Exploring History: The Symbolic Representation of Wine as Blood

By | 18 April 2024

Stuart Walton explores the sanguine significance of red wine.

By Stuart Walton

The color of red wine has suited it since antiquity to be the sustaining metaphor for blood. Not only does its color resemble vital fluid, but the juice itself and its method of extraction, could stand for the life-force of the grapevine. This is an image that occurs in Genesis (49:11), where it is said by Jacob at a family gathering of his male offspring that his son Judah washes his clothes, counter-intuitively enough, in wine, “the blood of grapes.” Vinous blood indeed is the only blood it is permissible to consume in Mosaic law, precisely because it is only metaphorically blood.

And yet its adjacency to the real thing is closer than mere visual homology and the structure of living organisms could suggest. In the song of Moses in the Deuteronomy (32:14), the gastronomic bounty Gods pours forth for his people includes not just sheep’s milk and kidney fat, but “the pure blood of grapes,” which, by a suggestive etymology, recalls its foaming character, perhaps from fermentation. The purity of it indicates not just its excellence, but the ideal state in which it is drunk unmixed, not even with water.

During the Last Supper, Jesus made an announcement to his disciples who were sharing a cup of wine that it symbolizes his forthcoming bloodshed. The medieval imageries extended the eucharistic picture to illustrate the grotesque image of Jesus in the winepress, where his blood is being squeezed out for the redemption of mankind, similar to how juice is extracted from vine fruits to create a revitalizing beverage. The consecration of wine is finally accomplished.

In the realm of humoral medicine, wine was reputed to be extraordinarily beneficial for nourishing blood and providing warmth to cold bodies, which could be understood even by common folk. It shared such similarity with the vitality principle that an overt analogy was drawn between the two by William Harvey, the English physician responsible for the discovery of blood circulation in the 1620s. It was believed that blood loses its essence once it leaves the body, similar to how wine turns dead when it loses its bouquet due to oxidation.

Despite this, drained blood could still retain its vital essence that once animated the body, landing it in a transitionary state. In this state, it was commonly used in agricultural procedures to fertilize vineyards. When spread around the roots of the vines, it ensured the growth of healthy, juice-filled fruits. According to patriarchal mythology, the only unhealthy blood was menstrual blood, hence it was crucial to bar women in their initial menstrual phase from entering the vineyards, as it was thought that even their mere presence could cause the vine plants to shrivel up.

The rich color of wine made it a crucial element in ritual sacrifice and offerings for the departed. From this, it’s understandable why red wine has always been considered superior. It concealed its decay better than white, due to its richer aroma and texture, and its typically dark and thick state made it even more similar to the blood it symbolized. As a result, it’s often used in literature to represent bloodshed, most notably by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), where the spilled blood from guillotines in Revolutionary France is also the brutal sacrament ingested by spectators.

In a collection of essays on the cultural interpretations of blood in European history1, Frances Dolan points out that blood was much more visible in previous times than it is today. Public executions, bloodsports, home slaughtering, and bloodletting all familiarized people with its sight and smell. Today, most of us only encounter it in kitchen accidents, and often look away during medical tests. This sensitivity has returned blood to its metaphorical state.

In Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Wine”, as “blood rises through the shoots”, we revisit the cultural norms of the Book of Genesis. Both authors discreetly avoid mentioning that neither the sap nor the juice of the vine are red. Neruda’s “day-colored” white wine, unlike its colored counterpart’s “purple feet”, has a “topaz blood”, a smart oxymoron to indicate its lack of sanguinity. If red wine stood for blood, what did white wine signify? The most plausible answer is urine, considering it promotes diuresis more intensely. Undoubtedly, there is nothing noble about that.

1 Blood Matters: Studies in European Literature and Thought, 1400-1700, eds. Bonnie Lander Johnson and Eleanor Decamp (Philadelphia PA: 2018), ch. 14.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *