Every Christmas Eve at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the residents of the oldest town in America bring out an old, old statue of the Virgin Mary and give her a procession through an eager crowd. This representation of Mary is more than 300 years old, but the Pueblo and its people go back much, much farther.
Archaeologists confirm that the large apartment-like adobe buildings at the Taos Pueblo (also called the Pueblo at the Red Willows) in which some Pueblo Indians still live, have been here for at least 1,000 years. They cannot say for certain exactly how far into the past this pueblo existed because their access has been limited by the tribe, whose own traditions say they have been here much, much longer. Thousands of years into the past, perhaps. According to their own legends, the people of the Taos Pueblo emerged from inside the earth which is their beloved Mother Nature and climbed up a pine tree at nearby Blue Lake, journeying only a short way to the place where they created the pueblo.
About 500 years ago they were reached by Spanish conquistadors. The first of these were seeking the fabled cities of gold. In their wake would come more Spaniards. They would bring with them disease, slavery, and the Catholic faith, including a belief in the Mother of God, Mary. Like all the Spanish rulers of the New World, they believed that Mary was their protector and champion in the quest to subdue and colonize this “new” (to them) world and its people. Like so many of their victims, however, the people of Taos Pueblo saw things a little bit differently.
In 1680, the Pueblo Indians had had enough. They revolted against their Spanish overlords. During the rebellion, they tore down the original 17th century San Geronimo mission church. But before they did, they did a very interesting thing: they rescued the santos, the images of the saints, including the greatest among them, Mother Mary. (A second church was brought down by cannon fire with women and children inside by the American government. Its ruins still stand at the pueblo today. St. Jerome church, where the santos now reside, is the Pueblo’s third.)
The most prominent of the santos is Mary, who occupies the central place in an alcove at the back of the current pueblo church, the spot which would in most Catholic churches be given to her son. She is crowned, appropriately, as she is the Queen of Heaven. This particular representation of the Queen of Heaven has the light-skinned, brown-haired appearance of the Spaniards who constructed her hundreds of years ago. Her garments, also European in style, are changed with the seasons. She may have been brought by Europeans who once enslaved them but it seems that the Puebloans don’t hold that against her. They have nominally adopted Catholicism while retaining their own faith and strictly guarding their ancient traditions. The Spaniards may have seen her as a helper in their conquest; the indigenous people of New Mexico saw something else.
At Christmas, she is dressed as if for a wedding, in white, with a bridal veil. On Christmas Eve, she is carried on a litter, under a white canopy in a procession through an eager crowd. A thousand people, or more, of many ancestries, gather to witness and participate in this ancient tradition. Pueblo dancers accompany the statue, and men with guns who fire shots into the air. At the front of the procession is the local priest. This is the anniversary, according to Christian tradition, of the night when she gave birth to God in a stable, on what was, 2,000 years ago, the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. This year I was fortunate to be at that celebration. Although the sun has set, the bitter Rocky Mountain cold and the darkness of one of the longest nights of the year are pushed back for a time by the presence of enormous and pungent bonfires of piñon pine. (I wonder, are the fires calling back the sun, ensuring its return in the morning and for the coming year?)
Barely suppressed beneath the surface here is Mary’s true identity, which is in two parts: bride, and mother, both of which are more than what they appear to be on the surface. For if she is the bride, who is the bridegroom? Clearly, God, the father of her child, who is King of Heaven just as she is his Queen. She is dressed for the wedding, and just in time, for the child is due by morning. Official protests of the orthodox in Rome notwithstanding, Mary’s identity as a Goddess seems plain.
“Great is the might and power a beautiful woman has over a man who is in love with her…she causes him to rave and causes the lover to go out of his mind…the Virgin could do this with God himself,” wrote Lawrence of Brindisi in 1619. (Quoted from In Search of Mary, by Sally Cuneen.)
Another clue to her identity — this time as mother — is the paintings of corn and bean plants around her alcove in the pueblo church. These are the native plants which have been farmed here for at least 1,000 years and are the staples of the traditional diet. A few days before Christmas, we were told during a tour by a member of the pueblo that Mother Mary is revered here as Mother Nature. And in recognizing in her their own Mother Nature, the Pueblo people see her as she once was. For the Queen of Heaven emerged from goddesses of nature in the ancient Near East and Europe and absorbed them everywhere she went in the ancient world. Theology may have served to obscure her identity, but it didn’t fool the residents of Red Willow Pueblo.
If there’s one thing a trip to the southwest will tell you, it’s that Mary is a force to be reckoned with in America today and will likely become even more so as the Hispanic population, most of which is Catholic, increases. She is considered by Catholics to be the patron saint of the United States, as well as of the Americas in general. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a survey of 14 of the US archdioceses suggests more Catholic churches are named for her or one of her epithets than for God and Jesus (and their attributes) combined.
South of the border she is perhaps even more impressive. Her most famous representation in the Americas is that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is virtually the symbol of Mexico. Mary arrived here with the Spanish Conquistadors. She was seen by the Spaniards as their protector and the sponsor of their endeavors to explore and conquer the New World. And yet, rather than reject her, those of mixed Spanish and Indian descent adopted her and turned her to their own purposes. When Mexico revolted against Spain, the warrior and priest Miguel Hidalgo (the Father of Mexico) carried the Virgin of Guadalupe’s image on his spear at the head of his army. Mary as Guadalupe was seen as their protector and the sponsor of their fight for freedom. I’m not as certain as the Spaniards and Mexicans were that Mary takes sides in battle (personally, I prefer the Puebloan explanation of the divine mother) but if Mary did enter the fray, it’s clear whose side she was on. Spain’s influence would wane in the Americas. Mary’s would not.
Legend says that Guadalupe is the product of a vision. According to the faithful, in the year 1531 a Native Aztec man called Quauhtlatoatzin (also called Juan Diego, perhaps because none of the Spaniards could pronounce Quauhtlatoatzin), had a remarkable experience. While passing Tepeyac hill on his way to church at the nearby Franciscan mission he had an unusual vision. In it, Mother Mary appeared as a dark skinned woman surrounded by radiant light and requested a church be built for her there.
When Juan Diego presented her request to the local bishop, he was not impressed. Subsequently, Mary instructed Juan Diego to climb Tepeyac hill and collect roses she caused to miraculously bloom there. It was December and roses were out of season; also, the terrain was rocky and should not have supported their growth even in June. Juan Diego carried the roses to the bishop in his simple tilma (cloak), made of fibers from the maguey cactus plant. He brought them to the bishop, who was impressed by them, but stunned to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appearing miraculously on Juan Diego’s cloak.
According to the Franciscans, Mary’s request (and her promise) was this:
“I wish and intensely desire that in this place my sanctuary be erected. Here I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind of all those who love me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities, and misfortunes.”
Needless to say, the chapel was built. And the tilma was placed there. (It now resides in the newer Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe near the original site in Mexico City.) According to believers, the tilma is made of a rough sackcloth like fabric which would ordinarily have disintegrated in about 20 years. It has instead lasted for 500.
That image shows Mary in a star-studded cloak, standing on the moon and surrounded by sun rays.
Catholics interpret Mary’s imagery here to be a reference to the “woman clothed with the sun” who gives birth to the a divine child in the Book of Revelations:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (Revelations 12:1)
In this imaginative apocalyptic passage about the beginning of the End of Time, an evil dragon identified as Satan lies in wait, hoping to gobble the child of the celestial woman. But God rescues the child and war ensues between the angels of God and Satan.
Another possible source for Mary’s imagery here is suggested by the location of her miraculous appearance. For Tepeyac hill, where Mary appeared and where she asked that a chapel be built for her was a huaca, an Aztec holy pilgrimage site which predated the influence of Spanish Catholicism. One thing that makes Guadalupe unique is her brown skin. Unlike European images of Mary, she is made in the image of Mexicans of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. (Interestingly, her appearance is probably a more accurate representation of the coloring of the young Jewish girl who birthed Jesus at the turn of the first millennium than are the fair and blond representations so frequently seen elsewhere.) Another unique feature is that the blue green color of her cloak was that associated with Aztec divinities. And she identified herself as Tonantzen, the Mother of the Gods. The solar rays emanating from her are consistent with both earlier Spanish images of Mary and Aztec images of gods.
The name Guadalupe may be a Spanish translation of the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word used by the Virgin to describe herself, which may have been Coatalocpia (from coatl, meaning serpent and tlaloc, meaning goddess), which could mean either serpent goddess or she who crushes the serpent. The serpent in question might be the Aztec serpent god Quetzalcoatl, but then again, the identification of Goddess as associated with or conquering a serpent is exceedingly ancient and worldwide. (See, for example, my previous post on the goddess Asherah.) Naturally the Catholic interpretation is to identify the serpent with the Christian Satan, but whether the indigenous Mexicans interpreted things this way is another question altogether.
In fact, Mary was probably often recognized throughout the Americas as a variant of local goddesses. Is she any less exalted today? As recently as 1959, at the World Marian Congress she was called the Empress of the Americas. But then, wasn’t the Mother of God(s) always in charge of the land of the Americas? Perhaps it was only the European conquerors and colonizers who forgot who she really was.
For information on Mary’s associations with Old World goddesses at the time of her adoption into the Catholic church,see my post on Mary as Theotokos.