Thinking About Chewing

Gustave Doré portrays one of the most famous acts of chewing in literature.  At the end of Dante’s Inferno, the Poet and Virgil walk upon on ice amidst the very, very damned as we read in Robert M. Durling’s translation.

. . . I saw two frozen

in one hole so that one head was a hat to the other;

and as bread is eaten by the starving, so the one

above put his teeth to the other, there where the

brain joins the nape . . . . (32.124-129)

Count Ugolino chews on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri who tossed him into a tower with his children, then sealed up the door.  It’s not just that they starved to death, but Dante writes one of Ugolino’s sons offering himself to his father as food.

‘Father, it will be much less pain for us

if you eat of us: you clothed us with this wretched

flesh, so do you divest us of it.’  (33.61-63)


And then a few lines later,


There he died; as you see me, I saw the three

fall one by one between the fifth day and the sixth;

and I,

already blind, took to groping over each of them,

and for two days I called them, after they were dead.

Then fasting had more power than grief.  (33.70-75)

Cannibalism with all its attendant horrors, necessities, tears and humor:


A census taker tried to quantify me once. 

I ate his liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone.

(Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs)

*Note in the novel it’s “Amarone,” a wine, given Hannibal’s taste, that makes more sense then the movie’s “chianti.”


William Blake draws our other moment of chewing as Satan gnaws upon Brutus, Cassius and Judas.

In each of his mouths he was breaking a sinner

with his teeth in the manner of a scutch, so that he

made three suffer at once.  (34.55-57)

Brutus and Cassius who plotted and killed Julius Caesar, and Judas, as the story goes, who betrayed Jesus of Nazareth for some coins.  So, two acts of chewing which serve as revenge and punishment.  It’s not just about masticating, but ethics, religion, punishment, morality, literature and art; though, as a reminder of its anatomical function, here’s the mouth as articulated by Henry Gray,


a cavity, vestibule, orifice, cave, cathedral, prison, lecture hall, fermentation tank, abattoir where we create and destroy worlds.  Something to chew on.  And while you’re digesting, consider Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  A pleasant pairing.  Bon Appetit!