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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 interweaving ancient world symbolism, especially nature archetypes, with the ritual traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in a New Mexico village near the end of World War II. These symbols connect to each other with such historical force 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 becomes a universally archetypal motif. for humanity.
The Sun and the Moon
Although all the characters contribute to the coherence of the novel, the story belongs to Antonio, who is seven years old when the story opens, and Ultima, the curandera who was present at Antonio’s birth and who has now come to live with her family. in her remaining years. While Anthony, or Tony, has two older sisters at home, he also has three brothers who served their country overseas in the war and are returning home. Tony’s father is Marez, a man whose traditions cling to the land, the llano, the great grassy, almost treeless plain where a man can ride his horse and enjoy the companionship of his wandering friends, seeking freedom in this open country. His wife is Luna, a family of farmers who love the rich soil by the river, roots, and the tradition of living the cycles of the moon. The sun and the moon have joined, but is it a holy marriage of heaven and earth?
Influence of the Feminine Principle
Tony’s father wants him to take up 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, holding the power of cyclic time, and her source of strength comes from that lunar Queen of Heaven, the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose statue she kneels before every day. The Virgin is the Moon Goddess, the weaver and spinner of the thread of destiny, and it is she whom Mary pleads for the destiny of her son in the Catholic Church. It is no coincidence that Saint Anthony is the patron saint of the poor, because Maria Luna prays that the destiny of her son Tony is also worthy of holiness, a priest beyond praise. The matriarchal influence that surrounds Tony grows even stronger when Ultima arrives.
Questioning the Matriarchal World
Antonio develops a bond with Ultima the moment she enters their house, addressing her by her first name rather than the respectful one. big, and his mother scolds him for this breach. But Ultima recognizes that connection between them and takes Tony with her every day to collect the plants and herbs that she will use in her cures. He learns from her when she speaks gently to the plants she picks up, explaining to them why she has to take their roots from the ground. She teaches him that everything in nature has a spiritual life, a presence. As Tony thrives in that matriarchal world of his mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Ultima, he begins to question his mother’s spiritual beliefs as well as those of Ultima, torn between which one is the true faith, and then he discovers the spiritual presence of the golden carp of his friend Samuel.
The Golden Carp
It is bad luck to fish for the big carp that summer floods wash downstream. Like the big fish fighting their way back upstream to regain their habitat and not be caught, Tony struggles for his own development of the spirit. Samuel tells Tony the story of an ancient god who loved the people of the 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 people turned himself into a fish, the golden carp, so that he could take care of his people. Tony is confused about who is right – god, the virgin, or the golden carp.
As Tony witnesses Ultima healing his family with her magical cures, he wonders if she is also stronger than the church and her saints. When Mario’s brother Lucas suddenly becomes very ill, feared 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. Medicine and the Catholic Church did not succeed. They accept Ultima’s condition: When anyone abuses fate, a chain of events is set in motion over which they will have no control. They must be ready to accept this reality. They do and the grandfather pays Ultima USD 40 in silver-silver typifying the lunar female principle again, to cure his son Lucas.
Good Is Stronger Than Evil
Ultima’s requests for supplies and peace of mind are met, but she also requires Tony’s assistance because, he says, his first name is Juan-John as in Saint John and John the Baptist – whose name means graced by God. Tony observes her rituals, the bathing of his dying uncle, the burning of incense, the consumption of the potion of herbs, and the long hours of waiting. He knows he is in the midst of evil, but he is not afraid. Ultima calms her fears, “Good is always stronger than evil. The smallest bit of good can stand against all the powers of evil in the world and it will come out victorious.” Tony will reinforce the good she can do because he is graced by God, a concept that fits with his Catholicism.
Before Ultima forces the cure down Lucas’ throat, she sculpts three dolls from her magical oils and fresh black clay. She dresses them and lets Lucas breathe on them, and then she dips three needles in oil and sticks them into the dolls. 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 greater than that of God.
Narcissus, Dionysian Life and Death
Tony’s friend Samuelo 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 their way, they stop at the house of Narcissus, a Dionysian figure who is drunk in the spring and plants at night 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 a Narcissus—it’s drunk.” Tony is appalled by the fruitfulness of this garden nurtured in moonlight, but out of fear or perhaps superstition he will not share in the prize.
Narcissus tries to warn Ultima of Tenorio’s intention to kill her in revenge for the alleged curse she put on her second daughter who dies. Tony, returning home in the snow from rehearsing the school Christmas play, secretly follows him. When Tony’s brother Andrew can’t break free from Rosie’s house of ill repute to help, the aging Narcisse has to go himself and Tony continues to follow him. Tenorio shoots Narcissus, who lies dying under the juniper tree. Even though Tony is confused about his role in the Roman Catholic Church, he makes the sign of the cross over Narcissus and takes his confession, serving 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 shines as brightly as a new sun.
Emptiness: Where Is God?
Now it’s time for Tony to study his catechism with the other boys at 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 the absence of God. On Easter Sunday when Tony takes the wafer for the first time, he prays for answers to his question: why is there evil and death and torture? He feels only emptiness. He thinks, “The God I sought so earnestly 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 is witness to Ultima’s power to heal when she performs rituals to end a curse from Tony Tellez’s father’s friend. That night Tony still received no communication from God. He asks what really is the power of God? Cico tells him that he must choose between the god of the church and the golden carp. As they gaze upon the majesty of the god-like carp swimming in the stream, they decide that their friend Florence, who could not take his first communion because he would not confess his non-existent sins, has earned the right to witness the golden carp for himself. When they go to find him, however, 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. Excited, he is sent to his uncles in Los Puerto to learn about farming. Before he goes, Ultima says, “Life is full of sadness when a boy grows up to be a man.” Tony asks his father if a new religion could be made. Tony Gabriel Marez’s father 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 complete that she can touch their souls and heal them.” Tony grows 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 avoids him, and then goes to Guadalupe to find and kill Ultima. Instead Tenorio shoots the owl and, as he points the rifle at Tony, Pedro, who is Tony’s uncle, kills him with his pistol. Ultima, whose life is tied to the life of the owl, dies. She whispers to Tony that she is like the owl, “winging her 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 life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evening, when the wind it’s mild and the owls are singing on the hills. I’ll be with you…”
Tony buries the owl under the juniper tree in the moonlight, a symbol of his mother’s family. He covers the owl with the earth of the llano, the home and symbol of his father. Whether or not Tony has the maturity to understand the totality of the blessings as well as the evil accompanying his rites of passage, he has nevertheless been 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 remember 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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