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Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part VI

While the Aztec working class no doubt believed that the gods required bloody offerings; the emperors and nobles who were responsible for organizing labor, supervising crop storage, and redistributing surpluses (Pohl 2003), may very well have realized the benefits of using sacrificial blood and bones as crop fertilizer.


For instance, bones and blood have been used as crop fertilizer in other areas of the world and the Mesoamericans were known to have built a substantial canal system, similar to the canals of the ancient Greeks (800bc-200bc). Ancient Greek writings describe the use of these canals for delivering sewage to the “vegetable crops and olive groves” (Beaton n.d.). “Among the Ancient Greeks, nothing of any importance could occur, no decisions made, no journeys, or wars could take place, without the accompanying flow of the sacrificial blood”  (Ehrenreich,1997. p. 27).

blood 15

An Islamic agricultural publication from the 11th century showed that “farm practices of the period changed little from those of the Greeks and Romans” (Beaton n.d.). This ancient publication contained a poem, written by “Omar Khayyam, the astronomer-poet from Persia” that expresses the “effect that dead bodies and the blood of animals had on crop growth” (Beaton n.d.). This poem clearly illustrates the probable use of flowery wars for purposes other than propitiation:


“I sometimes think that never blows red

The rose as were some buried Caesar bled;

That every hyacinth the garden wears

Dropt in her lap, from some once lovely head”(Beaton).

blood 14

Although the Jewish were forbidden to consume blood, it was “permitted for other uses and the Mishnah (Yoma 5:6) states that the sacrificial blood that flowed into the Kidron was collected and sold to gardeners as fertilizer”(Encyclopedia Judaica). And according to another source, there was a drainage system with two holes at the base of the altar in King Herod’s temple where the blood of sacrifices was poured and sold as fertilizer (Rodriguez, 2001).


In the early 1800’s, England had such a high demand for human and animal bones to be used for manufacturing phosphate fertilizer, that the country imported 30,000 tons of bones annually; “Justus von Liebig criticized the English for collecting bones from old battlefields and burial sites such as the catacombs of Italy” (Beaton n.d.).

blood 17

As you can see, while the Aztecs are well-known to have strung hundreds of skulls across the temple walls, the remaining skeletons may very well have been mixed with the victim’s blood and sent down the canals to be used as crop fertilizer.

blood 18

To be continued…..


Beaton, J. Dr. (n.d.) The history of fertilizer, Retrieved from http://www.back-to-

Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war . New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company LLC

Encyclopedia Judaica. (2010). Jewish virtual library. Retrieved from (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2010)

Pohl, J. M.D. (2003). John Pohl’s Mesoamerica. Retrieved from, 2003)

Rodriguez, A.(2001) What happened to the blood? Retrieved from

Native American Face Paint; Customs, Colors, Designs


For thousands of years, cultural groups from all over the world have participated in ceremonial face painting for a variety of reasons. However, the amount of available scholarly information regarding ceremonial and cultural face painting is scarce. Furthermore, face painting traditional customs, colors, and designs, have either been passed down orally through storytelling, or have been documented by white explorers and journalists who may not have had the cultural sensitivity to fully understand and relay the authentic spiritual symbolism and meaning behind the various colors and designs. Therefore, by combining information from Native American websites with scholarly resources, my aim is to give a respectful and general description of traditional Native American face painting; including the significance of colors, designs, and rituals, of a variety of Native American cultures such as California, Great Basin, Northwest and Northeast Coast, Southeast and Plains tribes.


Native Americans commonly viewed face painting not only as an act of social distinction and cultural heritage, but as a significant aspect in cultural and spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Ceremonial paint was also used to hide ones identity, as well as to obtain power from the creature or spirit represented. ( Lewis, 2009) Colored paints were used for decoration and ornamentation, but most importantly for spiritual power, and “at times constituting a prayer to a super natural being.” (Densmore, 2006) The design and color of face paint was an individual choice, chosen to “harmonize with the individual’s attire, purpose, dreams, or visions.” (Densmore, 2006) Face paint was also used to intimidate an adversary, such as when Tecumseh and his warriors met with William Henry Harrison, the warriors were all wearing war face paint, which undoubtedly struck fear amongst the US soldiers who witnessed the event.


The common link between nearly all Native American tribes was the brotherhood with nature, the earth, and animals, and the belief that the natural materials used in making the paint also had the ability to impart animating powers to the paint, which would then be conveyed to the recipient. (Zedeno, 2008) When paint was applied to an object it became a person, and likewise, paint applied to a person transformed that person with a gift of extraordinary characteristics and powers, such as courage, strength, stealth, health, etc. (Zedeno, 2008) As Nicholas Black Elk, an Oglala holy man stated; “By being painted, the people have been changed. They have undergone a new birth, and with this they have new responsibilities, new obligations, and a new relationship.” (Brown, 1953)

Among the various tribal Nations, specific colors were used symbolically. Several of the colors have universal meaning, yet variations are common tribally, as well as individually. For the individual, “a kaleidoscope of paint colors and designs held special meanings, portraying secret mystical messages or visions.” (Palmer, 2006)

Face and body paint was an essential component in Plains culture. Plains warriors painted their faces with protective colors and patterns before engaging the enemy; this is where the term ‘war paint’ originated. (Holmes, 2010)  Because the Plains warrior deemed his paint as a protective talisman, he would not only paint his face, but his body and horse as well. And in times of war, the Plains women would streak their noses, cheeks, and foreheads with paint. (Densmore, 2006)


Pawnee men often painted their body with red or yellow stripes, and painted the tips of their eyelids red. At other times they painted their entire face, or the upper half red. (Paterek, 1994) Similarly, the Osage painted red around their eyes and hairline. (Paterek, 1994) The Pawnee also sacrificed a young girl for the Morning Star ceremony, and painted half of her body red and the other half black. (Paterek, 1994) And, Pawnee scouts were known to paint their faces white in order to gain stealth and tracking abilities from the wolf. (Paterek, 1994)


Currently, there is no indication that Southwest tribes developed warrior face painting traditions, yet they did use ceremonial face paint, as well as black and white masks. (Paterek, 1994)

In the Northeast, the cultural tradition was to rub fish oil and bear fat on the skin for protection and also to keep the skin smooth. Both men and women of the Northeast applied red paint on their foreheads and cheeks for certain occasions. (Paterek, 1994) Similarly, most Great Basin tribes applied basic designs for ceremonial gatherings; the favorite colors were red, black, yellow, and white. However, Shoshone tribes painted more complex patterns, such as “snakes, bears, wavy lines, and horse shoes.” (Paterek, 1994)

Face paint was extremely popular with California tribes, where red, black, yellow, and white were used for ritualistic ceremonies. The Chumash considered face paint to be an integral part of ceremonial dress and were known to utilize a variety of designs, such as “zig-zags, stripes, and checkers.” (Paterek, 1994) The customary colors were black, red, brown, and white; and some dancers covered their faces with red then added black and white dots. To the Chumash, “color and design indicated status.” (Paterek, 1994)


Body and face painting was a daily routine for the Mohave. Each day they would paint themselves in black, red, and white, and are recognized as having painted themselves more than any other California tribe. (Paterek, 1994)

Likewise, Northwest Coastal tribes painted their faces daily, and like the Northeast tribes,  their purpose was for protection from the sun and wind, as well as for additional warmth. Black, white, and red face paint was applied for ceremonies, and stamps were used for repeated patterns. Crushed mica was also added to give a glitter effect to the paint for special occasions. (Paterek, 1994) Makah followed the coastal tradition of daily painting; using blue, black, and white. Makah often painted as much as twice a day, using different designs in the morning and afternoon. Animal and checkerboard patterns were customary, although the Makah warriors and chiefs painted their entire face with black paint that had been mixed with glittering mica flakes to create a “terrifying effect.” (Paterek, 1994)

Tattoos and masks were the most popular Southeast traditions. Nevertheless, face paint was used as a “masculine adornment” during festivals. (Paterek, 1994) Red, black, russet, and yellow, were the most common colors, and white was used on the last day of the festival. (Paterek, 1994) The Southeast Ojibwa were also “fond of face painting.” (Paterek, 1994) The most common colors were red and black, and they used simple designs such as bars, patches, and dots. It was also customary for the Ojibwa to plaster his back with white clay and have figures or designs painted on it. (Paterek, 1994)


Throughout the vast number of Native American cultures, color and design symbolism varies, yet there are some striking similarities. And although there is controversy over the symbolic uses for black paint, most sources agree that black face paint was often used by numerous cultures for mourning the dead. When a loved one died the face was covered with black, or black lines were painted for the death of a distant relative. (Palmer, 2006)


In many tribes it was also customary for the returning warrior to paint his face black; yet the Plains warriors were known to leave the tips of their noses unpainted. (Densmore, 2006) Crow warriors believed that a face painted black symbolized “quenching the fires of revenge,” (Holmes, 2010) and “Lakota men painted their face black to signify victory, not to signify going to war.” (Neihardt, 2008) On the contrary, in 1973 when Lakota tribesman Lame Deer was asked about the colors on the staff placed on top of Mt. Rushmore, he replied, “The lower part of the staff is painted black, which stands for night and darkness. It is the black face paint of war.” (Banks, Erdoes, 2004)

Densmore explained another black face paint tradition in Teton Sioux Music; “It was said that if a party of warriors attacked the enemy and killed several men, the first warrior who killed the enemy had the right to wear the black face paint. Thus many of the warrior’s songs contain the words, ‘the black face that I seek’.” (Densmore, 2006)

Black Elk also described a diverse cultural and spiritual use of black face paint when he stated; “By going on the warpath, we know that we have done something bad, and we wish to hide our face from Wakan-Tanka” (The Sacred Pipe, 92n.4; Neihardt, 2008) Interestingly, Rice stated that a “culturally informed audience would know that black face paint implied victory, struggle, courage, and survival.” Rice continued by stating that it was the “Christianized version, in which warriors wore black paint because they were ashamed of killing.” (Rice, 1994)

The significance of red paint is a notably common element of Native American cultures. For instance, Black Elk described his vision and the importance of using red paint for the ghost dance; “This sacred man [The Messiah] gave some red sacred paint and two eagle feathers to Good Thunder. The people must put this paint on their faces and they must dance a ghost dance that the sacred man taught to Good Thunder, Yellow Breast, and Brave Bear.” (Neihardt, 2008) Black Elk frequently spoke of a new world coming and often referred to the people’s faces as having been painted red; and when Black Elk described the Heyoka ceremony he said, “We had our bodies painted red all over and streaked with black lightning.” (Neihardt, 2008)

Red was often thought of as the color of war, and was a favorite color of many Native American tribes. Black Elk expressed the use of red paint as preparation for the battle at Wounded Knee when he stated, “I painted my face all red.”  On other occasions, the color red could also be applied to represent festivity or joy, or the sun, light, life, energy, or power. (Lewis, 2009) Columbia Plateau tribes desired red paint more than any other color and often fought with the Blackfeet over possession of the rich iron clay sources near Helena, Montana. (Paterek, 1994) (Neihardt, 2008) Another common Native American tradition was to paint the part of the hair red, symbolizing the earth and fertility. (Densmore, 2006) And in Ojibwa Warrior, Dennis Banks referred to red paint as a symbol of empowerment and cultural pride;  “At Wounded Knee…they began to feel good about being Sioux, Cheyenne, or Ojibway. They put on red face paint…” (Banks, Erdoes, 2004)

Nearly every Native American tribe used green face paint as an aid to night vision. (Palmer, 2006) Blue represented the sky or the water, and was often painted on peace pipes as well as the face. (Palmer, 2006) “White represented peace, or peaceful endeavors.” (Palmer, 2006) White also symbolized the “spirit of the wolf which gives strength”, and was also used in rite of passage ceremonies. (Palmer, 2006) Yellow was considered the color of “death, or deadly encounters”, and symbolizes that “the warrior is ready to die”. (Palmer, 2006)

The day before the Battle at Little Bighorn, Black Elk was called upon by a medicine man to help with a healing ceremony; “He [medicine man] painted my body yellow and my face too, and put a black stripe on either side of my nose from the eyes down. Then he tied my hair up to look like bear’s ears, and put some eagle plumes on my head.” (Neihardt, 2008)


Preparation for creating the assorted colors of paints, required gathering several resources; plants, berries, tree bark, and colored clays. (Palmer, 2006) White paint was commonly made from white riverbed clay. Red paint was prepared with various resources; crimson colored clay, or by baking yellow clay over hot ashes. Sometimes red corn was boiled and poured over crushed red berries to achieve the desired color. (Lewis, 2009) Unfortunately, bright red cinnabar, which was mined in California and traded extensively throughout North America, contained sulfide of mercury, which is thought to be the cause of diseased remains that have been found at many Native American burial sites. (Paterek, 1994)

Yellow paint was created from yellow riverbed clay and buffalo gallstones, and the Plains tribes often used cottonwood buds to mix this color. (Palmer, 2006) Black paint was crafted by crushing charred wood and sometimes mixing it with black clay. (Palmer, 2006) Green paint was made from either copper ore or plant leaves, although green was also frequently created by combining yellow and blue. Blue clay was difficult to acquire, could only be found in certain areas; Lusk, Wyoming was the best source of blue clay. (Lewis, 2009) Duck excrement was sometimes used as a substitute for the rare blue clay. (Palmer, 2006)

Prayers were offered over the paint while it was stirred and were believed to transfer special blessings and powers onto the wearer. (Holmes, 2010) Once the colors were created, dried, and crushed into powder, they were stored in small buckskin bundles and then placed into a larger decorated bag which contained an applicator and sometimes a small mirror. (Palmer, 2006)


The paint was applied either dry, or mixed with buffalo tallow, bear grease, or water to achieve the desired effect. Oftentimes special songs were sung when the paint was applied. Some warriors painted themselves and some preferred to be painted by a holy person or medicine man. (Holmes, 2010)

Customary designs were often used, although as mentioned earlier, designs were also an expression of the individuals dreams, visions, and personal taste. Each Tribal Nation had its own design which was respected by other tribes, (Palmer, 2006) and the face was often divided into two halves by painting different colors and designs on each side, with each half symbolizing a different message. “The Painted Hand was revered both as a symbol of great bravery and honor to the warrior who counted coup by touching the enemy with his bare hand. (Daniels, 2011) And at times, “red stripes were painted on the face and then down the arms to the hands.” (Palmer, 2006) “Plains warriors often painted a line on the forehead to represent a thunder storm in the horizon, and a line from jaw to jaw with two spikes on either side of the mouth to represent grizzly bear tusks.” (Zedeno, 2008)

With the influx of Europeans, Native Americans began using powdered paints obtained from white traders. (Lewis, 2009) Today, many Native Americans still apply traditional face paint for spiritual ceremonies, as well as events such as pow-wow competitions. Pow-wow dancers, who choose to wear face paint, use theatrical make-up. (Lewis, 2009)

The tradition of face painting has been a part of Native American culture for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. Across the continent, from the Makah tribe in the far Northwest, to the Ojibwa in the Southeast, a wide range of colors, painted in various designs on the faces of warriors, tribal citizens, and leaders, bestowed protection and supernatural power onto the people; gifts from the spirit of the earth and its creatures.


 Banks, R., Erdoes, D. (2004). Ojibwa warrior.  Dennis Banks and the rise of the American Indian

          Movement. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Brown, J. (1953). The sacred pipe: black elk’s account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux.

Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Daniels, C. (2011, July 6). Rough stock rodeo set for august. Yorkton This Week, Retrieved from on July 24,2011.

Densmore, F. (2006). Teton Sioux music. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing.

Holmes, J. (2010, September 29). Face painting traditions among men of the plains. Retrieved


Lewis, D. (2009, July). The power of the painted face chronicled by Reginald and Gladys Laubin.

The Montana Pioneer, Retrieved from

Neihardt, J.G. (2008). Black elk speaks. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Palmer, S. (2006). Face painting practices. Retrieved from

Paterek, J. (1994). Encyclopedia of American Indian costume. New York and London: W.W.

Norton & Company.

Rice, J. (1994). A ventriloquy of anthros: Densmore, Dorsey, Lame Deer and Erdoes. American

Indian Quarterly, 18(2), 169. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Zedeño, M. (2008). Bundled Worlds: The Roles and Interactions of Complex Objects from the

North American Plains. Journal of Archaeological Method & Theory, 15(4), 362-378.

doi:10.1007/s10816-008-9058-4. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part IV

Having established in Parts 1-3, that prehistoric humans almost certainly had ample reason to be anxious about blood, and that they also had a survival instinct which probably included throwing a person to their bloody death to ensure group survival; the next step to understanding the reasons why blood ritual continued is to conclude that at some point in time, humans connected supernatural predator gods with human characteristics such as creativity, parenting, and food requirements.

'Saturn Devouring One of His Sons', by Francisco Goya

‘Saturn Devouring One of His Sons’, by Francisco Goya

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Maimonides suggested that the entire sacrificial cult in Judaism was ordained as an accommodation of man’s primal desires”, and that “sacrifice is an ancient and universal human expression. Sacrifice existed among the Hebrews long before the giving of the Torah” (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2010). Consequently, primal bloody sacrifices must have evolved into elaborate, yet gruesome, religious rituals, which were carried out for thousands of years by people from countless cultures around the globe.

deity first_death

The Olmec civilization was the first known civilization in Central America (1200BC-400BC), and is often referred to as the mother culture, because it appears to have influenced the cultures that post-dated it, including the Mayans and the Aztecs. Although there is not a great deal of information about the Olmec religion, we do know that they were polytheists, worshipped jaguar and maize gods, and were a stratified society ruled by priests. The Olmecs also built stone temples and a step pyramid which most likely were used for rituals, which included blood sacrifice (Lambert n.d.).

deity bloodlettingbb

While there appears to be a significant correlation between blood sacrifice and the natural human fear of being devoured, as well as the reliance on the predator for providing scavenged meat, there is also a great deal of evidence indicating that agricultural societies were more inclined to partake in human sacrifice, than pastoral societies who sacrificed animals. The reason for the different types of sacrificial victims was most likely because agriculturists, like the Olmecs, did not have enough animals available to substitute as scapegoats (Ehrenreich, 1997, p.61).

The term scapegoat was coined by the Jewish, as an animal offering that substitutes for the actual human culprit, deserving the punishment (Encyclopedia Judaica, 2010). So, while some religions use animal sacrifices in place of humans, it is this “ritual substitution that casts the shadow of human sacrifice over all those holy altars in front of the [Jewish] temples” (Burkert, The Problem of Ritual Killing, in Hamerton-Kelly, Violent Origins, p. 163; Ehrenreich, 1997)

To be continued…

deity wpid-photo-apr-17-2012-120-pm


Burkert, W. (1979). Structure and history in Greek mythology and ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war . New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company LLC

Encyclopedia Judaica. (2010). Jewish virtual library. Retrieved from

Lambert, T. (n.d.) The Olmec  civilization. Retrieved from

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part III

Similar to other primates, humans most likely evolved socially as protection against predators. The weakest among them would have been sacrificed; thrown to the predator to save the rest. Naturally, the struggle to choose a victim would have been intensely emotional. Any willing victim, who sacrificially offered his body to be torturously devoured by the carnivorous beast, would have become a saint in the eyes of the saved. “The source of human [inclination towards sacred] violence, is…in the powerful emotions associated with courage and altruism that were required for group defense” (Ehrenreich, 1997. p.47).


It is here that we see one of the most powerful and precarious aspects of blood sacrifice—it ignites and intensifies the emotions of everyone in the group simultaneously. It is precisely these intense emotions that cause the group to “leave mundane things behind and transmute into a new kind of being, larger than the sum of its parts, more powerful than any individual” (Ehrenreich, 1997.p.1).


While the notion of blood sacrifice must certainly have been a means of survival in the midst of predators, another aspect of human fascination with blood might also have stemmed from the anomaly of female menstruation. One can only suppose what prehistoric humans might have wondered, when a female bled continually for several days, from between her legs no less, without injury or death.

On one hand, the woman’s blood flowed from the same place as new life emerged; yet on the other hand, spilled blood was normally the result of  injury and often caused death. Many times, bleeding was caused by powerful predators that devoured humans as foodstuff.

And, before the weaving of cloth, coupled with the cycles of the moon, the woman’s monthly flow of blood would have most likely been seen as a supernatural and awe-invoking event.

Chauvet Cave, painted "sorcerer" figure/bison-woman

Chauvet Cave, painted “sorcerer” figure/bison-woman

The woman’s monthly event may have been the muse which inspired the Venus figurines, cave paintings, and goddess worship in ancient times, and is possibly the impetus for male blood-letting as seen in various ancient, as well as indigenous, cultures and religions.

To be continued…

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf


Ehrenreich, B. (1997). Blood rites: Origins and history of the passions of war . New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company LLC

Blood Rituals; Religion or Realism Part I

blood imagesCALDVAA6Blood sacrifice is considered taboo in modern societies, yet most ancient religions seemed to view the practice as normal and even appropriate. Blood rituals were practiced for a variety of reasons, and it is important to recognize the environmental threats and challenges that were encountered by prehistoric people who survived in a world where nature offered sustenance and shelter, yet also delivered death and destruction.

blood panther

This universal dilemma kindled the notion of supernatural forces or gods, who controlled the elements of nature and the fate of humans. Cross-culturally, distinct yet comparable myths were created to describe these gods and their relationship to humans. Then, with the rise of agriculture and the development of stratified societies, the myths were re-enacted through rituals that often included the shocking ceremonial slaughter of humans or animals, as a means to propitiate, show gratitude, love, and devotion to those gods.

blood AncientAmericaAztecsHumanSacrifice


Yet underlying a genuine belief and respect for the deities, there were also more pragmatic reasons for elites to implement the practice of such a grisly ritual. The ‘religious’ bloody rituals were perpetrated as a type of psychological weapon, ideal for empirical domination and social cohesion; and they were also used as a method of acquiring organic resources, such as food and fertilizer—flesh, blood, and bones. This series will explore the possible origins of blood sacrifice, and examine the potential motivations behind the implementation of these gruesome rituals in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and the Ancient Middle East; with specific emphasis on the Aztec, Jewish, and Christian religions.

To be continued…