Properties of Blood I.10: The Demands of Blood, Part C

Blood Guilt and Revenge

Those who commit serious crimes must pay correspondingly serious penalties, and the most serious crimes involve homicide within a community of law and custom.  To kill an enemy invader or an assailant is justifiable, though the killing may entail some disabilities or inconveniences to the killer.  To kill a member of the community by accident or negligence is a more serious matter, and societies that privilege facts above motive or explanation may impose serious penalties.  Ancient men, so far from listening to pleas made on the basis of childhood deprivation, were concerned first and foremost with the facts.

Those who commit serious crimes must pay correspondingly serious penalties, and the most serious crimes involve homicide within a community of law and custom.  To kill an enemy invader or an assailant is justifiable, though the killing may entail some disabilities or inconveniences to the killer.  To kill a member of the community by accident or negligence is a more serious matter, and societies that privilege facts above explanations may impose serious penalties.  Ancient men, so far from listening to pleas made on the basis of childhood deprivation, were concerned first and foremost with the facts.  The simple, “nothing but the facts” view of homicide is summed up neatly by the Furies in Aeschylus Eumenides.  When Orestes admits he killed his mother, these revenge-fiends use a wrestling metaphor and say, the first—and clearly the most important—of three falls is theirs.  The second issue, so far as they are concerned is the manner of the killing, and the third concerns the instigator.  They are prepared to quibble about two and three, but it is the mere fact of homicide that is paramount with them.

Germanic legal codes provided compensation for a wide variety of injuries to a man's person or his honor, but the most natural motive for a revenge-killing is the murder (or even accidental killing) of a close relative, and the institution of blood revenge has been studied not only among European, such as the Germanic Anglo-Saxons, Goths, and Icelanders, the Celtic Irish, and Slavic Montenegrins, but also among Arabs, Africans, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and it is not unknown in 20th century Texas and West Virginia, in the form of the feud.

Blood-revenge is deeply rooted in the very concept of the family, both as a natural and a social institution.  Relationship by common descent is biological, and the same calculus of interest that encourages me to take risks and even sacrifice myself for three of my children (on the grounds that they represent 150% of my genetic stock) also dictates that I shall feel the loss of a family member in proportion to the closeness of our relationship.  Human life, however, cannot be reduced to moral algebra.  Some family relationships are more purely social.  Husbands and wives do not, ordinarily, claim kinship on the grounds of common descent, and there are societies in which a woman's father and brothers are more responsible for her than her husband is.  On the other hand, marriage is a powerful tool for forging bonds, and the Christian doctrine of man and wife as one flesh reveals how easy it is to convert a social bond into a metaphorical tie of blood.  (The same process is at work in adoption.) In a patriarchal society even a daughter-in-law could say, "Your people will be my people and your God my God."

But if the legal ties of marriage can be transmuted into blood ties, those blood ties themselves are subject to social reinterpretation.  Simply because I am my father's son, I am not automatically his next-of-kin, particularly in a society in which descent and inheritance are traced through the female line.  As we saw earlier, a rough and ready means of calculating the obligations of family members to each other is the principle of inheritance.  To the extent I am or might be an heir, to that extent am I connected to a relative.

If the possibility of inheritance defines the credit side of the family ledger, then liability to collective responsibility—including the vendetta—represents the debit side.  Once blood is shed, the ensuing crisis can be resolved a number of ways.  The simplest procedure would be for a close relative to slay the killer.  This seems to be the initial assumption in the Pentateuch.  In a case of willful murder, the family's "avenger of blood" is obliged to put him to death.  The original and fundamental concept is of blood-pollution:

Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. [Num 35:33]

Originally the question of intent would not be material, but eventually cities of refuge were established, and if the killer could make it to one of them, the matter could be adjudicated.  If he were found guilty of murder or even manslaughter, he would still be put to death, and even if it were a case of accidental homicide, the avenger could still slay him outside the city of refuge. [Num 35.6-33]

The shedding of a man's blood pollutes both the killer and the community that shelters him.  For pre-modern peoples, the stain is not theoretical or even metaphorical; it is perceived as real and corrosive, requiring expiation.  The Greeks called this agos, "a peculiar, almost physically experienced pollution," which compels the community to drive out the killer, who must go abroad to find a protector to arrange the blood-ritual of purification.  Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, avenged his father's murder by killing his own mother and her lover.  As the legend developed, Orestes is reported traveling throughout the Greek world in search of purification.

Aeschylus' version of the story, his dramatic trilogy the Oresteia, is one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the ancient world.  In it Aeschylus graphically portrays the psychic burden of pollution.  The Trojan prophetess Cassandra, on entering the palace of Agamemnon with the victorious king, not only foretells her own and Agamemnon's murder, but she also perceives the cause: the children of Thyestes whom Agamemnon's father had killed and fed to his brother, the children's father: "Do you see them—the children sitting yonder, besieging the house, like shapes in dreams?"  Cassandra also sees the Erinyes—the revenge-fiends that are born from the blood of murder victims: "This palace here is haunted by a chorus...drunk with human blood...a rout of revelers still outstay their welcome...the furies of slain kinsmen" [Ag 1186-90]

Cassandra has the gift of second sight, but the ordinary people of the palace also feel the burden.  Even before Cassandra has said a word, the chorus give vent to their fears: "Why does this manifestation hover around me, obsessing my heart as it watches for omens?  And a chant unbidden, unhired, sounds in my ears a prophetic refrain of "Woe.  Sing woe." [975-80]  The reason is not far to seek: "But dark blood that has fallen to the ground, fallen from in front of a man that is slain, tell me who there is that knows a chant or charm to recall it?"[119-21]

It is not only the Greeks who felt a stain as a wound.  In the Montenegrin understanding of krvna osveta or blood revenge, the relative of a slain man felt the eye of the community upon him, expecting him to do the right thing, and the sense of the community becomes the voice of conscience.  According to a not entirely sympathetic non-Montenegrin Serb,

Osveta is something born into a man.  It has to do with wounds to the soul and the heart.  A Montenegrin says that he would rather die than live his life shamefully...When he seeks vengeance, the osvetnik he will kill him....he cannot work, nor sleep in peace, until he has fulfilled his evil and blood mission....When a Montenegrin takes vengeance, then he is happy; then it seems to him that he has been born again...."

The moral burden of revenge does not derive from an abstract code of justice but from the reality of kinship, and despite the apparent bloody-mindedness of the revenge-seeker, the underlying motives have more to do with a man's intimate sense of belong to his family or clan than with hatred of the killer.   Even in the 16th century, the Scottish clansman's loyalty was to his people rather than to someone so distant as a king, much less to something so impersonal as the state.  In 1575 Sorley Boy McDonnell watched as Elizabeth's commander, the Earl of Essex, slaughtered the McDonnell women and children who had been left on Rathlin Island.  Writing to his bloody mistress, Essex gloated: "Sorley ...was likely to run mad for sorrow, tearing and tormenting himself...and saying that he then lost all he ever had.”

Most discussions of blood revenge concern tribal peoples—Highland Scots and heroic Germans--but Fifth Century Athens, usually regarded as the prototype for Western civilization, took seriously the demands of blood, and so did a much later another creative city-state:  Medieval and Renaissance Florence.  In Florence, where questions of kin responsibility are complicated both by the recognition given to agnate relatives (that is, in-laws) and by the rising importance of defensive associations of kinfolks.  Nonetheless, the pattern seems familiar:  "Justice by and large remained in the hands of the offended party or victim and his family."  Different formulae were used to determine kinship for different purposes, and one could petition for something like divorce from the kindred, once the ties became stretched too thin or the obligation too burdensome.  The communal government, which took pains to increase the burdens of collective responsibility as part of a campaign to reduce the significance of the turbulent nobility, also drew up rules limiting the right of revenge.  Similar rules stipulated inheritance patterns and the degree of responsibility a man had for the crimes of his relatives.

Medieval and Renaissance Florence was a violent place.  There was violence between rich and poor, between nobles and merchants, and between Guelphs who nominally supported the secular authority of the Church and Ghibellines who nominally supported the rights of the empire.  But underlying many of these broader political and economic struggles were deadly personal conflicts carried out according to the laws of Vendetta.  Vendettas were a kind of  private war within social class played according to rules, without intervention of legal authorities.

The vendetta was so well engrained in the Tuscan mind that Dante uses the word to mean simply justice, but blood-revenge did not wither away in the high Renaissance.  Naturally, Florentine regimes took steps to curb the violence by imposing rules: Magnates (families defined as rich and powerful) were eventually forbidden to take vengeance, but commoners could, though it was not licit to kill a man who insulted or hit you without causing permanent injury.  Eventually, with the growth of its power, the Florentine state attempted to exercise a monopoly on vengeance, but no one who has read the memoirs of the Florentine goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini (d. 1571), will imagine that it was safe to insult a man in Florence.

Of all the struggles that had undermined decency and civility in Florence, none was so ruinous as the conflict between Guelphs and Ghibellines, the supporters (at least in principle) respectively of the Papacy and the Empire.  Dante tells at length the story of how the two sides broke out into open war after the murder of Buondelmonte Buondelmonti in 1216.

Buondelmonte was a Guelf nobleman engaged to a daughter of the Ghibelline Amidei family. One day Buondelmonte was stopped by a lady of the wealthy and powerful Guelf clan (the Donati), who told him she should congratulate him on his forthcoming marriage, did she not know that she had a more beautiful and richer daughter.  She took him into her house, uncovered her daughter’s face.  Seeing the young man was smitten, the Donati woman said, what a shame it was for a Guelf to marry into the enemy faction, when all this could be his.

Being a faithless idiot, Buondelmonte broke his engagement—a more serious matter then than a divorce would be today.  The Amidei men met to consider the problem, and though some counseled prudence, one decided the matter by quoting the proverb, “what is done cannot be undone.”  Acting on the proverb, they  waylaid the young man on the way to the wedding and killed him.  In the aftermath, all the noble families of Florence took sides, and the Guelf/Ghibelline feud became a pure vendetta between feuding families.  It was also a battle ground between the outside forces of the Empire and the Papacy and its allies.

One can, of course, choose to regard Florence in the time of Dante as a barbaric age, but in making this judgment we are compelled to answer the question: Compared to what? If our only standard is our own time, then we are not only ethnocentric but egocentric, incapable of recognizing any virtues but those we claim for ourselves.    If it is natural to see human relations through the lens of blood and kin, and if creative societies that have contributed to our own civilization—Athenians and Florentines—have refused to repudiate the demands of blood but incorporated them into the fabric of the commonwealth, as the Athenians welcomed the Furies as resident aliens, then we should not be too quick to consign inherited blood-guilt and collective responsibility to textbooks of social anthropology.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina