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Myth Comes for the Archbishop

Updated: Apr 5


Our Lady of Guadalupe

Joseph Campbell liked to say that mythology may be defined as “other people's religion,” a way of dismissing foreign orthodoxies as fiction while recognizing our own as truth. 


For Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga, the gods and goddesses of 16th Century Mexico were mere fictions, mythology at its most pernicious. Though he seemed to have exercised genuine pastoral concern for his illiterate flock, Zumárraga would not have gained his high rank by being soft on paganism. Indeed, as a former inquisitor, he demanded strict obedience from his native Nahua congregations and once even ordered the execution of a heretic.


Most people have some familiarity with the historical and a-historical events associated with Our Lady of Guadalupe but may have forgotten Zumárraga’s role in the story: A peasant named Juan Diego starts tripping on a vision of Mary, mother of Christ, who appears uncharacteristically dressed as a native of Juan’s own Nahuatl tribe, whose skin is dark, like his, and who speaks in his indigenous language. But the archbishop, Zumárraga, demands proof that a miracle has taken place in the desert. 

The proof, as many will recall, comes in the nature of a two-part miracle. First, Our Lady produces fresh Spanish roses, a clear impossibility since it is the dead of winter. The second part of the miracle has sustained the cult for the last half-millennium. Contravening the laws of nature, an image of mysterious origin appears on the rough maguey cloth of the peasant tilma worn by Juan that day, a visual reproduction of the very woman Juan encountered at the top of the hill. The image is rich in mythological symbolism but, at its core, it appears to be a kind of self-portrait of Mary, the mother of God. 

Thus, the Archbishop is convinced of the supramundane provenance of the picture and the rest is the History of Mexico.


So goes the story. The problem is this: The Archbishop never publicly endorsed the devotion of Our Lady of Guadalupe, never openly recalled his December encounter with a peasant named Juan Diego and seems to have had nothing but disdain for popular devotions based on miracle accounts. His words, years after the “miracle:”


You ought not, brethren, give way to the thoughts and blasphemies of the world, which tempts souls with the desire to see by marvel and miracles what they believe by faith...The redeemer of the world no longer wants miracles to be worked because they are not necessary, because our holy faith is so well established by so many thousands of miracles we have in the old and New Testaments. (Pool, qt. Zumárraga, 35)

Zumárraga would have probably been reluctant to recognize the validity of the apparition because of its problematic location. Tepeyac wasn’t just a grassy knoll outside Mexico City. It was the holy precinct of Tonantzin, the Great Mother, the snake woman, a deity sometimes called Coatlicue (serpent skirt), sometimes Cihuacoatl (woman serpent). 


Called by any name, one stands out: Goddess. She takes the pronoun thou. Tonantzin is a Goddess and belongs to that sacred sorority which Campbell had reduced to a familiar litany, one he loved to recite: “In Classical myths, she appears as Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Athena, Hera, Hecate, the Three Graces, the Nine Muses, the Furies, and so on. In Egypt she appears as Isis, in old Babylon as Ishtar, in Sumeria as Inanna; among the western Semites she’s Astarte. It’s the same goddess, and the first thing to realize is that she is a total goddess and as such has associations over the whole field of the culture system” (Goddess: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine, p. 22).


Patriarchies often seem to be natural-born goddess hunters and Western civilization has waged an on-again, off-again war against the Goddess—by whatever name—for at least 4000 years. One thinks of Marduk dethroning his own grandmother, Tiamat, so that a panel of male deities might run the Babylonian heavens as they see fit. Or the Indo-European warlords subjugating peaceful, Neolithic villages of Old Europe and eliminating its goddess cults as they encounter them. Or Israel, fighting a war against the “Abomination,” their preferred title for the goddess. Campbell notes that “when the Semites moved in as conquerors, then, they dislodged deities to make way for their own…” (The Power of Myth, p. 55).


By the 1200’s, the centuries-long push to eliminate the feminine aspect of the divine throughout Europe had resulted in a kind of sacred subterfuge. The Goddess wasn’t gone. Not at all. She was just hunkering down in her somewhat reduced role as the mother of Jesus. “The goddess comes back into the Christian, anti-Goddess tradition by way of Mary, Mother of God, and there has been, particularly in Catholicism, a steady magnification of the Virgin from the fifth century A.D. to the present” (Goddesses, 350). 


Despite the sentimental role history has assigned to him, Zumárraga probably had doubts about Guadalupe for the rest of his life suspecting that this “Mary” was nothing more than Tonantzin in disguise. Here is a report which probably came across his desk which he probably endorsed.  


Near the mountains are three or four places where they used to offer very solemn sacrifices, and they would come to them from very distant lands. One of these is here in Mexico [City], where there is a hill that is called Tepeyacac [sic] and the Spaniards call Tepeaquilla and is now called Our Lady of Guadalupe. In this place they used to have a temple dedicated to the mother of the gods, whom they called Tonantzin, which means “our mother.” …Now that the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been built there, they also call her [or it] Tonantzin… It is something that should be remedied because the proper name for the Mother of God, Our Lady, is not Tonantzin but Dios inantzin. This appears to be an invention of the devil to cover over idolatry under the ambiguity of this name Tonantzin” (Stafford Poole, Our Lady of Guadalupe: The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797, p. 78).


Mythology is other people’s religion. It is always an archbishop’s job to know the difference and so, just in case there was any ambiguity, a 1694 episcopal edict was read publicly at the church of Guadalupe forbidding all associations with former religious practices at the site so that “no remnant of heresy or error should remain in the land… not even superstition of the former heathenism that had its adoration on the hill of Guadalupe” (Poole, 155).


Five centuries later, history has rendered its verdict. Tonantzin is virtually unknown, all former rites are forgotten, and meanwhile some twenty million pilgrims have annually visited the shrine at Guadalupe for the merest glimpse of the famous pictograph hanging in a frame above the altar outside of Mexico City. Goddess or not, the woman who brought roses to a recent convert to Catholicism accomplished for the natives of Mexico what Yahweh accomplished for the people of Israel at Sinai.  The Hebrew God conferred upon his chosen people an historical identity in the form of ten written principles or commandments by which they were to define themselves as a culture. Our Lady of Guadalupe arrived on Tepeyac one brisk December morning in 1531 for the same purpose, leaving behind neither treatise nor tract, conveying the birth of a new people wordlessly in the language of pictograph--the textile as text. 


In the pursuit of truth over fiction, the inescapable theme of Tepeyac is sometimes overlooked or ignored altogether. Quite simply, “The lesson taught by Guadalupe was the value of the natives as persons” (Poole, 165). The message falls short of the miraculous but must have appeared so to Juan Diego when he was admitted seeing the Archbishop of Mexico without an appointment. The Virgin had made herself visible to Juan. In doing so, an indigenous people became visible to those who preferred not to see them.


MythBlast authored by:


John Bonaduce, PhD, a seasoned writer for Norman Lear and for most of the major Hollywood studios (Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros, et al.) developed a profound interest in story structure beyond the commercial objectives of the industry. His exploration led him to conclude that much of what we call myth derives from a biological origin. This insight inspired his pursuit of deeper relationships between biology and narrative through his theory of Mythobiogenesis, which he explored in his dissertation at Pacifica Graduate Institute and was recognized as a “discovery” in the field of prenatal psychology by Dr. Thomas Verny.


John was recently appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (JOPPPH) where he advocates for an unrecognized level of human consciousness which exists at the border of biology and mythology.


As a featured writer for the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast, he passionately showcases Joseph Campbell’s enduring relevance to a modern audience.


Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to John J. Bonaduce, 12437

Sylvan St., No. Hollywood, CA 91606 or jbonaduce52@gmail.com


A collage on a brown background with cave drawings and stone, that says the First Storytellers

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 3, and Goddesses.

 

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This Week's Highlights



A casual picture of Joseph Campbell
"In Classical myths, she appears as Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Athena, Hera, Hecate, the Three Graces, the Nine Muses, the Furies, and so on. In Egypt she appears as Isis, in old Babylon as Ishtar, in Sumer as Inanna; among the western Semites she’s Astarte. It’s the same goddess, and the first thing to realize is that she is a total goddess and as such has associations over the whole field of the culture system. In later periods these different associations became specified and separated off into various specialized goddesses."

-Joseph Campbell - Goddesses, 22





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