I raised the scalpel to make the first cut into that crenulated piece of flesh and found I couldn’t do it. Here before me was the brain of a sheep, nothing more than a hunk of meat, but I couldn’t help think of sheepy thoughts locked inside those dead cells as though they were exhibits in a museum. Year nine science class, and the brain sat on the desk in front of us on a chopping board—similar to the white plastic one we had in our kitchen at home. It was pinky-grey, a dead sort of colour, mottled with ink-blue veins. The room smelled frightful, formaldehyde but underneath it something earthy, a meaty smell of the kind that wafts from the fridge at the butchers.
Thoughts of green grass chewed in peaceful mouths. New lambs licked clean, their tiny legs wobbling. Of cold nights shivering and the huddle of woolly bodies that bleated and blared. Thoughts of morning dew licked off blades of grass with the smoky scent of fresh pats of dung in nostrils. The feel of calloused shearers’ hands on freshly shorn bodies, the sting of a nick from the blade, the metallic aroma of blood.
All this seemed contained in the matter before me, and I rushed outside and took great gulping breaths, the scalpel still clutched in my hand. Cowardly perhaps, but I left the prising open of that box of memories to my lab partner and sat outside in the sun, dangling my legs through the balcony rails.
My grandmother had a fondness for crumbed brains. She often ordered them when we went for dinner at the local RSL. Mercifully, their brainness wasn’t overly apparent: hidden by a crust of fried breadcrumbs, they nestled innocently in a bed of salad leaves.
But the hair on the back of my neck would stand on end when she stuck a dainty fork into that hidden flesh and pressed down with the knife. Tiny morsels into her mouth, not much chewing required—I imagined it was squishy—knife and fork set down in polite geometry on her plate between mouthfuls. She was fastidious like that.
‘Don’t chew with your mouth open, Verity.’ She also had an eye for my manners. I’d shut the jaw that had dropped open at the thought of swallowing a brain and try to stop the headache forming in my temples where my own brain throbbed in sympathetic tempo.
When the stroke paralysed half my grandmother’s body, I sometimes thought about that dainty fork as I spooned mashed peas into her lopsided mouth. The careful sequence of movements required to consume an organ with dignity. She did seem half-gone, and I wondered at the rending that occurred in the moment that clot lodged.
When I ate brain myself, I realised I’d been correct about the texture. Squishy it was. We were sharing plates at a fancy restaurant and, too polite—grandmother had taught me well—I didn’t refuse when the others ordered crumbed brains. I cut off a dainty morsel and put it in my mouth. Not much chewing required, it was very soft. I can’t recall the flavour, but that texture, that lack of resistance, will never leave me. I tried not to think of grassy fields and of lambs bleating. Remember, you are a meat-eater.
Is there something so different about a brain? Plato certainly thought so. He detailed three souls located in various parts of the body (the brain, the thorax and the abdomen), but saw the brain as the seat of a rational soul, ‘the head, which is the most divine part … dominates over the rest of the body … and this part of the marrow molded [the gods] wholly round and named it the brain (enkephalos) because … the vase that contained it was the head (kephale)’.1 His tripartite theory of the soul was derived in part from the earlier Pythagorean belief in three souls, two of which were housed in the brain, the third in the heart.2
Did my heart love till now?
We cut up a heart in science class too. Some of the bullies grabbed it by the ventricles, flapping it around the room like some macabre bird. ‘Happy Valentine’s Day,’ they crowed.
One of the girls fainted. The teacher—in the middle of demonstrating how to perform the dissection—had to catch her. She swore and it was the first time I heard an adult say ‘shit’. Her hands left smears of rusty fluid on the girl’s checked uniform as she lowered her to the floor. I wondered if that smell, that chemical smell, that organ smell, would cling to her for the rest of the day.
And I wonder now what that girl believed about the heart. To me, a heart was different to a brain. These cells were inert, no mausoleum of remembrance here. And perhaps the meat seemed more familiar, it seemed like a chicken fillet, something my dad might sling on the barbecue, something I could eat.
I was surprised by how little it resembled the symbol I’d taken to dotting my i’s with lately. Here was a big, veiny mass, marbled pink and yellow, with tubes sticking out of it like a pipe organ. It wasn’t red, as I’d expected, had not been red for a long time I suppose, the colour draining from it when the blood no longer flowed. It had floated with a bunch of other hearts in a big jar until it was shipped to my school classroom. It seemed almost ossified.
Inside was a fascinating maze of chambers that resembled something you might find if you prised open a mussel or a clam. Parts of it were darker, appearing almost fungal, like the fine gills under a mushroom cap. Here was the famous organ of greeting cards and Romeo and Juliet, which we were reading in English class. There was nothing romantic about the lump of flesh that sat before me. The muscle was tough beneath my gloved fingers. It didn’t slice easily. But did these cells contain a soul once? I couldn’t say.
In the documentary Donated to Science, directed by Paul Trotman and Helen Nicholson, medical students were interviewed while they dissected cadavers, and it became apparent that many believed in the concept of a soul. When this was followed up by researchers, they determined that most students thought of the soul as not attached to the body, but those who did located it in the heart or in the brain.3 These things matter in dissection, as I learned in science class, scalpel in hand. Cutting into a body empty of soul is one thing, but an organ brimming with it …
In the dark of the womb, the heart is the first organ to take shape. It pulsates throughout life, hot blood pouring through its plumbing and it stops only when we are dead. When we are excited or afraid or aroused, it is the heart that responds most obviously. It seems easy to believe that this is what makes us human; could not the soul be housed here in these muscular confines?
In Western society the earliest theories of the soul come from ancient Egypt, as far back as the third millennium BCE. The Egyptians believed the soul was divided into five parts; the most important of these was the Ib, or the heart. Aristotle, elaborating on his teacher Plato’s idea of the tripartite soul, also suggested three souls; however, all of these were located in the heart: the cardiocentric view.4 This was in direct opposition to Plato’s encephalocentric (or brain-centred) argument. The difference of opinions between these contemporaries has created a framework for debate about the location of the soul ever since.
When I was little, I went fishing with my dad. I always made him gut the fish we caught while I watched in enthralled horror. Slitting the belly, he would drag out the insides and leave them on the sand as he finished the job. The little red blob that was the heart would lie there, still beating, despite its complete isolation from the body that had maintained it. I never understood how it didn’t die straight away, what twitching impulse allowed it to continue to throb and jump long after the fish had taken its last breath. Later he’d throw the innards to the gulls and I suppose that tiny heart made a tasty morsel.
I have eaten heart too. Reindeer heart carpaccio sliced into such fine sheets it was almost translucent, like red cellophane—a taste from a friend’s plate. In the winter in Stockholm, we sat in a cosy restaurant in the old town, Gamla Stan, while outside the snow fell in silent flakes and made the cobblestones slippery. It was Christmas, and as I chewed on that dark meat I tried not to think of Rudolph and his red, red nose.
Prometheus, thief of fire, is bound to a crag where day after day an eagle devours his liver. It always grows back. There is a truth behind this myth. The liver does regenerate, though not within a day. Cut it down by as much as three-quarters and it will still grow back to its full size, although it will never regain its former shape. Did the ancient Greeks somehow know this secret? Did they have some idea, as they bent over sheep livers and tried to divine in their creases a message from the gods?
The two souls of Chinese philosophy, the hun and po, were located in the liver and the lungs, respectively (according to the first-century BCE Lingshu Jing medical text). Another of Plato’s identified souls is located near the liver, the epithymetikon; it craves food and drink and is the seat of passions and desires.5 Which seems sort of fitting as our next stop is Scotland.
In Scotland, the land of my ancestors, I ate haggis. A plate of minced meat served with tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips)—a tri-colour of puree. Haggis is made from the pluck of a sheep (the heart, lungs and liver), although the original shapes of these organs have been eviscerated by the mincer. All this is stuffed inside the sheep’s stomach and boiled, the water turning cloudy and oiled. It tastes like mutton, like the oldest piece of sheep you can find, that cheap kind your penny-pinching grandma favours and stews with gravy and onions in an electric frying pan. An offal sort of taste, like when you chew too close to the bone or suck out the marrow.
Devouring the soul
But what does it mean to eat a soul? Something in the idea of consuming a soul organ feels monstrous, that a sort of damage could be inflicted, a destruction. I have a concern that something might be lost.
A heart is laid upon the scales, matched on the other side by an ostrich feather. In the shadows a huge beast waits, a creature with the head of a crocodile, body half-hippopotamus, half-lion, it waits, jaws open, slavering, as the scales being to tilt. This is Ammit, the devourer of the dead, eater of hearts, an Egyptian goddess. If one’s heart, or one’s Ib soul, were judged impure then it would be given to Ammit to feast on, the soul left forever restless.
Soul-eaters appear in the folklore of some cultures. In Pamela Schmoll’s account of a visit of a soul-eater during her stay with the Hausa people of Niger, the soul-eater, the maye, appeared as a dog-like creature with a strange, human-sounding howl. The ‘dog’ walks straight past leftover food in cooking pots and proceeds to prowl from window to door looking for a way in. Inside a woman sits with her two small children, terrified, certain in the belief that this creature is looking for sustenance that can only be found within them.
The maye are said to take the form of an animal that is strange or unsettling in some way, such as a horse without a tail or the aforementioned dog with a human howl.
The sight of something so abnormal frightens the soul, which then jumps out of the body and can be trapped by the soul-eater. The soul will then be placed in a bottle that is then either hidden or buried until such time as the soul-eater decides to consume it, cutting its throat, ‘roasting’ and eating it as though it were meat.
To the Hausa, this soul-eating results in the total annihilation of the person. It is as though they never existed; absolutely nothing remains of them in this life or the next.6 It’s a particularly terrible thought and perhaps why I cannot help but dwell on the idea that in the act of eating, I could possibly cause harm.
There is a scene from the TV series Angel that I still find myself revisiting all these years after watching it. A beloved character, Fred, falls victim to an ancient entity, Illyria, who takes over her body, but in doing so completely destroys her soul. It is not Illyria’s intention to do so, it is simply a side effect of her resurrection. Could we unwittingly do the same to an animal while believing we are simply partaking in a gourmet experience? Fred is gone from the world, can never be resurrected and will not live on in the afterlife, though Illyria still retains something of her memories, ‘sparks’ as she calls them.
Thus are our bodies
The idea of these ‘sparks’ sticks in my head and I am back to wondering about memories contained in folds of flesh and whether they could be transferred.
Funerary cannibalism has been practised by a number of communities around the world, sometimes with the intention of acquiring the body substances, vital energies or personal attributes of an individual.7 This was the case for the Fore people of Papua New Guinea, who believed there were five different souls, each of which had to be released or distributed by performing the correct funerary rituals. By eating the dead, two of the souls—the aona, which represented the deceased’s abilities and skills, and the yesegi, which was a person’s occult power—could be transferred to beloved family members.
There were also dangers in leaving a soul to roam free. A third soul, the kwela, which was the pollution of the decomposing body, could cause harm if the rituals were not performed correctly. Consuming the flesh of the dead protected the women who partook of it, allowing the kwela soul to remain in their wombs during the funerary time—it would not harm them as they now shared the same blood.8
Unfortunately, the only tangible result of this ‘soul-eating’ for the Fore people was the disease kuru. Inside their brains misfolded proteins known as prions began to form, contorted molecules that, once they took hold, caused a cascade of misfolding among otherwise healthy proteins. Just as a tiny slide of pebbles can trigger an avalanche, erasing everything in a wall of white, prions can destroy a brain by forming sponge-like holes. This is always fatal. It was a prion disease that rampaged through Europe in the 1990s and sent people fleeing from their steaks—we knew it by its colloquial name, ‘mad cow disease’. So there is also danger in soul-eating.
In the case of other communities, such as the Kaxinawá, an Indigenous people of Brazil and Peru, anthropologists believe they consumed their loved ones’ bodies in an attempt to retain something of the dead person but also to allow the soul to be released.9 The Kaxinawá believed in two souls: a body soul and the eye soul, or true soul. The first part of the ceremony involved cooking and consuming the body to allow the body soul to be released. Eating was an act of mercy.
The cocktail of brain soup and spark
In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, she describes spreading the ashes of her mother, and how she ‘put her burnt bones into [her] mouth and swallowed them whole’.10 I remember being shocked when I read this. The image stayed with me a long time and I found myself returning to mull over it often. And I think I can understand now. If I were confronted with the ashes of my son, I believe I might want to take a little bit, as though by doing so I could keep a tangible part of him within me, to carry with me always. When he was a baby, I used to joke that I wanted to fold him up and put him in my pocket. Is it such a different sentiment? But then, perhaps it is a selfish thought. Could damage be inflicted on the soul by such a splitting? Among those beliefs I encountered that involved retaining something of the soul without complete destruction there were always multiple such souls, at least one of which would go free. And I don’t believe in multiple souls. I’m not sure I even believe in one.
And what of the animals whose organs I have eaten? Are they also soul imbued? Greek mathematician Pythagoras argued against eating meat on the basis that animals have human souls within them, as souls do not die but can migrate to and be housed in different creatures: ‘do not exile what may be kindred souls by evil slaughter’.11 I’m not squeamish when I think of the heart, the liver, the multiple unknown bits and pieces in sausages over the years. It is the brain that sticks with me.
Studies have shown that people who believe in complete annihilation after death are more likely to place the soul in the head, while people who are religious tend to locate it in the chest or heart.12 I think of that image of Jesus with his heart glowing aflame. And yes, I do tend to favour the complete-annihilation argument.
When an electrode stimulates different parts of the brain a detailed memory can be invoked, down to the very emotions the patient felt.13 Perhaps my concerns about sheepy memories preserved in the folds of the brain are not so silly. And I hope, in my eating of part of that brain, I haven’t somehow prevented a soul from going free. Is it a contradiction to believe in complete annihilation if I’m being rational but also wondering whether sheep have souls and worry about where they go when they die? That I can’t say. But I do know I’m not going to eat brains again. •
Verity Borthwick has been published in The Best Australian Stories 2017, Islandand the UTS Writers’ Anthology. She is studying a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at UTS.
1. G. Santoro, MD Wood, L Merlo et al., ‘The anatomic location of the soul from the heart, through the brain, to the whole body and beyond: A journey through Western history, science and philosophy’, Neurosurgery, vol. 65 (2009), p. 635.
2. Santoro et , ‘The anatomic location’, pp. 633–43.
3. H Martyn, A Barrett and HD Nicholson, ‘Medical students’ understanding of the concept of a soul’, Anatomical Sciences Education, vol. 6, no. 6 (2013), pp. 410–14.
4. Santoro et , ‘The anatomic location’, pp. 633–43.
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6. P Schmoll, ‘Black Stomachs, Beautiful Stones: Soul-eating among Hausa in Niger’, in J Comaroff and J Comaroff (eds), Modernity and Its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London,
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10. C Strayed, Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found, Random House, New York, 2012, 269.
11. W M Rauw, ‘Philosophy and ethics of animal use and consumption: from Pythagoras to Bentham’, CAB Reviews, vol. 10, no. 16 (2015), p. 2.
12. S Anglin, ‘I think, therefore I am? Examining conceptions of the self, soul and mind’, Consciousness and Cognition, 29 (2014), pp. 105–16.
13. W Penfield, ‘Some mechanisms of consciousness discovered during electrical stimulation of the brain’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 44, no. 2 (1958), pp. 51–66.