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Blood Covenant Examples from Secular Cultures

The belief that blood and flesh could transfer power

I wondered about Sweeney’s warnings of Cannibalism. I had known the Australian aborigine for too long to believe that he was a blood-thirsty, man-eating savage. Provoked, he was savage. But I did not mean to be provocative. As for man-eating, I discovered later that this was only partly true. The Liverpool River natives did not kill men for food. The ate human flesh largely from superstitious beliefs. If they killed a worthy man in battle, they ate his heart, believing that they would inherit his valour and power. They ate his brain because they knew it represented the seat of his knowledge. If they killed a fast runner, they ate part of his legs, hoping thereby to acquire his speed.

  1. Kyle-Little, Whispering Wind, Hutchinson 1957

Among the native tribes of Australia, the bodies of those who fall in battle, honoured chiefs, and newborn infants, are frequently consumed to obtain their qualities, just as in the Torres Straits (which separate the northernmost territory of Australia from the southernmost part of New Guinea) the tongue and sweat of a slain enemy are imbibed to get his bravery.

  1. O. James, Origins of Sacrifice, John Murray, 1933

The belief that blood could cure disease

In the Midrash Rabboth (a Jewish commentary on the Bible – Ex 2.23) it is recorded that the magicians told the king of Egypt “There is no healing for thee save by the slaying of the little children of the Israelites. Slay them in the morning, and slay them in the evening; and bathe in their blood twice a day.’

A survival of the blood-baths of ancient Egypt, as a means of re-vivifying the death-smitten, would seem to exist in the medical practices of the Bechuana tribes of Africa ; as so many of the customs of ancient Egypt still survive among the African races (See page 15, supra}. Thus, MofFat reports (Missionary Laboztrs, p. 277) a  method employed by native physicians, of killing a goat ‘* over the sick person, allowing the blood to run down the body.”

Exchange of blood was an act of close friendship

“Another item of evidence that the blood-covenant in its primitive form was a well-known rite in primitive Europe is a citation by Athenaeus…. ‘Concerning the Germans … they embrace each other in their banquets, open the veins upon their foreheads, and mixing the flowing blood with their drink, they present it to each other; … esteeming it the [highest form] of friendship to taste each other’s blood.’

Drinking of blood was a way to acquire the power of another

Bishop Caldwell describes ‘Devil Dance’ among the Tinnevelley Shawars. “The devotee, in this dance, ‘cuts and lacerates himself till the blood flows, lashes himself with a huge whip, presses a burning torch to his breast, drinks the blood of the sacrifice; putting the throat of a decapitated goat to his mouth.’ Hereby he has given his own blood to the gods, or to the devils, and has drunk of the substitute blood of the divinities – in the consecrated sacrifice; as if in the consummation of the blood-covenant with the [supernatural] powers. ‘Then as if he has acquired new life [through … union with the object of his worship], he begins to brandish his staff of bells, and to dance with a quick but wild unsteady step. Suddenly the afflatus descends; there is no mistaking that glare or those frantic leaps. He snorts, he swears, he gyrates. The demon has now taken bodily possession of him. [The two are one. The two natures are intermingled]… The devil-dancer is now worshipped as a present [god], and every bystander consults him [about] his diseases, his wants, the welfare of his absent relations…’


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