Page 54. " the piping of the quena, flutes made from human bones "
Quechan musician playing traditional flute (ca. 1870-1906)
Public DomainQuechan musician playing traditional flute (ca. 1870-1906) - Credit: Library of Congress

The quena is a traditional flute of the Andes, usually made of bamboo or wood. Pre-Columbian versions have been found dating back to 900 B.C. and were made of bone and clay.

Native American bone flute made of the long bones from the eagle wing
Public DomainNative American bone flute made of the long bones from the eagle wing - Credit: James Owen Dorsey

Although the term quena would not have been used by indigenous tribes of North America, it is believed the Andean flute did influence Native American flutes. The Anasazi flute of the Oasiasamerican Ancient Pueblo Peoples, probably the first Native American flute, was based on Mesoamerican flute designs from the south. Anasazi flutes have been discovered dating back to 620-670 AD.

Bone flutes are believed to have been the first musical instruments, dating back 40 to 35,000 years ago. Most commonly the leg or wing bones of birds or animal bones from sheep and goats were used. In some cases, human bones were employed.

Prehistoric bone flute dated in the Upper Paleolithic from Geissenklösterle, Germany
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePrehistoric bone flute dated in the Upper Paleolithic from Geissenklösterle, Germany - Credit: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

 

 

 

Page 54. " up from the offside of those ponies there rose a fabled horde of mounted lancers and archers "
Comanche Feats of Horsemanship (ca. 1834-1835), by George Caitlin
Public DomainComanche Feats of Horsemanship (ca. 1834-1835), by George Catlin - Credit: Smithsonian Museum of American Art

The Comanche were America’s most accomplished horsemen and formidable opponents who developed specific strategies for fighting on horseback.

George Catlin commented on their prowess in the following way:

 

Amongst their feats of riding there is one that has astonished me more than anything of the kind I have ever seen or expect to see in my life: – a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body on the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectively screened from his enemies’ weapons, as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horse’s back… in this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and shield and also his long lance 14 feet in length.

(Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians)

 

In Blood Meridian, the Comanche war party utilise this very technique; concealing themselves behind their horses before rising up at the last moment, to the utter dismay of the filibusters when the true number of Indians dawn on them. It is a detail inspired by an actual historical event. Historian J.W. Wilbarger gives this account of an infamous Comanche raid upon the port town of Linnville in 1840:

 

Early in the morning of August 8, some few of the inhabitants of Linnville observed in the distance a perfect cloud of dust, caused, as they supposed, by a vast caballada of horses, being brought in from Mexico for trading purposes. By throwing themselves on the sides of their horses, and riding in this way, the Indians had completely concealed themselves from the vision of the unsuspecting denizens of the village. Imagine their consternation and utter dismay, when one thousand red savages, suddenly rising in their saddles, dashed upon the defenseless town, when many of the inhabitants were fast asleep. […] The scene amid the confusion which prevailed was one never to be forgotten by the survivors of that terror stricken people. The war whoop of the wild Comanche commingled with the screaming of women, the crying of children, and the groans of the dying and wounded almost beggars description.

(Indian Depredations in Texas)

Page 55. " rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo "
Zia buffalo dancer wearing buffalo horn headgear
Public DomainZia buffalo dancer wearing buffalo horn headgear - Credit: Library of Congress

When they went to war, some Comanche warriors wore a headdress made from a buffalo’s scalp. Most of the hide and flesh was cut away from the buffalo head, leaving only a portion of the wooly hair and the horns.

Variations of this type of headdress were worn by other Native American tribes as part of their ceremonial buffalo dances.

Page 55. " one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella "
1889 engraving depicting Comanche raiders intercepted by militia and Texas Rangers at the Battle of Plum Creek following the Great Raid of 1840
Public Domain1889 engraving depicting Comanche raiders intercepted by militia and Texas Rangers at the Battle of Plum Creek following the Great Raid of 1840 - Credit: www.texasbeyondhistory.net

McCarthy’s description of Comanche warriors dressed in stovepipe hats and carrying umbellas is a detail made no less bizarre by having a basis in historical fact. During the Great Raid of 1840, Comanche warriors ransacked the Texan port town of Linnville, emptying the stores and warehouses of their inventories, including a shipment of top hats and umbrellas on their way to San Antonio.

Historian James Thomas DeShields provides this description of the Comanche warriors with their Linnville plunder:

 

Several of the Indian chiefs charged up in front of the Texans and hurled defiant arrows at them. One of these daring chiefs rode a fine horse with a fine American bridle, with a red ribbon eight or ten feet long tied to the end of his horse. He was dressed in elegant style from the goods plundered at Victoria and Linville, with a high-top silk hat, fine pair of boots, leather gloves and an elegant broad-cloth coat hind-part before him with brass buttons shining brightly up and down his back. When he first made his appearance he carried a large umbrella stretched.

 

You can see another depiction of the Comanche Linnville raiders in Howard Terpning's painting Comanche Spoilers. Click here to see the painting.

Page 55. " the armor of a Spanish conquistador "
Francisco de Montejo in typical 16th century conquistador amour
Public DomainFrancisco de Montejo in typical 16th century conquistador armour - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The conquistadors (Spanish for conqueror) were Spanish and Portuguese soldiers, explorers, and adventurers who brought much of the Americas under the control of Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries, following Christopher Columbus' 1492 discovery of the New World.

The two most famous conquistadors were undoubtedly Hernán Cortés, who conquered the Aztec Empire, and Francisco Pizarro, who led the conquest of the Incan Empire.

 

Page 55. " the mongol hordes swung up along their flanks and rode full upon them with lances "

Illustration of Mongol cavalry pursuing their enemy from14th century manuscript
Public DomainIllustration of Mongol cavalry pursuing their enemy from14th century manuscript - Credit: Dschingis Khan und seine Erben
The Mongols were a formerly nomadic people based in Mongolia who eventually formed a vast empire that spanned the breadth of Asia. In the middle of the 13th century, the Mongols swept out of the European steppes, conquering all before them: China, Persia, Russia and eastern Europe all came under Mongol rule, before the Empire disintegrated in the 14th century.

Ferocious and merciless warriors, the lightning fast strikes conducted on horseback struck fear into the hearts of all their victims.

Page 56. " stripping the clothes from the dead and seizing them up by the hair and passing their blades about the skulls of the living and dead alike and snatching aloft the bloody wigs and hacking and chopping at the naked bodies, ripping off limbs, heads, gutting the strange white torsos and holding up great handfuls of viscera, genitals, some of the savages so slathered up with gore they might have rolled in it like dogs and some who fell upon the dying and sodomized them with loud cries to their fellows. "

The Comanche were an immensely fierce, warlike tribe, and anyone who dared to cross their warpath (as the unfortunate filibusters do) could expect little in the way of mercy. However, it should be noted that this was a period in which no one group possessed a monopoly on barbarity, and Blood Meridian is true to history in presenting all parties (be it American, Mexican or Native American) as equally given to committing atrocities.

 

Illustration of unidentified Indians mutiliating their defeated enemies (1591)
Public DomainIllustration of unidentified Indians mutiliating their defeated enemies (1591) - Credit: Theodore de Bry

For those readers who feel McCarthy’s graphic desciption of the Comance attack verges on the sensational, it may be worth quoting historian Tom DeShields on the Indian treatment of enemies:

 

Though having lost one of their comrades in the fight, the Tonkawa were elated over the victory, and after scalping the dead and dying Wacos and Comanches, cutting off their hands, feet, arms and legs, and fleecing strips of flesh from their thighs and breast, they were ready and anxious to return to their village and engage in their usual cannibal-like and mystic war dance.

(Border Wars of Texas)

Page 57. " Dust stanched the wet and naked heads of the scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds and tonsured to the bone now lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust "
Augustinian Monk Piero della Francesca (c. 1455-60)
Public DomainAugustinian Monk Piero della Francesca (c. 1455-60) - Credit: www.aiwaz.net
Don Baldassare di Antonio di Angelo (c. 1499), by Pietro Perugino
Public DomainDon Baldassare di Antonio di Angelo (c. 1499), by Pietro Perugino - Credit: Uffizi Gallery

The term tonsure originally referred to the traditional practice of Christian churches of cutting or shaving the hair from the scalp of clerics, monastics, and, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, all baptized members.

The term is now used more generally for the cutting or shaving of hair for devotees, holy people, or mystics of other religions as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion and esteem, such as by Buddhist novices and monks.

 

Page 58. " Sopilotes "
Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeBlack Vulture (Coragyps atratus) - Credit: Mdf

Sopilote is a mispelling of zopilote, a Spanish word used predominantly in Mexico and Central America for the buzzard or vulture.

It usually refers specifically to the  American black vulture, whose range extends from the southeastern United States to central Chile and Uruguay in South America. The Black Vulture is a scavenger, feeding mainly on carrion, although it will also eat eggs or prey upon newborn animals.

Page 58. " he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself. "

This may be a reference to the Gnostic concept of the Demiurge, which in Hebrew yaldabahut is translated as "Child of Chaos".

Page 65. " where the rocks trembled and sleared in the sun, rock and no water "
T. S. Eliot
Public DomainT. S. Eliot - Credit: Library of Congress

The words 'Rock and no water' are found in line 332 of section V of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

 

Read the poem online here.

Page 66. " they saw the face of the lake darken and the shape of the city dissolve upon it. They slept among the rocks face up like dead men and in the morning when they rose there was no city and no trees and no lake only a barren dusty plain. "
Inferior mirage creating illusion of a lake on the Mojave Desert
Public DomainInferior mirage creating illusion of a lake on the Mojave Desert - Credit: Mila Zinkova

The men have just witnessed an inferior mirage typical of desert regions.

A mirage is an optical phenomenon in which light rays are bent away to produce a displaced image of distant objects or the sky. The inferior (meaning lower) mirage is an image which appears under the real object, so that in desert regions, the sky may be reflected as a bright bluish patch appearing on the ground in the distance. For exhausted travellers in the desert it may appear as a lake of water.

Page 69. " the bloodbat flailed and sat upon his chest and righted itself again and hissed and clicked its teeth "
Common Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus)
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCommon Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus) - Credit: Ltshears

There are three bat species (commonly known as Vampire Bats) that feed solely on blood: the Common Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus), the Hairy-legged Vampire Bat (Diphylla ecaudata), and the White-winged Vampire Bat (Diaemus youngi). All three species are native to the Americas, ranging from Mexico to Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.

Whereas both the Hairy-legged and White-winged Vampire Bat prefer to feed on the blood of birds, the Common Vampire Bat feeds mostly on the blood of mammals (including humans). It is this latter bat which the unfortunate Sproule falls victim to.

Page 71. " a carreta, lumbering clumsily over the plain, a small mule to draw it "
Carreta (c. 1864)
Public DomainCarreta (c. 1864) - Credit: Colección Carlos Vertanessian

A carreta is a wooden cart, which is usually pulled by mules or oxen.

The German doctor and traveller Adolphus Wislizenus offers this description of a carreta he encountered during the Mexican-American War:

 

Imagine to yourself a cart, made without any nails or iron of any kind, with two solid wheels formed out of the trunk of a big tree, and in the circumference rounded, or rather squared, and with a frame of ox-skin or sticks fastened together by rawhide, and this machine put in motion by three yokes of oxen, and carrying a load, which on a better vehicle one animal could transport much faster and easier, and you will have an idea of the primitive and only known vehicle used in Northern Mexico.

(Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico)

Page 73. " a glass carboy of clear mescal "

Mescal is an alcoholic drink distilled from the maguey agave plant. It is similar to tequila (itself a type of mescal made from the blue agave) but with a stronger, more smoky flavour.

It is traditionally made by extracting the hearts or piñas from the plants, which are then cooked for about three days in a pit oven (earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks). This underground roasting gives mescal its intense and distinctive smoky flavour. The piñas are then crushed and mashed and then left to ferment in large vats or barrels with water added.