As viral news convulsed this week over the discovery of the still intact body of an Indonesian farmer inside a 23-foot python (see video below if you need any nightmare fuel), I found myself wondering exactly how and when the idea of being eaten whole became so deeply entrenched in our collective unconscious. Was there a time in our history as a species when we overlapped with enough of the now-extinct giant creatures to make this horrifying phenomenon a common occurrence? Does the idea really derive, as some posit, from an astrological metaphor stretching back to time immemorial? Or are we just that good at imagining worst-case scenarios?
Tantalizing clues are scattered throughout world mythology, which is positively rife with stories of humans being consumed by icky monsters and often emerging whole (whether dead or alive). The most commonly attested is Jonah and the Whale (a story also repeated almost verbatim in the Koran, and one which likely originates with the Mesopotamian god Adapa, whose Hellenized name was Oannes), but there are many, many more examples. In one variant of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts (lost to literature but attested on the Late Archaic red figure vase depicted here), the hero is eaten alive before being disgorged at the feet of Medea, beneath the Golden Fleece. The Greeks in particular seemed a bit obsessed with this concept. In one version of the Hercules vs. Ketos Trois myth, the legendary strongman allowed himself to be eaten in order to kill the beast from the inside. And who can forget the image, so memorably depicted by Goya, of the titan Cronus eating his own children, who are luckily regurgitated when Rhea tricks him into swallowing a stone instead of Zeus.
In the Codex Telleriano-Remensis the Aztec snake-god Quetzalcoatl is depicted swallowing victims whole. Statues found throughout Mesoamerica suggest he wasn’t the only one.
The motif lived on and received a boost from one of the tall tales attributed to Baron Munchausen. It also shows up rather mysteriously in the thousand-year old coat of arms representing the House of Visconti. Today, the idea remains culturally prevalent enough to earn its own entry in the TV Tropes website. Sick, twisted creatures that we are, we have even developed an associated sexual kink. Vorarephilia is the erotic desire to be consumed, or to consume another individual. Fortunately, the vast majority of those who suffer from this particular obsession limit themselves to its expression via artistic or metaphoric means. Otherwise, we might be treated to more things like the case of Armin Meiwes and his willing victim Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes. (Discretion strongly advised before following that link. Some things are better left unknown.)
It certainly doesn’t help that there are, to this day, still creatures out there like giant alligators, reticulated pythons, great white sharks, and the terrifyingly named black swallower to keep this fear a biological possibility (the last isn’t big enough to eat us, but just imagine its larger ancestors or undiscovered cousins). Given the screaming horror at the center of all this, perhaps the best option is to approach the subject with a certain degree of demented humor, as exemplified by Shel Silversten in one of my childhood favorites.
Oh, I’m being eaten
By a boa constrictor,
A boa constrictor,
A boa constrictor,
I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor,
And I don’t like it–one bit.
Well, what do you know?
It’s nibblin’ my toe.
It’s up to my knee.
It’s up to my thigh.
It’s up to my middle.
It’s up to my neck.
It’s upmmmmmmmmmmffffffffff . . .