Barry’s Blog # 118: Mexico’s Mother Goddess, Part Four of Five


Sixty years after the conquest Fray Diego Durán complained:

These wretched Indians…On one hand they believe in God, and on the other they worship idols. They practice their ancient superstitions and rites and mix one with the other… They sing these things when there is no one around who understands, but, as soon as a person appears who might understand, they change their tune and sing the song made up for Saint Francis with a hallelujah at the end, all to cover up their unrighteousness—interchanging religious themes with pagan gods.

Nearly 500 years later, it is clear that indigenous mythic visions and ritual practices had been entrenched for so many centuries that Catholicism could never entirely destroy them. For much of the following I am indebted to Masks of the Spirit, by Peter and Roberta Markman, and to Alan Watts.

Christianity saw an unbridgeable gulf between man in this world and god in the heavens; through death, the individual might find a union with the godhead, but god was not present in this fallen world.

But the Indians held that one need only don the mask in the proper ritual context to allow the omnipresent world of spirit to emerge into this one. Their rituals focused rather on man’s reciprocation for the creation and sustenance of life by the world of the spirit.

Christianity, moreover, proposed that good might ultimately exist without evil, pleasure without pain, and light without darkness. But the indigenous world was concerned with the joining of opposed qualities and was always aware of the simultaneous existence of both halves of those pairs of opposites. The Indians could not comprehend the idea of a single, monolithic truth.

Still, to accept the new religion, they had only to – gladly – make one major change: to abandon literal human sacrifice for the maintenance of the social-cosmic order and accept symbolic sacrifice, in the figure of the crucified Christ.

But it is unlikely that they experienced any guilt, sin or repentance in connection with that sacrifice. To the Indians, it, like their earlier rites, was a reciprocal necessity in the cyclical flux constituting the eternal and universal order of things. Death was necessary so that rebirth might occur. Thus, the image of sacrifice might be the same, but its meaning was profoundly different.

So Christianity came to Mexico in the form of syncretism. Its forms were adapted, but the indigenous structure of spiritual thought – and the longing for a meaningful cosmos – remained intact.

In 1790, as I wrote in Part One, Indians in Mexico City became so enamored of the newly-discovered statue of Coatlicue that the authorities had it reburied, even though much of her essence as the giver and nourisher of life had long been assimilated to the image of the Virgin Mary. As Watts points out, in that manifestation as the Virgin of Guadalupe (who is honored far more extensively than the Father and Son), her icon

 …stands before the worshippers in its own right, representing the Virgin alone without even the Christ Child in her arms.


Ironically, Guadalupe’s name was originally associated with the Moorish invasion of Spain. The Black Madonna of Guadalupe had the most important shrine in Extremadura, where Cortés and most of the conquistadores hailed from.

Legend tells us that ten years after the conquest the Virgin revealed herself (as “Coatlaxopeuh”) to the Indian Juan Diego. Her image, which miraculously appeared on his cloak, appealed to both conquerors and conquered.

The Spaniards saw in it a confirmation of their Marian devotions coupled to their mandate to discover and subjugate the Americas. They recognized their Virgin Madonna standing between the horns of a bull. The “Indios” identified with the goddess who blocks the sun and stands on the moon. She wears a dress adorned with local flowers and her waist sash indicates that she is pregnant. She is brown and mestizo – the first Mexican.

This painting remains Mexico’s central focus of veneration. On December 12th, 2013, her feast day, over six million people assembled at her Cathedral in Mexico City, where she has become a symbol of the nation and a special protector of Native Americans.

This cathedral was built where she first appeared, upon the hill of Tepeyac – where a temple to Tonantzin (an epithet for several goddesses, including Coatlicue) had long existed. Even today many still worship her as Tonantzin.

The two deities share many characteristics. Mary was the virgin mother, while Coatlicue bore Huitzilopochtli after being mysteriously impregnated. Both were invoked as “our Holy mother.” Coatlicue wore a black sash during her pregnancy, as does Guadalupe.

Their similarities, however, cannot obscure some fundamental differences. The Christian ideals of love and mercy were associated with Guadalupe. But the pagan Coatlicue had a dual nature that made her both creator and destroyer of life in the cyclical flux of the cosmos.

The psyche is always searching for completion, and we could once see that potential in certain mythic images. When culture destroys that unified vision, we project its various aspects onto separate images. For example, as I’ve suggested in Chapter Ten of my book, the patriarchal conquerors of ancient Greece gradually divided the images of the Great Goddess. Aphrodite and Athena had once been aspects of a single deity. Similarly,

Western man divided the primal unity of the indigenous soul into irreconcilable opposites: mind/body; male/female; white/black; culture/nature; and ultimately, Christ and the Devil. Gone was the memory that in the great cycle of existence darkness or chaos is the necessary pre-condition for rebirth. Two interdependent aspects of a polarity, symbolized by Dionysus and Apollo, became opposites that excluded each other. Eventually, both Dionysus and his mother were banished. First came the split of female goddesses and the male godhead, then the split of the male sun god Apollo from his dark half-brother. Finally, writes Arthur Evans, “Christians took the last version of Dionysus as it was developed by paganism and split it in two.” They assigned the “good” traits…to Christ and the “bad” traits to the Devil.

Something similar happened in Mexico, and more than once. Two centuries before, the Aztec elites had overlaid their masculine, warrior-god rituals above the older, goddess-centered religions. Now the Spanish were attempting to do something similar, to replace the terrible (but mythologically unified) Coatlicue with the compassionate and beautiful (but somewhat one-dimensional) Guadalupe, who was victorious over sin and death.

But Coatlicue’s breasts symbolize that she was nurturer as well as devourer. If the Spanish located her nurturing aspects in Guadalupe, where did her destructive aspects go?

Here I am on thin ice, but I will offer some speculations. Mexican culture took the Spanish concept of machismo to the extreme, and with it the denigration of certain characteristics of the feminine. From this came the virgin/whore dichotomy in popular culture. Men saw women either as stereotypically chaste, silent and obedient, or as whores, putas, embodiments of La Chingada, “the fucked one.”

Hence some well-known expressions: ¡Vete a la Chingagda! (Go to hell!); ¡Me lleva la Chingada! (“I’m fucked!”); ¡Hijo de la Chingada! (Son of a bitch!); and the worst insult of all, ¡Hijo de la Grande Puta!

In folk culture, some of Coatlicue’s darker aspects may have been transferred to the figures of La LLorona (about whom I wrote in recent blogs) and La Malinche (Malintzin, the Indian woman who translated for Cortés and bore his child). She has been understood in various and often conflicting aspects, as the embodiment of treachery, the quintessential victim, or simply as symbolic mother of the new nation. Gloria Anzaldua writes:

 …la Chingada…She has become the bad word that passes a dozen times a day from the lips of Chicanos. Whore, prostitute, the woman who sold out her people to the Spaniards are epithets Chicanos spit out with contempt.

Finally, it is possible that – in opposition to the peace and grace of Guadalupe – the Mexican Jesus took on much more suffering than in Europe, where the emphasis was often more on the resurrection. In many Mexican churches (and in the American Southwest), Christ stares directly at the viewer from the cross, in utter human agony, covered with blood. This reminds us of the fundamental importance of blood (represented by Coatlicue’s serpent face) and sacrifice in the old Aztec religion.


Today, many Chicanas, following Anzaldua’s example, have reframed Coatlicue’s meaning in cultural forms that celebrate her original fullness. Welcoming the return of the Goddess, they can be an inspiration to us all.

And in many Indian villages, the Concheros (old-time ritual dancers) continue to dance and chant, “May our ancient religion endure, as it has from the beginning, to the end of all things.” Their prayer is repeated—in a variety of words and ritual actions—by indigenous groups throughout Mesoamerica. There, the Goddess may have taken on new names, but she has never left.


You can find Part Five of this essay, the conclusion, here. 

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