Saturday, November 14, 2015

Change is not always bad: Conversion in the New World

After the Spanish conquest of Mexico and central America, Catholic monks traveled to the New World to set about converting the indigenous Nahua population. As history shows us, they succeeded in this venture. But how and why did a group of peoples that religiously sacrificed peoples to their gods and goddesses for rain and luck in battle take to a monotheistic religion with the only sacrifice that of Christ’s on the cross? Aside from not having enough information to answer this question, I think I’d need a whole book to properly answer it regardless. However, in the space of a blog, I can discuss some of the evidence pointing to the Virgin Mary as one of the influencing factors. From the class readings, we can deduct that their conversion was aided both by subtle alterations in Marian apparition stories and the parallels between the Virgin Mary and Nahua goddesses. It is also because of these that the Nahua’s view of Mary shifted to a more divine, yet more maternal image as compared to the previous European stories that we have seen. 

First we see that changed small details in the apparition stories, but never ones that change the overall appearance of the Virgin or the overall miracle of the story. If we compare the European apparition stories to the Guadalupe story, we see that the overall structure is the same. A poorer person or shepherd is approached by the Virgin and for the most part, asked to tell their town or parish about her appearance and/or asked to build a church or monastery in the apparition spot. Furthermore, in the Medieval Spanish stories, Mary is usually depicted as “brighter than the sun…”, “…so resplendent that [the main character] could not look at her directly…” and “a beautiful lady…in cloth of gold” (Christian 29, 61). And in the Our Lady of Guadalupe apparition, she is described as “shining like the sun” and surrounded by “waves of light” (Anderson 173). The similarities between the two regions’ stories are immediately apparent. The stories from both regions have the Virgin asking the poor person to go back to their  town to build a shrine, church, monastery, etc in her honor. And the light imagery we have seen so prevalent in European Marian doctrine is also included in the Latin American stories. The plot line, structure, and imagery describing the Virgin made the transition to the New World in near exact form then. But there are (subtle) differences between the two as well, most notably in the scenery. For instance, in one of the Spain apparition stories, Mary is depicted as standing over a hawthorn tree surrounded by a great mass of people who are “singing, like priests chanting the hours” (Christian 29). In the Guadalupe story, the main character is also attracted to the hill on which Mary is standing by singing, but this singing of  “many precious songbirds” which exceeds that of “the coyoltototl and the tzinitzcan and other precious songbirds,” (Anderson 172). When he draws closer, he sees Mary surrounded by “stones…giving out rays like precious jades, like jewels…” as well as “mesquites, prickly pears, and the other little plants…[seeming] like quetzal feathers,” (Anderson 173). While both are attracted by singing, the Spanish character is attracted by that of traditional church chanting and the Nahua character is attracted by the beauty of the noise. While a seemingly insignificant detail, this change marks a difference in how the Virgin reaches out to the locals. As we have seen in the previous readings, music is important in Marian devotion. There are many hymns to Mary and in some opinions, the choir is where Mary’s presence could be felt the most (Baltzer). The singing style of the monks, while recognizable to the Spanish as important in the hymns of Mary, does not have the same reverential and traditional basis to the Nahua peoples. Thusly the beauteous and devoted chanting of the monks would have little meaning to the indigenous peoples if included in the Guadalupe story. The substitute was to include a reflection of beauty that the natives would recognize- that of their native song birds. While a small switch, this change allowed the story to keep the same element of wonder and beauty toward the Virgin. 

Regarding Mary’s surroundings in the Guadalupe story, the setting on top of the hill is paradise-like. And as Professor Fulton mentioned in class, this image is remarkably similar to traditional European images of heaven. The differences are the plants and gemstones mentioned. Being native to the New World, these objects would have been more recognizable to a Latin American audience. The small shift again allows the Nuaha listener/reader to gain a better picture of the Virgin and keep their sense of awe. By changing small details of the story to fit traditional, familiar images of the indigenous peoples’ landscape the monks and native priests made the stories more accessible to the native reader and/or listener. This accessibility allowed them to more fully gain a sense of respect and wonder at the Virgin Mary. 

It was not just the monks who were able to affect change however. The Nuaha people’s already grounded religious beliefs helped in their acceptance of the Virgin. In fact, these beliefs also probably influenced their view of the Virgin, giving her an even more divine, maternal image than the Europeans extended to her. 

To begin with, in the European tradition, Mary is traditionally associated with the “garden enclosed” that surrounds “Christ as a tree” and other plant imagery found in the Song of Solomon and subsequent devotions. In traditional Nahuan beliefs, many of their main gods turn into trees or are associated with a tree of life (Burkhart 15). If the parallel can be made between those main gods and Christ, it is only natural then that the subsequent parallel of Mary as garden can be made as the container of that tree. Thusly Mary can be seen as the all encompassing garden of the tree of life, Christ. Her role as an important maternal figure is thus solidified. 

The maternal image is further exacerbated by the natives’ use of the word “tonantzin” or “totlazohnantzin”, meaning “our mother” and “our precious mother” respectively (Burkhart 11). As Burkhart notes, these words were used to described the natives’ traditional goddesses. Thus, these terms were translated on to the Virgin because of her maternal role as titles of respect. This brought a more intimate, maternal depiction of the mother as opposed to the Spanish’s title of “Our Lady”, which Burkhart points out as being a regal title that separates the common man with the Virgin.  

Furthermore, the association of flowers and light imagery with Mary is common in the European tradition (e.g. Song of Solomon, Amadeus of Lausanne). Goddesses in the Nahuan tradition are also represented by light imagery and flowers, which are deeply connected with spiritual life (Burkhart 20). This imagery paired with the use of “tonantzin”, traditionally given to goddesses as a title of respect, give Mary a more divine image than the Europeans give her. The preconception for goddesses in Nahuan tradition paints Mary in a more divine light than European tradition typically depicted her. 

In total, these changes in tradition, both from the Nahuan and European side, allowed the natives to understand and grasp the image of the Virgin better, and gave them a better foothold  in their conversions to Christianity. 



  1. Very nice attention to the details in the stories and sermons that we read so as to tease out the similarities and differences between the Old World and New World depictions of Mary. I think that you are absolutely right to stress how even translating the traditional Marian imagery into local Nahuan terms would have a significant, if subtle effect on the understanding of Mary, including her perception as mother and (potentially) divine, but as with the tree and light imagery, here, too, we need to be careful: Mary is just as maternal in the Old World tradition--all of those statues of her holding the child--so we need some better sense of how (if at all) her maternity changed in translation. Likewise, her relationship to the divinity: it is ironic that, as we saw in our discussion of Luther, the reformers criticized the *medieval* tradition for seeing Mary as a goddess, when the actual goddesses to which she was being compared were by contemporaries in the New World. Much to think about here! RLFB

  2. I agree with HG that New World Mary depictions put more emphasis on Mary’s gentle and maternal qualities. Trying to convince people from the Nahuan tradition to believe in Mary, and by extension her son, translates into stressing different qualities and pulling out different themes. As HG pointed out, one significant change in the Guadalupe story is singing by songbirds rather than monks. This difference is a reminder that, while many of the stories we read earlier were intended to be messages to clergy, Thursday’s readings are intended for a Nahuan audience. In 9/15 of Peter Damian’s stories, the main character is a member of the clergy. In Thursday’s readings, the witnesses are poor villagers. As discussed in class, this is partially a reaction to the perception that clergy could fabricate imagery from what they read. However, as HG suggested with the Gaudalupe story, if you’re trying to create a new religious tradition, it makes sense to build off of the traditions that already exist rather than instituting new gods with a completely different kind of mysticism. The post actually made me think of the musical, Book of Mormon, in how the protagonist changes Mormon stories to be applicable to the population of Uganda. These changes are not as extreme as those in the musical, but they are predicated on a similar understanding of human nature: people respond better to what they are familiar with and can relate to. This partially explains the increased emphasis on poor recipients of Mary visions rather than clergymen and other variations in the stories.


  3. The change from visionaries of the clergy to that of the shepherd or the poor is a unique aspect of Christian belief that has both New and Old World traits. It actually made me think of how the Shepherd’s Crusade, a phenomena us modern thinkers look back on generally with more disbelief than anything else, and how these grassroots movements of faith were growing ever more important to the Church and to the people of the faith. To those involved in the crusade or in this change of the Church, true faith was more important than that meditative and practiced prayer for such revelations because now it was accessible to every Christian. After centuries of visions being in the realm of the clergy in Europe and in the New World, it was now the lowly who could be trusted in their visions, Juans no longer needed be Johns if that makes sense. Lack of training was seen as innocence rather than ignorance and so they could not “create” a vision of the Virgin Mary in the same way. The importance of the shepherd though in these visions and stories cannot be overlooked. The young boys who had these visions were poor and lived off the land and with their animals very often. But like Jesus was meant to be a shepherd to his sheep, these shepherds are able to reveal the Word through the mother, guiding the rest of the community in faith.
    - A. Graff

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  4. In observing the similarities you so well draw between the European apparition and the Guadalupe, what strikes me most is not only the similarity in content, but also in form. These accounts are written in a similar genre and are organized with regard to content placement similarly as well. In that light, I’m curious about your comment about accessibility for those in the New World. The subtext of the what is happening historically in the church in during this time with regards to authority either gained or lost due to cult of Mary makes we want to know more about the ways in which these accounts are written in the first place. I imagine it is no coincidence that we can so easily spot the similarities between the established European apparition and the written account of an apparition in the new world – if the church is going to condone this Mary theology, this institution needs to have a firm grip on what is canon and what is not regarding Mary. The very people who are recording these apparitions have got an agenda: they see the theological value in this Mary figure, so much so that it is worth recording so that many others can “witness” it. I would like to know more about the authors of these texts. Were they in communication directly with one another? DOC