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Hey, Kids! Let’s talk about BLOOD LIBEL! - Mirror of Ambrose
James Enge

jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-13 21:20
Subject: Hey, Kids! Let’s talk about BLOOD LIBEL!
Security: Public
Tags:crosspost to lj, politics, roman history

Blood libel has been in the news lately because of its unfortunate use by Sarah Palin, apostle to the Mama Grizzlies. The unexpected benefit from this has been an outburst of history in news outlets that don’t normally contemplate the existence of anything more ancient than Lady Gaga’s meat dress. One really interesting story was this one at Salon.com. My only complaint about it, and others, is that it doesn’t go far back enough. The blood libel predates the Middle Ages–predates Christianity, in fact.

The earliest example of the blood libel that I know of (and I’m not saying it’s the first instance) is in a lost work by an ancient anti-Semite named Apion. We know about it because one of the most interesting unreliable narrators in the Roman world, Flavius Josephus, wrote a response to Apion’s screed, which does survive. (The interested can find it on Google books in translation, or in the original Greek, with some of the gaps filled in with Latin.)

In Apion’s version, quoted and summarized by Josephus (Against Apion 2.8; still shorter version in the Wikipedia article here), Antiochus IV, the Seleucid King of Syria, made a weird discovery while he was sacking Jerusalem. In the Temple at Jerusalem, there was a Greek man imprisoned in a room with a bunch of food. He claimed he’d been kidnapped by Jews and was being fattened as a sacrificial animal. He was slated to be killed at a ritual in which Jews would eat his innards and swear perpetual enmity with the Greeks. Ostensibly this was an annual tradition–sort of like the American habit of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, only less violent.

Josephus pours justified scorn on Apion’s stupid slander. Unfortunately his best evidence is an appeal to the architecture of the Temple itself, which had recently been destroyed by Josephus’ close personal friend, the Emperor Titus. But the libel was already an old story when Apion wrote it up in the 1st century AD–Josephus (or his Latin translator) calls it a fabulam which seems to imply a tale which had become traditional. The story looks like an attempt to justify (after the fact) Antiochus’ rampage in Judea, which happened in the 160s BC–almost two centuries before Apion wrote.

But the blood libel wasn’t only levelled against Jews. Any group which was unpopular and secretive could get smeared with rhetorical blood in the Roman world. In 63 BC, a politician named Catiline, having failed to get himself elected, decided to star in his own reality show overthrow the Roman government by force. He wasn’t the first to try, and if he’d succeeded he wouldn’t have been the first to succeed. (I think my memory lifted this from Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, but that makes it an especially apt line for stealing: Roman history IN SPA-A-A-CE, right?) But Catiline’s conspiracy failed, in part because the guy who did win the election was shrewder and less scrupulous than he was. When the history of the episode was written up, the story was already spreading that the conspirators, in one of their secret meetings, had committed a murder and drunk the blood of the victim to seal their oath. But this was perceived as slander even by people who weren’t too crazy about Catiline. (See Sallust, Bellum Catilinae/a.k.a. “Conspiracy of Catiline”, ch. 22.)

Ironically, given later history, early Christians themselves were often tagged with the blood libel. Tertullian spends some time arguing against that and other slander in his Apology (here in translation, and here in the original Latin; the specific passages are in chapter 7.1 and following, if you don’t want to read the whole thing).

Actually, I lied above when I said I had no quibble with the recent articles on blood libel except that they don’t go back far enough. I have one other complaint: they mostly say the blood libel was based on ignorance, and that’s not strictly true. Ignorance enables the blood libel, but malice motivates it, and promotes ignorance in order to enable it. As Tertullian says, Malunt nescire, quia iam oderunt: “They prefer not to know, because they already hate.” It’s this feature that makes blood libel the paradigmatic political slander of our angry Know-Nothing time.

Everyone knows that. Except baby-eating Communo-Fascist death-panellists.

Originally published at Ambrose & Elsewhere. You can comment here or there.

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gillpolack
User: gillpolack
Date: 2011-01-14 02:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd differentiate between accusations of ritual murder (of which Jews ahve also been accused - I keep wondering what I'm doing wrong in my Jewishness, that I can't conceive of doing any of these things) and the blood libel. The blood libel has a focus on children. The ugliest of the blood libel had Jews supposedly using the blood of babies to make matzah, but all the Medieval accusations included children.

Your Tertullian quote says it all - it's nothing to do with Judaism and everything to do with hate.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-14 03:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's interesting. I'd associate "blood libel" more with consumption of the blood (and associated flesh) itself than the age of the victim. But I can see your point. It's babies that early Christians were supposed to have butchered too: that's to make the story especially horrifying, no doubt.
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marycatelli
User: marycatelli
Date: 2011-01-14 05:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh yes.

Early Christians would then get on a high horse and point out that the pagan Romans were throwing out babies in the trash and the Christians weren't, so why on earth would it be the Christians who were killing babies secretly?
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-16 23:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Right--Tertullian says something very like this, in fact.
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peadarog
User: peadarog
Date: 2011-01-14 08:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Didn't the Romans accuse the Carthaginians of child sacrifice too? In their case it may even be true...
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-16 23:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
They did, and since the Hebrew Bible alleges the Phoenicians practiced the same thing in Asia, I always figured there was something to it. But some archaeologists working among the tophets in North Africa claim that the children buried there were not sacrificed. Not sure how they can tell, but it would be interesting if true.
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peadarog
User: peadarog
Date: 2011-01-17 08:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've also heard that most of the Middle-East did the whole sacrifice of the first-born thingy that only ended for the ancestors of the Israelites when the new God refused the sacrifice of Isaac. But, now that my time travel device is broken, I guess I'll never know :(
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-17 20:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I expect it was pretty widespread in the prehistoric Mediterranean generally. There are all those stories from Greek myth about people killing their children--sometimes ritually, sometimes not; sometimes eating them, sometimes not. There are lots of reasons why stories like this go on being told, but an actual practice of human sacrifice is one way to account for their origin.
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Blue Tyson
User: bluetyson
Date: 2011-01-14 09:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good name for a low-rent lawyer noir movie, anyway.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-16 23:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"In a world where tortious malfeasance is imbued with hemoglobin..." No, that needs more work.
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renesears
User: renesears
Date: 2011-01-14 14:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you for the history. Second to last paragraph really nails the hateful deliberate ignorance behind the slur.

And the last made me laugh, so thank you.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-16 23:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
No problem! "Deliberate ignorance" is good: that's the root of the problem. I may steal that phrase when I have occasion to talk about this (as, unfortunately, I probably will). So thanks back at you.
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C.S.E. Cooney
User: csecooney
Date: 2011-01-28 23:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just going to second comment above, right down to the particulars. I don't know how I missed this entry.
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al_zorra
User: al_zorra
Date: 2011-01-14 17:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There is that Christian ritual of Communion, a Holy Sacrament, in which the blood of Christ is consumed. Christians did commit intra-necinary bloodbaths as to whether the wine in communion turned into Christ's blood, was actually the blood of Christ, or represented Christ's blood.

No wonder the kidnapped Africans waiting in the slave castles for transport to the New World believed that the Europeans captured them in order to eat them. Which indeed was the case, though not via knife and fork, of course.

Love, c.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-16 23:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Sure, but the ritual of Communion (whether it's transubstantiation or consubstantiation) is a far cry from baby-eating. And there's nothing in drinking Christ's blood that would freak the ancients out, anyway: eating/drinking the god was pretty standard in mystery cults (e.g. Dionysus' or Demeter's).
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al_zorra
User: al_zorra
Date: 2011-01-17 00:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But killing sister Christians over it? Which they did.

Nor was this a part of African god ritual, so it looked like cannibalism to them!

Love, c.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-17 00:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not sure what you're saying here. I'm not saying that all Christians in every age are blameless, but I do say that the blood libel against them in the ancient world was baseless. And ancient Christians were't involved in the transatlantic slave trade, since it didn't exist yet.
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al_zorra
User: al_zorra
Date: 2011-01-17 03:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, duh.

But Christians did steal Africans starting in the 15th century and Africans did think they were going to be eaten by them.

And, in some ways, they did indeed devour them, for centuries and centuries. A ten year life-span -- that was no blood libel. It was historical fact.

Blood libel was a terrible, false myth. The fear of those of this religion however, by Africans, was not.

Love, C.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-17 05:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It seems to me you're painting with too broad a brush. Some Africans were Christians from a very ancient period (particularly in Ethiopia). Of those who weren't, some might have been frightened of what they knew of Christian ritual, some not. Some Christians were slave-takers and slave-owners; others were Abolitionists. The bigger a group one is talking about, the harder it is to make a meaningful generalization.
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al_zorra
User: al_zorra
Date: 2011-01-17 17:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
We are speaking, as stated above, of the slave trade industry that began with Europeans on the Western, Atlantic coast of Africa even before Columbus's first voyages to the New World, even before the Reformation.

As all scholarship in the area of these studies have determined, this was different from the ancient world all together.

And in the Southern United States, even more different than that.

That's all.

Maybe I'm assuming knowledge on your part that I shouldn'ty due to my own shortsighedness -- because these matters have been the focus of my study for the last 35 years, and my husband and I have been publishingh books on these subjects, which are part of the academic curricula.

Love, C.

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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-17 20:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It still seems to me that you're painting with too broad a brush. And, at the same time, you're narrowing the scope of discussion: I (presumably one constituent of "we") have been talking about a wider range of time: that was my point from the beginning.

The African slave-trade was unambiguously evil, and very many Christians engaged in it, promoted it, and tolerated it. But the African response to Christianity was more complex than you make out. For instance, Robin Law ("Religion, Trade and Politics on the 'Slave Coast'", Journal of Religion in Africa 21.1, 1991, 42-77), does mention the cannibalistic element of transubstantiation as one reason for resistance to Christian missionaries (though noting the source is a French Protestant who may have been grinding a theological axe: Law p. 61f). But monogamy seems to have been a bigger deal-breaker (p.61 and passim), and a still bigger one was religious exclusivity. There was a receptiveness towards Christian religion as an addition to, but not as a replacement for, traditional religious practices in Allada, for instance (Law, p.44f).
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al_zorra
User: al_zorra
Date: 2011-01-17 23:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you.
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al_zorra
User: al_zorra
Date: 2011-01-17 23:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This isn't about the response to Christianity by Africans.

It's about the response of African to Christian slave trade.

When the Portuguese first arrived in Angola much happened, including the Portuguese mistaking certain graphic signatures (which, later, of course, Africans were denied possessing) for the Catholic cross. It's a long history, but within the first century of it, many an Angolan found out that being a Christian, i.e. a Catholic, even being a monarch, did not save him from becoming a slave in Iberia.

We are writing at cross purposes, and probably have no need to continue.

Love, C.
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-18 00:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's not clear to me what you mean by "this" so you're probably right. This conversation has certainly been about a number of topics but it wasn't originally or ever particularly the one you now propose.
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bemused_leftist
User: bemused_leftist
Date: 2011-01-16 06:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Salon had a more interesting piece (again 'War Room') giving the following usages of 'blood libel' in recent politics (to which no one objected, sfaik). Two of these usages pertained to single individuals.

Mike Barnicle said that the Swift Boaters' accusation against Kerry was a blood libel.

Tony Blankley said that a Time report on a possible massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines was being used as a blood libel against the military, "a propoganda catastrophe" for the US.

Tucker Carlson said that an accusation against Ashcroft was a blood libel being resurrected by the Center for American Progress (accusing Ashcroft of advance knowledge of the 9/11 attack).

Source:
salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/01/12/blood_libel_politics/index.html

Worth reading Salon for the context of these usages. The speakers all sound like they're using a familiar term in a familiar sense -- and in casual talk show conversations where it would have been easy for someone to object to the term.

Here's one not from Salon:

What Rove is giving voice to here is nothing less than the new blood libel of our age: that those who oppose the Bush Administration's unconstitutional actions are opening the door to a new 9/11. The implication is clear: anyone who speaks up for the Constitution is working for the death of innocent Americans.
mathaba.net/news/?x=542246
By Chris Floyd, the author of Burlesque: The Secret History of the Bush Regime
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jamesenge
User: jamesenge
Date: 2011-01-16 23:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, what can I tell you. The more contemporary stuff interests me less. De gustibus. But there certainly is a lot of blood libel misting the air these days. It goes hand-in-hand with conspiracy theory.
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