Blood libel has been in the news lately because of its unfortunate use by Sarah Palin, apostle to the Mama Grizzlies. The unexpected benefit from this has been an outburst of history in news outlets that don’t normally contemplate the existence of anything more ancient than Lady Gaga’s meat dress. One really interesting story was this one at Salon.com. My only complaint about it, and others, is that it doesn’t go far back enough. The blood libel predates the Middle Ages–predates Christianity, in fact.
The earliest example of the blood libel that I know of (and I’m not saying it’s the first instance) is in a lost work by an ancient anti-Semite named Apion. We know about it because one of the most interesting unreliable narrators in the Roman world, Flavius Josephus, wrote a response to Apion’s screed, which does survive. (The interested can find it on Google books in translation, or in the original Greek, with some of the gaps filled in with Latin.)
In Apion’s version, quoted and summarized by Josephus (Against Apion 2.8; still shorter version in the Wikipedia article here), Antiochus IV, the Seleucid King of Syria, made a weird discovery while he was sacking Jerusalem. In the Temple at Jerusalem, there was a Greek man imprisoned in a room with a bunch of food. He claimed he’d been kidnapped by Jews and was being fattened as a sacrificial animal. He was slated to be killed at a ritual in which Jews would eat his innards and swear perpetual enmity with the Greeks. Ostensibly this was an annual tradition–sort of like the American habit of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, only less violent.
Josephus pours justified scorn on Apion’s stupid slander. Unfortunately his best evidence is an appeal to the architecture of the Temple itself, which had recently been destroyed by Josephus’ close personal friend, the Emperor Titus. But the libel was already an old story when Apion wrote it up in the 1st century AD–Josephus (or his Latin translator) calls it a fabulam which seems to imply a tale which had become traditional. The story looks like an attempt to justify (after the fact) Antiochus’ rampage in Judea, which happened in the 160s BC–almost two centuries before Apion wrote.
But the blood libel wasn’t only levelled against Jews. Any group which was unpopular and secretive could get smeared with rhetorical blood in the Roman world. In 63 BC, a politician named Catiline, having failed to get himself elected, decided to star in his own reality show overthrow the Roman government by force. He wasn’t the first to try, and if he’d succeeded he wouldn’t have been the first to succeed. (I think my memory lifted this from Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, but that makes it an especially apt line for stealing: Roman history IN SPA-A-A-CE, right?) But Catiline’s conspiracy failed, in part because the guy who did win the election was shrewder and less scrupulous than he was. When the history of the episode was written up, the story was already spreading that the conspirators, in one of their secret meetings, had committed a murder and drunk the blood of the victim to seal their oath. But this was perceived as slander even by people who weren’t too crazy about Catiline. (See Sallust, Bellum Catilinae/a.k.a. “Conspiracy of Catiline”, ch. 22.)
Ironically, given later history, early Christians themselves were often tagged with the blood libel. Tertullian spends some time arguing against that and other slander in his Apology (here in translation, and here in the original Latin; the specific passages are in chapter 7.1 and following, if you don’t want to read the whole thing).
Actually, I lied above when I said I had no quibble with the recent articles on blood libel except that they don’t go back far enough. I have one other complaint: they mostly say the blood libel was based on ignorance, and that’s not strictly true. Ignorance enables the blood libel, but malice motivates it, and promotes ignorance in order to enable it. As Tertullian says, Malunt nescire, quia iam oderunt: “They prefer not to know, because they already hate.” It’s this feature that makes blood libel the paradigmatic political slander of our angry Know-Nothing time.
Everyone knows that. Except baby-eating Communo-Fascist death-panellists.