On the surface Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is an extremely violent narrative based on historical events, which aims at dispelling the stereotypes of heroic frontier mythology. Within it, however, we do not find too many traditional elements that normally constitute the mainstream perception of American Wild West history. Nonetheless, if we decide that Blood Meridian is nothing more than a rebellion against historical stereotype, we are bound to miss the layer that underlies and defines its fundamental idea. This layer is represented by McCarthy's consistent references to the mythological, theosophical and Hermetic symbols and archetypes. The mythological narrative in the novel echoes the eschatological battle between the good and evil resulting in the regeneration of the Cosmos. While it is very difficult to trace all the aspects and details of the mythological mystery play that saturate the novel, the hinge of the story is represented by a single character, Judge Holden. Despite the fact that formally the judge is not in charge of Glanton's gang, he sets its goals and directions as well as its ultimate fate. He is a representation of a multifaceted deity that is instrumental in the setting and defining of the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The borderland in the novel, which is effectively the world of death and chaos, has to be cleansed and renewed by destruction in order to be later incorporated into the world of the living, the order and civilization. The mission of the sculphunters is the battle in service of regeneration of the borderland in which they turn out to be confederates and instruments of the deity. Judge Holden's mission is accomplished when the borderland diminishes and the sculphunters, who do not have place in the world of the living, are physically destroyed by that world. Thus, both the world of the dead and Glanton's gang who cleansed it into oblivion, disappear from the physical plane of existence.
McCarthy links the myth that perpetrates the novel as well as its characters with the writings of Jacob Boehme, the sixteenth century German mystic, particularly with his seminal work, The Aurora. The language of the novel reflects that of Boehme's writings, even its subtitle, "The Evening Redness In The West" mirrors the subtitle of The Aurora, "The Morning Rednesse In The Rising Of The Sun" (Boehme, title page). A few words have to be said about Jacob Boehme's theosophy since certain crucial points in it have been used as the frame for the narrative in the Blood Meridian. Boehme's writings were strongly influenced by hermetic and alchemical traditions. One of the fundamental paradoxes of Boehme's views expressed in The Aurora is the combination of life-affirming concept of Creation and its suffusion with the Divine, on one hand, and on the other, of an extremely violent and uncompromising view of Cosmic dualism which results in the battle between the absolute good and absolute evil (Boehme 436). The kingdom of Wrath and the kingdom of Light are almost entirely symmetrical, being mirror images of one another and at a constant battle "where life is generated in the very centre or midst of death, and light in the midst of darkness" (Boehme 195). The fact that the dark and the light sides of the Cosmos are mirror images of each other brings the paradox of difficulty of distinguishing between the activities of good and evil. The profane ethic does not apply to Boehme's scheme – what in human terms seems good may easily be evil and vice versa. The dual nature of the Cosmos and humanity is, according to Boehme, inherent in reality since its creation and continues through its existence until the eschatological end. The fall of Lucifer, who in effect becomes the instrument of Wrath, occupies a very important place in Boehme's theosophy, because the hubris of Lucifer "stirred up therein the sharp birth [Wrath] of God, and opposed the light or bright heart of God" (Boehme 653) making the further creation of the world possible only due to it (Boehme 638-639). We see in the novel how the judge puts it: "War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner"(McCarthy 248). In the light of Boehme's dialectic the sculphunters, as the offspring of evil, are the necessary element in this elimination of dark chaos in the borderland and become, paradoxically, the very force that causes the final collapse of evil and the emergence of light.
One of the problems in establishing any border is that it has to be done first in the minds of those people who live around it. It was not enough for the American and Mexican governments to agree upon the new borders because a number of problems arose concerning the native population. Native people had lived there for centuries and they refused to be driven to the more desolate lands completely unsuitable for life. They were fighting back and terrorizing peaceful citizens on both sides of the border by their extreme cruelty in war: "There were goats and sheep slain in their pens and pigs dead in the mud .hovels where people lay murdered in all attitudes of death in the doorways and the floors, naked and swollen and strange" (58). As a result the borderland became a realm of darkness, a dangerous and chaotic place that was impossible to live in. It is irrelevant whether this area of chaos and death was real or imaginary. It was real in the eyes of the world of the living – the civilized society both on the American and Mexican sides, and required elimination. Glanton's gang is the force that is most suitable for the work of the extermination of the natives and thus cleansing the land for further cultivation. Symbolically the sculphunters do not belong to the world of living as they are mostly criminals and would be imprisoned back in the States. Every one of them has no other life to return to, as the kid tells Toadvine about it: "It aint country you've run out of" (285). They do not have any moral or humanistic restraints whatsoever to stop them from completing the task assigned. John Glanton, who had "long forsworn all weighing of consequence" (243), and Judge Holden pick up their people carefully, making sure that they all are of the same kind.
From the first time that we meet him in the novel, the appearance of Judge Holden strikes us at least as strange. We learn that he "was bald as a stone and he had no trace of beard and he had no brows to his eyes nor lashes to them. He was close on to seven feet in height.His face was serene and strangely childlike. His hands were small" (6), and later we find out that he is exceptionally strong physically. Expriest Tobin explains:
You wouldn't think to look at him that he could outdance the devil himself now would ye? God the man is a dancer. He's the greatest fiddler I ever heard and that's an end on it.... He can cut a trail, shoot a rifle, ride a horse, track a deer. He's been all over the world. Him and the governor they sat up till breakfast and it was Paris this and London that in five languages (123).
Also the judge "can write with both hands at a time" (134), he is knowledgeable in natural sciences and is good at sketching and drawing, too – shortly, he is good at everything. He is better than any human being can possibly be. Let us add to all that the speed of his movements, his eloquence and his philosophy, and the image of Hermes is completed.
Hermes is the god of borders, the patron of travelers and a psychopomp, the guide for the souls of the dead, and he is known also under the names of Mercurius, Odin, Wodan, Thoth and Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes 292). As Odin (or Wodan), he is also "a chthonic demon, patron of warriors and the leader of ‘wild hunt' – spirits of the dead warriors"(Odin 241). We may remember that Hermes is also
the protector of sacrifices; he is also a god of commerce and good luck.. Hermes is also noted for cunning and for fraud, perjury and theft.. While Hermes is regarded as one of the earliest and most primitive gods of the Greeks, . he must be recognized as an archetype devoted to mediating between, and unifying, the opposites. (Hoeller)
Hermes Trismegistus of the Hermetic tradition is usually perceived as a teacher figure, which is consistent with the judge as a character, because throughout the novel Judge Holden uses every opportunity to deliver a lecture – he combines qualities and functions of Hermes the Greek god and Hermes Trismegistus, becoming something else in the novel:
A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origin for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin. (309-310)
For the uncompromising Christian mind Hermes becomes a personification of Satan, since he is a trickster and a liar, and his responsibilities include interactions between the living world and the world of the dead. As the novel unfolds, the image of the judge becomes more sinister and gradually is completely transformed into something dark and macabre. He is the best person to lead the pack of sculphunters in their terrible and bloody mission. The progress of the sculphunters through the lands of Northern Mexico is as horrible as that of the horsemen of the Apocalypse:
Deployed upon that plain they moved in a constant elision, ordained agents of the actual dividing out the world which they encountered and leaving what had been and what would never be alike extinguished on the ground behind them. Spectre horsemen, pale with dust, anonymous in the crenellated heat.. Like beings provoked out of the absolute rock and set nameless and at no remove from their own loomings to wander ravenous and doomed and mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all. (172)
After they complete their contract with the local government, they proceed to shed "blood of the citizenry for whose protection they had contracted" (185) just for the sake of killing, leaving death, destruction and towns completely void of any traces of life behind. The society uses military forces to resolve this problem and sculphunters are compelled to move on to the west along the border. The same story repeats itself in the next province – as soon, as they are done with their main task of cleaning the land from any signs of natives, they are hunted and driven away by the cavalry of General Elias.
All the while during their wanderings in this immense desert they become transformed themselves. Gradually they become even more ghost-like than before, and after they come upon the ogdoad in the desert, the ring of eight severed heads (220), the transformation is complete. What exactly is this transformation? Let us turn to the hermetic tradition, since McCarthy has his novel overloaded with hermetic symbols. We learn from Corpus Hermeticum that
The Hebdomad, seven planetary heavens . constitutes the lower world that imprisons the Gnostic, who wishes to escape to the next highest level, the Ogdoad, which is the eighth level counting up from the earth.. In still another sense, the Ogdoad is the divine realm of Jesus and Sophia (Wisdom).(Copenhaver 119)
The circle of dead heads perversely mirrors the Ogdoad of the hermeticists and symbolizes further sinking of the sculphunters into the dark abyss of evil so now they move into the heart of darkness without return. That very evening when the gang stops for the night and start to undress in the dark shed, "one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire.. and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so" (222). Whether it happens because of the completeness of their immersion into that dark existence, or because of some sort of natural alchemy inherent to the process of establishing the border is hard to say. We see how even animals are afraid of "this luminosity in beings so endarkened" (222) and therefore we assume that the bloody sculphunters entered the realm of pure evil and now are closer than they ever have been to the unity with the kingdom of darkness. We see in the novel that after this point Glanton and his gang become a law in themselves and this results in new atrocities and bloody deeds. One by one, or in groups, they are killed or prosecuted, whether by the Yuma Indians or by authorities, it does not matter. Now that the gang's task is finished, the world of the living has to destroy it in order to continue. Only Judge Holden, the "man who was offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart" (331), stays with us forever and dances his dark heart away. McCarthy, in his exploration of the darkest depths of the human soul, shows us how the infinite descent into the world of darkness transforms the soul and brings forth a state of pure evil.
The choice of Boehme's myth as a prototype for the myth of the novel is not accidental. Boehme's influence on the formation of the collective religious consciousness of North America has been enormous. He influenced and attracted Jonathan Edwards and most of the mystically inclined Fundamentalists who formulated the concept of manifest destiny as well as its corollaries such as "good Indian is a dead Indian" with its absolute dualism based on the conviction of having God on one's side. Therefore, whatever is necessary to do for the advance of the civilization of white people is considered absolutely good and equated with the right side in the eschatological battle. The removal of obstacles becomes just that, even when the obstacles are the lives of other people and the use of professional killers for this work is justified. However, given the mirror-like symmetry between the right and wrong sides, one might ask, as McCarthy does, how does one know which side is right? Apparently, the right side is the one that triumphs at the end and no one is supposed, as the judge tells us, to put one's "own allowances before the judgements of history" (307). Thus the novel itself is a mirror image of Boehme's discourse: it represents the perspective of the other side; hence is mirror image subtitle, in which the West is both the American West and the place of the dead. We may wonder whether the cleansing of the borderland in the novel has not become the mirror image of the initially intended regeneration.
Copenhaver, Brian P. (trans.). Hermetica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Boehme, Jacob. The Aurora. London: Watkins, 1960.
"Hermes." (trans. mine) Encyclopaedia Of World Mythology. Vol. 1. Moscow: Russia's Encyclopaedia, 1994. 292-294.
Hoeller, Stephan A. "On The Trail Of The Winged God. Hermes And Hermeticism Throughout The Ages." The Gnosis Archive. First appeared in Gnosis: A Journal Of Western Inner Traditions, Vol. 40, Summer 1996
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. New York: Vintage International, 1992.
"Odin" (trans. mine). Encyclopaedia Of World Mythology.Vol. 2. Moscow: Russia's Encyclopaedia, 1994. 241.