Aphorisms Unplugged: Blood is Thicker Than Water

This Book is Banned Blood is Thicker than Water aphorism 2

This Book is Banned-Scarlet Sometimes that well-worn adage doesn’t really mean what our literal-minded, text-focused, Google-driven world thinks it means. One reason this happens is that, quite simply, language evolves.

To further complicate matters, as with books, all too often the context of these popular wisdoms has been forgotten. Though these aphorisms may still contain some good advice, their original message is typically richer and more profound than our contemporary interpretation.

This Book is Banned proffers a few proverbs, sayings, and other pearls of wisdom that have been unplugged,” as it were. We’ve rebooted, gone back-to-basics, and re-discovered their intended message.

Blood is thicker than water.

Your mom might have used this saying to explain why you have to take your little brother when you go to the movies with your buddies. You know, family relationships are more important than your friends. Well, you can tell your mom that the original meaning, which dates back about 3000 years, is exactly the opposite. On second thought, it might be a good idea to keep that information to yourself, at least until you’re grown.

These days we tend to interpret “blood” to mean bloodline, but that hasn’t always been the case. The full version of this wisdom is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”[1] This understanding is frequently applied to the bond formed by soldiers who have fought on the battlefield together being stronger than a relationship you may have with someone simply because you’re siblings.[2]

But it also has to do with ancient blood rites found in every quarter of the globe. Some of these rituals, such as circumcision in the Abrahamic tradition, form a covenant with God. Others, like the clasping of lacerated hands as seen in Norseland sagas, form a “covenant of blood-friendship,” a relationship considered to be the most enduring and sacred of compacts.[3] The Araucanian people of South America are among a number of cultures that used animal sacrifice to enter into “blood-friendship.”[4]

Whatever part of the world we’re talking about, those in a covenant of blood-friendship were expected to not only give up their own lives for each other, they were also supposed to relinquish any other life they hold dear.  So yeah, the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb, in a serious sort of way. And there’s a whole lot more at stake than just having to take your little brother to the movies.

[1] Halliwell, Nikki. Etymology Series: Part One-History of Proverbs.
[2] Jack, Shaggy Dogs and Black Sheep. (New York: Penguin, 2005), 95.
[3] Trumbull, H. C. The Blood Covenant. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885), 5, 42.
[4] Trumbull The Blood Covenant, 334; Smith, Edmond Reul. The Araucanians or notes of a tour among the Indian tribes of Southern Chili. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1855), 261-2.

Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


Check out more unplugged proverbs, sayings, and other pearls of wisdom here.

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