Blood symbolism pervades our culture – from religion to film and literature, and even in dreams. To interpret this symbolism, we need to explore some of its main cultural and historical meanings.
Common symbolic meanings of blood include:
- Guilt (Especially in Dream Meanings)
- A Solemn Agreement
- Filth and Uncleanliness
- Pain and Suffering
- Sacrifice (Especially in Religion)
This article examines each of these meanings with cultural and historical explanations.
Blood Symbolism & Meanings
We use phrases like ‘lifeblood’ to highlight the importance that blood is to life. However, spilling blood would symbolize the opposite: the spilling of life out of our bodies.
So, blood usually only symbolizes life when it’s still in our veins.
Take, for example, the sight of a throbbing vein or a beating heart pushing blood through a body. These instances symbolize the idea that life is pumping through you.
Furthermore, in Christianity and Judaism, blood is often used as a substitute symbol of life:
- Genesis 9:4 – But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.
- Leviticus 17:11 – the life of the flesh is in the blood,
Another time blood might symbolize life is when you see blood bags hanging in a hospital setting, spilling blood into someone’s veins. In those situations, there’s the idea that someone is alive, but also that they’re in need of vital support and nourishment to maintain their life.
While sometimes blood does symbolize life, we probably more often use it as a symbol of death.
This is, most often, when you see spilling blood. Blood spilling from a body or building into an ever-growing pool can symbolize the life spilling out of a body.
Other times blood means ‘death’ is when you find it in pools in alleys or in trails in the forest, as if an animal has limped off to its final fate.
3. Guilt (Especially in Dream Meanings)
We often use the term ‘blood on your hands’ as a way to signify someone’s guilt. This stems right back to the bible, where the term ‘blood on his head’ is often used to refer to guilt.
In science, we also look for blood as a sign or clue for who is guilty. A detective who finds the dead person’s blood on someone’s shoes may use this as evidence of that person’s guilt, for example.
In the spiritual realm of dream meanings, constantly seeing blood lying around can be seen as a sign that “blood is on your hands”. And indeed, a dream about blood on your hands is quite simply that: a dream highlighting your own guilt.
4. A Solemn Agreement
Blood oaths have for centuries been a way to make solemn agreements between people.
They usually involve two people cutting themselves on their palms and shaking hands, thereby ‘sharing blood’ to seal an agreement.
A blood oath can further symbolize:
- Attachment – you now have each other’s blood flowing through you.
- Trust – culturally, breaking a blood oath is taboo.
These agreements are evident across cultures throughout history – from Asia to Africa to Europe. One of the oldest known examples of a blood oath is in Hungary in the 800s when chiefs of seven tribes sealed their alliance by drinking each other’s blood.
We often call someone in our family “our blood.” And in fact, this is in many ways scientifically accurate. We share common DNA with our families that means the substance inside of us has shared traits and characteristics.
But it’s mostly used as a symbolic term to explain how family members are ‘cut from the same cloth’ as us: we’re most similar to them.
Often, we will employ terms like blood is thicker than water as a symbolic phrase to highlight that family (our blood) is more important than friends (water).
Blood is also used as a sign of brotherhood. When two people go to war together, we often say they “spilled blood together”.
In fact, there’s a school of thought that the term ‘blood is thicker than water’ stems from the phrase ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb’. In this interpretation, we’re saying that blood oath agreements (blood of the covenant) is more important than brotherhood (water of the womb).
In both of the above examples, blood is symbolic of brotherhood (and, particularly, a brotherhood forged through war).
7. Filth and Uncleanliness
Historically, blood has also been a sign of uncleanliness. This is often related to women’s menstrual blood, which is referred to multiple times in the Old Testament as a woman’s “filth” and “impurity”.
The most common citation from the Old Testament is of course Leviticus 15:19:
“When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.”
More generally, the supposed uncleanliness of blood is linked to the fact that diseases can be spread through blood. During the HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, bleeding in sports was seen as an issue, and games would often be paused immediately if blood were shed.
Similarly, in some situations, specialist Hazardous Materials teams are called into establishments to wash blood from walls and floors in order to make them fit for commercial use due to the potential of the blood to spread disease.
We also often see blood as being something that’s your essence. If there’s something that is so core to your sense of your identity or your beliefs, you could sat that “it’s in my blood”.
For example, you might ask an athlete why they are so good at sports and they might just say: “it’s in my blood.” Here, it means that it’s the way they are and they were born that way.
Here, blood is used as a figurative term that symbolizes something that is deep down who you are and cannot change, just like you can’t change the DNA that pumps through your veins.
Similarly, blood can be a symbol of birthright. You inherit things because of your blood – you were born to rule, and that’s the way it is.
In the times of Kings and Queens, they were often ordained as kings or queens because of their bloodline – they are “pure blood” (descendants of kings and queens) and therefore have the right to rule.
Here, blood symbolizes both essence (“I am, in my essence, a King”) and birthright (“I am a King because of my bloodline”).
10. Pain and Suffering
If you see trails of blood, you can see the signs and leftovers of pain and suffering. This is often something you would see in the wild after an animal was attacked by another animal. The animal who is wounded will limp off, leaving blood-spattered behind them.
These trails of blood are a reminder to us of the pain and suffering people feel.
We could also interpret trails of blood as a sign of the unfairness of the natural order of things: that the weak and vulnerable are injured by the strong and left to suffer and bleed without anyone nearby to distribute justice and fairness.
To detectives, blood symbolizes clues. Finding specks of blood on knives or clothing can provide a clue to who the murderer might be.
When we see blood symbolizing a clue, it will often be a tiny speck. Or, it will be dark red dried blood that is days old. In these situations, the blood is not a sign of gore and carnage, but, simply, a scientific symbol – something that can be analyzed in a lab.
This sort of blood symbolism was effectively employed in the 2010s television series Dexter where the main character was both a murderer and forensic scientist. Dexter would look at blood from an objective and detached scientific perspective: it was clues that he either had to investigate or hide.
12. Sacrifice (Especially in Religion)
In Christianity, it’s believed Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins. His death was what enabled everyday repentant Christians to make it into heaven. Jesus talked of spilling his blood so that humans may have eternal life (Leviticus 17:10):
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls.”
Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea washed the dead body of Jesus and preserved his holy blood, which is now stored and worshiped at the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges (Belgium).
Furthermore, many Christians drink wine that is blessed and believed to be turned into “the blood of Christ”. By drinking his blessed blood, Christians believe themselves to be blessed by god and forgiven of their sins.
In religions more broadly (but including Christianity), blood is often spilled as a sign of sacrifice to a god. Commonly, lambs are killed as sacrificial gifts to the Gods and a sign of love and devotion to a God.
Jews, for example, continue to eat Lamb on Passover in commemoration of the sacrificial lamb killed in the first Passover, as mentioned in the Torah.
Blood Dream Meanings
In Dreams, blood often symbolizes some of the following:
- Trauma – Dreaming of blood may occur after a trauma in which a lot of blood was involved. People who feel traumatized may have nightmares where there is blood and gore. Here, their mind is drifting to thoughts that are just below the surface related to traumas of the past.
- Nearby Pain – Spiritually, you may interpret a dream about trails of blood as a sign that there is pain nearby. While awake you may just sense pain, the dream might manifest as the sight of pain having occurred nearby in the form of blood.
- Wasting or Wasted Life – The flooding of blood out of a person or animal (including yourself) may be a sign of life being wasted. This may be literal (physical dying) or figurative (I’m wasting my time I have on this world).
Blood symbolism is visible in film and literature in the present day. But if we reach into our cultures’ pasts, we can see that it has always been employed as a symbol of life and death. It’s particularly evident in religious texts where blood can be used symbolically to represent anything from sacrifice to guilt.
Some people also seek out the symbolism of blood if they dream about blood. In these circumstances, it may symbolize a range of different subjective things (or nothing at all). Interpreting dream meanings is a difficult and controversial task that requires personal reflection on the circumstance in your life that led up to the dream.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.