Fields of Poetry

I don't know how to love him
What to do, how to move him
I've been changed. Yes, really changed
In these past few days when I've seen myself
I seem like someone else . . .

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Origin of the Proverb, "Blood is thicker than Water"

"Blood is thicker than water" is a common proverb shared and spread amongst families all across the globe. Although I was taught it conveys the importance of family over friends, there was a loose screw that refused to fit the meaning together with those words. Parents would tell you that "blood" is a metaphor for family while "water" is the metaphor for friends. However, such explanation didn't make sense to me because I have never heard of 'friends' being personified by water.

Another thing that disturbed me is the idea of giving importance to the family no matter how dysfunctional or detrimental it could become to one's mental state. Why would you sacrifice your own happiness to help a member who consistently suffers from dependent personality disorder, is alcoholic or even a drug addict? I cannot accept this thinking. I set out to search for the origin of the the proverb and discovered that people has been using the proverb wrong.

Years of peace have changed the meaning of this proverb turning it from a politically related dictum into a family phrase. Yes! In the past, "Blood is thicker than water" was a wisdom amongst soldiers, generals and leaders and it had a complete opposite meaning from today's interpretation. For people during the warring eras it simply meant something like, " My allegiance to the confederate is more important than my family."

Way back before the time of Jesus Christ, leaders of nations would swear allegiance in a ritual called the blood pact or the covenant:

 . . . suppose two nations desired to enter into covenant. Each nation would select a representative, and the representatives would meet; weapons would be exchanged, i.e., the strengths of each nation would be swapped. Cloaks would be exchanged; for the cloak was the 'selfhood' of each man and thus each nation. Then, covenant sacrifices were brought, two bulls. The bulls would be split down the middle, and between the halves would be a pool of blood. Then the representatives would walk through the blood and around the drawn carcasses in a figure eight (this is the provenance of the symbol for infinity). And they would finish their promenade standing in the blood, facing each other. And the statement being made was this "this covenant is to life, and if it is broken, I will die even as this animal has died. Unto death I make my vow." (Radic)

Other representatives of nations would even end the ritual by cutting the center of their palm and mixing their blood together in a handshake, signifying that the covenant cannot be unbound unless by death. One of the early record of this type of covenant in the Philippines was in 1565 between Miguel Lopez de Legazpi of Spain and Rajah Sikatuna of Bohol, which was a little after the Battle of Mactan (I have actually visited the site of the Blood Pact twice!).

The covenant was a quintessential part of an alliance between nations what with matter of life and death being involved. Men of ancient past have done this for quite some time as history has shown and it's not just something that comes out of a Bible. Perhaps we should give the Bible the benefit of the doubt and reconsider it as a reliable source rather than invalidating its foundations in its entirety.  But I digress.

So, for the leaders of the past, the "blood" in the phrase in discussion is the covenant. As for the water it simply symbolizes the amniotic fluid in the womb, shared by siblings or family (which makes a lot more sense than saying that it symbolizes your friends) as pointed out by a Congregational Leader, Richard R. Pustelniak in his article, "How Shall I Know?" :

This phrase has completely lost its original, covenant-related, meaning. Today, it is interpreted as meaning that blood-related family members are to be considered as more important than anyone else. However, the original meaning is, "The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb," (2 Terms)

I am very much relieved having discovered the phrase's original meaning for I thought the world has gone mad. It is a lot easier for me to accept the primordial instead of the former. If you think about it, breaking a covenant is a lot riskier than helping your family because you not only lose your reputation, status and prestige as a leader or a representative but you also lose your own life. I totally buy this.

 Pustelniak, Richard R. "How Shall I know? The Blood Covenant" Beit Avanim Chaiot, Inc., a Messianic Jewish Congregation.
Oct 1. 1994 Mon. Jan 21. 2013

Radic, Randall E Dr. "The Covenants." Grace Notes.
n.d. Mon. Jan 21. 2013.


  1. AMAZING thank you for this post! my brother is Always saying this whenever we argue because we don't get along at all ( we are 100% opposite and now he is moving into the apartment above mine and wants to hang out. i said no and he quoted that )

    I too always felt like it was more manipulative then helpful so thank you very much for sharing!

  2. Sorry, but "blood is thicker than water" did not originally mean "the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb." This is an urban legend that sprouted out of a sermon that interpreted the quote this way. The oldest known version of the saying is in German: "Blut ist dicker als Wasser." This translates to "kin-blood is not spoilt by water." Seen in context, it is clear that the commonly known meaning is the one originally intended: family comes before friends. Whether or not this is true is another question, but it is clear what the phrase means.