Life and death

Blood is life-giving; to spill blood is to take away life. Blood is sometimes even seen as a synonym for life, and ‘flesh and blood' are virtually inseparable terms. For this reason, blood is a very potent symbol, and the shedding of human blood a terrible thing to do. The first violent act in the Bible occurs very early on in Genesis, when Cain kills Abel; Cain and AbelGod sternly tells Cain, ‘Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground' (Genesis 4:10). In literature, bloodshed has always been a powerful idea, whether in modern crime novels, or in earlier writing. Shakespeare illustrates this, both in his depiction of Portia in The Merchant of Venice, telling Shylock that he may spill ‘no drop of blood' when taking the pound of flesh and Lady Macbeth's horror at the killing of Duncan in the play Macbeth, ‘Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?'


Throughout the Old Testament there are many accounts of murders and wars, but the shedding of blood is also seen in another context, when animals are sacrificed as an offering to God. The blood of animals was either used as part of ceremonies of purification (Exodus 29:12:16) or animals were sacrificed so that their blood could be shed as an act of atonement (see Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice) for human sin (Leviticus 16:11).

Because of this association of blood with sacrifice, a central part of Christian belief and worship consists of remembering Jesus' sacrifice of himself when he was killed by crucifixion, thus shedding his blood in atonement for human sin: ‘The blood of Jesus … purifies us from sin' (1 John 1:7) and those who have ‘washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (i.e., Christ) are saved' (Revelation 7:14).

Holy Communion

The last supperIn particular, the most important service for Christians is the Holy Communion, Eucharist or Mass, where the spilling of the blood of Jesus when he was crucified is commemorated by taking bread and wine. Jesus himself instituted this service of remembrance when, on the night before his crucifixion, he told his disciples that the bread they were eating represented his body and the wine represented his blood ‘which is poured out for you' (Luke 22:20). (See Big ideas: Last supper, communion, eucharist, mass.)

A legend that Jesus' blood, shed on the cross (see Big ideas: Cross, crucifixion), was caught in a special cup, or grail, has led to a proliferation of stories about the Holy Grail, from medieval times to the present. Books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, and the novel The Da Vinci Code, explore this idea.

Related topics

Big ideas: Atonement and sacrifice; Cross, crucifixion; Last supper, communion, eucharist, mass

Other cultural references

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare's Macbeth

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code

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