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Archetypal Rites of Passage in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima
In Bless me, Ultima Rudolfo Anaya tells a classic coming of age story by interweaving ancient world symbolism, especially nature archetypes, with the ritualistic traditions of the Catholic Church in a village in New Mexico near the end of World War II. These symbols connect with each other with such historical power that together they give depth to a story that becomes not only Antonio Marez’s story of growing up in the Southwest in 1944, but also one that goes back to the beginning of time and generally becomes an archetypal motif . for mankind.
The sun and the moon
Although all the characters contribute to the cohesion of the novel, the story of Antonio, who is seven years old when the story begins, and Ultima, the curandera who was present at Antonio’s birth and who’ t now has come to live with his family in their remaining years. While Antonio, or Tony, has two older sisters at home, he also has three brothers who served their country during the war and returned home. Tony’s father is a Marez, a man whose traditions cling to the earth, the llano, the vast grassy, almost treeless plain where a man can ride his horse and enjoy the camaraderie of his wandering friends, on search for freedom in this open country. His wife is a Luna, a family of farmers who love the rich soil near the river, the roots and the tradition of living by the cycle of the moon. The sun and the moon have come together, but is it a holy marriage of heaven and earth?
Influence of the feminine principle
Tony’s father wants him to adopt the Marez ways, but his mother prays every day that Tony will become a farmer priest and continue the path set by the Luna family. His mother, Maria Luna, embodies the feminine principle associated with her name, and holds the power of cyclic time, and her source of power comes from that lunar queen of heaven, the Virgin de Guadalupe, whose statue she day is kneeling. The virgin is the moon goddess, the weaver and spinner of the thread of destiny, and it is she who pleads with Mary for the fate of her son in the Catholic Church. It is no coincidence that Saint Anthony is the patron saint of poor people, because Maria Luna prays that the fate of her son Tony will also be worthy of sainthood, a priest beyond praise. The matriarchal influence that surrounds Tony becomes even stronger when Ultima arrives.
Questions about the Matriarchal World
Antonio develops a bond with Ultima the moment she enters her home, addressing her by her first name instead of the respectful Grande, and his mother scolds him for this break. But Ultima recognizes this connection between them and takes Tony with her every day to collect the plants and herbs she will use in her cures. He learns from her as she speaks softly to the plants she takes, explaining to her why she must take her roots from the earth. She teaches him that all nature has a spiritual life, a presence. As Tony thrives in this matriarchal world of his mother, the Virgin de Guadalupe, and Ultima, he begins to question his mother’s and Ultima’s spiritual beliefs, torn between which one is the true faith, and then discovers the spiritual presence of the golden carp of his friend Samuel.
The Golden Carp
It’s bad luck fishing for the big carp that summer tides wash downstream. Like the big fish that fight their way back upstream to regain their habitat and not get caught, Tony struggles for his own evolution of the mind. Samuel tells Tony the story of an ancient god who loved the people of Earth so much that he turned them into carp instead of killing them for their sins. As the story develops into a parallel of his own Catholicism, he learns that the god who loved the people turned himself into a fish, the golden carp, so he could take care of his people. Tony is confused about who is right – God, the Virgin, or the golden carp.
When Tony witnesses Ultima healing his family with her magical cures, he wonders if she is also stronger than the church and its saints. When Maria’s brother Lucas suddenly becomes very ill, fearing to have been cursed by one of Tenorio Trementina’s daughters for stumbling upon her witchcraft, the family asks Ultima to use her power as a curandera to heal him. Medicines and the Catholic Church have not succeeded. They accept Ultima’s condition: when someone tampers with fate, a chain of events is set in motion over which they have no control. They must be ready to accept this reality. They do so and the grandfather pays Ultima $40 in silver-silver, again typifying the female moon principle, to heal his son Lucas.
Good Is Stronger Than Evil
Ultima’s requests for supplies and rest are granted, but she also asks for Tony’s assistance because, he says, his first name is Juan-John as in St. John and John the Baptist—whose name means grace by God. Tony watches their rituals, the bathing of his dying uncle, the burning of incense, the ingestion of the potion of herbs, and the long hours of waiting. He knows he is in the middle of evil, but he is not afraid. Ultima soothes his fears, “Good is always stronger than evil. The smallest bit of good can stand against all the forces of evil in the world and it will come out triumphant.” Tony will reinforce the good that she can do because he is revered by God, a concept that is in line with his Catholicism.
Before Ultima forces the cure down Lucas’ throat, they sculpt three dolls from her magical oils and fresh black clay. She dresses them and lets Lucas breathe on them, and then she dips three pins in oil and sticks them in the babies. Tony doesn’t fully understand what Ultima has done until later when two of the Trementina daughters die. He is confused by her power which seems to be one with and yet is greater than God’s.
Narciso, Dionysian Life and Death
Tony’s friend Samuel tells Cico about the golden carp. When Samuel leaves to herd sheep with his father, Cico takes Tony to see the arrival of the golden carp, but on the way they stop at the house of Narciso, a Dionysian figure who gets drunk in the spring and at night plant in the moonlight. When he’s gone and the two boys slip into his hidden garden, Tony understands what Cico means when he says, “The garden is like Narciso-it’s drunk.” Tony is amazed by the fertility of this garden nurtured in moonlight, but in fear or perhaps superstition he will not partake of the bounty.
Narciso tries to warn Ultima of Tenorio’s intention to kill her in retaliation for the supposed curse she placed on his second daughter who is dying. Tony, returning home in the snow from the school’s Christmas rehearsal, secretly follows him. When Tony’s brother Andrew can’t break away from Rosie’s house of ill repute to help, the older Narciso has to go on his own and Tony continues to follow him. Tenorio shoots Narciso, who is dying under the juniper tree. Even though Tony is confused about his role in the Catholic Church, he makes the sign of the cross over Narciso and takes his confession, acting as the priest his family expects him to become. Succumbing to pneumonia, Tony dreams of the omnipresence of evil in his village as everything in it dies a violent death and is burned, while the golden carp swallows everything and smiles as brilliantly as a new sun.
Emptiness: Where is God?
It is now time for Tony to study his catechism with the other boys in the church in preparation for his first communion, yet he still wonders if the golden carp is more powerful than the God of his Catholic church. He wonders whether the Virgin Mary or the golden carp rules in God’s absence. On Easter Sunday when Tony takes the waffle for the first time, he prays for answers to his question: why is there evil and death and torture? He only feels emptiness. He thinks: “The God I was looking for so much was not there,” and he later confides in his teacher that growing up is not easy. He tells her, “Ultima says that a man’s destiny must unfold like a flower.”
Once again, Tony witnesses Ultima’s power to heal as she performs rituals to lift a curse from Tony’s father’s friend Tellez. That night, Tony still hasn’t received any communication from God. He asks, what is God’s power really? Cico tells him that he has to choose between the God of the church and the golden carp. While watching the majesty of the divine carp swimming in the stream, they decide that their friend Florence, one who could not take his first communion because he would not confess his non-existent sins, it has earned the right to see the golden carp for himself. However, when they look for him, they discover that he drowned in a swimming accident under the Blue Lake.
Tony dreams again, and in this dream everything he believes in dies – even Ultima and the golden carp. Injured, he is sent to his uncles in Los Puerto to learn about farming. Before he leaves, Ultima says, “Life is full of sorrow when a boy grows into a man.” Tony asks his father if a new religion could be created. Tony’s father Gabriel Marez explains to his son that understanding does not come from God. It comes from experiencing life, and it takes a lifetime to gain this understanding. He realizes Tony’s confusion about religion and healing, in particular, and he tells him that Ultima has no fear because “she has sympathy for people, so completely that they can touch their souls and heal them.” Tony becomes stronger that summer from everything that happened to him.
Ultima and the Owl: Antonio’s Blessing
But Tenorio’s second daughter dies and in his madness he first tries to kill Tony, who escapes him, and then goes to Guadalupe to find and kill Ultima. Instead, Tenorio shoots the owl and, as he points the gun at Tony, Pedro, who is Tony’s uncle, kills him with his pistol. Ultima, whose life is connected with the life of the owl, dies. She whispers to Tony that she is like the owl, “the way to a new place, a new time.” Before she dies, he asks for her blessing. “Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were: ‘I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Love of life, and when despair comes to your heart, look to me in the evenings when the wind is soft and the owls are singing in the hills. I will be with you-“
Tony buried the owl under the juniper tree in the moonlight, symbol of his mother’s family. He covers the owl with the earth of the llano, the home and symbol of his father. Whether Tony has the maturity to understand the totality of the blessings as well as the evils that accompany his rites of passage, he is nevertheless deeply affected by the feminine archetypes of the moon, the three fates, the river and the fish, the owl and the juniper, and the cyclical changes around him, so that he will recall Ultima’s advice with greater understanding and wisdom as he grows into a man: “Take life’s experiences and build strength from them, not weakness.”
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