The Madonna and the Serpent

Story by Lawrence H. Freeman

I happened to mention to someone that I was writing an article about the myths of Quetzalcoatl and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Virgin of Guadalupe My Mexican friend became immediately incensed. "Myths? He yelped. Myths? Are you one of those people who don't believe in the Bible?".

Bible? I thought as my jaw dropped open. What has the Virgin of Guadalupe have to do with the Bible? Instead, both the Virgin and the legend of Quetzalcoatl have to do with the effect of euro-centrism on the Mexican culture.

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 Juan's cloak, and image that exists to this very day in a place of honor, the magnificent and enormous new sanctuary that the Church has built upon the hallowed spot in Tepeyac.

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.

The Queen of Mexico She has become the very soul and consciousness of the Mexican people. Father Hidalgo was a Guadelupana, a devotee of the Dark Virgin, adopting her as the spirit and icon of the revolution. Even today, her December 12th 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 a wholly indigenous community (such as Chamula in Chiapas) and you will see a very different kind of worship where Christianity is only a very thin veneer over the still vital practice of the old religion.

Catholicism has triumphed 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 worshippers in small groups surrounded by dozens of candles, often presided over by a curandero who is curing 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. Where the assigned priest has been 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, and we only think it is Catholicism.

Ce Acatl Topiltzin 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: Ehecatl, God of Wind, Hun Nal Ye, The Morning Star (Venus), Man of the Sun, bringer of knowledge, font of wisdom, holy man, uniter, 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 monklike in a long white robe fringed with black crosses, as a bearded white man and a beardless, masked black man. He has been depicted with his body and face painted black, or with his face painted yellow and having a grotesque bird-like beak.
Although it has been said that a white Quetzalcoatl was only a fiction spread after Cortez landed, that does not explain why Moctecuzhuoma 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 bandy-legged, black-bearded Cortez, but rather to his deputy, the surpassingly handsome blond, immoral, bloodthirsty and headstrong young Pedro de Vargas, who the Indians identified with the sun.

Not the least of the white man's godlike qualities was the arrogant imperviousness to the deadly pandemic that had arrived with them, while all around, the indigenous peoples were dropping like flies in their millions. It is now estimated that on Cortez' arrival there were 36 million inhabitants of the area now known as Mexico, but less than 2 generations later there were less than 2 million remaining.

Because of the myriad legends swirling around this mythical/historical figure, it has been proposed that Quetzalcoatl could well have been several individuals. Possibly the term Quetzalcoatl was actually an honorific given to successive individuals, as we have done with King, Pope, Czar, General, and the like.

An enormously widespread (legend-myth-history-religion). Quetzalcoatl, in his various forms, is the protean figure over the length and breadth of North and South America, with surprisingly little variation.

There is a widespread belief that in times past, strangers from the east had visited Mexico and had returned to the land of the Sunrise. Quetzalcoatl was said to have landed at Veracruz with several companions and after bringing the gift of civilization and staying for several years, he departed on a magic raft, promising to return. Spanish religious later interpreted this to be a visit by the Apostle St. Thomas, coming to convert the Americas.
It is difficult to trace the legend of a bearded white god. It is true that several of the Maya and Aztec gods sport full black beards. A hirsute adornment which, while unusual among the Indians, is not totally unknown.
It is also true that some of the gods have white faces, but a depiction of a white-faced, bearded Quetzalcoatl remains elusive and might well be apocryphal.

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 to be no solid foundation for this belief.

In Peru, Hernando De Soto was told that the father of the Inca (ruler) had foretold that in the reign of the 30th Inca, white men would come to visit a superior rule and culture among the Peruvians.
But these beliefs and rumors only seem to have "sprung full-blown from the brow of Zeus" after the Spaniards had already come!

It is only fair to point out that there are friezes of Kulkulcan, the Mayan incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, which clearly depict a Caucasian-featured, long-faced person with a long straight nose and a long, pointed beard. Archaeologists have even nicknamed this figure "Uncle Sam", for the very real resemblance to the American patriotic symbol.

In both cases, 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.

Editor's Note: Lawrence H. Freeman is the reference library and tour director for the Lake Chapala Society, and the acknowledged expert on pre-Columbian culture and ruins throughout Mexico, as well as a regular contributor to El Ojo Del Lago, the local monthly English-language newspaper/magazine. He is currently in the process of setting up guided tours for English-speakers throughout Mexico. Contact him about the story or the tours by e-mail at


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