Blood rituals are a prehistoric practice that involves an exchange in the form of the death of a victim for the maintenance of a relationship taking place between man and a sacred deity. When blood rituals are carried out, the life of the victim (animal) is taken and their blood serves as a gift.
The main purpose of these rituals ranges not just as gifts, but for having communion with deities and performing self-cleansing rituals to avert evils and failures. The offeror is meant to show a sign of surrender, dedication, and substitution before the victim is slain and their blood sprinkled on an altar for atonement. Blood rituals are rooted in myth, folklore, and religious practices and have often been sensationalized in pop culture, serving as dramatic elements that evoke fear, intrigue, and a sense of the supernatural.
African Ritual Researcher Charles S. Allisson traces blood rituals as far back as the Babylonians, Canaanites, and ancient nomadic rituals citing the Jewish God, Yahweh as the one who is stated to have instituted the sacrificial system. “ Sacrifices in Ancient Africa were originally meant to be a gift to god for favors. The favors were usually in the form of rain and bountiful harvests.” Charles says.
This year, In honor of Black History Month, The Blood Project decided to delve into this phenomenon by going back to the early years and looking at how far the rituals have come in the modern day.
The Start Of A Tradition
The relationship between Africa and blood rituals is multifaceted and rooted in diverse cultural, and spiritual contexts.
Although they are the norm in many cultures, Blood rituals are not a uniform practice; they vary widely among different ethnic groups and communities across the continent. Blood is seen as a powerful life force, and is used in ceremonies for healing and protection. Each ritual involves symbolic actions done in sacred spaces with community participation and an audience.
It is a common belief that African deities require blood as an energy booster when they want to work for a person as the sacrifice’s life force is transferred to the deity.
African Religion Professor at Harvard Jacob K. Olupona agrees with this saying “It’s almost like charging your phone with electricity, or a power bank- your phone will be powerless without it. Like Einstein once said, “energy is neither created nor destroyed,” many practitioners of African spirituality believe that the animal’s life force works on the metaphysical plane even after its physical death.”
Traditional healers, known by various names such as ‘sangomas’ or ‘witch doctors’ are the ones who use blood as a major tool in their profession. They use blood to diagnose ailments, prescribe remedies, and restore balance to individuals and communities. In some societies, blood is also used by healers to create protective talismans or is applied in specific rituals meant to ward off evil spirits.
Eras Of Blood Rituals
The origin of African blood rituals is intricately woven into the fabric of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial eras. Many indigenous African religions incorporated blood rituals long before the arrival of external influences. However, with the advent of colonialism, missionary efforts sought to suppress or replace traditional beliefs, leading to the stigmatization of practices like blood rituals as primitive or barbaric.
Despite these challenges, African communities have resiliently fought to preserve them. In some instances, syncretism occurred, blending indigenous beliefs with introduced religions such as Christianity or Islam.
This syncretic approach allowed for the continuity of blood rituals, albeit in modified forms that incorporated elements of the new belief systems and in the
in the post-colonial era, efforts to reclaim and celebrate indigenous cultures gained momentum.
However, the perception of African blood rituals has not been uniform across the continent or globally. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations in the media have often led to sensationalized portrayals, reinforcing stereotypes and contributing to the stigmatization of these practices.
In the Luo Tribe in Kenya, blood is used after birth during the third to fourth-day birth rituals of babies; the blood of a fowl is shed for consumption by the ancestor whose name would be given to the new child. Likewise, the Yoruba people of western Nigeria have ingrained blood sacrifices into their culture. They also carry out ancestral blood rituals involving offerings to specific ‘Orisha’ (divinities) associated with ancestral veneration, such as Oya, the Orisha of the ancestors.
The common animals used for the blood rituals are chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, cows, and even dogs. Religious cults like the Human Leopard, Alligator, and Baboon Society have traditionally practiced blood-human sacrifices. Members have been alleged to have carried out killings while in a state of “possession”, cutting human flesh into pieces and eating it.
In the 20th Century, the Liberian government outlawed some of these cults but some of them went underground and as disturbing and barbaric as it is, human blood sacrifice is still practiced in some parts and is used for traditional medicines.
Across other parts of Central Africa, the Baka pygmies have rituals involving animal sacrifice, primarily focused on healing and spiritual cleansing. The blood is seen as a conduit for transmitting intentions to the divine. Additionally, the Zulu people of South Africa historically practiced ukuThwala, a rite involving the symbolic drinking of blood during marriage ceremonies.
Blood Rituals With Syncretism
The followers of the Santeria Cult still fervently practice blood rituals. Their religion combines elements of African religion and Roman Catholicism. The religion spread to Cuba from Africa during the slave trade.
Interfaith Studies Expert Joseph M. Murphy emphasizes that the Santerian religion is based on the development of personal relationships through divination, sacrifice, and mediumship. “ In Santerian culture, blood rituals are essential for initiation into the faith community and the ordination of priests.” He says.
Africa’s different blood ritual systems are unique but yet bear some resemblances. In Ghana, People from many different ethnic groups come to the Tengzug shrine to consult with the gods. They bring animals to sacrifice as offerings to curry favor in their search for fertility, stability, prosperity, and security in life. They also make amends for evil acts and to reverse the negative consequences of sin or curses in their lives.
Similarly, the Maasai of East Africa have a tradition of drinking a mixture of blood and milk during ceremonies, reflecting a connection to their cattle, a cornerstone of their culture.
An InterGenerational Transfer
Although not all African deities “eat” blood they are one of the most common acts of worship. Bad or irascible behavior, known as ‘bitter blood’ is passed on from an ancestors through blood.
Particularly good-hearted people might be said ‘to have a heart as pure as their forebears’ When applied to behavioral interpretations, those aspects signify the transfer of good attributes of their ancestry through blood. For example, a person could be said to exhibit ‘cold blood’ unlike his forebears who bore ‘hot blood’.
In general, the spirits that were perceived to have had bad blood were considered to be capable of ‘transmitting’ evil acts to their descendants and vice versa. Such phenomena were culturally canonized with a view to how they mirrored the earlier practices of the ancestors.
The active participation in these birth and death rituals by Africans enabled researchers to observe and record accounts of the dynamism and freedom of the material substances used. At a birth ritual, the blood of a fowl is shed for consumption by the ancestor whose name would be given to the new child.
After the latter has consumed it, the spirit reciprocates by allowing its name to be given to the child. Moreover, at death rituals the blood poured on the account of the deceased is consumed by ancestors, causing them to pardon the deceased for errors committed in the past. This action enhances a peaceful co-existence between humans and ancestors, with ancestors transmitting good potencies to the life of the person.
A Never Ending Connection
For the Bunyoro people of Uganda, blood is a significant entity of sensing embodiment, as it is used to assert bonds of life. It serves as a link between human and non-human agents and reinforces a system of existence across entities. They spearheaded the conception that blood originates from the earth and that blood brings about soil or land. They believe that there is a connection in which blood affords the creation and sustenance of lives through the material units it gives humans that are then passed on to the lineage’s members.
However, the discernible interpretation is that soil can be used to reference the movement of forces across kin members during blood rituals. While it is inconceivable that blood can come directly from the earth, it is believed that through the spirits of ancestors buried in the soil, people can weave the process of connection, showing the way that ancestors manage to transmit potency to the living.
The blood rituals practiced are an ode to the land, Dr. Sam Urigntho Regional Blood Bank Director of Uganda’s Blood Transfusion Center expands on this saying “ The general sentiment of the Bunyoro people is that our ancestors got our land through blood; when they came here, they found other people inhabiting it. So they fought for it and lost blood as they pushed out those occupiers.
Therefore, it is soaked with the blood of our ancestors. It is through their blood that we have kept it, we can’t leave it and move elsewhere. If we leave it, then our ancestors would punish us for deserting them. Our life rests in the blood that our ancestors lost on our behalf and each blood ritual carried out is made for reparations and to heal the land.”
Another accurate example of this is the Himba people of Namibia, who perform bloodletting ceremonies as part of ancestral worship.
A Mode Of Interpretation
Blood is believed to enforce the connective streams and pacts of co-performance. From the early years, we see that humans relied on non-human agents for social terms of interpreting certain forces that shaped how they lived. Non-humans also relied on humans to decode the meanings of their expectations, which came alive through the potencies they perceivably transferred to them.
Through blood rituals, the free-flowing agency of ancestors, earth, and spirits, as they traversed their pathways across a clan, a lineage, a family, and finally individuals, was successful.
These rituals have been known to establish links through which processes that make life could be distilled from entities and connected with those transmitted influences. The first link was through the unseen world, where certain human bodily substances had both literal and social meanings. These kinds of rituals are also made during an extended period of famine that threatens the lives of humans, animals, and plants,
This is largely due to blood connection with ecology and the supernatural world. In particular, the heart, blood, and placenta are seen as dual-sated parts and substances bearing both physical and spiritual connotations.
Through blood, there is an iterative vision of the sort of forces that emerged to make lives, reinforcing it through a cultural idiom of blood being capable of transmitting potencies that cause untold suffering. Such forces were difficult to fit into standard definitions of sharing, but their cultural interpretation provided a figuration of how potencies moved across society.
The converse can be witnessed with blood. Blood walks: it forms, it creates, it builds, and it also destroys. Its forming and moving seemingly flow in one direction—from a senior to a junior member of the family.
The Future Of African Blood Rituals
The future of African blood rituals is likely to be shaped by a complex interplay of tradition, modernization, and evolving societal norms. As Africa undergoes rapid socio-economic changes, traditional practices may face challenges in maintaining their prominence.
Charles S. Allison agrees saying “ There is a growing increase in urbanization, education, and as such exposure to diverse cultures may contribute to a gradual shift away from certain rituals. While some rituals may adapt or evolve to coexist with contemporary life, others are already facing scrutiny due to ethical and legal concerns. The efforts to preserve our cultural heritage may play a role in sustaining certain rituals, and communities may find it difficult to reconcile tradition with the changing times but this is something imminent.”
Ultimately, the future of African blood rituals lies in the hands of hopeful African traditionalists and will be filled with animal oils, cedar woods, and water. It is likely to be influenced by a delicate balance between cultural preservation and societal dynamics in a rapidly changing world.
About The Author
Victoria Goldiee is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Cut, Insider, and dozens of other outlets. You can find more of her articles on Twitter here.