[Content warning: Blood Meridian-level violence.]
I was recently gifted Shane Schimpf’s A Reader’s Guide To Blood Meridian and I just completed a fresh read of McCarthy’s epic Western with this guide close at hand.
Each time I read Blood Meridian, I seem to notice a new theme or motif. Upon this close read, I was struck by the repeated use of the number eight in the text — and the conspicuous absence of any mention of eight in A Reader’s Guide or any other analysis I am familiar with, so I thought the matter was worth a few notes.
Given the care with which McCarthy constructed the story from historical accounts of the Glanton gang — choosing to adhere to some historical facts and manipulating others to suit his purposes — the repeated use of the number eight in Blood Median seems deliberate and significant.
So, why eight? I’ll offer a few intermingling interpretations.
8 In Blood Meridian
Major Examples In The Text
[Page numbers refer to the Vintage International Edition of Blood Meridian.]
The first “major” example of eight occurs in Chapter V when Sproule and the kid stumble across a tree hung with dead babies in a mountain pass after the destruction of Captain White’s war party at the hands of The Comanches.
“The way narrowed through the rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies. / They stopped side by side reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them had holes punched in their under jaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky.” (57)
This grizzly scene sets the tone for subsequent uses of eight in the novel. Every major appearance of eight implies death.
A very similar description follows in the same chapter, describing a group of delirious Mexican soldiers that save Sproule and the kid’s lives by giving them water.
“The refugees stood by the side of the road. The riders looked burnt and haggard coming up out of the sun and they sat their horses as if they had no weight at all. There were seven, eight of them. They wore broadbrimmed hats and leather vests and they carried escopetas across the pommels of the saddles and as they rode past the leader nodded gravely to them from the captain’s horse and touched his hatbrim and they rode on. (63)
Only a few days prior, these eight horses carried the only mounted survivors of the Commanche attack. Their former riders, including the captain, are now dead, presumably at the hands of these Mexican soldiers, having just escaped death at the hands of the Commanches.
Eight appears again when the Glanton gang rides into Chihuahua:
“There were one hundred and twenty-eight scalps and eight heads and the governor’s lieutenant and his retinue came down into the courtyard to welcome them and admire their work.” (167)
In Chapter XV when the kid rejoins the gang after getting lost on the plain:
“Midmorning of the day following they crossed an alkali pan whereon were convoked an assembly of men’s heads. The company halted and Glanton and the judge rode forward. The heads were eight in number and each wore a hat and they formed a ring all facing outward.” (220)
Eight again, following the ultimate destruction of the Glanton gang in Chapter XIX at the hands of the Yumas.
“The other bodies eight in number were heaped onto the fire where they sizzled and stank and the thick smoke rolled out over the river.” (275)
And finally, years later, after “the kid” has become “the man,” eight comes up in quick succession in conversation with the old buffalo hunter as if to punctuate its use in the book.
“I seen Studebaker wagons with six and eight ox teams headed out for the grounds not haulin a thing but lead…On this ground alone between the Arkansas River and the Concho there was eight million carcasses for that’s how many hides reached the railhead… We ransacked the country. Six weeks. Finally found a herd of eight animals and we killed them and come in. They’re gone. Ever one of them that God ever made is gone as if they’d never been at all.” (317)
- Eight dead innocents.
- Eight dead men’s horses — Captain White and his soldiers.
- Eight war trophies for the Glanton gang.
- Eight heads in the desert — “the ogodad,” as McCarthy puts it.
- Eight bodies from the Glanton gang massacred and burned.
- Eight remaining buffalos of eight million killed on the plain.
These occurrences of eight in the text constitute a tidy arc.
Minor Examples In The Text
- “The mission occupied eight or ten acres of enclosed land, a barren perileu that held a few goats and chickens. In the mud walls of the enclosure were cribs inhabited by families of squatters and a few cookfires smokes thinly in the sun.” (26)
- “He looked down at himself and he looked at the captain again. I was fell upon by robbers, he said… How many were there? / The kid stared at him. / Robbers. How many robbers. / Seven or eight, I reckon. I got busted in the head with a scantlin.” (32)
- “The camp was upriver at the edge of town. A tent patches up from old canvas, a few wickiups made of brush and beyond them a corral in the form of a figure eight likewise made from brush where a few small painted ponies stood sulking in the sun.” (36)
- “The captain carried a pair of dragoon pistols in scabbards that mounted across the pommel of the saddle so that they rode at each knee. These guns were United States issue, Colt’s patent, and he had bought them from a deserter in a Soledad livery stable and paid eighty dollars in gold for them and the scabbards and the mold and flask they came with.” (43)
- “His name was Sproule. / Eight of them had escaped. His horse had carried off seven arrows and it caved under him in the night and the others had gone on, the captain among them.” (56)
- “She was in a meatcamp about eight mile up the river, said Webster. She caint walk.” (97)
- “The entire top of that mountain was covered with Apache indians and there set he. He got up when he seen us and went to the willows and come back with a pair of wallets and in one was about eight pounds of pure crystal saltpetre and in the other about three pounds of fine alder charcoal.” (128)
- “Day found the heathen much advanced upon them. They fought their first stand in the dawn following and they fought them running for eight days and nights on the plain and among the rocks in the mountains and from the walls and azoteas of abandoned hacienda and they lost not a man.” (164)
- “The Apaches, seventy, eighty of them, were just coming past the first of a row of jacales and defiling along the path and into the shade of trees.” (165)
- “A week later they rode out. A week later a company of drovers reported them investing the town of Coyame eight miles to the northeast.” (171)
- “When they’d left the cantina ten minutes later the streets were deserted. They had scalped the entire body of the dead, sliding about the floor that had been packed clay and was now winecolored mud. There were twenty-eight in the Mexicans inside the tavern and eight more in the street including the five the expriest had shot. (180)
- “Within a week of quitting the city there would be a price of eight thousand pesos posted for Glanton’s head.” (185)
- “The column of mules wound down the trail for half a mile or more and as they bunched and halted there were sections of the train visible on the separate switchbacks far below, eight and ten mules, facing now this way, now that, the tails of the animals picked clean as bones by those behind and the mercury with the guttapercha flasks pulsing heavily as if they carried secret beasts…” (194)
- “In eight days they passed no other riders.” (197)
- “Another eight or ten mounted warriors had ridden out from the wall. Their leader was a huge man with a huge head and he was dressed in overalls cut off at the knees…” (229)
- “Three days later an the alcalde and the grocer and the alcalde’s wife were found tied lying in their own excrement in an abandoned hut at the edge of the ocean eight miles south of the settlement.” (271)
- “It is a quarter past eight. We’ll operate at one. Get some rest.” (309)
- “They set in a tree in front of this here place and you can look up and see their bloomers. I’ve counted high as eight in that tree early of an evenin. Set up there like coons and smoke cigarettes and holler down at ye.” (319)
Interpretations of 8 In Blood Meridian
The second epigraph of the book is a quotation from seventh-century gnostic Jacob Boheme’s “Six Theosophic Points,” chapter IX, part 13.
“It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.”
Much has been said about the Gnostic themes in Blood Meridian. Preeminent is Leo Daugherty’s “Gravers False and True: Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy”, but also,
- “Striking the Fire Out of the Rock”: Gnostic Theology in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
- Gnosticism in Blood Meridian
- Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tirade: A Response to Harold Bloom and Leo Daugherty
- And others
(The significance of eight is not mentioned once in any of the Gnostic theories of Blood Meridian I have encountered. With the lengths some of the authors reach to justify their various theories, and the significance of eight in Gnostic theology, the omission of this point seems like a glaring oversight.)
From Schimph’s notes on the epigraphs: “The Gnostics hold that mankind can only achieve salvation by hidden knowledge. This is necessary inasmuch as mankind is trapped in a material world dominated by fate and the cycle of birth and death which prevents him from understanding God completely.”
The philosophy and role of the judge in the story brings to mind the Gnostic version of fate, heimarmene. Heimarmene is called the “dominion of Fate,” and is associated with karmic conditioning implied by one’s birth chart in astrology. Heimarmene implies that freedom of will is a potential that must be activated and used. It also implies the influence of the impure or lower Aeons, and the play of the cosmic or spiritual forces associated with them; hence the dominion of the demiugos and archons, and the darker forces associated with Adamas. In his essay, “Gravers False and True,” Leo Daugherty argues that the judge can be best understood as an Archon — a lord that serves the creator of the material world, much like an angel or demon in Christianity.
In the Chapter XV intro summary, the scene with the eight heads is called “The ogdoad.” The earliest Gnostic systems included a theory of seven heavens and a supercelestial region called the Ogdoad. Gnostic astronomical theories have a concept of seven planetary spheres with an eighth above them, the sphere of the fixed stars. An ogdad also refers to a group eight beings or aeons.
The ancient Egyptians and Pythagoreans also had a concept of an Ogdad, through a Gnostic reference is more likely given the Boheme epigraph and that the subtitle of Blood Meridian echos Boheme’s most famous and lengthily titled work, Aurora. That is, The Day-Spring. Or Dawning of the Day In The Orient or Morning Redness in The Rising of the Sun. That is The Root or Mother of Philosophie, Astrologie, and Theologie from the True Ground. Or A Description of Nature.
There is little doubt McCarthy wove Gnostic themes into the book. To what degree is up for debate but, given the importance of eight in Gnostic theology, the repeated use of eight in Blood Meridian should be highlighted.
There are tarot themes throughout Blood Meridian, most explicitly, the scene with the juggler and his fortune telling.
The kid’s fortune, the Four of Cups, is dealt to him by the juggler and also by the desert enviornment itself when he passes the card in the abandoned town. Black John Jackson is dealt the Fool. Glanton is deal the Chariot before he lets it fly from his hand.
As John Sepich, longtime friend of McCarthy, asserts in “Notes on Blood Meridian“, the Four of Cups may very well be the key — or a key — to understanding the novel.
The interpretation for the card from Arthur Edward Waite’s succinct and respected The Pictorial Key to the Tarot:
Four of Cups – “A young man is seated under a tree and contemplates three cups set on the grass before him; an arm issuing from a cloud offers him another cup. His expression notwithstanding is one of discontent with his environment… Weariness, disgust, aversion, imaginary vexations, as if the wine of this world had caused satiety only; another wine as if a fairy gift is now offered the wasterel, but he sees no consolation therein. This is also a card of blended pleasure.
Such is the nature of tarot, but the eight in each suit is also rich with relevance.
Eight of Cups – A man of dejected aspect is deserting the cups of his felicity, enterprise, undertaking or previous concern… In practice, it is usually found that the card shews the decline of a matter, or that which has been thought to be important is really of slight consequence — either for good or evil.
- The decline of the West.
- Good and evil.
- The judge’s rejection of moral law.
- The meridian of civilization and humanity.
Eight of Swords – A woman bound and hoodwinked, with the swords of the card about her. Yet it is rather a card of temporary durance than of irretrievable bondage… Bad news, violent chagrin, crisis censure, power in trammels, conflict, calumny, also sickness.
- Calamity on the scalp range.
- The judge’s assertion of man’s agency in the world.
Eight of Pentacles – An artist in stone at his work, which he exhibits in the form of trophies… Work, employment, commission, craftsmanship, skill and craft in business, perhaps in the preparatory stage. It may also signify the sense of the ingenious mind turned to cunning an intrigue.
- The false moneyer.
- Scalp trophies.
- Craft in war.
- The talents of the the judge.
- The scientific mind.
Eight of Wands – The card represents motion through the immovable — a flight of wands through an open country; but they draw to the term of their course. That which they signify is at hand; it may even be on the threshold… Activity in undertakings, the path of such activity, swiftness, as that of an express messenger; great haste; great hope, speed towards an end that promises great felicity; generally that which is on the move; also the arrows of love.
- The arrows of war.
- The threshold and meridian of civilization.
- The war party on the move.
8 In the Bible
I will not draw conclusions where evidence is in deficency. However, since Blood Meridian has no shortage of biblical allusions, use of number eight in the Bible is worth mentioning — especially its lack of use.
Here at the most notable (and scant) uses of eight in the Bible:
- Hebrew boys are circumcised eight days after they are born. (Gn. 17:12; Phil. 3:5)
- Thomas puts his hands in the wounds of Christ on the eighth day. (John 20:24)
- 8 people were saved in the ark of Noah. (1 Pet. 3:20)
- In Ezekiel’s vision of the new Temple the priests make their offering on the 8th day (43:27).
- Jesus showed himself alive eight times after his resurrection from the dead.
7 or 8
In Blood Meridian, there are several examples of what appears to be seven turning out to be eight (32, 57, 63, 165).
In many traditions, seven symbolizes perfection. Eight, on the other hand, is symbolic of an entity that is one step above the natural order, higher than nature and its limitations.
The number seven is used so extensively in the Bible that McCarthy may have made a point to avoid it. The number seven is an especially prominent feature of Revelation — a book ripe for connection to Blood Meridian if had McCarthy wished.
In Revelation, there are seven of just about everything:
- seven churches (1:4, 11, 20)
- seven Spirits (1:4, 3:1, 4:5, 5:6)
- seven golden lampstands (1:12-13, 20, 2:1)
- seven stars (1:16, 20, 2:1, 3:1)
- seven lamps (4:5)
- seven seals (5:1, 5:5)
- seven horns (5:6)
- seven eyes (5:6)
- seven angels (8:2, 6)
- seven trumpets (8:2, 6)
- seven thunders (10:3, 4)
- seven thousand (11:13)
- seven heads (12:3, 13:1, 17:3, 7, 9)
- seven crowns (12:3)
- seven angels (15:1, 6-8, 16:1, 17:1, 21:9)
- seven plagues (15:1, 6, 8, 21:9)
- seven bowls (15:7, 17:1, 21:9)
- seven mountains (17:9)
- seven kings (17:10-11)
The conspicuous use of eight is perhaps an intentional avoidance of more traditionally meaning-laden numbers, especially seven, as if to say, ‘I’m talking about something other than the Bible here.’
The sideways eight glyph, the lemniscate, is the symbol for infinity. To McCarthy, a meridian signals an ongoing birth-death cycle.
At the end of the chapter containing the massacre of Glanton and his gang, a few paragraphs after the mention of the eight bodies being thrown in the fire, the Yuca are sitting around “… and they watched like the prefiguration of their own ends the carbonized skulls of the enemies incandescence before them bright as blood among the coals.” (276) Their fate is clear.
McCarthy uses “meridian” several times to refer to a ceaseless beginning and end charted in the heavens.
“The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.” (146)
Notably, the lemniscate also appears on several cards of the Rider–Waite tarot deck — The Magician, Strength, The World, and The Two of Pentacles (The Juggler).
In addition to the general concept of infinity, in astrology and astronomy, an analemma is a diagram showing the variation of the position of the sun in the sky over the course of a year, as viewed at a fixed time of day and from a fixed location on the Earth. The diagram has the form of a slender figure eight, and can often be found on globes of the Earth.
Throughout the book, McCarthy mentions specific constellations such as Cassiopeia, The Pleiades, Orion, The Big Dipper, The Great Bear, Sirius, The Polestar and others, and also takes care to describe the stars over a dozen times in the novel.
Writ in the sky, eight symbolizes a path unchanging and prefigured.
Of course, none of these interpretations are wholly “correct” because there is no wholly correct interpretation to be had. These allusions meld together to make up what is an interesting and underrecognized motif in Blood Meridian with no objective answer.
For all his care in arrangement, I am certain McCarthy would not encourage dissection his book, least of all in numbers. So, for now, I’ll leave these notes as they are, without claim to McCarthy’s original intention, if any, and leave it to others to ferret out additional meaning to the use of eight and other numbers which I have missed.
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