The Myth of the Virgin de Guadalupe
The Virgin of Guadalupe is the Catholic title for the Virgin Mary, a religious icon to the Mexican people who is more than a version of the Mother of God: She is a national symbol.
What many do not know is that this goddess who is revered and considered a Christian deity is actually the prodict of a cross between Christian mythology and an ancient Nahua goddess called Tonantzin. Even more interesting is how this myth came to be. The myth, which supposedly took place in 1531, was unheard of until 1648 when a Creole, not a Nahua Indian, created it. In this article, I hope to enlighten the reader and separate the truth from the myth.
According to the myth, in December 1531 on a Saturday morning, a humble Nahua named Juan Diego was on his way to church to be evangelized when he heard birds singing on the hill of Tepeyac. He went up the hill to investigate and saw before him a beautiful lady surrounded by a bright, shining aura. Her message was simple: She wished a temple to be built in her name on the hill of Tepeyac. From there she would make it known to all that she was the protectress of the Mexican nation. She told Juan Diego to take this message to the bishop and, reluctantly, he agreed. The bishop did not believe him.
Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac and told the lady what happened. She instructed him to return the next day. The next day, a Sunday, he returned to deliver the message to the bishop, and was once again received with doubt. The bishop asked for proof.
On Monday, Juan Diego avoided Tepeyac, taking a different route, but she saw and questioned him. He told her the bishop wanted proof. The Virgin then instructed him to pick flowers at the top of the hill. This was an odd request because it was December and there were no flowers to be found there at that time of year. But sure enough, just over the hill, he found every kind of rare flower he could think of. Obeying the command he picked several flowers and put them in his tilma, a kind of pancho. This time, when he went to the bishop and opened his tilma, letting the flowers fall onto the floor, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was stained into his shirt. This was proof enough for the skeptical bishop.
The truth is very different from the myth. There is no mention of this myth until 1648, when Miguel Sanchez published it. The supposed bishop in the story was Bishop Juan de Zumarraga who, while a real historical character, was not the bishop in Mexico at the time. In fact, Zumarraga was the only real character in the story, because there is no evidence of there ever having been a Juan Diego.
Zumarraga, in all his records as an inquisitor and even later, when he finally became bishop, makes no mention of this miracle. Something that would have seemingly have had such an impact on a religious person is unlikely to go unmentioned for over one hundred years until it is written down as a second-hand account.
Another undeniable fact is that the image of the Virgin in the tilma is man made. There is nothing other worldly about it. The paints and the fabric can be traced back to the paints and textiles that were popular at the time. In fact, the image even has an author: Marcos Cipac. It's pretty hard to claim heavenly divinity when the item in question is very human.
The Virgin as a Nahua Goddess
The real kicker is that the hill of Tepeyac was originally the site of a Nahua temple to honor Tonantzin, a Nahua goddess. The year 1531 is also suspicious because it was just ten years after Cortez’s conquest, and the top priority of the Spaniards was to convert the Nahuas to Christianity. It is highly possible that Nahuas continued to make pilgrimages to the hill of Tepeyac to honor their Nahua goddess, and the Catholic monks and friars, in their haste to convert them, declared that Tonantzin was actually a Christian goddess. This explanation is more plausible than the concept of a Christian miracle.
The Unfortunate Reality
All of this evidence and research will do one no good when confronting a Mexican patriot. The Virgin de Guadalupe is not just a religious symbol, as I said before, she is a patriotic one. My favorite quote on this subject is by Octavio Paz:
“The Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments and defeats, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the national lottery.”
Most, if not all, Mexican Catholics will take offense to any of the facts listed above. In fact, even the Vatican took issue with these claims and their response was to beatify Juan Diego, even though no evidence exists for the myth or his existence.
When historians, such as Stafford Poole, write articles on this highly sensitive topic, they are assailed with insults. I find myself in a similar position by publishing this article, but I welcome the onslaught.
- Peterson, Jeanette Favrot. "Creating the Virgin of Guadalupe: The Cloth, The Artist, and Sources." The Americas Volume 61, Number 4, April 2005: pp. 571-610.
- Poole, Stafford. "History versus Juan Diego." The Americas, Vol. 62, No. 1 July 2005: 1-16.
- Our Lady of Guadalupe, The Origins and Sources of a Mexican National Symbol, 1531-1797. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.
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