Spirit of Teotihuacan

February 23 2014

In Mexico the spirit of a benignant vein in Meso-American visual art that had always been subordinate and had latterly been almost entirely submerged under the savagery of an Aztec ascendancy was reproduced, and given predominance, in a cheerfully extravagant version of the Early Modern Western baroque style. In the ultra-Baroque village churches of the Puebla district the writer found himself in the presence of the aesthetic and emotional equivalent of a pre-Columbian fresco, depicting the merry paradise of the usually grim Mexican rain-god Tlaloc, which he had seen a few days before at Teotihuacán; and the sixteenth-century missionaries’ success in divining and meeting their Indian peasant converts’ spiritual needs was attested in A.D. 1953 by the loving care that the converts’ descendants were still lavishing on these magnificent works of an exotic architecture and art that had been bequeathed to them by the Spanish friars who had arrived in the wake of the conquistadores.

In 1942, Alfonso Caso had identified the central figures in the murals in the Tepantitla apartment complex at Teotihuacan, which are from roughly 400-700 CE, as a Teotihuacan equivalent of Tlaloc (the name Tlaloc is Aztec, but the idea of a rain god identified with mountaintop shrines is as old as Teotihuacan).

This was the consensus when Toynbee was writing, but in 1974 Peter Furst suggested that the figures showed a feminine deity. Esther Pasztory concluded that they represented a vegetation and fertility goddess who was a predecessor of the much later Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal. She is now known as the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan and sometimes as the Teotihuacan Spider Woman.

Great Goddess of Teotihuacan

Reproduction of one of the Teotihuacan murals depicting the Great Goddess, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

The Indian boy (old post).

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

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