Human uses of blood are strange - stranger than you'd think.
by Shanise Keith • April 06, 2022
Throughout human history, no matter the era, blood has been associated with life. It has been believed to provide supernatural healing powers or that it could magically lift a curse. Sometimes its presence was thought to be a curse. Humans have come up with all sorts of theories about the purpose and power of blood. Most of these theories (up until recently) have been extremely incorrect and led to more harm than good. In particular, one such theory led to a strange practice - drinking blood. Drinking and ingesting blood has occurred many times throughout our history. "Cue vampire jokes here."
During ancient Roman times, gladiators would battle each other to the death, and spectators would gather in large numbers to watch. It was like their version of the Superbowl, and one of the main sources of entertainment and revenue at the time. Historical records describe a mad rush of spectators entering the arena to drink the blood of fallen gladiators. Sounds like a party, right? A really weird, gross, disease-transmitting party. Records also described bringing fresh bodies out of the arena where sellers would cut the Gladiator's throat and bottle the still-warm blood to be sold on the street.
Why did they do this? I'm glad you asked. Their physicians told them to. They believed that blood was a "magical elixir." By drinking the blood of these strong young warriors, they may absorb some of their health and vitality. The blood was believed to be a cure for ailments like epilepsy and infertility. They reasoned that if they suffered from these conditions, ingesting something to counteract it was necessary. For example, epilepsy was thought to be a disease where part of the soul was missing, so drinking the blood of another might replace the missing piece, leading to a cure.
When Gladiator fighting became illegal, people started gathering to drink the blood of executed criminals - desperate to get some magical healing from the fresh blood. Similarly, during medieval times it was common to see people gathered around the execution grounds with cups and bowls to try to collect some of the blood of the freshly beheaded. Women would dip handkerchiefs into the blood to be used later, and the elderly were told to drink the blood of the young to help replace their youth.
During these times, it was never debated "if" this should be allowed, but rather how it should be organized to make money. Men were, of course, considered the prime subject to collect the blood from, and women were considered indifferent or lesser unless they were young and virgin. It became such a lucrative way to make money that instead of letting people gather around the body to collect the blood, the executioners would haul the body away and bottle the blood so they could sell it themselves.
Not only was blood ingested, but other human remains as well, especially from mummies. In fact, Europeans have eaten most of the mummies that have been discovered. Indeed, some Europeans were cannibals there for a while, and it somehow became normal to eat dusty old mummies. Remarkably the moral question wasn't whether one should eat part of a human, but what part of the flesh would work best for a particular ailment. Powdered skull fragments were believed to be helpful to treat a headache. Mummy skin was thought to treat skin diseases when powdered and eaten. You could actually still buy medicinal mummy parts in catalogs as recently as 1924.
The rich had their own particular practices that involved blood. It's said that women would paint their faces with blood to stay youthful-looking, and King Charles II of England sipped "The King's Drops," his personal tincture, containing human skull in alcohol. Pope Innocent VIII allegedly drank the blood of young boys when he grew ill. It was a failed attempt to heal him and keep him young. A 15th-century physician queried: "Why shouldn't our old people, namely those who have no [other] recourse, likewise suck the blood of a youth?–a youth, I say who is willing, happy and temperate, whose blood is of the best but perhaps too abundant?" How could anyone argue with that logic?
I would like to be able to say that all of this has been left in the past, but there are still groups of people today who routinely drink human blood. Supposedly there are tens of thousands of these "vampires" living across the US. Some of them dress and live as you might imagine, with fangs and coffins, and only come out at night. Most of them however, live regular lives, and you would have no idea that they drink blood on the reg. They believe that drinking human blood is the only way to treat symptoms of illnesses that they have. I suppose there are many worse things than groups of people consensually drinking human blood, but it's still a bit off-putting (and, in some places, illegal).
Apparently, most major cities across America have an underground vampire community. They use willing donors to provide them with fresh blood. Both parties get tested beforehand to ensure that there are no transmissible diseases. They collect blood either by creating a cut with a scalpel or using a needle and drawing it out into a cup, or sometimes even into heparin tubes which can be refrigerated and ingested later (like a little anticoagulated shot-glass). According to what I have read, most of them only partake of blood because they haven't been able to find an alternative treatment option. Who knows for sure, but now you know that modern blood-sucking vampires do exist (and they are kind of a bummer compared to the fictional, tragic, immortal kind - much cooler).
As crazy as all of this sounds, the actions of our ancestors led us to where we are today. Because of their fascination with blood, scientists and physicians continued to explore and learn how the body worked, eventually discovering the possibility of transfusions, blood types, and all the wonders of modern medicine. Unfortunately, they also inspired modern-day real-life vampirism (you can't win 'em all I guess). As a phlebotomist, I never cease to be amazed at the function and beauty of the circulatory system, and everything blood can do - I, however, have no interest in drinking it.
- Ferdinand Peter Moog & Axel Karenberg (2003) Between Horror and Hope: Gladiator's Blood as a Cure for Epileptics in Ancient Medicine, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 12:2, 137-143, DOI: 10.1076/jhin.126.96.36.19933
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