This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Cannibals in Canaan*

A recent news story reported that villagers in a remote Fijian community staged an elaborate ceremony of apology for the relatives of a British missionary who had been killed and eaten there 136 years ago.

This bizarre item got me to thinking about an odd problem in talmudic interpretation that has been puzzling me for quite a while.

At the root of my predicament are several traditions, reported in the Talmud, concerning individuals who fell into the hands of beings known as "Ludim."It is clear in each of these cases that the victims were very distressed, and wanted desperately to extricate themselves from their predicament.

On one occasion when a disreputable person had sold himself to these Ludim, Rabbi Ammi laboured to come up with a pretext for ransoming him, in spite of the fact that the victim was a notorious sinner with a predilection for consuming non-Kosher food. In the end, the rabbi was compelled to concede that a person of such low character had relinquished his rights to assistance from the community.

Underlying Rabbi Ammi's dilemma was the assumption that the sinner's association with the Ludim placed his life in imminent peril.

The sinister character of the Ludim serves as the background to the plight of Rabbi Simeon ben Laqish who also sold himself to them. This story had a more fortunate outcome, as the resourceful scholar made ingenious use of his captors' offer of a last wish to ambush them and escape from their clutches.

Here too, the mysterious Ludim were portrayed as people whose acquaintance is likely to shorten one's lifespan.

Who exactly were these Ludim who struck terror in the souls of the ancient Jewish sages?

The simplest explanation seems to be that they were ludarii, from the Latin term for gladiators or organizers of gladiatorial spectacles. The stories of Rabbi Ammi's reprobate and Rabbi Simeon ben Laqish both make perfect sense if we assume that the protagonists had been forced by their poverty to join the ranks of gladiators, a profession that was not known for promoting longevity among its practitioners.

However, several of the traditional commentators proposed a more sensational identification of the Ludim. An interpretation cited by early authorities insisted that the reference was to a nation that practiced cannibalism.

Rabbi Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome, in his influential Talmudic lexicon the Arukh(eleventh century), described the Ludim as a people who had nothing to eat but each other.

This bizarre claim was upheld by the most authoritative of Talmud commentaries, that of Rashi.

These exegetes seem to be equating Ludim with the Lydians, the ancient nation who inhabited Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). However, I am aware of no other source that ascribes to them the practice of cannibalism.

Some scholars, in the determination to make sense of Rashi's assertion, allude to Herodotus' report that the Lydians had a reputation for fastidiousness and gluttony.

With all due respect, an appetite for gourmet cuisine still seems a far cry from cannibalism.

A possible clue to Rashi's intentions might be contained in the fact that he provides a French translation for Ludim, utilizing a word that should probably be reconstructed as "Chenelieu." This was the medieval French term for "Canaanite."

At first blush, this only exacerbates the confusion: What do Canaanites have to do with either cannibalism or Lydians?

With respect to the former question, at least, we may point out that there was an ancient Jewish tradition that accused the Canaanites of precisely that dietary preference.

This allegation is found in the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon, which was composed around the second century B.C.E. and survived in Greek translation. It is related there (12:5) that "the ancient inhabitants of thy holy land were hateful to thee for their loathsome practices... ruthless murders of children, cannibal feasts of human flesh and blood."

It is likely that the author derived this detail from a careful reading of the report of the spies who informed Moses that the land of Canaan was "a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof" (Numbers 13:32).

It remains to be demonstrated how these Canaanites could have ended up in Asia Minor. However, some other legends that were in wide circulation in the ancient world could offer useful clues for unraveling the mystery.

The riddle is most readily solved if we posit a confusion between Lydians and Libyans. According to a persistent belief that shows up in several Byzantine authors, the ancestors of the Libyan Moors had been Canaanite refugees who fled to Africa to escape the Hebrew armies under the leadership of "that bandit Joshua." This bizarre sounding claim finds some support in the fact that Libya was heir to a strong Semitic cultural heritage, dating back to the days of its colonization by the Phoenicians.

So deeply rooted was this tradition that the church father St. Augustine, who lived in the North African town of Hippo, related that local peasants were wont to describe themselves as "Chananaei"--Canaanites.

A similar tradition is preserved in rabbinic literature, where it is the Girgashite nation who evade Joshua's onslaught by migrating to Africa.

The same assumption underlies the Talmudic tale about "Africans" who once came before Alexander the Great to accuse the Jews of stealing the Canaanites' homeland.

Although we may have become habituated to "unaligned" nations meddling in other people's affairs, especially where it involves condemnations of the Jews, this African championing of the Canaanite cause makes little sense unless we accept the premise that they regarded themselves as the heirs to the biblical Canaanites.

A variant of this legend, preserved in the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, claimed that the original Canaan, Noah's accursed grandson, had disobeyed the divine command to migrate to Africa, and had chosen instead the occupy the more attractive Lebanese coast, the territory of the Phoenecians. Some historians trace this story to a Jewish-Phoenician propaganda war that raged during the era of Hasmonean expansion.

The site of present-day Beirut was once known as "Laodicea of Canaan," an epithet that was bestowed on it briefly by Antiochus IV in recognition of the link between the Phoenicians and the Canaanites. Under his reign, coins were minted with the inscription "from Laodicea, a metropolis in Canaan."

Given the vagaries of Hebrew vowels, this opens up the possibility that Rashi's reference might not have been to Lydians or Libyans, but to Laodiceans.

I confess that I am unable to map out a precise trajectory through which our story traveled and evolved on its course from biblical Canaan to medieval France.

Any scholar who wishes to trace this circuitous path will undoubtedly find it to be full of unexpected twists and detours, with some dangerous surprises lurking around every bend.

For those of you with appetizing ammounts of meat on your bones, I issue an urgent travel advisory: Avoid any unnecessary stopovers in Lydia, Libya or Laodicea.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: