She gods

Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas: Images of the Divine Feminine in Mexico
Jospeh Kroger and Patrizia Granziera
2012, Ashgate
327 pages, plates

AT A TIME in which mainstream Christianity is deeply divided over issues of gender and sexuality – and also reeling from the damage it has caused itself from maintaining a patriarchal, myopic vision of the priesthood – it seems timely and appropriate to explore notions of feminine divinity as well as the pre-Christian foundations upon which so much contemporary iconography is based.

Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas offers a refreshingly original focus for an exploration of other aspects of the Christian tradition and something of an antidote to clerical obduracy. It traces the role of the divine feminine in pre-Columbian and post-Conquest Mexico, and uncovers a wealth of evidence that draws attention to the similar roles played by both, and how these allowed for considerable continuity and overlap in the transition to modernity.

Given this, one of this excellent book’s central achievements is to examine both themes from a position of parity in which neither has any lesser intrinsic merit, even if pre-Columbian goddesses were largely displaced by Marian symbolism following Conquest, and to link the feminine divine with more contemporary concerns about the integrity of nature and the sanctity of the environment. In those terms, the feminine divine enshrines an almost revolutionary power to challenge and perhaps subvert some of the central metaphors of contemporary culture.

Jospeh Kroger and Patrizia Granziera have done a major service to the study of religion in the Americas by bringing together a large number of myths and images of the divine feminine from both the Aztec and Christian worldviews for the first time. In a work of clear schlolarly value, a coherent picture of a hybrid culture emerges from the fragmented pieces of the larger mosaic that they assemble.

Divine power

The authors explore the symbolism and meanings associated with 22 Aztec Goddesses and 28 Christian Madonnas of Mexico, many of whom convey their divine power in the form of images, which were of great importance to devotion in both traditions.

They examine the role of the goddess in Mesoamerican culture and cosmology and that of the mother of God, Mary, in the Christian tradition. Such is the fervour of the Marian devotional cult within Catholicism that Mary has, for all practical purposes, been transformed into a deity in her own right. In turn, both traditions built on pre-existing fertility traditions and associations between the natural world and womanhood.

A good example of the layers of meaning that the authors painstakingly uncover can be found in their examination of the most well known icon of female divinity in the Americas, the Virgin of Guadalupe, by far the most recogniseable and important of the many images of Mary in Mexico. They trace the contested story of the Virgin and identify its origins in the veneration of Tonantzin at Tepeyac where the Guadalupan apparition occurred and the miraculous painting on the cloak of Juan Diego resulted. They then explore how the myth complemented social and political developments in the Mexican capital that would eventually ensure her supremacy as an icon.

Importantly, numerous symbols of Aztec religious significance can be identified in the classic image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that worked at a very subliminal level towards Christian conversion at the time of the apparition. For example, the turquoise mantle worn by the virgin is compared to the colour of the garment worn by Chalchiuhtlicue (She of the Jade Skirt) and the stars on her mantle are said to recall Citlalinicue (Lady of the Stars).

Kroger and Granziera situate their research against the theoretical backdrop of the study of goddesses in modern feminist scholarship. The images of goddesses, they point out, clearly challenge many of the assumptions of Western culture, and traditional understandings of God have long served to legitimize masculine power and marginalise women. In consequence, the feminine divine has been lost or repressed through centuries of patriarchal practice.

It is this debate that makes Aztec Goddesses and Christian Madonnas of great relevance to wider contemporary themes. Some contemporary feminist scholarship on goddesses links the recovery of the female divine in terms that stress revitalisation and reconstruction to wider issues of women’s liberation. Nonetheless, it is not just women who may benefit from such a perspective. As Kroger and Granziera point out, recovering the feminine divine can also help men to reconnect with the rhythms and mystery of nature. They write:

“Understandings of masculinity as well as femininity are challenged by the image of the divine feminine and what it reveals about the sacredness of all nature… Goddess-feminists believe the image of the earth as the body of the Goddess has the power to subvert not just understandings of masculinity and femininity but many other false dichotomies and hierarchical dualisms deeply embedded in out culture.” [p. 8]

This is because, they argue, the image of the Goddess as Mother Earth and as an eternal and creative source of all life dissolves the destructive dualities of modern thought and unites human beings in a holistic vision and common bond with the Earth.

This richly illustrated book, which is written in a highly accessible style that greatly eases understanding, is a must for anyone interested in Mexican history and identity. It will be of great value to scholarship in a range of areas that extend beyond the study of religious history and gender, and in the right context could also be put to good use in environmental history by drawing attention to the coincidental relationship between the marginalisation of women and the destructive male domination of nature.