In Comparison of Food in Religion between Rappaport and Benedict's Works


Food is an important part of religious observance and spiritual ritual for many cultures in the world.  The role of food in cultural practices and religious beliefs is complex and varies among individuals and communities. Based on the Patterns of Culture, which is written by Ruth Benedict, and Ritual Regulation of Environmental Relations Among a New Guinea People by Roy Rappaport, this paper is going to give a brief review of the foods supply within these two communities and also compare the religious foods among the Tsembaga of New Guinea and Indians of Northwest Coast of America. Understanding the role of food in cultural and religious practice is an important way to understand the human ecology and the study of religion from different communities.

Religious Food among the Tsembaga of New Guinea

The act of the Tsembaga working for their pigs portrays a great control of religion on their daily life. Pig for the Ancestors is one of Roy Rappaport’s anthropological approaches of the Tsembaga’s men in the New Guinea. 

The pigs were highly valued there.  First, the pigs are normally not killed except to meet religious or family obligations.  According to Rappaport, it is through ritual that the Tsembaga regulate relationships between people, pigs and gardens; the slaughter, distribution and consumption of pigs.  Second, they believe that pork is an anti-stress food (19).  The consumption of pork is limited to the people who are profoundly undergoing stress. Before proceeding with the war, the warriors eat heavily salted pig which is believed to be having the effect of shortening the fighting day.  When hostilities are over, the group which retains their territory to perform a ritual called planting the rumbim.  The ritual is accompanied by wholesale slaughter of pigs and only juveniles are left alive. This ritual is performed in owner of the ancestors (24).  Also, the owner of many pigs is accorded both respect and material reward. 

Religious Food among Indians of Northwest Coast of America

In Northwest Coast of America, the tribes relied a great deal on food from the sea, like salmon, seals, sea otters, whales and other animals. For example, the Kwakiutl relied on fishing for their main source of food.  Though they did not carry out any agricultural activities, food was in abundance. Apart from fish, especially salmon, they relied on other sea foods such as seals, clams and otters. They also hunted moose, deer, beavers and rabbits. The women collected nuts, berries, roots and see weed to supplement their cuisine. They also gathered salt for their food.

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Since the Kwakiutl had to depend on luck and nature for their daily food, they had to maintain a rapport with their deities so that their fishing, hunting and gathering exploits could continue to be successful. As such, they carried elaborate and highly involving rituals to appease their gods so that they could continue with their providence. These rituals included self-torture and in extreme cases even cannibalism. Since they valued individuality, their religious ceremonies were not communal and each prayed to the supernatural beings to provide his household with food. They also trained their boys how to be aggressive as acquiring their food was mostly a men affair and required aggressiveness. They made sacrifices to the deities to make their male children independent, self-reliant and aggressive so that they can fend for their families when they grew up.


The two authors explain various rituals among the Tsembaga people of New Guinea and the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific Northwest that involved and gave food a whole new religious meaning.

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Rappaport explains in great detail of the practice among the Tsembaga

 “The Tsembaga almost never kill domestic pigs outside of ritual contexts. In ordinary times, when there is no pig festival in progress, these rituals are almost always associated with misfortunes or emergencies, notably warfare, illness, injury, or death…During warfare it is only the men participating in the fighting who eat the pork. In cases of illness or injury, it is only the victim and certain near relatives, particularly his co-resident agnates and spouses, who do so”( 22).

Benedict also goes to great depth to discuss the disgusting cannibal rites that the Kwakiutl practiced.

“The Kwakiutl felt an unmitigated repugnance to the eating of human flesh… Count was kept of the mouthfuls of skin the Cannibal had taken from the arms of the onlookers, and he took emetics until he had voided them. He often did not swallow them at all.

Much greater than the contamination of flesh bitten from living arms was reckoned that of the flesh of the prepared corpses and of the slaves killed for the cannibal

ceremonies. For four months after this defilement the Cannibal was tabu”(178).

The practice of the Tsembaga of killing their pigs for rituals exhibits various similarities with that of the Kwakiutl cannibal initiation ceremonies exhibited some similarities.

First, special food was eaten during the ceremonies and it was reared for the purpose of the rite only. In the Tsembaga case, pigs were not killed for everyday meals while the cannibalism among the Kwakiutl cannibals was also not a daily occurrence and was only performed during initiation rites. The slaves from whom the human flesh was obtained were kept specifically for the rituals.

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Another similarity is that during the ceremony, the food ceased to be for nutrition but rather became a way of connecting with the supernatural. The Kwakiutl for instance hated eating human flesh and even considered eating the human flesh defilement but it was a religious obligation for them to do so.  The Tsembaga on their part took part in the pig ceremony, not for the nutrition value of the food to ward of bad lack during wars and to bring healing to the sick.


The cannibalism rituals of the Kwakiutl people have several distinct differences with those of the Tsembaga. One such difference is that the Tsembaga ritual was performed to by any member of the tribe who was in a certain situation (For example the ceremony could be made for any Tsembaga who was sick or had had an accident while the Cannibalism rite was performed by members of a distinct religious society (The cannibal society) within the tribe.

The cannibalism rites were for initiation of the cannibal only and hence were conducted once in a cannibal’s lifetime while those of the Tsembaga were performed periodically since they were performed on occasions that were likely to be repeated over and over such as falling ill and warfare.

Another clear difference is that the Tsembaga’s rites were conducted at by normal members of the society while in the Kwakiutl culture, a priest officiated the ceremony and they were carried out in seclusion. This brings into perspective the awe in which the latter held these rites as they were supposed to be a form of rebirth.


Food is an important part of culture as it ensures healthy growth of the society and partially defines the society in terms of beliefs, affluence and economic activity. To some communities, however, food sometimes takes a religious meaning. Patterns of Culture, by Ruth Benedict and Ritual Regulation of Environmental Relations Among a New Guinea People by Roy Rappaport give valid insights on such instances when food ceases to be just food and takes another meaning as well as when the communities hold nature in a religious perspective due to her role in provision of food.

While the Tsembaga grow a lot of different types of food, they have chosen the pig to be the religious food. A similar case is exhibited by the Kwakiutl who have chosen human flesh for the same purpose. As such, the authors prove that when food acquires a religious meaning, only certain types do so. They however successfully prove that in these communities, the role of food as a cultural and religious tool cannot be underscored.



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