Normally, a narrative based so strongly on nature imagery might take rain as a symbol of fertility or renewal. Yet the flooding rain that first appears in Ceremony, in Tayo's negative memories of jungle warfare, is given a negative connotation: "He could smell the foaming flood water, stagnant and ripe with the rotting debris it carried past each village, sucking up their sewage, their waste, their dead animals" (11). Tayo's beloved cousin Rocky is executed as the relentless rain and polluted flood course through the area. Oddly enough, though, the dry Laguna landscape is also a source of distress for Tayo—not an antidote to the rain imagery—early in Ceremony. The protagonist's trauma is so thorough that no condition, rainy or arid, seems capable of alleviating it.
The Cattle (Symbol)
Josiah's cattle are meant to be hardy animals, and initially they symbolize both Josiah's ambitions and the possible triumph of non-Caucasian methods: "These cattle were descendants of generations of desert cattle, born in dry sand and scrubby mesquite, where they hunted water the way desert antelope did" (68). As the narrative of Ceremony moves along, the symbolic meanings attached to these animals change. When the cattle disappear during Tayo's time at war, they come to represent a series of negative forces (the losses incurred by the larger Laguna community, Josiah's failure and demise, and the flight of Tayo's own health and hardiness). When they are re-discovered, they indicate Tayo's rejuvenation and re-connection with nature-oriented traditions.
The term "witchery" encompasses the destructive forces of white American society: the supposed achievements of technology and modernity that, in truth, have exposed the Laguna people to drink, war, and general disorientation. This motif of witchery and degeneracy plays out in several ways (through the character of Emo, through Silko's evocations of dire poverty), but also appears in an allegorical poem that parallels the prose narrative. In this poem, a contest among witches results in the creation of a new race: "Caves across the ocean/in caves of dark hills/white skin people/like the belly of a fish/covered with hair" (125). This group of "white skin people" will overrun the landscape, sowing violence and snatching resources, much as white society at its apparent worst has taken land from Native American communities and sent American Indian young men off to war.
The Sun's Quest (Allegory/Motif)
A quest to seek regeneration is part of Tayo's healing process. In fact, to underscore the idea that healing involves adventure and struggle, Silko pairs Tayo's quest to find Josiah's cattle with a poem that depicts the Sun's quest to defeat a trickster, Kaup'a'ta the Gambler. Like Tayo, the Sun faces perils and emerges successful; Tayo finds the cattle, and the Sun finds and releases the storm clouds that the Gambler has captured: "Come on out. Come home again./Your mother, the earth is crying for you./Come home, children, come home" (163). Even the end results of the two quests are somewhat similar, since Tayo re-connects with the elevating world of nature and the Sun restores nature to its proper balance by bringing the clouds "home."
Cycles of Events (Motif)
In a few different respects, Ceremony depicts events that are best understood as recurring or repeating in nature. The violence and drunkenness of Emo and his companions, for instance, are not necessarily new tendencies: such failings are simply new manifestations of a "witchery" that appears again and again within history. Moreover, the structure of Ceremony itself is cyclical: Tayo's narrative begins with an invocation of the "Sunrise" (4), while the book closes with the words "Sunrise,/accept this offering,/Sunrise" (244). By using recurrence as a fundamental principle of composition, Silko helps to immerse her readers in a narrative world where cycles and repetition structure episodes, events, and entire societies.
Ceremony Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Ceremony is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.