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Professor Alan Sandstrom

The Virgin of Guadalupe and Tonantzin

In response to Professor Sandstrom’s article What happened to the Aztec gods after the Conquest? (see R/H menu) we received a question from Maritere Arroyo questioning the validity of associating the Virgin of Guadalupe with the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. Professor Sandstrom has kindly sent us this thoughtful and detailed reply...

Mexican decorated tableau of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Mexican decorated tableau of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Click on image to enlarge)

This is an excellent question. If you read any ethnographic description of a Native American community in Mexico that includes a section on religion, you will find mention of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Encyclopedias or handbooks on Mexico also typically have entries on this important sacred figure.

According to tradition, the Virgin appeared to a Nahua man named Juan Diego in December 1531 on Tepeyac Hill, north of Mexico City, where there was a shrine dedicated to the female Aztec earth deity Tonantzin. To this day, in Nahuatl-speaking communities (in other communities as well), the Virgin continues to be called “Tonantzin” and her appearance is commemorated on December 12 each year.

Figurine believed to be of Tonantzin, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Figurine believed to be of Tonantzin, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Tonantzin means “Our Sacred Mother” in the Nahuatl language and she continues to be connected symbolically to fertility and the earth. It is not known precisely how the pre-Hispanic deity Tonantzin became connected to the Christian Virgin of Guadalupe, however, we can assume that many people of the time believed that her appearance represented a return of the Aztec mother deity. There are many myths surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe but she has been recognized by the Catholic church as a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin of Guadalupe has become a national symbol of the Mexican nation and she is viewed by many to be a special protector of Native American peoples.

Post- and Pre-Hispanic: notice the identical position of the hands...
Post- and Pre-Hispanic: notice the identical position of the hands... (Click on image to enlarge)

In conclusion, in the minds of many people living within and outside of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the ancient Tonantzin are one and the same. This sacred figure can be seen to represent the emergence of Mexico as a unified nation born out of the destructive encounter between European and pre-Hispanic civilizations.

Post- and Pre-Hispanic Mothers-in-Lore
Post- and Pre-Hispanic Mothers-in-Lore (Click on image to enlarge)

For Further Reading

• Henry Nicholson discusses the pre-Hispanic deity Tonantzin and shows how she was related to other major deities in the Aztec pantheon:-

Nicholson, Henry B. 1971. “Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico.” In Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, Part 1. Gordon F. Eckholm and Ignacio Bernal, eds., pp. 395-446. Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10. Robert Wauchope, gen. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

• Alan Sandstrom provides a description of the worship of Tonantsi (a variant pronunciation of Tonantzin) in a Nahua community of the Huasteca, northern Veracruz, Mexico:-

Sandstrom, Alan R. 1982. “The Tonantsi Cult of the Eastern Nahua.” In Mother Worship: Theme and Variations, James J. Preston, ed., pp. 25-50. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

• Eric Wolf has written one of the classic articles on the Virgin of Guadalupe (Tonantzin) as a Mexican national symbol:-

Wolf, Eric. 1958. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol.” Journal of American Folklore 71:34-39.

Some additional people who have written on the topic of the Virgin of Guadalupe or Tonantzin, whose work can be looked up online or in library catalogues, include Louise Burkhart, Susan Kellogg, and Stafford Poole.

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 30th 2011

An image of Tonantzin?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: A powerful point: many thanks for this contribution.
Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Sergio, great point. It’s true, the concept of a a virgin birth (Huitzilopochti’s) was already embedded in Mexica cosmology. How convenient for the Catholic Church!
Mexicolore replies: Or a bit of both...? Good point!
Mexicolore replies: This is a very good point - thanks for contributing it. It’s true, we’ve seen Tonantzin as an epithet for several goddesses - most commonly for Coatlicue, the great earth goddess.
Mexicolore replies: With respect, using terms like ‘ridiculous’ just produces heat with no light. Of course The Virgin of G isn’t Tonantzin; but she was cleverly created by the Spanish to, as you say, RESEMBLE Tonantzin! This isn’t coincidence, it was part of a deliberate attempt by the Spanish to fuse and blur these figures together in the eyes of local people so that, attracted and very likely confused by the similarities, they would be drawn ideologically away from their ancient beliefs and towards the Christian faith. All we’re trying to do here is to clarify where this (con)fusion came from, certainly not to encourage it!