"I see a mosaic pattern (Aztec-like) emerging, a weaving pattern, thin here, thick there . . . This almost finished product seems an assemblage, a montage...now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance. The whole thing has a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will." – Gloria Anzaldua.
English 380A, Winter 2011
Professor Deborah Miranda

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Exploration of Owl and La Bruja

In his novel Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya weaves together pagan spirituality and Catholicism, allowing each a place in his characters’ consciousness and effectively creating a space where magic and witchcraft are very much parts of his characters’ realities. I was intrigued by several of the myths in the text, as well as by the scenes of magic involving Ultima and the Luna family. I wanted to find out more about Mexican ‘bruja’ (witch) myths, particularly the relationship between witches and owls referenced in the story, so I decided to do an internet search to learn more. Because I recognized owls as a symbol typically associated with magic (Hedwig and Harry Potter immediately came to mind), I decided to also do a broader search on owls and magic outside of Mexican myth.

My search brought me to a site called “The Owl Pages: World Owl Mythology” which alphabetically listed countries and briefly outlined the relationship between magic and owls in each one’s particular tradition. For the most part, owls represent an evil portent. For example, “the Swahili believe the owl brings illness to children,” and in Cameroon the owl is “too evil to name” and known only as “the bird that makes you afraid” (http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Owl+Mythology&title=World). However, in Bless Me, Ultima, the owl that comes with the curandera Ultima is a positive creature, whose “soft hooting was like was like a song....[that] calmed the moonlight hills and lulled [the children] to sleep” (14).

However, traditionally, the Mexican bruja is believed to have shapeshifting capabilities, transforming into the owl in order to more effectively spy on her victims. Thus, I am inclined to believe that the safety and security offered by the owl in the story (which is intimated to be the shapeshifting of Ultima) is a creation of Anaya’s in his desire to create a positive shaman character “who uses her positive power to do good” (viii). As Anaya says, “‘witches are people whose work may be viewed as good or evil, depending on the needs of those who ask for their assistance” (viii).


  1. It is extremely interesting how the role of the owl differs so greatly in the Mexican myths compared to that in Anaya's Bless Me Ultima and even today's interpretation of the owl as a symbol for old-age wisdom. However, I agree with the conclusion that Anaya reinterpreted the role of the owl and the curandera purposely not only to create a positive character, but also to continue his theme of transformation throughout the novel.

    As Antonio remarks, “In many cuentos I had heard the owl was one of the disguises a bruja took, and so it struck a chord of fear in the heart to hear them hooting at night” (12). Obviously, Anaya is aware of the myths surrounding the devilishness of the owl but actively refutes it when he writes, “The Virgin smiled at the goodness of the owl” (12). The owl redefines its role as much as Antonio does in the novel, finding a new identity to present to the world through Ultima. Just as Ultima encourages Antonio to embrace both his heritages and transform his destiny, so too does she become the conduit through which the owl counters the community’s predetermined beliefs. In fact, during Ultima's healing, it becomes a central force against the evil which it should represent: “…it shrieked into the wind, dove and pounced on the coyotes. Her sharp claws found flesh because the evil laughter of the coyotes changed to cries of pain” (92).

    Animals play a crucial role in the novel as symbols of good and evil; but most importantly, they represent further interpretations of the overall theme of rebirth of identity.

  2. Owls are often said to be associated with death in many native tribes, including my own; however, interestingly, owls also represent a communication between life and death, almost as a messenger. It occurs to me that we should probably ask if Ultima is a kind of messenger or bridge between worlds.

    In Henry's last long paragraph, he says that Antonio breaks free of the battle between the two sides of his family "as he realizes that he is a combination of the two...his new identity does not need to deny any part of himself, but rather accept and live both parts to their fullest." Does this remind anyone else of the early Chicano poem, "Yo Soy Joaquin," and all the ways the author struggles to bring together the Spanish conquerer and the Indian survivor?