Blood Meridian

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Religion and Ritual Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Warfare and Domination Theme Icon
Witness and Mercy Theme Icon
Fate Theme Icon
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon
Racism and Partisanship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Blood Meridian, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion and Ritual Theme Icon

In the world of Blood Meridian, Christianity is decaying. Early on the kid sleeps in an abandoned church littered with feces and shot up by American soldiers, and the gang encounters many such ruins on their travels, including a church in which the kid and Sproule discover forty human corpses, slain and scalped by the Apaches. Traditional Christian doctrine is also in tatters in the novel, and the idea of a benevolent God would certainly be hard-pressed to account for the hellish world the novel depicts. A hermit tells the kid that the devil was at God’s elbow when He made man. A dying squatter sings hymns and curses God alternately.

It is in such a spiritual climate that the Judge’s religion of “War is God” thrives. At the beginning of the novel, the Judge enters a tent where the Reverend Green is holding a Christian revival, and by slandering the Reverend he quickly converts religious experience into a shootout. Indeed, the Judge himself acknowledges that there are “strange affinities” between priests and warriors, exemplified in the novel by the connection between religious and military rituals, especially sacrifice. Throughout the novel, an ironic comparison is implied between the rebirth of a soul into God through baptism with the rebirth of a warrior through the shedding of blood. Moreover, the Judge explicitly characterizes warfare as a ritual, a deadly dance of fate and wills—one that in the world of Blood Meridian has come to supplant the rituals of Christian worship.

While the Judge’s god is one of wrath, though, there are also flickers in the novel of more moral centers of worship. For example, when the Judge gives his sermon on war, one of the scalp hunters listening insists that might does not make right. The kid faintly but uniquely adheres to this code by refusing once in a while to brutalize his fellow travelers. A woman named Sarah Borginnis justly shames Cloyce Bell for keeping his imbecilic brother in a filthy cage, and she and the other women in her company deliver the idiot from his bondage, take him to the Colorado River while singing Christian hymns, bathe him, and in a small way restore his humanity. This is perhaps the gentlest act that McCarthy reveals to us, but it would seem that, even if the majority of the characters in the novel act more like the Judge than Sarah, the characters at least in theory recognize that love and mercy are more solid foundations for ceremony and right worship than hatred and violence.

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Religion and Ritual ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Religion and Ritual appears in each chapter of Blood Meridian. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Religion and Ritual Quotes in Blood Meridian

Below you will find the important quotes in Blood Meridian related to the theme of Religion and Ritual.
Chapter 3 Quotes

There is no government in Mexico. Hell, there’s no God in Mexico. Never will be. We are dealing with a people manifestly incapable of governing themselves. And do you know what happens with people who cannot govern themselves? That’s right. Others come in to govern for them.

Related Characters: Captain White (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

After getting into a vicious bar-fight in Bexar, the Kid is recruited into Captain White's army. In conversation with the Kid, Captain White announces that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), was a betrayal of Americans who fought in that war. He believes that it would have been better had the United States simply conquered Mexico and absorbed it into U.S. rule, because, he says, the people of Mexico are lawless, godless, and barbaric. His plan is to take his own army into Mexico, without authorization from the American government, and to finish what the Mexican-American War started.

The Captain's justifications for conquering Mexico are both racist and merely a pretense: it would seem that he is ultimately less interested in "governing" Mexico than in plundering the country. Moreover, the rest of the novel challenges Captain White's view of Mexico. The leaders of Mexico whom we meet, like Governor Trias of Chihuahua, are very cultured and sophisticated, and the citizens of Mexico are relatively peaceful. Far more barbaric than Trias is Captain White himself, or the anarchic gang of scalp-hunters led by Glanton. However, perhaps the most cultured, sophisticated character in the novel, Judge Holden, is also the cruelest and most bloodthirsty. He introduces a God into Mexico – but it is the god of war.


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The wrath of God lies sleeping. It was hid a million years before men were and only men have power to wake it. Hell aint half full. Hear me. Ye carry war of a madman’s making onto a foreign land. Ye’ll wake more than the dogs.

Related Characters: The Mennonite (speaker), Captain White
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

After being contracted into Captain White's army, the Kid celebrates by going into Bexar to drink with some of his comrades-in-arms. There, they meet a Mennonite – a Christian sect of strong moral and religious beliefs and a refusal to engage with modern culture. The Mennonite is one of several prophets in the novel who foretells death and destruction. 

Specifically, the Mennonite gives an account of God's Creation of the universe which holds that God created not just with love but also wrath, and that the wrath of God has been merely sleeping, to be awoken by the evil acts of human beings themselves. This account is an allusion to Herman Melville's Moby Dick, where the narrator thinks, "Though in many of its aspects the visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright." In other words, Love and Wrath are not distinct, but bound to one another. We will see just how frightful our universe is if we persist in our evil ways, the Mennonite implies.

One of the ironies underlying this passage is that Captain White claims to be bringing God and good government into Mexico by making war there. He, like many Americans of his time, are intoxicated with a myth of progress, the idea that human beings can master nature and spread civilization and perfect themselves. The Mennonite sees, however, that unchecked, ruthless progress, far from bringing paradise to earth, will bring a hell instead. 

Of course, no one heeds the Mennonite's words.

Chapter 7 Quotes

In this company there rode two men named Jackson, one black, one white, both forenamed John. Bad blood lay between them and as they rode up under the barren mountains the white man would fall back alongside the other and take his shadow for the shade that was in it and whisper to him. The black would check or start his horse to shake him off. As if the white man were in violation of his person, had stumbled onto some ritual dormant in his dark blood or his dark soul whereby the shape he stood the sun from on that rocky ground bore something of the man himself and in so doing lay imperiled.

Related Characters: The John Jacksons
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Glanton gang proceeds out of Chihuahua City on its first scalp-hunting expedition, the narrator introduces us to the two John Jacksons. There is animosity between the Jacksons, which is ironic: but for the fact that one is black and the other white, the two men are virtually indistinguishable from one another. 

Here the white Jackson is bothering the black by riding beside him in his shadow and whispering to him. He is presumably motivated by racial prejudice, but also, perhaps, by a more complicated feeling. In some ways, the two Jackson's are one another's shadows and doubles – figuratively speaking, they are the same man. The white Jackson, then, is forced to confront the fact, in confronting his black double, that the social privileges he enjoys as a white man have nothing to do with him as an individual, that these privileges are fragile figments of culture and nothing more. The black Jackson is forced to confront the fact, in confronting his white double, that society's racism is an absurdity, but one firmly upheld nonetheless, as though it were a fact of the world.

The narrator speculates that the black Jackson shakes off the white to protect his own shadow, as though the shadow were part of the man who cast it and endangered by the white Jackson riding on it. In one sense, the shadow here represents the authentic part of oneself, which exists outside of social categories like race or class. In driving off the white, the black Jackson is metaphorically protecting the inmost part of himself.

Chapter 8 Quotes

The nearest man to him [the white Jackson] was Tobin and when the black stepped out of the darkness bearing the bowieknife in both hands like some instrument of ceremony Tobin started to rise. The white man looked up drunkenly and the black stepped forward and with a single stroke swapt off his head.

Related Characters: The John Jacksons , Ben Tobin
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

One night at camp, the gang sets up two campfires, one around which the whites sit, and one around which all the other men sit. When the black Jackson attempts to sit with the whites, the white Jackson drives him off, going so far as to draw and cock his pistol. The black Jackson avenges himself by cutting, or "swapping," off the white Jackson's head.

Later in the novel, the Judge will announce that war is god. This seems to be the case for the gang members in general and for the black Jackson in particular who, after all, handles his knife "like some instrument of ceremony." Now it is one of the effects of a ceremony, often performed in worship of a god, to bring people together and solidify their group identity. Black Jackson's killing of the white seems to do just that. The other white gang members do not rise to avenge the white Jackson but accept his death without so much as a word. That is because they are men of war first, and members of racial categories second. War and violence really do make these men closer, then, but only by pitting them against the whole world.

Significantly, Tobin rises here just as the black Jackson offers a sacrifice to the god of war, so to speak. Tobin was once a novitiate to a religious order, and he alone questions, however faintly, the Judge's religion of total war.

Chapter 10 Quotes

For let it go how it will, he said, God speaks in the least of creatures.

Related Characters: Ben Tobin (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

One night, while sitting around a campfire, Tobin and the Kid discuss in hushed tones the Judge. Tobin, one of the only gang members with a shred of humanity intact, acknowledges that the Judge is profoundly gifted and immensely learned. This leads him to speculate that God doesn't much care about learnedness – if He cared about it, Tobin implies, He wouldn't have given it to such a devil-man as the Judge.

Instead, Tobin believes that God doesn't speak to the great like the Judge, but rather to the silent, the meek, "the least of creatures." This is in keeping with the Christian value of humility that Tobin would have been familiar with as a novitiate to a religious order; for it was Jesus Christ himself who said that the meek "shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5). Contrast this belief with the hermit's, who says that there's "meanness in the least of creatures." The hermit is referring to the cruelty that is a part of the order of nature, whereas Tobin is referring to the divine grace that belongs to the order of divinity.

Tobin's belief is borne out in the case of the Kid. The Kid is virtually silent throughout the novel, and he is a very small creature in its pages indeed, little more than a name on a page. But it is precisely in the Kid that the novel sees some grace in the world of war. He holds mercy in his heart, unlike almost every other gang member. The Judge eventually kills the Kid, but it is the insistent voice of God that speaks through the Kid which more deeply impresses us. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? 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… 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.

Related Characters: Judge Holden (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

While the gang camps amid the Anasazi Indian ruins, the Judge tells the story of the harness maker, in which the sons of both a good father and a bad father come equally to spiritual ruin. So, Tobin asks, how should a father raise his son?

The Judge responds that children should be forced to undergo deadly trials. This is a form of eugenic "culling," or getting rid of the so-called weak members of a species to promote the breeding of the strong. This idea owes something to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by the process of natural selection, but the Judge couldn't have known about this theory, since it is 1849 when he delivers the speech quoted here and Darwin's Origin of Species wasn't published until 1859.

According to the Judge, it is because human beings can cull themselves through warfare and the like that we can make cultural progress and achieve great things. He contrasts this progress – in which "there is no waning" – with the waxing and waning cycle of death and birth in the natural world. However, we can't take the Judge at his word: for he himself shows that there is waning in the affairs of men, namely when a culture collapses at the height of its greatness, "the noon of [its] expression," as Rome collapsed, or the Anasazi culture in whose ruins the gang is camping. The Judge wants us to believe that human progress is limitless, precisely because such a belief will lead us into "the onset of night," and the Judge desires to bring about a bloody night that does not end.

Chapter 12 Quotes

They rode on. They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.

Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

While riding in pursuit of the first Indians they've had any sign of for days, the Gileños, the gang crosses into Mexico, through a forbidding landscape. This quote describes the men as they ride through a swallowing darkness.

The narrator says that the origins of the men's purpose seemed "antecedent" to the men themselves – that is, the men's purpose existed before the men themselves existed. In other words, the men are instruments of fate, and they do what they do because they are fated to do it. This is a point of view verging on fatalism, the belief that all events are predetermined and inevitable. But predetermined by what or whom? The physical laws of the universe? God?

Furthermore, the narrator compares the men of Glanton's gang to "blood legatees," that is, people who have inherited their bad blood and their penchant for spilling blood from a will. This will was signed, so to speak, by the same fate that gives the men (or forces upon the men) their purpose. Although we cannot see the order the men descend from – one of anarchic warfare and ritual violence – because it is "remote," the will of this order must be executed, for it is "imperative."

Simply put, then, the men ride as though they are fated by a higher power to commit acts of violence, with the implication that men ride to commit such acts because men are inherently violent and always have been.

The trailing of the argonauts terminated in ashes and…the expriest asked if some might not see the hand of a cynical god conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence. The posting of witnesses by a third and other path altogether might also be called in evidence as appearing to beggar chance, yet the judge…said that in this was expressed the very nature of the witness and that his proximity was no third thing but rather the prime, for what could be said to occur unobserved?

Related Characters: Judge Holden , Ben Tobin
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly before slaughtering the Gileños, the gang comes upon five wagons burning in the desert, surrounded by mutilated corpses. "Argonauts" refers to the mythical band of Greek heroes led by Jason who successfully recovered the Golden Fleece after overcoming many trials and monsters; this is an ironic allusion here, given that Jason's Argonauts were heroic, god-like men, whereas "the argonauts" in McCarthy's text are merely the anonymous dead.

Tobin sees the mutilated dead and wreckage, and he speculates that god must be "cynical" and even malignant. After all, what other kind of god would bring together killer and victim, despite all odds, to one little place amid an immense desert? The "congruence," or meeting of the two parties, was "fatal" in the sense of "deadly" and "fated." Moreover, Tobin says, the very fact that there are people to witness the resulting carnage further suggests that what happens is not coincidental, that is, it "beggar[s] chance," and therefore must have been determined by fate.

The Judge's response implies that before anything can be said to exist, it must first be witnessed or observed. Witness, then, is "the prime," or the thing that comes first, before an event can be said to have taken place. The Judge himself wants to witness everything so that its existence depends on him, yet he himself would go unobserved so as to remain free. Of course, though, the Judge is observed – by the novel's readers.

Chapter 23 Quotes

He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

Related Characters: Judge Holden
Related Symbols: The Dance
Page Number: 327
Explanation and Analysis:

After the Judge presumably murders the Kid in the Fort Griffin saloon's outhouse, he deftly takes to the dance floor. The dance is a symbol in the novel for warfare as a ritual that enables individuals to transcend their own feelings of emptiness and despair. The Judge, of course, is as great a dancer as he is a killer, and he is also "a great favorite" of the people watching him dance, which is ironic because he wants to see their world plunged into perpetual warfare. Perhaps, though, people do subconsciously desire either the "glory" or brutality of war or even their own deaths, as Freud theorized, which would help explain the Judge's mass appeal.

Throughout the novel, it is implied that the Judge isn't quite mortal, or even human; there is something malignantly supernatural about him. This implication finds some confirmation here when the Judge announces that he never sleeps and will never die. If we believe the Judge, we might think that he is indeed an immortal, a god of war like the Greek Ares or Roman Mars. However, we might instead take the Judge to be merely a man who embodies the spirit of warfare, such that his claim never to sleep and never to die is really a claim that war will always exist. McCarthy never conclusively resolves the question of the Judge's mortality for us.