Healing, Magical Blood

Numerous and varied are the beliefs surrounding this vital body fluid. Believed to contain the life force and essence of humans and animals, as well as the soul, blood has for thousands of years been used in all major religious rites for sacrificial purposes. It has also been used in magic, witchcraft, and folk medicine. 

Bloodshed in sacrifice symbolises human or animal life being given back to God its creator. In ancient times, the offering of sacrificial blood was the most holy covenant between man and God, which is why Moses ritually purified his people by sprinkling them with the blood of sacrificed animals.172 The tradition of pouring sacrificial blood directly on the ground, so that the Earth Mother could reabsorb the life force, or of sprinkling blood on an altar, was once common to all cultures. 

The many beliefs linked with blood centre on the idea that it was the seat of the life-essence containing the soul. Therefore, blood loss was considered doubly serious; to be staunched at all costs. Our ancestors must have observed thousands of years ago that bodily death involves the cessation of blood flow because when a person is wounded, he or she loses blood, weakens, and eventually dies. This gave rise to the belief that a creature’s blood constitutes its life force and ultimately contains the soul. Hence, blood has always been an essential part of human sacrificial rites the world over. The Aztec Indians, in many other respects an enlightened people, offered copious amounts of blood sacrifice to their gods in exchange for divine favour. In ancient Central and South America, many thousands were killed to appease the gods and to ensure bountiful harvests, nourishing the soil, as it were, with the strength of human blood. 

During the Middle Ages, the magic power of witches was believed to reside in their blood. It was, therefore, important and standard practice by the Inquisition to order that their bodies be totally consumed by fire; hence, they were usually burned at the stake. It was also thought that a witch’s magical power to harm could be wiped out by drawing a few drops of her blood from the upper part of her face. During the times of the witch-hunts, this became known as ‘scoring above the breath’. Witches reputedly used blood as a powerful ingredient in spell making to subdue demons and control certain people. Blood could also be used as a love-charm to bind the lover to oneself. For example, Hungarian girls, on occasion, rubbed some of their blood in their lover’s hair to ensure his everlasting affection. 

On the other hand, blood was valued for its healing and restorative qualities. Children’s blood was especially credited with special healing powers. In Natural History, Pliny the Elder describes blood as a well-known cure for leprosy in Egypt: ‘Leprosy is endemic in Egypt. When kings contracted the disease it had deadly consequences for the people because the tubs in the baths were prepared with warm human blood for its treatment’.173 The belief that human blood cured this dreaded disease was most certainly also prevalent in ancient Greece and Rome. During the Middle Ages, a virgin’s blood was regarded as a certain cure for leprosy, a theme central to the Middle-High-German epic Der arme Heinrich (written circa 1195). Alternatively, the sufferers of this terrible malady were advised to bathe in the blood of children. The tradition of healing leprosy with the blood of innocent children is seen in many texts of the Middle Ages, as well as in early Hebrew biblical commentary. As leprosy was thought to stem from moral impurity and sin, it was perceived that the antidote or cure could only be one of high moral purity – to bathe in the blood of a virgin or young child. Using blood for healing purposes was still recorded in many parts of Europe as late as 1891.174

Similarly, the blood from an executed man or for that matter, anyone who had died violently was believed to cure many ailments. The famous writer of fairy tales, Hans Andersen, witnessing a public execution in 1823, saw the father of an epileptic child collect a cup of the dead man’s blood and administer it to his child as a potential cure.175 The blood of an executed man, as a cure for epilepsy, is also mentioned by Jacob Grimm in his collection of German folklore: ‘It is good for epilepsy to drink the blood of a beheaded man’.176

Because blood was thought to contain the soul-essence of the being it came from, the drinking of blood has for thousands of years been regarded as an elixir to imbue with strength and vigour. Known during the Middle Ages as elixir vitae, the ‘elixir of life’, blood was thought to rejuvenate the old and decrepit. For Moses to explicitly forbid the drinking of blood,177 for the Koran to disallow the practice, and for the Church to vehemently object to it during the Middle Ages, proves how prevalent and ingrained this tradition was in the past. In ancient Europe and elsewhere, a common feature of tribal life was once the drinking of blood-brotherhood. This ritual involved the mutual drinking of blood by two unrelated people to create kinship, or brotherhood, between them. 

The notion that by eating the flesh or drinking the blood of another human, one may absorb that person’s nature into one’s own is one, which appears among various cultures in many forms. (See Chapter I – Magic Practices). Among tribal societies, it was also customary to ingest the flesh and blood of brave men to inspire courage. Similarly, Norwegian hunters once drank bear blood to acquire the bear’s formidable strength. African Masai warriors invigorated themselves with the blood of various animals, especially lions, to gain strength and courage. In England, the blooding ceremony held before the foxhunt, which in modern times has been reduced to turning out a decrepit animal for the hounds to pull down to stimulate their bloodlust, is a disguised remnant of an ancient custom, according to which hunters around the world smeared themselves with their prey’s blood to prevent revenge from the dead animal’s soul.

The notion of absorbing the animal’s soul or nature contained in its blood into one’s own led to certain food taboos amongst various cultures. The prohibition against consuming blood and flesh from specific animals, among Jews and other communities, attests to the undying strength of this ancient belief.

Worldwide, throughout history, a reluctance to spill blood on the ground has been recorded. Again, the explanation behind this universal fear can be found in the belief that the soul is contained in someone’s blood. Therefore, any ground stained with blood becomes taboo or sacred. By impregnating the earth with the soul-power of its owner, the blood is thought to threaten anyone treading on it. Especially the shedding of innocent blood on the ground can make the spot accursed forever, as the outraged soul contained in the blood eternally cries out for vengeance. Hence, the belief that the soil remains barren where a foul and bloody murder has been committed is very common. A curse was said to spread on the ground where human blood had been shed, and nothing would grow there again. This superstition is reaffirmed in Genesis 4:9–11: ‘And the Lord said unto Cain: The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; when thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength’. 

Another ancient belief connected with murder was that the victim’s wounds began bleeding every time the murderer was present, even many days after the terrible event had occurred. During the Middle Ages, the method of ‘trial by ordeal’ was a popular way of discerning the guilty party in a homicide. Those accused of murder would be forced to touch the corpse with their hands. Should blood ooze from any wounds the person would be judged as guilty. Shakespeare refers to this belief in Richard III, when the murdering Duke comes near the corpse of the one he killed: ‘See, see! Dead Henry’s wounds open their congeal’d mouths, and bleed afresh. [...] tis thy presence that exhales this blood, from cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells’.178 In all likelihood, the extreme psychological pressure of such a trauma elicited a confession of sorts, whether the person accused was guilty or not.

Over millennia, the concept of blood has become incorporated in our social attitudes, our language, and especially in common phrases. Hence, we speak of ‘cold-blooded’ murder, ‘bad blood’ as the result of quarrels and feuds, anger making a man’s ‘blood boil’, a particularly amorous person being ‘hot-blooded’, aristocracy as ‘blue-blooded’ and inherited characteristics as ‘running in the blood’.


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