiced by the human élite of the sagas, according to the very ancient principles of “sympathetic magic”. This form of anthropophagy is no less interesting in historical and cultural terms: many historical sources from the late medieval North (handbooks of magic, leechbooks, etc.) show that the notions of sympathy (“like produces like”) were applied in the real world, and not only in the fictional world of the sagas.

This analysis of magical and non-magical cannibalism in fornaldarsögur was one of the triggers that induced me to write a book on the application and circulation of the laws of sympathy in the Middle Ages, between magic, religion and science, which is currently in course of publication: Similia similibus curantur. Cannibalismo, grafofagia, e “magia” simpatetica nel Medioevo (500-1500), Spoleto: Cisam, 2020.

Parergon can be accessed via Project MUSE (from Volume 1 (1983)), Australian Public Affairs – Full Text (from 1994), and Humanities Full Text (from 2008). For more information on the current issue and on submitting manuscripts for consideration, please visit