Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pagan, Catholic religions blend in Mexico

Cindy and I took a trip about an hour north of Mexico City and got to experience an interesting contrast in religious beliefs and observances.

Pilgrims to the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe show their devotion by approaching the cathedral on their knees.

First we stopped at the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is a major pilgrimage destination for Mexican faithful. Legend has it that it was here in 1531 that Mary, the mother of God, appeared to a Nahuatl named Juan Diego, spoke to him in his native tongue and told him to build a church on the site. There are now six churches there, Juan Diego is a saint, and thousands of people pack the site daily. These are not the well-to-do Americans and Europeans who visit the sacred temples of the Aztecs, Mayans and other pre-Columbian sites. These are the common faithful.

The Sunday we were there, several thousand people packed the main cathedral, and thousands of others lit candles at various shrines and asked for miraculous cures of their physical and psychological ailments.

The Catholic religion has blended with the ancient pagan religions so that Mary is often identified with the earth goddess or other female deities, and Jesus and the saints are identified with other gods and goddesses of the pagan pantheon. They´re blended together in a uniquely Latin American form of Catholicism that still feels very medieval.

This little girl sought the blessing of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The next stop was Teotihuacan, an enormous ceremonial center in what was the biggest city in the Americas 1,900 years ago.

The place was called Teotihuacan by Nahuatl speakers several centuries after the city's fall, but its original name, the language or languages spoken there, and the ethnic groups who built the city are still unknown.
-- Arizona State University Department of Anthropology

You can get some sense of the scale of the place from the size of the ants (people) walking around. Each of the platforms once housed a temple. The pyramid of the Sun in the background is a couple of hundred feet high. The main avenue follows a north-south axis. The whole site was buried under dirt and trees until excavation began in the 19th century. There is still a lot to be uncovered.

Cindy and I marveled at the design of the ceremonial city. In their original state these pyramids were covered with a smooth stucco that was painted red, and carvings and murals decorated the fronts of the platforms. You can see traces of some of the colorful murals in a museum on the site. It is all quite impressive. At the time of its greatest flourishing, it was the sixth largest city in the world, the ASU researchers say.

The central plateau that today includes the site of Mexico City had a population estimated to be 25 million people at the time Europeans arrived. My source for this is a very interesting book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

The pyramid of the Moon is behind us in this picture. Cindy and I climbed to the top of both the pyramids. They´re quite steep.

The Aztecs who passed through the city after it had been abandoned and partly destroyed gave their own interpretations to the meaning of the place. They were equally awed and recognized that it had sacred significance.

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