The Eagle and the Serpent

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The Aztec Sun Stone. In the center the sun-god is showing his tongue: the jade sacrificial knife

A chapter from the book soon to be published Guadalupe: A River of Light

In Genesis we read that God made man to his “image and likeness.” From the beginning the human race has tried to understand the Universe using comparison, the most basic tool of our intellect. The Spanish conquerors of Mexico were still medieval men and shared many concepts and beliefs with the Stone Age warriors they encountered in the Americas. The ancient settlers of the New World had parted ways with the cultures of Europe and Asia before the wheel was invented, before the horse was domesticated, even before man began to master agriculture in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. Native Americans and Europeans shared a common humanity and many ancestral beliefs. They had arrived at those beliefs through different routes and now they were face to face, unwittingly trying to recognize something of themselves on each other.

Metaphorical contemplation is a form of understanding; we learn to think by comparing things. Human intelligence thrives in all kinds of comparisons and most times we are not aware of that constant stream of “like and not-like” operations flowing through our thoughts, our actions, and our language.

The very roots of the word “intelligence” point to a comparison. The Latin word intelligentia, derives from inteligere a verb composed of two parts: intus meaning “among” and legere meaning “to select.” The very origin of the word makes reference to comparing two things finding them sometimes similar, sometimes dissimilar. Humans are, to various degrees, masters in the art of finding analogies and expressing through metaphors. Our intellectual experience rests mainly on finding “the likeness of unlike things” to use Richard Mulcaster’s brilliant phrase.  Please join me as we conduct a short exercise: comparing the image and likeness of two cultures that were not alike at all.

Since 1531 Our Lady of Guadalupe has been a constant mystery. Someone who is at the same time woman and sign, Guadalupe is the encounter and union between two races. She is the origin of a new identity for both the Spanish and Mexican people. In her two different cosmogonies meet, two continents are united; two races are melted into a new race. Our Lady of Guadalupe – in her Spanish and her Mexican advocations – appears at a climactic time in history when Spain, a former Roman province, begins to find its identity as a nation after struggling for centuries with invaders after the collapse of Imperial Rome.

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Aztecs believed the Milky Way was the Great Snake connecting the Thirteen Heavens with the Nine Underworlds

Both the Spaniards and the Mexicans of the 16th century were moved by a spiritual fervor that modern man could hardly understand. Those two cultures had enormous differences but also surprisingly great similarities. Finding the likeness between these two unlike peoples would have been impossible by human means but a supernatural event made the fusion of both groups possible. The story forms a wonderful parable taught to every generation from the humble ayate of San Juan Diego.

All the pre-Columbian nations in the Americas had mystical preoccupations and so did the Spaniards. The native world was filled with gods haunting the imagination of the ancient Americans. The image imprinted on San Juan Diego’s tilma contains many signs that the natives could read like a book. In that book specifically prepared for their imagination Our Lady of Guadalupe gave counsel, consolation, faith in the future, and a strong national identity to a broken and long-suffering nation oppressed by violence and death.

Our Lady of Guadalupe had been a witness to the fall of the pagan Roman Empire. Later she witnessed the fall of Muslim Spain at the end of the Spanish Reconquest. When no one knew that the Modern Age was just starting, she took Mexico from the Stone Age to Modernity in one single generation; and she moved Spain from being a backward corner of Europe to be a worldwide empire.

Obviously we cannot devote this book to compare the whole of the Spanish and Aztec cultures as they stood in the early 16th century; instead we will concentrate on certain details that will be very useful later to understand the message delivered by Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego and his contemporaries. Like a diamond that assumes different colors and shapes as light hits its many facets, the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe presents itself to many cultures revealing the same truths with force and precision. In my understanding that is a hidden miracle, perhaps one of the greatest ever performed by the Virgin Mary.[1]

The mythical foundation of Tenochtitlan

There are many different versions of the foundation of Tenochtitlan although one can gather some essentials containing the basic symbolic elements. We are interested in looking at the images transmitted from generation to generation. The truth about foundation of the great city of Tenochtitlan or the real story of Quetzalcoatl will never be known for certain but we are not looking for a mere chronicle; we want to enter to the extent possible into the mind of a unique nation. Mexico participated in a real clash of civilizations; knowing how they formulated their myths will give us valuable insight to understand later how the miraculous image of Guadalupe was able to communicate with the people of Mexico with such effectiveness and immediacy.

In general the story begins in Aztlan, the ancestral land of the Mexica people. There various hostile groups surrounded them. Copil, the adult son of a sorceress learns from his mother that the demon Huitzilopochtli had disrespected her gravely. Copil promised to avenge that offense. Copil knew that the Mexica warriors – the people of Huitzilopochtli – were congregated in the heights of Chapultepec and so he began to discredit them maliciously with the surrounding nations breeding distrust among them.

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Giving credit to the words of Copil the neighboring tribes began to prepare for war with the object of exterminating the Mexicas. Copil proceeded to climb to a hill near a lake to watch from there the destruction of his enemies. While he was there Huitzilopochtli, very indignant, called his priests and told them to go to that hill where they would find Copil the traitor waiting patiently for the destruction of the Mexica people. The priests ambushed the traitor, killed him and extracted his heart that was later presented to Huitzilopochtli. The god then ordered one of his servants to throw the heart of his perfidious enemy in the lake. The priests did so and from that moment a cactus grew from the thorny heart of Copil.[2]

The Crónica Mexicana by Hernando de Alvarado Tezozómoc[3] tells the same story somewhat differently: the Mexicas arrived to a new land persuaded by the demon Huitzilopochtli. They found a mound of stones covered by a cactus forest. At the base of it they found an anthill and above the hill they saw a royal eagle holding a snake in its claws and devouring it.

Archeologists have established that Mexico was inhabited before the arrival of the Mexicas by peoples that colonized the area of Tlatelolco north of Tenochtitlan. When the Mexicas arrived they conquered the territories around the valley gradually draining vast marsh areas they settled and exploited. Tenochtitlan eventually became a city-state forming a powerful alliance with Texcoco and Tlacopan.

The Mexicas grew powerful in that unassailable place deftly maintaining control over the surrounding populations. In their view the sun god was blessing them by being reborn every day.

To this day the eagle above the cactus holding the serpent is the most enduring symbol of Mexico. The eagle represents the raising sun while the serpent – formerly the symbol of the wisdom of Quetzalcoatl – became a symbol of evil. The new Christian destiny of the ancient nation was now to fight on the side of good against evil.

A brief who’s who of Aztec mythology

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Cuauhxicalli

Like most other inhabitants of the ancient Americas, the Aztecs had a dualistic solar religion. Their sun god Tonatiuhteotl raised every morning mounted on the high flying eagle Cuauhxicalli after being reborn from the womb of Mother Earth, Coatlicue Toniatzin, also known as Teteohinnan, the Mother of the Gods.

The raising of the sun was understood as a struggle between two warriors: the sun god, and his opposer the ruler of darkness. These two warrior gods were brothers in constant combat. Their sister Coyolxauqi, the moon goddess was depicted decapitated and dismembered. In that way the phases of the moon were explained as the gradual dismembering of the goddess by her enemy the sun, who vanquished the rulers of darkness every morning.

The Aztec pantheon also included Tlaloc the god of rain, thunder, hail, and clouds. Tlaloc was on the side of life with the sun. Tezcatlipoca and Coyolxauqui were on the side of death and darkness. Among their allies was Huitzilopochtli the demon ruler of the underworld.

Mother earth Coatlique, the mother of all the gods, was the giver of life and also the one destined to receive the dead. It is important to examine how they were represented to their worshipers. The images of the gods had many attributes that later appeared in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to help the natives understand their new Christian mother and to draw them closer to Christ.

A battle between light and darkness

The Aztecs understood the universe as cycles that complemented each other: life and death, light and darkness. The cycle of the day was a battle between the forces of light and darkness. Humans needed to help the forces of light, making sure that the sun god had enough soldiers to win the battle and rise again the next morning. If the sun was defeated and darkness triumphed then night would be eternal and mankind would perish. Mankind’s role in this battle was to provide warriors to the army of the sun god to perpetuate the cycle.

The hearts of the sacrificed warriors were placed in stone vessels and offered to the gods. The offerings for the sun were placed in the Cuauhxicalli, a vase that had the shape of an eagle with its eyes made to resemble sunrays. The eagle took the warriors up to the realm of the sun to help him in battle. In the same manner there was also a vessel for the god of darkness made in the shape of a jaguar, the Ocelotl Cuauhxicalli. The spots in the jaguar’s coat represented the stars at night. The tension between opposites light and darkness, warm and cold, near and far, east and west, winter and summer was considered essential for the existence of life. That is what the Aztecs learned from observing nature.

The rising of the sun over the horizon gave the Aztecs the idea that the Earth was giving birth to the sun who then chased darkness out of the sky going to rest at night, feeding on the sacrifices so it could rise again to battle one more day. Coatlique the earth is the beginning and the end of the gods; from the womb of the earth they went forth into battle and return there and rest from combat.

Tonatiuh the rising sun

The sun god Tonatiuh also called Tonatiuhteotl, demanded daily human sacrifices. If those were lacking the sun could hide permanently leaving mankind in darkness. Two human hearts per day were required to feed the sun after the daily battle. In the Solar Stone, commonly known as the Aztec Calendar, the sun is represented with a sacrificial knife coming out of his mouth. Behind his face a red solar disk is shining.

Coatlique Toniatzin, Mother Earth

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Coatlique Toniatzin

Coatlique Toniatzin was often represented with her head cut off. Her arms are two snakes; she has the legs of an eagle because she is the mother of the sun. Her umbilical cord is shown feeding the ground from where all living things come. Her dress is made of snakes. Coatlique means, “the one dressed with a skirt made of snakes.” In the Aztec conception of the world everything living is made of snakes.[4]

The snakes tied in a bow along with her skull buckle indicate that Coatlique Toniatzin is pregnant with the skull indicating death, the sure destiny of every living thing. She is depicted with plentiful breasts, a sign of fertility and the motherly generosity of earth.

Coatlique gives and takes life. She is the mother of all 402 gods. She completes the total of 403 gods that is 13 times 31. The number thirteen appears often in Aztec mythology: there are thirteen heavens and nine underworlds. This representation is one of the major meanings of the number thirteen. The Aztecs counted thirteen major articulations in the human body, thirteen rectangles on a turtle shell and thirteen rings on the tail of the sacred rattlesnake. For that reason the Pleiades constellation is also called “the tail of the rattlesnake.” The Aztec calendar of two hundred and sixty days was divided in twenty months of thirteen days.

Tlaloc the god of rain

Tlaloc is the god of rain, hail, lighting, thunder or any other thing that comes from above. He is dressed with the wind, symbolized by feathers. His dress has blue and white stripes signifying the sky and the clouds bringing rain. Tlaloc is a companion of the sun god: sun and rain are essential to life.[5]

Huitzilopochtli

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The demon Huitzilopochtli

The demon Huitzilopochtli, “the left-handed hummingbird” or “southern hummingbird” is one of the dead warriors who inhabit the Paradise of the Sun in the east where he sips the blood from the “precious flowers” – the hearts of the sacrificed victims of the flower wars.   The final part of his name opochtli, is used to refer to the nahual, or other self. He is the last son of Coatlicue, mother earth. The Franciscan historian Bernardino de Sahagún believes that the name of this deity reveals the idea of a purely demonic character, the fallen angel that requested the human sacrifices. His adversary was the god Tlaloc, god of rain.

Tezcatlipoca

Tezcatlipoca, the Lord of the Night Winds is the god of fate and darkness. His name in Nahuatl means, “smoking mirror” and he was one of the most feared gods. He was related to the forces of evil and destruction. He was the patron god of witchcraft, divination, and black magic. He was represented with soot mixed with light reflecting metal, dressed as a jaguar with an obsidian-pointed spear. He is the god of war and violence, the adversary of Quetzalcoatl.

Tezcatlipoca demanded complete subservience even from those in the noblest echelons of Aztec society all the way to the highest position of Aztec nobility. The king had to stand utterly naked in front of that god to repeat a formulated prayer:

“O master, O our lord, O lord of the near, of the nigh, O night, O wind … Poor am I. In what manner shall I act for thy city? In what manner shall I act for the governed, for the lowly Macehualtin? For I am blind, I am deaf, I am an imbecile, and in excrement, in filth hath my lifetime been … Perhaps thou mistaketh me for another; perhaps thou seekest another in my stead.”[6] The description of Tezcatlipoca fits very well with the Christian idea of God’s enemy, the devil.

Quetzalcoatl the Precious Twin

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A representation of Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl is the Aztec god of agriculture; he was represented as a feathered serpent associated with Venus the evening star. Many historians believe that Quetzalcoatl was a person who was later deified and incorporated to the Aztec, Toltec, and Mayan pantheon. According to legend he was a bearded man of white skin who came to Yucatan from the east. He gave the peoples of Mexico the knowledge of agriculture, metalwork, the arts, astronomy, and the calendar. He rejected human sacrifices and taught a religion of love and peace. Quetzalcoatl was considered the rival of Tezcatlipoca, the god of darkness. In Aztec mythology he was also opposed by Huitzilopochtli, the Left-handed Hummingbird, the god of war.

Prophecies, miracles, and dreams

According to legend those gods of evil had sent Quetzalcoatl into exile. Before leaving he promised to return at the end of the age, on a certain day and end all human sacrifices. The prophecy proved to be instrumental at the time of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. According to prominent Catholic author Warren H. Carroll, author of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Conquest of Darkness:

“The wise men of Mexico had expected that the returning Quetzalcoatl would land not only in his name year, 1-reed but also on his personal name day, called in their calendar 9-wind. Good Friday, April 22, 1519 was a 9-wind day in a 1-reed year. As a priest, Ce Acal Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl wore black. Cortez landing this day was dressed in black for the commemoration of Good Friday.”[7]

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Quetzalcoatl leaving Mexico in a vessel made of snakes

According to the historian and the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún, the Aztecs firmly believed Quetzalcoatl would one day return. Who was Quetzalcoatl? We can only speculate that he was a man who had the most extraordinary influence in the ancient cultures of Mexico. There are many accounts of his appearance but most of the legends agree that he arrived first in the Yucatan peninsula from the East. The name the Maya gave him, Kukulan suggests a Celtic name like that of the Irish mythical hero Cú Chulainn. The Aztec depictions of Quetzalcoatl are of a bearded man with Caucasian features rather Germanic in appearance. He is represented symbolically like a feathered serpent. The feathers represent the wind in Aztec iconography suggesting that Quetzalcoatl is a flying serpent or a wind god. He appears in history at some point around the 10th century. He is presented as a compassionate man, always willing to help the needy. He taught the natives agriculture and how to build cities, he also gave them a religion emphasizing the service of others, peace, love, and contentment. Once his civilizing mission was completed he built a ship and left sailing eastward. Before leaving he prophesied that one future day white bearded men just like him, the sons of the god sun would come and conquer the land bringing great prosperity and progress.[8]

The prophecy of Papantzin

Princess Papantzin was the sister of Emperor Montezuma. She was given in marriage to the king of Tlatelolco but the king soon died and Papantzin returned to live with his family in the imperial palace. Around 1509 she fell gravelly ill and died. She was laid to rest in the palace garden. Her mother found Papantzin alive the day after her burial. Once the commotion caused by her apparent resurrection subsided, Papantzin told her brother and family about her extraordinary experience. She told them that a while after her apparent death she gradually came back to her senses. She found herself by a wide river. On one side of that river there were piles of skulls and she could hear them cry and scream but was unable to understand what they were saying. On the opposite side of the river she saw gathering a growing number of bearded men with white skin. As she was trying to cross the river a beautiful young man appeared. He was enveloped in light brighter than the sun, he had two large wings on his back and his right hand carried a cross. That messenger kindly told her that the skulls represented her ancestors while the bearded white men were the sons of the sun preparing to sail the wide waters to conquer the Mexican Empire, adding that their time to cross the wide waters was still in the future.

Signs in the Heavens

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Emperor Montezuma II

Montezuma listened to the account of that vision with a fearful heart. He understood that the ancient prophecy of Quetzalcoatl was about to be fulfilled during his reign. Since he was sitting on the Throne of the Feathered Serpent, he knew he had to relinquish it when Quetzalcoatl arrived to rightfully claim it back. The anxiety in the heart of Montezuma caused by Papantzin’s vision diminished as the years went by uneventfully. The daily sacrifices and the flower wars continued without interruption until one day in 1510 – without any warning or seismic movement – the lake Texcoco was moved violently out of the lakebed causing great damage and many deaths in the coastal villages. Not long after that strange event, a comet appeared in the night sky.[9] In 1516 a second comet appeared, and then a third one followed by a strong earthquake. Those were bad omens for Emperor Montezuma and his gods; three times a sun had dared to cross the sky as the gods of darkness watched impotent to do anything about it. Finally even the Coatlique, the Earth mother of all gods was trembling. The Emperor of Mexico was no longer anxious or uneasy, he was now in full panic: the gods were coming to reclaim his throne.

The day of reckoning

Montezuma called to court all the wise counselors, astrologers, and shamans of Mexico. All subjects were told to report any extraordinary dream, vision, or omen. The Emperor wanted to find peace by decoding the arcane messages reaching his anxious heart. Many were summoned and asked to produce a solution. Some of them were sent to perish in the royal prisons while others were sacrificed to appease the gods.   While still in darkness about the time and mode of the disgrace the gods were bringing upon his realm, Montezuma’s guards presented him with a man, he was old and had no ears or toes. The humble man informed the Emperor not about dreams or visions but about mountains moving about the sea near Yucatan. Warriors and priests were sent without delay to verify the old man’s report. They came back promptly with even more disturbing information: large ships were anchored near the coast; bearded white men were setting up camp and fishing. It was Good Friday April 22, 1519; as predicted that was a 9-wind day in a 1-reed year. A beautiful Mexican full moon illuminated the night sky above the kingdom of the Left-handed Hummingbird but nothing could dispel the dark forebodings in the Emperor’s heart.

When Montezuma summoned the original informer to give him the royal reward, the old man had vanished. He was nowhere to be found. The sons of the sun god have entered the realm of Huitzilopochtli. The dreaded time of the end was at hand.

Princess Papantzin was perhaps the first to understand that the mission of the Spaniards was supernaturally ordered. She took time to consider the new religion of the conquerors moved no doubt by the force of her vision. She eventually realized that she was the first person of her race to see the Christian Cross in the hands of the messenger angel. She humbly received Christian instruction and was the first woman in the nation to be baptized, taking the name of Doña Maria Papantzin.


[1] “I thank you, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, that you have concealed these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for so it pleased you well.”   Such are the thoughts of Jesus expressed in Luke 10:21. The most extraordinary private revelations of our age have been given to the humblest messengers at i.e. Guadalupe de Extremadura, Fatima, Lourdes, La Salette, and Tepeyac. Our Lady of Guadalupe could have easily appeared to Bishop Zumárraga but “pleased God so well” that a humble and despised Macehualtin was the witness of such a great event.

[2] Arqueología Mexicana, El Mito de la Fundación de México Tenochtitlan; Especial 62, and El nopal en México Catálogo Visual by Enrique Vela, June 2015.

[3] Crónica Mexicana by Hernando de Alvarado Tezozómoc. SEP, México, D.F. 1943, Colección Biblioteca Enciclopédica Popular, vol. 33. Selection and introduction by Mario Mariscal.

[4] I wonder (jokingly) if that should be considered a very early intuition of the modern Theory of Strings now so popular among theoretical physicists. A string closely resembles a snake and vice versa.

[5] Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Miracle of the Roses lecture given by Luis Fernando Castaneda Monter at Saint Francis Chapel; Prudential Center, Boston, 2013.

[6] Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs Ancient Peoples and Places by Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz, published by Thames and Hudson. Notice the similarity of the formula to show utter self-humiliation before the god with the way St Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin responds to the Virgin Mary on his fourth encounter at Tepeyac.

[7] Apéndice – Explicación del Códice Geroglífico de Mr. Aubin de Historia de las Indias de la Nueva España y Islas de Tierra Firme, by Diego Duran and Alfredo Chavero; II, p 71, 1880. It is remarkable that Ce Acal Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl according to some legends was born on May 13 a. D. 895 – a date coinciding with the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima: May 13, 1917. Such coincidences occur throughout the history of Marian apparitions.

[8] Mujeres Célebres de México by Carlos Hernandez, pp. 16-17, Casa Editorial Lozano, San Antonio, Texas 1918.

[9] The Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Manuscript Mexicain No. 385) depicted “an immense streamer of light leaping from the Earth to the stars connecting to the Spanish calendar in 1509 A. D.” La vie quotidienne des Aztèques a la veille de la conquête espagnole by Jacques Soustelle. Hachette Littératures; Paris, 1955. The comet Halley was also visible in 1531 in the year when Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin.

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Ancient Tenochtitlan
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