Pliny the Elder and Cannibalism in “The Rats in the Walls”

Exham Priory by Matteo Bocci (

Gaius Plinius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, lived from AD 23 to 79. He was a solider in the Roman army, holding a number of procuratorships (type of military financial officer) in Gaul, Africa and Spain. Returning to Rome he spent the rest of his life writing, in particular compiling the knowledge of the known world; of the seven works Pliny wrote, only one survives and that is Natural History (from John Healy’s introduction and notes in Pliny The Elder’s Natural History: A Selection, Penguin Classics Edition, 1991). In a sense Pliny was a precursor to the scientist or proto-scientist. In a way, he died as a scientist; killed while investigating the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

While similar to a scientist Pliny compiled and described both the natural world and Roman technology, he did not run experiments or, more importantly, did not confirm most of the reports and observations that were given to him as second hand accounts. Thus, you can find accounts on how bees make honey as well as how the one-eyed people called the Arimaspi would battle with griffins for lands where mines existed that contained gold. Indeed, HPL even cites this mix of actual and fanciful accounts by Pliny in his tale “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.” There when talking about strange hybrid creatures that live in the Congo jungle HPL states, “…of creatures half of the jungle and half of the impiously aged city – fabulous creatures which even a Pliny might describe with skepticism…”

Pliny recorded battles between the Arimaspi and griffins over gold as shown in this piece of pottery (

Pliny did mention cannibalism a number of times in his Natural History: A Selection. Pliny cites that Scythian tribes fed on human bodies and even states that, “This might perhaps seem unbelievable if we did not bear in mind that such monstrous people have existed in the central part of the world – namely the Cyclopes and Laestrygones – and in very recent times Transapline tribes have practiced human sacrifice, which is not short of eating human flesh.” So here again Pliny is mixing actual accounts with fantasy (travelers’ tales). The Scythian tribes were an equestrian people who lived on the steppes of central Eurasia, while Transalpine tribes lived through the alps and northern Italy. In contrast, the Cyclopes were one-eyed giants while the Laestrygones were giants, both documented to feed on humans. Again, there is the mixing of reality and fantasy but Pliny cannot be blamed for such accounts. He was compiling travelers’ tales and had no way of verifying these stories himself; he simply recorded them. Thus, instances of cannibalism recorded by Pliny probably included a combination of actual accounts and fictional elaborations. It is interesting that HPL clearly recognized this mixing of the real and the fantasy in Pliny’s accounts.

Getting back to cannibalism in the stories of HPL, as mentioned in the previous article, the old man in “The Picture in the House” was similar to the deranged family in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” That is, individuals isolated from society and civilization that have to fend for themselves, which includes feeding on other human beings in order to survive. In the case of “The Rats in the Walls” the cannibalism is far more serious and pervasive both in scope and in duration.


The Rats in the Walls by Herb Arnold

As de la Poer, Edward Norrys and the others of the expedition enter the depths of Exham Priory, they find a “twilight grotto” littered with bones of humans, semi-humans and ape-like species. More horrific, is the fact that apparently de la Poer’s family were members of an ancient cult that practiced cannibalism and near-cannibalism (feeding on very closely related species or sub-species) for quite some time and on a large, processing scale. The subterranean ruins included a butcher shop and kitchen among the monoliths, tumuli, and pens that housed the “livestock.” In reference to the livestock, varying types of hominids were identified by the bones. This included humans as well as species “lower” in evolutionary scale than the Piltdown man and some half-human species. HPL also makes reference to pithecanthrpopid, which was Ernst Haeckel’s hypothetical link between man and ape (S.T. Joshi’s notes in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics, 1999). In a past article I have identified that the Piltdown man, which was supposed to be an example of a “missing link” between man and ape, turned out to be a hoax in the 1950’s. Obviously, in Lovecraft time it was considered to be real fossil evidence of human evolution. In addition, I have mentioned in several past articles Ernst Haeckel’s distorted view of evolution and how it was used to support racist views relative to humanity. However, relative to “The Rats in the Walls” the point is made that the cannibal cult of the de la Poers was feeding on variety of species within the family Hominidae, which included Homo sapiens.


The Twilit Grotto in The Rats in the Walls by Steve Fabian

From a long-term perspective it appears that the prehistoric, ancestral line of the de la Poers has been feeding on other hominids up until the early 15th century. Thus, other genera of Hominidae, and possibly other species of Homo, may have existed much later than originally thought. Since these branching lines of humanity are no longer known to exist, did humanity eat these other potentially competitive hominids to extinction? Is it possible that certain tribes or groups of humanity were feeding on other hominid species throughout the world?

There is a hypothesis – the hunting hypothesis – proposed to explain the mass megafaunal extinction during the Pleistocene. This hypothesis proposes that humans hunted megaherbivores to extinction, which results in a collapse of megafaunal predators and scavengers for lack of food. This is a fairly controversial hypothesis in science, having some supporting evidence but with a large absence of data in other aspects of it. More than likely if over hunting contributed toward the extinction of megafauna such as wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers, other factors contributed as well such as changes in climate, “hyperdisease” and others. However, in the case of other hominids, is it possible that competing hominids, including others species within the genus of Homo, were driven to extinction due to the cults that arose in some part of humanity including the de la Poers? If this is true is this a case of cannibalism or as I described earlier near-cannibalism? What happened when these other species were driven to extinction through predation? Did the de la Poers then resort to pure cannibalism to feed their ritualistic and ancestral needs?


A scene from the movie “The Decent” from 2005, which is about some underground creatures that feed on humans

Next time I will wrap up the discussion of “The Rats in the Walls” with a few more concluding points and then we will move to “The Colour Out of Space.” Thank you – Fred.


6 thoughts on “Pliny the Elder and Cannibalism in “The Rats in the Walls”

  1. VERY interesting as always.

    I must say, though, I only believe that the narrator was called Delapore/de la Poer. A first name was never mentioned, if I’m not mistaken…

    1. His ancestor’s name was Walter and his son’s name was Alfred but I think you are correct – I don’t think the protagonist’s first name is mentioned. Thus, I made the correction in the article – thank you for pointing that out to me!

    1. It’s a magazine that I purchased on eBay years ago (can’t remember the exact title at this point in time). I am on the road for work but will provide the full citation when I am back home tomorrow night. Thanks again! Fred

      1. The Herb Arnold drawing is from a non-commercial publication called HPL: A Tribute to Howard Phillips Lovecraft – I can’t find a publication date on it. Fred.

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