Some analysis of certain aspects in Bloodborne.
The Nightmare and Buddhistic InfluenceThat the Old Hunters DLC expansion is kinda, sorta a trip backwards in time, starting with the most recent events, which may still be distant events in the game's timeline, and ending in a most definitely very distant past is no secret. However, it is also kinda, sorta a trip backwards through Hell according to Japanese Buddhism.
The Hunter's Nightmare and JigokuWe start our journey through the Old Hunters DLC in the deepest recesses of Hell, more specifically in the Nightmare's version of Oedon Chapel. As we venture forward we face a twisted hellscape where the Cathedral Ward's familiar spires and steeples become the first stand-in for one of Jigoku's signature landscapes: Katanayama, the Needle Mountain. Here, the blood-drunk Hunters are punished for their sins with an unending hunt, cowering beasts are mercilessly torn apart by crazed Hunters who, in turn, are equally mercilessly torn apart by Nightmare Executioners. At the apex of this section we find the Nightmare Grand Cathedral and, wihin it, what remains of Laurence, one of the most sin-steeped characters of Bloodborne's lore, now a fiery, demonic beast. As we leave the deepest pit of Hell behind we reach the second signature part of Jigoku's landscape: The River of Blood. And as we follow it towards its source, we encounter piles of horribly mangled bodies that are still writhing and groaning in agony, unable to even die and be freed of their torment. Upon reaching the Blood River's source, we're confronted with an expy of Mezu, the Horse-Faced demon guarding the entrance of Jigoku: Ludwig, who will not let us leave peacefully. Upon defeat, Ludwig gives us the "Guidance" rune and tells us about a "thread of light" that he desperately clung to, both of which are allusions to Ryunosuke Akutagawa's "The Spider's Thread." As you make your way past Ludwig's room, you enter the Underground Cell area, where a few more tragic Hunters are locked up with nothing but their own sins and madness to keep them company. (Which is funny, because "Jigoku" literally means "Earth Prison.") As we continue we begin an ascent, up from the prison area, into the second Grand Cathedral, up a rather significant elevator, and we finally find ourselves in the Research Hall.
The Research Hall and The Celestial BureaucracyWe now make our way into a towering complex, littered with winding stairs, a stand-in for the afterlife's Department of Justice. Halfway up the stairs of the Research Hall we have a big door, the entrance to the Lumenwood Garden and the Astral Clocktower... It's from this point that spirits are either sent down the stairs, down into Hell, or up the stairs towards Heaven... Before we go through the door, we take detour up the stairs, because there is a significant crow at the top of them: A crow that drops a weaker version of Ludwig's "Guidance" rune, tying the top of the tower to Heaven and completing the allusion to "The Spider's Thread" that began down with Ludwig. Now we may proceed through the Lumenwood Garden and into the Astral Clocktower. Here we meet our expy of Enma Daioh, Judge of the Dead, the bodhisattva who, though he had a fearsome visage and had no tollerance for liars, was a kind and compassionate god who wished to save each soul from damnation and commonly used his Crystal Mirror to confront sinners with a reflection of their past: Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower, the person that the patients of the Research Hall all love and revere and who is implied to have done what she can to save them from their suffering and the "reflection" of the Plain Doll who judges us for our sinful curiosity, decrees that only an honest death will cure us now, and confronts us with a Hunter vs. Hunter boss battle. With her slain, we wind back the time of the Astral Clocktower, step over the grave by the Clock's face, and into the next area.
The Fishing Hamlet and The Sanzu RiverWe've finally reached the end of our journey. We've traveled backwards through historical events, and the afterlife as well, and now we find ourselves at the shores of Sanzu no Kawa, the River of Three Crossings, which separates the realm of the living from the realm of the dead. A.k.a., the coast of the Fishing Hamlet, where the sins of the first Hunters were committed... And what first meets our eyes are waters, sails of submerged ships poking through the surface and reaching towards a bleak sky, bodies laid to rest in boats along the shores, as well as a path cutting through the waters, covered with little "towers" of small snail shells. These allude to the little "towers" of rocks and pebbles raised by the Mizuko, the Water Childen, the souls of those who died too young to have gained any negative karma that could condemn them to Hell or positive karma that would allow them into Heaven. These poor souls are stuck in Limbo, unable to ever cross the Sanzu River, and so they tirelessly toil away under the watchful eye of the hag Datsueba, who has told the children that if they pile up little "towers" of rocks and pebbles tall enough, they'll be able to climb the towers out of their Limbo, all the way up into Heaven... And so the poor children raise their towers, time and time again, even as Datsueba and the cruel Sinners who pass through knock them over as they pass by on their way to the afterlife that the children themselves will never see. "Mercy for the poor, wizened child," a tortured inhabitant of the Hamlet mumbles as we meet him at the village's entrance, and true enough: as we reach the Fishing Hamlet's coast we find the lingering remains of Kos' offspring, hiding within the womb of its Divine mother's corpse, like the Mizuko who hide from Datsueba and the Sinners' cruelty in the robes of the bodhisattva Jizou... Our journey has reached its end, and from here we can trace our own steps backwards and behold the narrative of a sin-steeped journey that started right here, on these shores, and eventually ended in Oedon Chapel.
The Nightmare and Heaven?But wait, isn't there one question left unanswered here? If the stairs that lead down to the Hunter's Nightmare lead down into Hell, then where do the stairs that lead up take us? Well, the person whose journey we followed did evidently not lead there, and as such we do not get to go there through his narrative, either, so ultimately we can only speculate... buuut you can see the sails of ships poking through the mists in the distance from the lower levels of the Nightmare Frontier. And from the starting area of the Nightmare Frontier, from which you can look down upon the lower area, you can see Mergo's Loft far up in the sky... Mergo's Loft, which, in a final allusion to "The Spider's Thread," is inhabited by Nightmare Apostles, i.e., Giant Spiders... Yes, as horrifying as the implications may seem, odds are that the School of Mensis had the right idea and were allowed to enter "Heaven." Which also provides us with some rather interesting implications in regards to the beings we can find there.
The Hunter's Dying DreamExtrapolating upon the above, The Hunter's Dream is a bit different from The Nightmares in that it's not based upon any kind of Afterlife or Realm of The Dead. Instead, it is The Realm of Death itself...
Don't Fear The ReaperGehrman is, of course, our first and most notable clue: A wizened man wielding a scythe. Everyone, all over the world, can recognize the imagery of the Grim Reaper when they see him these days... This, of course, puts Gehrman and Maria in strikingly similar positions to each other, as detailed above.
Our final confrontation with Gehrman is also very much symbolic of the Death card of the Major Arcana: Death represents endings (as in, Multiple Endings), beginnings (as in, New Game+), change (us taking Gehrman's place), transformation (literally, if we've got three Umbilical Cords) and inner purging (Gehrman's atonement).
Gehrman also has a prominent theme of mercy associated with him: the two oldest Trick Weapons, Gehrman's Burial Blade and the Blade of Mercy, both of them said to have been forged from siderite that fell from the heavens, mention the Hunter's desire for their prey to find peace, and the choice Gehrman gives us in the final confrontation also happens to be one of a merciful death: As fellow agents of The Hunter's Dream, one of you will have to make the other accept their death in order to free them from the horrors of the night.
Clair de LuneOur second clue can be found in Mergo's Loft: Once we've dropped The Brain of Mensis down the abyss, we can take an elevator down there and find its tortured, broken body. If we, at this point, Make Contact with The Brain, it gives us a Caryll Rune in response: The strongest version of the "Moon" Rune, which increases the amount of Blood Echoes we gain from killing our prey. But why would The Brain give us a Rune that incentivizes killing, if not because it's begging us to kill it? It doesn't even fight back if we do attack it... "Moon" means "Death."
The Moon is very prominent in Bloodborne, and is connected to the Hunter's Dream. Not just by way of the Moon Presence, several NPCs comment upon our Hunter's scent, with Queen Annalise calling us a "Moon-scented Hunter" and Impostor Iosefka identifying our fragnance as "Moonlit scents"... Though highly speculative, it's not unreasonable to imagine at this juncture that Ludwig, the wielder of the Holy Moonlight Sword, was once a Hunter of the Dream in the past, or perhaps a puppet given Guidance by the Moon Presence that would lead and mislead him... Gehrman, too, at one point makes a comment about the Moon and how close it is — or perhaps we could say that he's commenting upon its Presence? Either way, he identifies this as a sign that the Hunt will be long this Night.
It's also worth mentioning that a Blood Moon is otherwise known as a "Hunter's Moon."
On top of all this, the Moon is also associated with the Pure Lands/Heaven in Japanese folklore and Buddhism, and no-where else in Bloodborne is the Moon bigger and brighter than it is in Mergo's Loft.
XII: The Hanged ManReturning to the Tarot imagery; the symbol for Blood Echoes is the Hunter Rune, which is based upon the Tarot card preceding Death: The Hanged Man depicts a man hanging upside-down, viewing the world from a completely different perspective, with a serene facial expression, suggesting that he is in this hanging position by choice. He also has a halo around his head, symbolizing new insight, awareness and enlightenment. The Hanged Man is the Tarot card of ultimate surrender, of being suspended in time and of martyrdom and sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. This all not only represents Gehrman, the First Hunter, and his role as the Dream's Host quite perfectly, it also represents the Hunters, and their Hunt for insight, as a whole... But what are Blood Echoes?
An echo is literally a reverberation of sound waves reflecting off of a surface. You could say that a sound-produced ripple in a liquid — like the voices of the Great Ones that Caryll depicted in their Runes — is an echo of the sound, and an echo that resonates through people's blood could then be like a voice within them. This could very well make Blood Echoes something akin to people's souls; our inner voices, memories and experiences, coursing through our veins. And, as a Hunter of the Dream, we harvest these "Echoes of Blood" by killing others. (This is also alluded to in the Japanese name of the Blood Echoes: 血の遺志, The Dying Wish/es of the Blood.)
Regardless, all Blood Echoes go to the same place sooner or later: After we've reaped them we take them with us back into The Hunter's Dream. There we either give them to the Messengers of the Dream in exchange for equipment, or we have the Doll channel the Echoes into our strength... However, the former is not an end-station, is it? The Messengers themselves have no use for the Echoes of Blood... but, based upon Bloodborne's concept art,◊ they may be very closely related to an entity that does... It is not outside the realm of possibility that once we've given the Echoes to the Messengers, they in turn give the Echoes to The Moon Presence. And in the game's different endings? Well, if we refuse Gehrman's mercy, if we kill him, then the Moon Presence descends upon us and, with but a "kiss," claims us for its own and swallows the Blood Echoes we carry... It likely does something similar to Gehrman if we accept his mercy and he cuts us down, leaving our Blood Echoes to be claimed by him.
Flora of The DreamNow, we have to address the Moon Presence. No other being in Bloodborne is more closely associated with the Moon than this Eldritch Abomination. It is the creator and prime mover of The Hunter's Dream, it is the authority sitting above the Dream's Host, and it is the entity that sends us out on our Hunt in order to halt the source of the spreading scourge of beasts by slaying Mergo. On our journey to Mergo, we slaughter our way through whatever else we encounter, including Rom and likely a few others of the Moon Presence's alien brethren. However, though they may be buried in their tombs, the Great Ones are not dead; the early Pthumerians are said to have been but humble guardians of "the slumbering Great Ones," for that is not dead which can eternal lie...
The Moon Presence's appearance also differs a bit from all other Great Ones in that it looks nigh-on undead, with its spine and ribs grotesquely exposed. This thematic connection with death is also represented in the Moon Presence's signature abilities: One which brings our Hunter to the brink of death, with but a single HP remaining, and another, a shower of blood which prevents us from healing ourselves, denying us the ability to restore our life... In the end, though, we kill even the Moon Presence. And with strange eons even death may die.