Thursday, May 17, 2012

Guadalupe as a continuation of Pre-Hispanic Religion

One thing that I wanted to expand from class is the name Guadalupe. The nahuatl text of the Nican Mopohua, and subsequently Spanish translations use the name Guadalupe for the image that is believed to have appeared to Juan Diego in Tepeyacac hill. Applying the Spanish name of Guadalupe to the Mexican Virgin apparition tends to distract from the nahuatl term that mary would have been used…since it is recorded Mary spoke to Juan Diego in his native language. 

 “Nican mopoua, motecpana, in qenin yancuican ueytlamauisoltica monexiti in senquisca ichpochtli Sancta Maria Dios Inantzin tocihuapilatocatzin, in oncan Tepeyacac, moteneua Guadalupe.

The first section of the Nican Mopohua names her “Sancta Maria Dios Inantzin tocihuapilatocatzin… Guadalupe”.  It uses the Latin term “holy” (Sancta) and the Nahuatl honorific mode of “Mother”. Most of the references to her by Juan Diego seem to be in this respectful mode; titles and names in Nahuatl used for a person of high status usually end in “-tzin”. The name Guadalupe itself could be a hispanization of a nahuatl term Mary used when she spoke to Juan Diego and Juan Diego’s uncle.

The term "cihuatpilatocatzin" literally means reigning female counterpart... basically Queen. The term implies status as both favorite and as spouse which is important since this treats her almost as an equal to God and parallels pre-hispanic ideas of reigning deities which usually existed in couples. 

As early as the 1660s theologians, such as Luís Becerra y Tanco, were debating the Náhuatl name of Guadalupe. His conclusion; Coatlaxopeuh. This may seem trivial but in fact the name would have been important not only in an indigenous but in a Christian context. Coatlaxopeuh literally means “(she) who crushes the snake”.  An extensive mythology of pre-Hispanic gods narrates the rule, leaving and hoped-for return of a principal serpent god. The fact that Mary (Guadalupe) would “crush” the serpent would allude to scripture (Revelation 11:19, the dragon of Apocalypse) and possibly the snake in the Garden of Eden who deceived the first woman (Genesis 3:1). Mary brings the good news of Jesus Christ our (the) messiah (Iesu Christo in totemaquizticantzin) and of the True God (neli Teotl Dios). In doing so she 1) adopts the indigenous people as Her children 2) destroys the old sinful ways (human sacrifice, worship of other gods). It was not uncommon for writers at the time to describe indigenous religious practice as Satanic since they often assumed the things they saw were inspired by none other than Satan (tzitzimitl).

The Nican Mopohua seems to incorporate Classical Nahuatl literary style especially in the way it describes people and places of respect. Section 25 of page 173 in the nican mopohua text reads as “"Maxikmatti, ma uel yu ye in moyolo, noxocoyou, ca neuatl in nisenquisca semicac Ichpochtli Sancta Maria, in Inantzin in uel neli Teotl Dios, in Ipalnemouani, in Teyocoyani, in Tloque Nauaque, in Iluicaua, in Tlalticpace” “She said to him, ‘know for sure my dearest and youngest son, that I am truly the most perfect (immaculate) most Holy Virgin Mary, who has the honor to be the Mother (use of honorific title) of the  only and most true God for whom we all exist, the Creator of (all) people, the Lord of all around us and of what is near us, the Lord of Heaven and the Lord of Earth.  Mary reinforces Catholic teaching by reiterating that she is not an indigenous goddess, she is Mary and that the God that is Hers is also their (Juan Diego’s, Mexicans’) God.

On page 18 of the Conception excerpt; the author plays with a lot of pre-Christian Mesoamerican imagery. Mary seems at a certain level as a continuation or fulfillment of pre-Christian religion. By comparing Mary to the Ark of the covenant and fine and fragrant lumbers the author appeals to Nahua ideas of godly anointment (fragrance) as well as drawing a parallel between the “Cedar of Lebanon” with the ahuehuetl, a cosmic tree of sorts with importance to the indigenous people before and after Christianity.

The author of the Nican Mopohua and the ecclesiastical authors writing on the topic of the apparition attempt to create a tender picture of Christianity that may contrast against the tragedies of the conquest, famine and plagues at the time. In speaking to Juan Diego, Mary explicitly terms Juan Diego as Her son; “¿Cuix amo nican nica nimonantzin ¿Cuix amo noseualotitlan, necauyotitlan in tika ¿Cuix amo neuatl in nimopakcayelis Cuix amo nocuixanco nomamaluasko in tica ¿Cuix oc itla in motech monequi?”… “Am I not here, I that am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle and in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more?”.  She offers her protection and guidance to Juan Diego and requests that a shrine be built in Her honor. For this reason Mary does not simply Destroy (the serpent, old pagan ways) but also Creates since she reinforces the importance of accepting the True God and all the while maintains a delicate balance found in pre-Hispanic theology such as God couples and motherly motifs in the objective of public cults.



  1. You discuss often the efforts to transition the indigenous people into Catholicism by keeping aspects of their pagan tradition alive such as the God couples. In a way, this has to be done so that it seems like the Nahuatl people weren’t completely rewritten and stripped of their heritage but rather to make it seem like a natural progression. These missionary efforts, and similar ones elsewhere, I believe are responsible for many of the misconceptions and the emphasis on Mary as the head of a cult, as a deity slightly lesser than God but only by gender. This is not the case but with traces of concepts like the God couples remaining, this can easily be misconstrued. The mentioning of the serpent being crushed by Mary reminded me of the Mexican flag which has the emblem of the eagle with the serpent in its talons. This seems to be a very important image of renewal and powerful beginnings in general to the Nahuatl people and perhaps putting Mary in this image makes her the origin of their renewal through the Catholic faith…

  2. Speaking as someone with only rudimentary knowledge of Mesoamerican history and culture, I enjoyed certain parallels your analysis conjures between the Christianization of American peoples and earlier patterns of Christianization on the fringes of Europe. During the very early middle ages (c. 6th to 7th centuries), Anglo-Saxon migrants to Britain underwent a prolonged period of conversion in which Christian faith slowly replaced earlier “pagan” models. The recent historiographical trend in this area has been to rethink a simple model of conversion in which monolithic Christianity replaces (sometimes forcibly) monolithic pre-Christianity. More attention is being paid to the political and social dynamics of conversion in which two parallel processes of cultural revision occur: first, older religious and mythological ideas are adopted to fit Christianity, and second, subtle changes arise in “colonial” Christianity itself during this period of acclimatization. Your analysis of a process of linguistic acclimatization along these lines struck me as all too similar to many processes of conversion I am more familiar with. Although I realize there are certain concrete historical peculiarities regarding the rapidity and force with which Spanish colonialism changed Mesoamerican culture (i.e. technological differences and disease), the traditional narrative of violent conversion away from the earlier faith must be at least partially false. You suggest that theologians attempted to maintain a “delicate balance” between the new faith and the pre-Christian one on a linguistic and thus cultural level. This seems well in line with other historical instances of conversion (especially from polytheisms to Christianity), which are all too often couched in overly violent and antipathetic terms. In other words, to paraphrase LLD's comment above, it is not a natural progression, but likewise not a wholly "unnatural" one either.


  3. EA: There is a lot to contemplate in your post, and you (along with several others so far) highlight many of the reasons that the history of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico has been such a focus. You have nicely shown the sophistication of doctrine and cultural work in the Juan Diego story and the Nahuatl sermons, and you have added your own insightful interpretations (e.g., suggesting that the works offer a tender picture of Christianity in contrast to the harsh realities of the contact period and that Mary creates as much as destroys in the New World). There is no question that American Catholicism as manifest through the Virgin of Guadalupe is an extraordinary accomplishment.

    Would any of this change if Juan Diego the Indian was not an historical figure and thus did not have his experience in 1531? What about historical evidence suggesting that Mexican creoles were by far those most devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe until the late 18th and 19th centuries?

    As Professor Fulton Brown mentioned, on the whole, Burkhart does a better job than the scholars from our Reformation readings in representing earlier Catholic thought. Does it seem like Burkhart is more earnestly trying to find earlier elements from Christian thought that match up with Nahua concepts? What potential difficulties could this approach raise?

  4. These are exactly the kinds of details that we need to consider in studying how Marian imagery (and Mary herself) participated in the conversion of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of "New Spain"--very nicely observed! What is fascinating is the way that preachers like the ones that Burkhart translates for us were themselves able (and willing) to translate Christian mysteries into terms that their Nahuatl-speaking audiences would find compelling as descriptions of the divine. As PWR points out, this was a feature of the conversion of the peoples of early medieval Europe as well (and is what I have written about with respect to the Old Saxon Heliand as an example of this kind of conversion). For our purposes, what is most fascinating is precisely the way that the Virgin took over attributes of the pre-Christian deities and yet (as we have argued previously) did not herself become a goddess, at least not in the sermons or stories that we read. It is suggestive of the massive change in thinking that conversion from paganism entailed in antiquity and to which (as G.K. Chesterton put it) Christianity is now our only living witness. Definitely much to think about here!