Madonna and the Serpent"
By Lawrence H. Freeman
April 2003 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 19, Number 8
Beginning with the landing of Cortez in 1519, alien Catholicism, with
a white god and a white panoply of saints, had been forcibly impressed
on a confused people with a deeply religious background.
In 1531, Juan Diego made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Aztec goddess
Tonantzin (Our Mother), when the vision, later called the Virgin of
Guadalupe, appeared to him and miraculously impressed her image on Juans
cloak, an image that exists to this day in a place of honor, the magnificent
and enormous new sanctuary the Church built upon the hallowed spot in
The important part of the miraculous
occurrence is that the Virgin was brown-skinned. Finally there was a
religious figure that the indigenous people could identify with. And
identify they did, raising her image to such heights that by 1895, Pope
Leo XIII officially decreed her to be The Queen of Mexico.
She has become the very soul and consciousness of the Mexican people.
Father Hidalgo was a Guadalupana, a devotee of the Dark
Virgin, adopting her as the spirit and icon of the Revolution.
Even today, her December 12 fiesta is
hugely celebrated, and in many areas easily overshadows Christmas. Once
again, the Catholic (the dictionary definition is broad in sympathies,
tastes and interests) Church had shown its true genius, the ability
to co-opt and integrate an existing theology. Try going into one of
the truly rural churches serving an indigenous community (such as Chamula
in Chiapas) and you will see a different kind of worship where Christianity
is only a veneer over the still vital practice of the old religion.
Catholicism has seemed to triumph in
Mexico. But has it? Does Catholicism include a church where there are
no pews or kneelers, where pine needles are strewn over the floor, where
the saints whose names you might recognize are provided with a very
different and local history. Here you will see worshipers in small groups
surrounded by dozens of candles, presided over by a curandero
who cures the sick by passing a chicken or an egg over the affected
body part to suck up the poison. Where Coca-Cola is major
to the service because the ingestion of the drink leads to the gaseous
expulsion of demons, and where the regular priest is forbidden to conduct
Mass, and is only suffered to conduct weddings, baptisms and funerals.
No, it is the Virgin and the old religion that has triumphed. We only
think it is Catholicism.
Quetzalcoatl, (Bird of precious
green feathers-snake or Feathered serpent) comes down to us in
so many forms that it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
He was holy man, creator and performer of art and music, warrior, cultural
hero, King of Tula, priest, drunken fornicator with his own sister,
fallen hero, and tragic figure. His face and form is likewise obscure,
and he has been shown as: a typical Indian, or dressed monk-like in
a long white robe fringed with black crosses, as a bearded white man
and a beardless, masked black man.
Although it has been said that a white
Quetzalcoatl was only a fiction spread after Cortez landed, that does
not explain why Moctezuma was obviously terrified by the landing of
a bearded white man at the very spot from which Quetzalcoatl was said
to have sailed away. Nor does it explain why the indigenous people attributed
the godlike qualities not to the bandy-legged, black-bearded Cortez,
but rather to his deputy, the surpassingly handsome blond, immoral,
bloodthirsty and headstrong young Pedro de Vargas, whom the Indians
identified with the sun. Not the least of the white mans godlike
qualities was the arrogant imperviousness to the deadly pandemics that
had arrived with them, while all around, the indigenous peoples were
dropping like flies by the millions.
It is estimated that on Cortez
arrival there were 36 million inhabitants of the area now known as Mexico,
but less than two generations later there were less than two million
The legend of Cortez as a returning god
might well have owed more to the ships, the sickness, the shining armor
(particularly the helmets), the horses, the dogs, and the fearsome weapons.
Think of what our reaction would be to a UFO landing on the White House
lawn and a bona fide alien alighting. It is said that there was a widespread
belief in the imminent arrival of bearded white gods from over the sea,
but there seems no solid foundation for this belief.
The legends are at least partially a
reaction to the coming of the Europeans and sully the pristine truth.
Somehow, the legend of a white-skinned, bearded Quetzalcoatl became
an apologia for the Conquest, while the legend of the Virgin allowed
the indigenous people to have a stake in the conquering religion.