Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jeudi: Great Spirits

According to the now familiar story, a Nahuatl native named Juan Diego was walking the fourteen mile path home from mass at the cathedral in what was then Tenochtitlan and is today Mexico City.  The day was December 9, 1531 and as Diego, who some have claimed was a local shaman, rounded the hill of Tepeyac he came upon a vision of a beautiful woman wearing white and blue and “shining like the sun.”  She was dark haired and eyed, and her skin was as brown as that of the flabbergasted Diego.  To him, she appeared nothing like the statues of the Holy Virgin at the cathedral.

To Diego’s amazement, that is exactly who the woman claimed to be.  She told him, in his own language, that she was Mary, the Virgin Mother of Christ, and instructed him to convey her message to the Bishop of Tenochtitlan.  A church in her honor should be built on the site where she now stood; on the little hill known as Tepeyac.  With this, the beautiful lady disappeared leaving the shaman trembling and dizzy.

What Juan Diego must have thought as he trekked home that day is unknown to us but the fact that some researchers indicated his connection to the pre-Hispanic religion of the Nahua people should give us pause.  The hill at Tepeyac had long been the sacred ground of their mother goddess, Tlakatelilis who was known to the Aztecs as Tonan. 

Tonan bears some curious similarities to the Mayan goddess of women, Ix Chel.  Both were thought to descend from heaven and were prayed to by all women and mothers in particular.  The story goes that Tonan’s son claimed to be the mightiest of all the gods.  Tonan responded that the truly mighty were far more than just strong; if her son was the mightiest of all he would produce milk and feed the infant gods.  Of course, he could not meet his mother’s challenge and his claim to superiority came to an end.

The Aztec goddess was worshiped at the Winter Solstice, very near to the time when Diego’s vision first appeared.  At these ceremonies, a young woman would chosen the year before would represent the goddess.  She would dance through the city in a white dress of seashells and feathers while singing the praises of the benevolent earth.  When the procession reached the temple, the girl would be sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the land and the people.  To this day the Nahua of Mexico celebrate the Festival of Tlakatelilis over three days ending on December 24th with music, dancing and offerings of flower garlands made to statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

It took several more visions of the beautiful lady before Juan Diego finally approached the bishop.  He was of course rebuffed, written off as an ignorant Indian babbling for no reason.  But the lady had other ideas; she marked Diego’s tilma, a robe made from cactus cloth, with her image and gave him a bouquet of glorious roses – out of season no less – to take to the bishop.  The miracle achieved its purpose and the bishop was convinced.

Today the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe stands near Tepeyac hill and Diego’s robe hangs in the sanctuary surrounded by silver and gold leaf.  Miracles are still attributed to Guadalupe who shares a common bond with other Virgin Mary figures such as Our Lady of Fatima and our Lady of Lourdes – both of whom also have pre-Christian connections.  Not surprisingly, Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and of Mexican people dispersed around the globe.

While no true believer would see anything but a Christian miracle in this story, the debate continues as to Juan Diego, his vision and his true intentions.  Some authorities say there was no Juan Diego and that his story was fabricated to increase the faith of the local indigenous people.  Others claim that Diego did indeed have a vision but of his own goddess, which he then cleverly tweaked to dupe the Catholic Church into building a shrine to Tonan all unbeknownst to them.  The debate over the authenticity of the famous tilma also continues; you can read more about that here. 

If nothing else, the story illustrates how the religion of a conqueror will happily absorb that of the conquered in order to further its own ends.  Just as the Celtic sun god Lugh became Mercury under Roman rule, so the ancient Tonan/ Tlakatelilis has become Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Header: The tilma of Juan Diego enshrined in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico; photo by Bill Bell via


Timmy! said...

Interesting story, Pauline. While I believe that either of those two theories are equally plausible, I would personally be more inclined to believe the first one, but would like to hope that the second one is actually the truth...

I really enjoyed the link too. Why would anyone doubt that the image on Diego's tilma was divine in origin?


Pauline said...

A lot of very bad press has bombarded the Catholic belief in relics, beginning with Martin Luther and Henry VIII. Holding something dear is one thing but arguing its "reality" can get you into trouble, I find.