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Religious Tolerance logo

Blood libel myths:

Then and now

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The Blood Libel Myth:

Fables surround us. Almost everyone has heard of zombies, but it is incredibly difficult (perhaps impossible) to find a person who has actually seen one. It is said that millions of people have seen UFOs. But nobody seems to have actually taken a clear, detailed picture of one. Many people have heard of the full-size alligators living in the New York City sewer system, but nobody seems to have come across one first-hand. Fables also exist in the religious field. Perhaps the most common, and probably the most long-lasting and hurtful is the "Blood Libel" myth.

Blood Libel is the accusation by "religious group A" that "religious group B" is committing unbelievably despicable acts of ritual murder. Typically, the story contains a number of riveting details:

bulleta victim is kidnapped by members of "religious group B."
bulletthe victim is usually an innocent person. An infant, young child or a blond blue-eyed teenage virgin girl are typical.
bulletthe victim may be abused or tortured. They are ritually killed in order to meet the requirements of the perpetrator's religion.
bulletin an act of cannibalism, the victim's body is eaten and/or the blood is consumed.
bulletobscene sexual orgies (sometimes involving incest) are held during or after the ritual.

The contrast between the innocence of the victim and the evil nature of the ritual killers makes a blood libel myth striking in its intensity.

Needless to say, "religious group B," the victims of the myth, are typically a small faith group. Their persecutors are usually the dominant religion.

Sometimes the effect of one of these myths is rather amusing. Consider the teenage, blond, virgin women who dyed their hair black on Thursday the 12th so that they would not be kidnapped, mutilated and killed by non-existent Satanic cultists on Friday the 13th. But other times it has led to the trial and imprisonment of innocent people - thrown in jail for crimes that never even happened. And it has also resulted in past mass exterminations of followers of minority religions.

This basic fable has been flourishing over the past 2 millennia. In each era and each country where it surfaces, details are often added to or subtracted from the basic story line. Sometimes the myth will disappear for decades and even centuries, only to reappear later in another part of the world.

A few examples are:

Date Group A (Accusers) Group B (Victims)
1st century BCE Greeks Jews in Palestine
2nd century CE Romans Christians
12th century and later Christians Followers of Judaism
13th Century Christians Cathars
14th century Christians Knights Templar
15th to 18th century Christians Witches and other heretics
19th century Protestants Roman Catholics
19th century and later Christians, Nazis, Communists Jews, viewed as a race; Roma (Gypsies)
1980's and later Fundamentalist Christians, feminists Wiccans, Druids & other Neopagans and nonexistent evil, Satanic cultists,
1994 Bulgarian Orthodox Church Protestant Evangelical missionaries
1980's & 1990's A small minority of Christians; mainly Fundamentalist Wiccans, Druids & other Neopagans
Today A minority of Muslims Jews

Of course, the above table does not imply that all of Group A are or were spreading a blood libel rumor about all of Group B. But there have been enough accusations to convince a sizable fraction of the population of the truth of the rumor. For example, a public opinion poll in Utah revealed that 90% of the population believed in evil Satanic cults ritually abusing children.

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Similar Blood Libel Myths, Separated by 18 Centuries:

bulletPagans vs. Christians during the 2nd Century CE: Here, the official religion of the Roman Empire was Roman Paganism. The victims were the early Christians.

Rumors of Christians as an evil, underground, abusive religious group were well documented during the early history of the Christian church. The government promoted a myth that the Christians kidnapped babies, ritually killed them, drank their blood, ate their flesh and engaged in degenerate sexual practices, including incest. The myth was mainly based on inaccurate understandings of three Christian activities:

bulletIn Roman society at the time, an infant was traditionally left exposed, outside the home, shortly after birth. The father had the option of bringing it into the house and accepting responsibility for its upbringing, or of abandoning it to die. Some Christians regularly sought out abandoned infants, adopted them, and thereby saved their lives. The myth assumed that the babies were routinely collected for the purpose of ritually murdering them in later Christian celebrations
bulletThe communion ritual in which Christians consumed wine and bread, with the belief that it had been transformed into the actual blood and body of Christ. Here, the rumor implied that real blood and body parts were used during the ritual, presumably obtained by human sacrifice.
bulletThe practice of early Christians to meet socially, and share a meal. Those spreading the rumor implied that these were sexual orgies.
bulletChristians vs. Jews from 1144 CE to the early 20th century: Christians historically blamed Jews for the judicial murder of Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ). They noted that the "...last meal before his crucifixion had been the Passover seder..." They created the fiction that "at every Passover the Jews re-enacted this crucifixion with yet another innocent Christian victim. The original victims of the accusation had become the accusers of a new victim." 1 This myth was responsible for the execution of many hundreds of Jews during the Middle Ages and up into the 20th century. It  formed part of the foundation upon which Hitler was able to build his plan to exterminate all Jews in Europe - the Nazi Holocaust.
bulletChristians and others vs. Neopagans and others during the 1980's and early 1990's: Here, the main perpetrators of the blood libel myth were some Christians, feminists and police officers. (All of the promoters of this myth who were primarily motivated by their religious beliefs appear to be conservative Christians. The myth appears to be an outgrowth of belief in Satan as an evil entity. However, it is quite possible that we have missed some mainline or liberal Christians involved in the movement.) The targeted victims were perceived as evil followers of an international, criminal, underground cult of Satan worshipers. Such cultists do not exist. However, conservative Christians often do not differentiate between Satan worship, and other, unrelated religions. So, they have lots of groups to victimize. R.V. Canning of the FBI commented in a 1992 report: "In books, lectures, handout material, and conversations, I have heard all of the following referred to as satanism: Church of Satan, Ordo Templi Orientis, Temple of Set, Demonology, Witchcraft, Occult, Paganism, Santeria, Voodoo, Rosicrucians, Freemasonry, Knights Templar, Stoner Gangs, Heavy Metal Music, Rock Music, KKK, Nazis, Skinheads, Scientology, Unification Church, The Way, Hare Krishna, Rajneesh, Religious Cults, New Age, Astrology, Channeling, Transcendental Meditation, Holistic Medicine, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam, Orthodox Church, Roman Catholicism." To this list, can be added Wicca, Druidism, various other Neopagan faiths, Goddess Worship, a number of 12 step self help organizations such as Alcoholic Anonymous, and even the Society of Friends (Quakers). This modern form of blood libel myth is called Satanic Ritual Abuse or Sadistic Ritual Abuse (SRA).

There were no documented cases of SRA in this century before 1980, when the first SRA "survivor" book, Michelle Remembers, was published. It described horrendous sexual and physical abuse allegedly suffered by the co-author, Michelle Smith. She described perpetrators as Satanists who felt that the pain inflicted upon their victims increased their black magical powers. The group also allegedly engaged in human sacrifice and cannibalism. During the following decade, Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) became increasingly common among psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists. Hundreds of thousands of adult recovered memories of severe sexual abuse during childhood. About one in 7 of them recovered memories of SRA. Thousands of children suffered from implanted memories of ritual abuse in day cares, preschools, Sunday schools, etc.

Three separate investigations of Michelle Remembers have proven it to be a hoax. Other studies by Christian ministries have shown that similar books by other authors are also frauds. RMT is now believed by many therapists to often generate false memories of events that never happened. The entire SRA movement is dying because almost two decades have passed with a complete lack of hard evidence showing that anybody has ever been abused or killed by Satanists.

The legacy of this Satanic and RMT Panic is:

bulletone known lynching.
bulletuntold thousands of SRA "survivors" who have been emotionally disabled by false memories.
bullethundreds of innocent people thrown in jail for crimes that never happened.
bulletuntold tens of thousands of demolished families of origin.
bulletthousands of children emotionally damaged by implanted memories of ritual abuse.
bulletA teenage male sentenced to be executed, largely because of the jury's belief in the blood libel myth.

As blood libel myths go, North America in the 1980's and 1990's was at least saved the mass murders of previous occurrences. Individuals were harmed; some committed suicide. Families of origin were damaged. But few people were murdered.

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  1. Shari Schwartz, "Editor's Preface: The Making of a Martyr," at: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/

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Copyright 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2003-JUN-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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