BLOOD AS SYMBOL OF LIFE
Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Apollonia (born 460 BCE) thought of life as pneuma coursing through vessels. In Stoic thought, pneuma is the vital spirit, soul, or creative force of a person.
Many fourth-, fifth- and sixth-century thinkers are called “Pythagoreans” in the Greek tradition after the fourth century BCE. These Pythagoreans (Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle et al) thought the soul was nourished by blood.
Empedocles (400s BCE) was a Greek pre-Socratic philosopher. He is best known for originating the cosmogonic theory of the four classical elements. He had some wacky ideas about blood and its purpose. He thought blood was the seat of perception. Warm blood was involved in nourishing the body, digesting food, and even let the body respire and think. Technically, he wasn’t wrong? The key wacky thing being, Empedocles thought blood was the physical basis by which all of these things happened, and also the physical basis of consciousness. He believed blood contained the four material elements: fire, air, earth, water. These elements governed the entire universe, so blood was the most important aspect of humanity and life and existence and nature. Basically, Empedocles thought blood was really, really important. Blood connected humans to the world around them.
We know that during the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1250 AD) people thought of the body more like a mould, into which blood was poured, bringing the ‘mould’ to life. As evidence we have devotional writing. (Caroline Walker Bynum writes about this in Wonderful Blood, 2007). In one 14th century story from Germany, angels escort a widow to a wine press, squeeze out all of her blood and replace it with virginal blood. Now she’s a virgin again. (This presumably improves her remarriage prospects and therefore her socioeconomic status.) Obviously, this story didn’t really happen (at least, I hope not) but the fact that this story exists offers insight into how people of that time thought of blood and the body. To exchange blood is literally to become a different person.
Blood as a symbol of life can be seen in classical, Biblical and Medieval thought.
In the Hebrew Bible, the tribes of Israel are not allowed to eat blood.
For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the alter; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.Leviticus 17:11
In Medieval Christianity, blood spritually nourished Christians in the same way that mothers nourish babies with milk. Although blood and milk may seem to be very different substances, they are not. Their colours are nothing alike, and are symbolically quite often opposite. In fact, breastmilk has many shared properties with blood. Colostrum, the earliest form of breast milk contains 1 to 5 million white blood cells per milliliter. (Breast milk is constantly changing to adapt to babies’ growth.) So when Medieval Christians started the tradition of forming community around the drinking of God’s (symbolic) blood in the performance of the Eucharist (aka Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper), perhaps this spoke to a deeper biological knowledge.
Christ is both priest and sacrifice. His body and blood are truly contained in the sacramane of the alter under the forms of bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God’s power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us.The Fourth Lateran Council (1215)
Why is Christ’s blood so important? It is thought that his blood is able to give life, even without his body. This is an affirmation of his divine status. Continue reading “Blood Symbolism”