Unity in the Virgin

By Dave Kopel

MSNBC.com, December 12, 2004 11:17 PM ET. Guest blogging for Glenn Reynolds this week is Dave Kopel, Research Director at the Independence Institute, and co-author of several articles with Glenn. (Slightly revised, 2015.)

Visit Kopel's MaryLinks website for links to websites on Guadalupe, and for a daily calendar of Marian feasts, history, devotions, and events.

This weekend was the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and if you don't know who she is, you might as well learn, because she is well on the road to becoming as an all-American icon like St. Patrick and Saint Nicholas.

You don't have to believe that there really was an escaped slave who spearheaded the Christianization of Ireland in order to acknowledge that St. Patrick's Day is an inescapable element of American culture.

And you don't have to believe that the 4th century's Bishop Nicholas in southwestern Turkey gave presents to poor people--especially to impecunious young women, so that they would have a marriage dowry, and thereby be saved from a life of prostitution. But there's no doubt that the St. Nicholas story traveled west, becoming especially popular with Catholics in the Netherlands.

And from there, the story jumped the Atlantic when Washington Irving and Clement Moore morphed St. Nicholas into Santa (the Spanish word for "saint") Claus in the early 19th century.

The Virgin of Guadalupe started out as a Mexican icon in 1531, but she has already come to your hometown. And she has a very good chance of becoming a much bigger figure in American culture than St. Patrick, because she represents, in part, all-American values.

Let's start at the very beginning.

Thanks to political correctness, the average American knows just a few things about the Aztecs: They had colorful feather costumes which re-enactors wear today in multicultural festivals. They were very good at astronomy/astrology. Their astrologers had long foretold that the end of world would occur in precisely the year that Hernando Cortez and his conquistadores actually did arrive in Mexico, and demolished the Aztec Empire.

Oh, and the Aztecs had a custom of human sacrifice. History textbooks tend to elide the details of the sacrifices, and some students get the impression that the sacrifice victims were pious volunteers. Or as Neil Young sang in Cortez the Killer: "They offered life in sacrifice, so that others could go on. Hate was just a legend. And war was never known."

Not exactly. The priests of Aztec Empire murdered about a quarter million people per year by ripping out their living hearts. The main victims were not Aztec volunteers, but other Indian tribes who had been conquered by the Aztecs during the Flower Wars. The gods received the beating heart; according to anthropologist Marvin Harris in Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Culture, the Aztecs ate the rest of the body.

Children were the favorite "sacrifice" of these bloodthirsty priests. According to Aztec religion, nothing pleased the gods more than the tears of children who were being killed. The priests also liked to flay their victims alive, so the priests could wear the victims' skins.

"Sacrifices" (that is, murders) were perpetrated on a massive scale. For example, during the 1487 rededication of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City), the Aztecs gloated that over 80,000 victims were slaughtered in just four days.

One of the most important reasons that the evil Aztec Empire fell to Cortez was that other Indian tribes of Mexico allied with the Spanish, and provided the great bulk of the anti-Aztec military force.

Spanish rule over Mexico was sometimes harsh, although Spain, which was a preeminent center of Catholic scholarship in the 16th century, did have influential voices which had some success in insisting that the Indians be treated decently. Bartolomé de las Casas is the best known, but there was also Francisco de Vitoria, who argued in De Temperantia that the Spanish had no right to enslave Indians. That the Indians were pagans did not deprive them of their natural rights. Vitoria, who was very influential in international law, also argued that the Spanish had a moral duty to intervene to protect the Indians who would otherwise become victims of cannibalism or human sacrifice.

Around the Winter Solstice in December 1531, ten years after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, a Catholic Indian peasant named Juan Diego was walking past Tepeyac hill, several miles outside of Mexico City. He heard what seemed like unusually beautiful songbirds at the top of the rocky hill. When he went up to investigate, "he saw a Lady, who was standing there and told him to come hither. Approaching her presence, he marveled greatly at her superhuman grandeur; her garments were shining like the sun; the cliff where she rested her feet, pierced with glitter, resembling an anklet of precious stones, and the earth sparkled like the rainbow. The mezquites, nopales, and other different weeds, which grow there, appeared like emeralds, their foliage like turquoise, and their branches and thorns glistened like gold."

He recognized her as Mary. She addressed him affectionately as her child, and told him to tell the Bishop to have a church for her built at the top of the hill. This was the site where an Aztec temple to the earth goddess had recently been torn down.

He walked several miles to the Bishop's office, and, after a long wait, met with the Bishop, who thought Juan Diego to be a fraud.

The next day, he again saw Mary at the top of the hill, and she requested him to keep trying with the Bishop, despite Juan Diego's feeling that he was a poor messenger. After another long walk and long wait, Juan Diego found the Bishop no less skeptical. The Bishop asked Juan Diego to supply some kind of sign if he were really speaking the truth.

Back at Tepeyac hill the next day, Mary promised Juan Diego that she would supply a sign tomorrow, and told him to come back in the morning.

The next morning, Tuesday, December 12, Juan Diego stayed away from the hill's summit, and instead walked around the base of the hill, so that he could avoid meeting Mary. He was more concerned with hurrying to get a priest for his uncle, who was gravely ill. Partway around the hill, he saw Mary walking down from the top, and she soon met him on the path. He explained his hurry, and promised to come back to her tomorrow. She told him not to worry and that his uncle would be alright (which was true).

She told him to go up to the top of the hill, and gather flowers. There, at the top of the craggy, rocky, weed-ridden hill, he found roses which were blooming in the dead of winter, and he placed them in an apron made from his tilma. (The tilma was the common peasant clothing, made from cactus fibers, and worn sort of like a Roman toga.) He carried the roses back to the base of the hill, where she arranged them carefully on the tilma.

Again, he walked the miles back to the Bishop's office, and waited at length. He would have waited even longer, but some of the Bishop's assistants spotted the roses through a fold in the tilma.

When the Bishop finally saw him, Juan Diego opened the apron, and the roses fell to the floor. So did the Bishop and all his staff, who dropped to their knees. On Juan Diego's tilma was a painting of the woman he had met.

Her cape was spangled with stars, a traditional garb of an Aztec princess. She was standing on the moon and in front of the sun, which emitted brilliant rays behind her.

The church was promptly built on the spot that Mary had designated, former site of a pilgrimage temple to the Aztec earth and corn goddess Tonantzin. Like Mary, Tonantzin was addressed as "Our Holy Mother," and was associated with the moon. The original church is no longer there, but a basilica and museum have been built in its place, where the tilma and its painting are viewed by large crowds every day.

A normal tilma should have decayed into tatters after about 20 years, but this one is well-preserved, even though is was frequently kissed, touched, and had objects placed on it for the first century after the painting appeared. (Today, the tilma is behind glass.)

Scientists have investigated the painting several times, most recently in 1979. While, it is possible that some of the materials on the outer part of the painting may have been added in the early 1600s, there is not yet been a good explanation for how a Mexican Indian, with the paint materials available at the time (or any other painter in 1531) could have produced the picture.

Microscopic examination of the painting of Mary's eyes reveals (at least to some observers) details which would have been impossible from a 16th century painter to create: matching images of a bearded man who appears to be kneeling.

There is no serious dispute that the Guadalupe story is nearly five centuries old. A colonial Mexican codex from 1548 refers to the incident. The Nican Mopohua, Juan Diego's recorded version of the Guadalupe events, provides the details of the story as it is known today.

In any case, tens of millions of people believe the paining to be an authentic miracle, and (for purposes of assessing the painting's impact on society), that's all that matters.

There have been many, many reports of public apparitions of the Virgin Mary (perhaps an order of magnitude greater than the number of reported public apparitions of Jesus or any other religious figure), but the Virgin of Guadalupe is by far the most famous and influential Marian apparition ever in the Western hemisphere.

The answer is found in the painting itself. To begin with, Mary is not white. She is either Indian, or perhaps Mestizo (a mix of Indian and Iberian). Although she wears a traditional European dress and headscarf, her clothing is resplendent with Aztec symbols.

For example, in Aztec numerology, the numeral 4 symbolizes plentitude, and a four-petal flower appears directly over her womb. The 10 eight-petaled flowers symbolize the planet Venus, which was what the hero-god Quetzalcoatl became. (Quetzalcoatl opposed human sacrifice.)

To a Spanish Christian from the Old World, the painting's celestial imagery had obvious ancestors. The Book of Revelation, the apocalyptic conclusion to the New Testament, describes the final battles between good and evil: "And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars…" Biblical critics have identified her with the church, with the community of believers, with Israel, and in various other ways. But the most common identification is that she is Mary.

The Revelation image was re-capitulated in a Spanish statue of the Virgin; the statue was lost for six centuries, and then re-discovered in 1326 near Guadalupe, Spain. It was credited with miraculous victories of the Christian Spaniards against Arab Muslims.

The beautiful lady who spoke to Juan Diego told him her name in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and whatever she said sounded to the Spanish Bishop to be something like "Guadalupe," which is unpronounceable in Nahuatl. (Scholars are still undecided about what the Nahuatl phrase was, but my favorite is "She who proceeds from the region of light like a fire eagle.")

To the Aztecs, the celestial images in the painting had a very direct and personal meaning. The black crescent moon was a prime symbol of the Aztec religion. The conquerors' sacred lady was standing (or perhaps dancing and clapping) on the Aztec moon, dominating it--as she dominated every celestial object. The constellations were mere ornaments on her dress. (The dress constellations are a depiction of the celestial globe on the Winter Solstice of 1531.)

And so the painting depicted the triumph and supremacy of Christianity over the Aztec religion. But this triumph was not of whites over Indians, or the Old World over the New. To the contrary, the Virgin had appeared to the Indians as one of them, wearing their clothes, and presenting religious messages using Aztec symbols in almost every inch of the painting. The day on which the Virgin appeared for the final time, December 12, was the earth goddess Tonantzin's festival day.

The syncretistic Virgin of Guadalupe thus prefigured the Mexican nation itself, in which Iberian whites and native Indians intermarried, to create a new people.

Over the centuries, the Virgin never lost her place as the preeminent symbol of the Mexican people--notwithstanding the hostility of anti-clerical governments since 1910.

The Virgin has been misused by many people who try to make her into an argument that Mexican women should let men treat them like doormats ("Be like the Virgin; her eyes are humble and downcast"). Nevertheless, for many women the Virgin of Guadalupe has been a source of strength and empowerment.

And what has all this to do with the United States? Well, she is the "Empress of the Americas," not just of Mexico. The massive Mexican immigration to the U.S. in the last several decades is not going to be undone, even if a Buchanan fence were erected tomorrow. And if you start keeping an eye out for the Guadalupe image, you'll see that it's already very common in pick-up truck rear windows, behind the counter in family stores, ubiquitous in Catholic churches with a large Mexican congregation, and often seen even in American Catholic churches which have very few Mexicans. Much of the mainstream American press now pays far more attention to the Virgin of Guadalupe than to any other religious event of the last 500 years.

In the United States, Santa Claus has long since forgotten his Turkish/Dutch roots, while St. Patrick is still clearly Irish. A few decades from now, the Virgin of Guadalupe in the U.S. will probably still be associated with Americans whose ancestors came from Mexico. The Virgin's quincentenary in 2031 is likely to be a very big deal in the U.S., with more more attention than the overlooked Columbus quincentenary of 1992.

The Virgin is a uniter, not a divider. In the entire history of the world, the Virgin of Guadalupe has been one of the greatest symbols (and causes) of the mixture of white and non-white, of indigenous and immigrant, of east and west, of old and new.

By 2031, the United States may have a thriving community of Mexican immigrants who are contributing to the American dream, adding to American culture in constructive ways--as did the Germans, Irish, Italians, and other groups, after their own massive waves of immigration. Or the U.S. in 2031 could have an angry and unassimilated lower-class population which despises the nation which welcomed them--like the Arab Muslims in the suburban ghettoes around Paris. The enduring power of the Virgin of Guadalupe gives us good cause to hope for the best.

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