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Blood discussed: A brief look at haematophagia

Haematophagia usually refers to the practice of animals feeding on the blood of another species. However, the term has also been applied to humans that consume blood (something that I have referred to in previous blogs on clinical vampirism and menophilia). Most writings on human haematophagia usually refer to the practice in some sexual and/or vampiric capacity (e.g., some individuals in China and Vietnam believe certain types of snake blood are aphrodisiacs and are drunk with rice wine) but haematophagia can also occur for other reasons.

While I working was in Spain, I was taken to one of the best Castilian restaurants, and as part of the starter I was served morcilla sausage. Morcilla sausage is basically a Spanish version of black pudding (aka ‘blood pudding’) and made from pig’s blood. I absolutely loved it. It did make me wonder what other ‘blood’ foods I might enjoy. I did a bit of research into the making of blood sausages and found out that variations of this dish exist in cultures all over the world (e.g., Europe, Asia, and the Americas), and that all kinds of different animals’ blood can be used (including pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, and ducks). According to the Wikipedia entry on human haematophagia:

“Drinking blood and manufacturing foodstuffs and delicacies with animal blood is also a feeding behavior in many societies. Cow blood mixed with milk, for example, is a mainstay food of the African Massai. Some sources say that Mongols would drink blood from one of their horses if it became a necessity. Black pudding is eaten in many places around the world. Some societies, such as the Moche, had ritual hematophagy, as well as the Scythians, a nomadic people of Russia, who had the habit of drinking the blood of the first enemy they would kill in battle…Psychiatric cases of patients performing hematophagy also exist. Sucking or licking one’s own blood from a wound is also a behavior commonly seen in humans, and in small enough quantities is not considered taboo. Finally, human vampirism has been a persistent object of literary and cultural attention”

There a numerous YouTube videos of the African Massai (in Tanzania) drinking blood directly from the necks of live cattle (such as here and here). Cattle blood drinking typically occurs after special celebrations (such as births, ritual circumcisions, etc.), but the special occasions are not compulsory for blood drinking to occur. The cattle are never killed and the cuts made to drink blood from appear to heal quickly. One report on the Environmental Graffiti website described the practice:

“Half a dozen Maasai warriors wrestle with the struggling cow. Another waits with his bow drawn, arrow at the ready. Finally, they have the straining animal in position. The warrior with the weapon shoots straight for the bovine’s jugular. Warm blood gushes into a waiting bucket, pumped out by the animal’s still-beating heart. The blood keeps flowing, almost filling the container, before the cow is released – its punctured neck sealed with a dab of cow dung. It will live to see another day. Its’ blood-donating job is done, at least for another month. The Maasai men who perform this blood-draining ritual do not intend to kill, or even harm, the animal. They merely want some of its nourishing crimson fluid to drink”.

Another Wikipedia entry focusing on blood as food notes that in addition to blood sausages, animal blood has also been used to thicken, colour, and/or flavour sauces and gravies, and for various types of blood soup (such as ‘czernina’ in Poland, ‘papas de sarrabulho’ in Portugal, and ‘svartsoppa’ made with goose blood in Sweden). Although blood is a taboo food in some cultures, in others it is perfectly acceptable – particularly in times when food has been scarce. Other cultures have other blood foods including blood pancakes (in Scandinavian and Baltic countries), blood tofu (China, Thailand, Vietnam), blood cake (Taiwan), blood potato dumplings (‘blodpalt’ made with reindeer blood in Sweden) and blood bread (‘paltbrod’ in Sweden). Additionally, Wikipedia noted that:

“Blood can also be used as a solid ingredient, either by allowing it to congeal before use, or by cooking it to accelerate the process. In Hungary when a pig is slaughtered in the morning the blood is fried with onions and is served for breakfast. In China, ‘blood tofu’ is most often made with pig’s or duck’s blood, although chicken’s or cow’s blood may also be used. The blood is allowed to congeal and simply cut into rectangular pieces and cooked. This dish is also known in Java as saren, made with chicken’s or pig’s blood. Blood tofu is found in curry mee as well as the Sichuan dish, maoxuewang. In Tibet, congealed yak’s blood is a traditional food”.

The Tanzanian Massai people are not the only culture to consume uncooked animal blood products. For instance, Inuits living in the Arctic Circle consume seal blood and believe it to have health and social benefits. According to a paper on consuming seal blood in a 1991 issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly, seal blood is “seen as fortifying human blood by replacing depleted nutrients and rejuvenating the blood supply, [and] is considered a necessary part of the Inuit diet”. Another academic paper by Dr. Edmund Searles in a 2002 issue of the journal Food and Foodways reported that in relation to the drinking of seal blood: Inuit food generates a strong flow of blood, a condition considered to be healthy and indicative of a strong body”. Historically, there are accounts of Irish people bleeding cattle as a preventative measure against cattle diseases. The Wikipedia entry on blood as food claims that the Irish mixed the drawn blood with butter, herbs, oats or meal” to provide a “nutritious emergency food”.

During my research I also came across a story in The Atheist Times (with photographic evidence) of Hindus engaged in the practice of decapitating and drinking goat blood directly from its body (a blood sacrifice). The report claimed the practice was widely prevalent throughout India and Malaysia. These Hindus believe that the Hindu goddess Kali descends upon those drinking the goat’s blood.

Staying on the religious theme, there are (of course) many (arguably ‘mainstream’) simulated acts of haemotphagia – most notably in various religious ceremonies and rituals. The most obvious is in the transubstantiation of wine as the blood of Jesus Christ during Christian Eucharist (where religious followers believe they are drinking the blood of Christ). Various religions engage in such pseudo-haemotophagic practices including the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, some Anglican, and Lutheran churches. (Other religions are the exact opposite and consider the drinking of blood taboo such as Jewish and Muslim cultures).

As this brief review demonstrates, non-sexual and non-vampiric human haematophagia and pseudo-haematophagia appear to be common and widespread in many cultures and countries. Academic research on the topic appears to be limited although it certainly warrants further investigation.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Borré, K. (1991). Seal blood, Inuit blood, and diet: A biocultural model of physiology and cultural identity. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 5, 48-62.

Davidson, A (2006). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Searles, E. (2002). Food and the making of modern Inuit identities. Food and Foodways, 10(1-2), 55-78.

Wikipedia (2013). Blood as food. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_as_food

Wikipedia (2013). Hematophagy. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hematophagy