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The blood-rite in Burma


Mention is made, in the text of this volume, of the fact that the primitive rite of blood-covenanting is in practice all along the Chinese border of the Bunnan Empire. In illustration of this truth, the following description of the rite and its linkings, is given by the Rev. R. M. Luther, of Philadelphia, formerly a missionary among the Karens, in Burmah. This interesting sketch was received, in its present form, at too late a date for insertion in its place in the text, hence its appearance here.”

The blood-covenant is well known, and commonly practised among the Karens of Burmah. There are three methods of making brotherhood, or truce, between members of one tribe and those of another. “

The first is the common method of eating together. This, however, is of but little binding force, being a mere agreement to refrain from hostilities for a limited time, and the truce thus made is liable to be broken at the briefest notice.

The second method is that of planting a tree. The parties to this covenant select a young and vigorous sapling, plant it with certain ceremonies, and covenant with each other to keep peace so long as the tree lives. A covenant thus made is regarded as of greater force than that effected or sealed by the first method.”

The third method is that of the blood-covenant, properly so called. In this covenant the chief stands as the representative of the tribe, if it be a tribal agreement; or the father as the representative of the family, if it be a more limited covenant. The ceremonies are public and solemn. The most important act is, of course, the mingling of the blood. Blood is drawn from the thigh of each of the covenanting parties, and mingled together. Then each dips his ringer into the blood and applies it to his lips. In some cases, it is said that the blood is actually drunk; but the more common method is that of touching the lips with the blood-stained finger. “

This covenant is of the utmost force. It conveys not merely an agreement of peace, or truce, but also a promise of mutual assistance in peace and in war. It also conveys to the covenanting parties mutual tribal rites. If they are chiefs, the covenant embraces their entire tribes. If one is a private individual, his immediate family and direct descendants are included in the agreement. “

I never heard of the blood-covenant being broken. I do not remember to have inquired particularly on this point, because the way in which the blood-covenant was spoken of, always implied that its rupture was an unheard-of thing. It is regarded as a perfectly valid excuse for any amount of reckless devotion, or of unreasoning sacrifice on behalf of another, for a Karen to say: “ Thui p’aw th’coh li, “ literally, “The blood, we have drunk it together.”

An appeal for help on the basis of the blood-covenant is never disregarded. ” A few of our missionaries have entered into the blood-covenant with Karen tribes; though most have been deterred, either from never having visited the ‘ debatable land ‘ where the strong aim of British rule does not reach, or else, as in most instances, from a repugnance to the act by which the covenant is sealed.

In one instance, at least, where a missionary did enter into covenant with one of these tribes, the agreement has been interpreted as covering not only his children, but one who was so happy as to marry his daughter. In an enforced absence of fifteen years from the scene of his early missionary labors nothing has been at once so touching and so painful to the writer as the frequent messages and letters asking ‘When will you come back to your people?

Yet, mine is only the inherited right above mentioned. “The blood-covenant gives even a foreigner every right which he would have if born a member of the tribe. As an instance, the writer once shot a hawk in a Karen village, just as it was swooping down upon a chicken. He was surprised to find, half an hour afterward, that his personal attendant, a straightforward Mountain Karen, had gone through the village and ‘ collected ‘ a fat hen from each house. When remonstrated with, the mountaineer replied, ‘ Why, Teacher, it is your right, that is our custom, you are one of us. These people wouldn’t understand it if I did not ask for a chicken from each house, when you killed the hawk.’ “

In the wilder Karen regions, it is almost impossible to travel unless one is in blood-covenant with the chiefs, while on the other hand one is perfectly safe, if in that covenant. The disregard of this fact has cost valuable lives. When a stranger enters Karen territory, the chiefs order the paths closed. This is done by tying the long elephant glass across the paths.

On reaching such a signal, the usual inquiry in the travelling party is, ‘Who is in blood-covenant with this tribe? ‘  If one is found, even among the lowest servants, his covenant covers the party, on the way, as far as to the principal village or hill fortress. The party goes into camp, and sends this man on as an ambassador. Usually, guides are sent back to conduct the party at once to the chief’s house.

If no one is in covenant with the tribe, and the wisp of grass is broken and the party passes on, the lives of the trespasser are forfeited. A sudden attack in some defile, or a night surprise, scatters the party and drives the survivors back the way they came. “

Notwithstanding the widespread prevalence of the blood-covenant, the ceremonies attendant upon its celebration, and even the existence of such a custom, are shrouded with a certain degree of secrecy, at least from outside nations. The writer has been surprised to find, on some occasions, those longer resident in Burmah than himself in total ignorance of the existence of such a custom, and even the Karens themselves would probably deny its existence to a casual inquirer. Apropos of this, the writer did not know of such a custom m any other country until his attention was called to the fact by Dr. Trumbull, while this treatise was in preparation.” 

Another account of the blood-covenant rite in Burmah is kindly furnished to me by the Rev Dr M. H. Bixby, of Providence, Rhode Island, who was also for some years a missionary among the Karens. He says: ” In my first journey over the mountains of Burma, into Shanland, toward Western China, I passed through several tubes of wild Karens among whom the practice of ‘covenanting by blood’ prevailed. ” ‘If you mean what you say,’ said the old chief of the Gecho tube to me, referring to my professions of friendship, ‘you will drink truth with me ‘ ‘ Well, what is drinking truth? ‘ I said.  In reply, he said : ‘This is our custom. Each chief pierces his arm – draws blood – mingles it in a vessel with whisky, and drinks of it, both promising to be true and faithful to each other, down to the seventh generation.‘ “After the chiefs had drunk of the mingled blood and whisky, each one of their followers drink of it also, and were thereby included in the covenant of friendship. “

A company of Shans laid a plot to kill me and my company in Shanland, for the purpose of plunder. They entered into covenant with each other by dunking the blood of their leader mingled with whisky, or a kind of beer made from rice.

“Those wild mountain tribes have strange traditions which indicate that they once had the Old Testament Scriptures, although now they have no written language. Some of the Karen tribes have a written language, given them by the missionaries. “

The covenant, also, exists in modified forms, in which the blood is omitted.”

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