Reflections on Rudolfo Anaya’s novel ‘Bless Me, Ultima’
My work was to do good… I was to heal the sick and show them the path of goodness. But I was not to interfere with the destiny of any man. Those who wallow in evil and brujería cannot understand this. They create a disharmony that in the end reaches out and destroys life —”
Bless Me, Ultima.
“Every writer — and reader — needs a guide,” says Rudolfo Anaya in an interview about the process of writing the novel which brought him international fame. He talks about a vision which became the cornerstone of his inspiration: an old, withered woman miraculously appeared in his room as he was writing the first draft. She said that the book would not be good if she were not in it. “A healer became my guide, so I could look deeper into the reality and time.”
Ultima is a curandera, a medicine woman. Using a variety of medicinal herbs, she heals bodily disease as well as sickness of the soul caused by evil spells. She is more than a healer — she is a medium between our world and the world of spirits, between the present and the past. Her presence in the novel empowered Anaya to transcend the personal story of Antonio, a young boy coming of age, and create an epic narrative that reflected the collective psyche of Hispanic people of New Mexico.
Ultima belongs to the generations of healers, witch doctors, medicine men and women, often collectively referred to as shamans*, who safeguarded their communities from multiple perils since the earliest days of humankind. Historians believe that shamanism was a dominant pre-religious practice for humanity during the Paleolithic period. Shamans performed the duties of naturopathic doctors, midwives as well as mystic intercessors on behalf of individuals and the whole community at the times when it was necessary to seek assistance of — or protection from — supernatural forces.
It is believed that, in order to communicate with the supernatural, the shaman’s soul has to leave his or her body and undertake a dangerous journey to the world of spirits. The shaman achieves this by getting in a trance and entering the body of a bird or other animal. This belief is echoed in Anaya’s novel. Ultima has a mysterious connection to the owl. The owl protects Antonio and metes out punishment to evil Tenorio. The owl and Ultima are inseparably linked to each other: when Tenorio shoots the owl, Ultima dies.
When organized religions replaced paganism, shamanic rituals were forced to the periphery or underground, but they never completely disappeared. For example, in Europe, shamanic traditions continued to manifest themselves in popular folk beliefs through the Early Modern period (1500-1800.) Scholars argue that medieval beliefs regarding the soul were based on earlier shamanic ideas. The continuing practice of shamanic rituals might have played a role in the conceptualization of witchcraft, including the idea of the witches’ Sabbath, and led to witches’ trials in the Middle Ages and later.
Practitioners of ancient rituals were known under different names in different countries, however, in all cultures they were most often referred to as “the wise men and women” or “the cunning folk.” They were the keepers of the collective knowledge upon which the well-being and, ultimately, the survival of the community depended. Naturally, this knowledge was closely guarded and restricted to the initiated practitioners to whom it was passed orally by the older generation. In Anaya’s novel, Ultima says that her powers were given to her by “el hombre volador” (“the flying man”), and the name of this great healer has a terrifying effect on Tenorio who “drew back as if slapped in the face by an invisible power.”
For centuries, “the cunning folk” were the only ones who acted as physicians for the general population while medical science was slowly evolving. Their importance, particularly for rural and remote areas, is impossible to fathom. Every folk culture has ceremonies, typically accompanied by chanting, of giving thanks to midwives, which was an area of specialization among “the wise women.” Even as late as the 1930s-1940s, medical assistance was not readily available in rural communities in New Mexico: it is Ultima who performs the duties of a midwife when Antonio is born and who treats him when, later in the novel, he becomes seriously sick.
Curanderismo as the art of curing physical and spiritual illnesses emerged in Spain-dominated areas of the New World. It blends Native American traditional healing practices with Catholic elements, such as holy water, saint pictures and Catholic prayers. However, there must have been one more ingredient which added its distinctive flavor to the mix: the ages-old legacy of the European “cunning folk” which presumably was carried across the ocean by surviving keepers of the ancient tradition.
Although little is known about Spanish curanderos and curanderas around the time of the colonization of the Americas, the number of witches’ trials during the 16th and the 17th centuries in Spain attests to the persistence of folk customs which the church was mercilessly trying to suppress. Other indirect evidence pointing to the continuing practice of ancient rituals in Spain is the well-documented history of “the cunning folk” in nearby Italy where they were known as “praticos” (wise people), “guaritori” (healers), “donne che aiutano” (women who help) and “mago” (maga). One of the most well-known groups among them was the Benandanti (good walkers), who claimed they performed nocturnal visionary flights across the sky in order to ensure good crops. Between 1575 and 1675, the Benandanti were tried as heretics and witches under the Roman Inquisition.
In the New World, curanderos and curanderas could practice their ancient art of healing more freely. Although the threat of persecution by the Inquisition remained, it was easier to hide in these vast and sparsely populated lands. At the same time, the need for a local healer dramatically increased due to the distances to towns and scarcity of doctors even in urban areas. As a result, curanderismo flourished on a new soil and expanded its arsenal of remedies and techniques by incorporating into its practice the traditional healing methods and knowledge of local herbs of American Indians.
The actions of “the wise men and women” have often been misinterpreted as witchcraft and, as mentioned earlier, practitioners suffered severe persecutions including imprisonment, torture and being burned at the stake. However, there is a fundamental difference between the art of healing and witchcraft — the difference that also is underscored linguistically in many languages. In Spanish, the former is called “curanderismo” while the latter is called “brujería.”
In the course of the novel, Ultima addresses this difference several times. In her last words to Antonio, she describes “brujería” as an attempt to disrupt the harmony in the world, while her mission, as a curandera, is to maintain this harmony. This task may warrant the use of magic, particularly in a situation when a witch has cast a spell on a person. A curandera demands the witch to remove the hex and, if this does not work, she has to “hex the hexer.”
The episode with the healing of Antonio’s uncle Lucas reads like a classical example of a spell removal procedure. Ultima locates the hexing agent — a ball of hair which was magically placed in Lucas’s stomach — and expels it from the patient’s body by giving him a powerful emetic. But this is not the end of her mission. In order to restore harmony in the world, Ultima “sends” the evil back to where it originated by putting a hex on the witches, Tenorio’s daughters, which results in the sickness and death of two of them.
So who is Ultima for a modern reader — a person who may or may not believe in curanderismo? Is she a kind of “good fairy” that one finds in the pages of a children’s book, a “white magic woman,” a holistic healer, a fearsome shaman? Did she really perform magic when she treated Lucas or did she simply cleanse his body? Did she really cause the death of Tenorio’s daughters? Did a part of her spirit reside in the body of the owl? The answers depend on how each of us perceives the world and all that remains unexplained in it.
At the same time, regardless of our position on the supernatural, there is something that we, people of the 21st century, share with Ultima. We all are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of a holistic approach to curing illnesses that ravish our bodies. All things in the body are related to each other and an action administered to one part inevitably starts a chain reaction. More importantly, we now recognize that physical, mental and spiritual health are intrinsically linked and it is impossible to affect one without affecting the others.
The next step is to take to heart Ultima’s message: open our minds to “all that is good and strong and beautiful,” and keep in harmony between ourselves and the world around us.
The novel “Bless Me, Ultima” has been chosen for the 2013 Southeast Texas Big Read program. The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) designed to restore reading to the center of American culture.
For more information visit library.lsco.edu/big-read/big-read.asp.
* The term “shamanism” was originally applied to describe belief systems of people of Northern Europe and Siberia; later, it became a blanket term for diverse beliefs and practices around the world which involve contact with a spirit world in an altered state of consciousness. While anthropologists argue about the true meaning of shamanism, it continues to be used in scholarly literature as a general term, which justifies its capacity in the present article.
Issue Magazine – May 2013
Story by: Elena Ivanova