My Ngoc To
There have been only eight reports of self-cannibalism recorded in scientific literature. The most recent case occurred in 2011 when a 28-year-old man from Australia, in a pit of depression, cut off one of his fingers and ate it. The most historic incident dates back to 1964, when a psychotic male from the U.S. ate copious amounts of skin, subcutaneous tissue, and blood from his shoulders.
The concept of self-devouring, however, goes back to the time of the Ancient Greeks. Erysichthon, the arrogant king of Thessaly, had plans to build a great feasting hall. Only the finest oak trees would be fit for such grandeur, he thought, and marched his servants to the sacred grove of Demeter. There, he found a beautiful oak tree grow- ing at the center and ordered his servants to cut it down. They refused, however, to bring down the tree of a god.
So the king took the task upon himself. He picked up the axe and swung it, making a deep indentation from which bright blood poured. Erysichthon ignored this ominous sign and continued hacking at the tree, each swing widening the red puddle at his feet. In time, the oak fell to the ground, and he carried the blood-soaked wood home, sure that it would be enough to raise his visionary hall.
When Demeter discovered the death of her tree, she decided that Erysichthon would be haunted with an insatiable hunger no matter how much he
ate. She ordered Famine to breathe into his stomach every night and day. Famine did as she was told, and the following day Erysichthon woke up feeling hungrier than he had ever been. He went to the great feasting hall and demanded the largest meals of lamb and egg. Yet the end of every meal left him wanting even more. Each day passed, and food became Erysichthon’s greatest desire. He did anything just to get more food, selling his land, his animals, and his castle. When his riches were exhausted, he sold his own daughter into slavery.
Yet the hunger persisted, and Erysichthon only grew weaker with each passing day. The hunger finally drove him insane, and in a final act of desperation, he ate his own body. He chewed first at his fingers, then his wrists, licking the sweet blood that poured down his elbows, and then ate his elbows, too. When his arms were gone, he curled up to tackle his toes, sucking each one off one by one. He then gnawed on his shins, taking off the kneecaps from their tendon source and crunch- ing them between his teeth. Death walked by this debacle and took pity on Erysichthon, who was at this point nothing but a head and bleeding torso. With one sweep of his hand, Death put an end to Erysichthon’s suffering right as he was about to eat his own tongue.
In order to survive, a cell must eat itself. Sometimes proteins are born misfolded and misshapen, presenting a threat to the system, and at other times an organelle will come of age and fail to function. These misfits are dangerous and marked as good candidates to be destroyed.
The hunter is the phagophore, a U-shaped membrane whose only function is to find the inept proteins. Once it binds to one, it wraps it arms around the cargo and encapsulates it. This newly formed vesicle, called an autophagophore, then delivers the trapped proteins to the lysosome, the mouth of the cell. Once inside the lysosome, the proteins get shredded to pieces. The remains of the dead are recycled into new organelles to carry the cell’s functions forward.
This process is called autophagy. Some small amount of self-digestion is needed in every cell for quality control. In times of starvation, how- ever, when either oxygen is low or nutrients are scarce, the rate of autophagy increases, and the cells will devour themselves.
The Dictyostelium discoideum, or dicty, is a type of slime mold. Under natural conditions, it exists as a single amoeba meandering and sliding through its moist home. It enjoys feasting on bits of bacteria that fall in its path. When food is scarce, however, something magical happens. Within six hours of starvation, as if a conch shell had been blown to signal battle, hundreds of dicties from other lands march in and gather around a single point—the dicty that made the initial call. Once enough warriors have gathered, the mass begins spiraling counterclockwise, like an infant galaxy discovering its core. Streams of dicties flow into this mass until it becomes a mound-shaped colony. The mound bubbles and morphs, throbbing with the lives of a million hungry dicties. It stretches and widens and becomes a slug, with a head and a tail and fake little feet that then send it lurching forward in search of food.
The slug knows to search for heat and light, both of which promise a feast of bacteria. When it senses that it has arrived at a good place, the slug flips over and rams its head into the ground. The dicties at the head—the most starved of them all—die, and their wet bodies, smashed against each other, anchor the slug. It then comes time for the ones in the middle to sacrifice themselves. Their bodies pile and crystallize on top of each other to form a stalk, growing increasingly higher. Once it is high enough, the remaining dicties join together into a little sphere and become spores.
And like this the mass of dicties, in this fruiting body, wait for rain to come. Eventually a drop falls hard enough on the tip of the fruit, and the head explodes, releasing the spores to the wild, where they may grow in some merrier home.
There is no law against cannibalism in Japan, which is how 22-year-old Mao Sugiyama got away with cooking and serving his own genitals to five guests at a Tokyo banquet.
Sugiyama, an illustrator, considered himself asexual, and before his 22nd birthday had surgery to remove his penis, scrotum, and testicles. Following the procedure, he asked the surgeons if he could keep his excised genitalia. They handed him his frozen organs in a small plastic bag, which he kept in his freezer at home for the next two months, free of infection.
His original plan was to eat his own penis, but after careful deliberation, he decided on a different course of action. Two months after the surgery, on April 8, 2012, Sugiyama posted the following announcement on Twitter: “...I am offering my male genitals (full penis, testes, scrotum) as a meal for 100,000 yen.... I will prepare and cook as the buyer requests, at his chosen location.” He also announced that the organs were free of venereal diseases, that they had previously functioned normally, and that he had not been receiving female hormonal treatment. After much interest, Sugiyama also announced that he would take care to follow Japanese food safety and medical waste regulations.
With the help of three event planners, the Ham Cybele Century Banquet was hosted on May 24, 2012 in the Suginami ward, a residential area in western Tokyo. Seventy people showed up for the exclusive event. From among them, the highest-paying bidders were chosen to dine on the fine meats; each paid 250 dollars for the experience. The first was a 32-year-old male manga artist who thought the gross act would be good research for his own work. Following him was a 30-year-old couple who just wanted to know. Next came an attractive 22-year-old woman. The fifth was 29-year-old event planner Shigenobu Matsuzawa, who wanted to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The sixth person did not show up.
A short piano recital marked the start of the event. Sugiyama emerged soon afterwards, adorned in a crisp white frock and chef’s hat to greet his applauding audience. A small rectangular table with a red tablecloth greeted him at the center of the hall. His cooking materials lay waiting on the surface: a single portable gas burner, a small metal pot, a steak knife, a container of soy sauce, a napkin, and a single lemon. The room of people watched intently as he sliced up all six inches of his penis, cut his scrotum in half, and sautéed them with cooking wine and a bit of parsley. Those who weren’t able to eat his genitals were instead served crocodile meat.
Sugiyama finished within minutes and served his carefully sliced manhood to the five chosen diners, who all signed a waiver relieving him of any responsibility if they became ill. The meal came with a side of button mushrooms. One of the diners later commented that the meat was rubbery and tasteless.