SATURDAY READING: Entering Into The Serpent by Gloria Anzaldúa

Entering Into The Serpent by Gloria Anzaldúa

From Weaving The Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality

Mi mamagrande Ramona toda su vida mantuvo un altar pequeño en la esquina del comedor.  Siempre tenia las velas prendidas.  Alli hacia promesas a la Virgen de Guadalupe.  [My grandmother Ramona all her life maintained a small altar in the corner of the dining room.  She always had candles lit.  There she made vows to the Virgin of Guadalupe.]  My family, like most Chicanos, did not practice Roman Catholicism but a folk Catholicism with many pagan elements.  La Virgen de Guadalupe’s Indian name is Coatlalopeuh.  She is the central deity connecting us to our Indian ancestry.

Coatlalopeuh is descended from, or is an aspect of, earlier Mesoamerican fertility and Earth Goddesses.  The earliest is Coatlicue, or “Serpent Skirt.”  She had a human skull or serpent for a head, a necklace of human hearts, a skirt of twisted serpents and taloned feet.  As creator goddess, she was mother of the celestial deities, and of Huitzilopochtli and his sister, Coyolxauhqui, She With Golden Bells, Goddess of the Moon, who was decapitated by her brother.  Another aspect of Coatlicue is Tonantsi.  (In some Nahuatl dialects Tonantsi is called Tonatzin, literally, “Our Holy Mother.”)  The Totonacs, tired of the Aztec human sacrifices to the male god, Huitzilopochtli, renewed their reverence for Tonantsi who preferred the sacrifice of birds and small animals.

The male-dominated Azteca-Mexica culture drove the powerful female deities underground by giving them monstrous attributes and by substituting male deities in their place, thus splitting the female Self and the female deities.  They divided her who had been complete, who possessed both upper (light) and underworld (dark) aspects.  Coatlicue, the Serpent goddess, and her more sinister aspects, Tlazolteotl and Cihuacoatl, were “darkened” and disempowered.

Tonantsi – split from her dark guises, Coatlicue, Tlazolteotl, and Cihuacoatl – became the good mother.  The Nahuas, through ritual and prayer, sought to oblige Tonantsi to ensure their health and the growth of their crops.  It was she who gave México the cactus plant to provide her people with milk and pulque.  It was she who defended her children against the wrath of the Christian God by challenging God, her son, to produce mother’s milk (as she had done) to prove that his benevolence equaled his disciplinary harshness.

After the Conquest, the Spaniards and their church continued to split Tonantsi/Guadalupe.  They desexed Guadalupe, taking Coatlalopeuh, the serpent/sexuality, out of her.  They completed the split begun by the Nahuas by making la Virgen de Guadalupe/Virgin Maria into chaste virgins and Tlazolteotle/Coatlicuella Chingada into putas [whores]; into the Beauties and the Beasts.  They went even further; they made all Indian deities and religious practices the work of the devil.  Thus Tonantsi became Guadalupe, the chaste protective mother, the defender of the Mexican people.

Guadalupe appeared on December 9, 1531, on the spot where the Aztec goddess, Tonantsi (“Our Lady Mother”), had been worshipped by the Nahuas and where a temple to her had stood.  Speaking Nahua, she told Juan Diego, a poor Indian crossing Tepeyac Hill, whose Indian name was Cuautlaohuac and who belonged to the mazehual class, the humblest within the Chichimeca tribe, that her name was María Coatlalopeuh.  Coatl is the Nahuatl word for serpent.  Lopeuh means “the one who has dominion over serpents.”  I interpret this as “the one who is at one with the beasts.”  Some spell her name Coatlaxopeuh (pronounced “Cuatlashupe” in Nahuatl) and say that “xopeuh” means “crushed or stepped on with distain.”  Some say it means “she who crushed the serpent,” with the serpent as the symbol of the indigenous religion, meaning that her religion was to take the place of the Aztec religion.  Because Coatlalopeuh was homophonous to the Spanish Guadalupe, the Spanish identified her with the dark virgin, Guadalupe, patroness of West Central Spain.  (Some say that Guadalupe is a word derived from Arabic that means “Hidden River.”)

From that meeting, Juan Diego walked away with the image of la Virgen painted on his cloak.  Soon after, Mexico ceased to belong to Spain, and la Virgen de Guadalupe began to eclipse all the other male and female religious figures in Mexico, Central America, and parts of the U. S. Southwest.  “Desde entonces para el mexicano ser Guadalupano es also esencial/Since then for the Mexican, to be a Guadalupano is something essential.

Mi Virgen MorenaMy brown virgin
Mi Virgen Rancheramy country virgin
Eres nuestra Reinayou are our queen
México es tu tierraMexico is your land
Y tú su bandera.and you its flag.
“La Virgen Ranchera” 

In 1660 the Roman Catholic Church named her Mother of God, considering her synonymous with la Virgen María; she became la Santa Patrona de los mexicanos [the patron saint of Mexicans].  The role of defender (or patron) has traditionally been assigned to male gods.  During the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata and Miguel Hidalgo used her image to move el pueblo mexicano [the Mexican people] toward freedom.  During the 1965 grape strike in Delano, California, and in subsequent Chicano farmworkers’ marches in Texas and other parts of the Southwest, her image on banners heralded and united the farmworkers.  Pachucos (zoot suiters) tattoo her image on their bodies.  Today, in Texas and Mexico she is more venerated than Jesus or God the Father.  In the Lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas it is la Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos (an aspect of Guadalupe) that is worshipped by thousands every day at her shrine in San Juan.  In Texas she is considered the patron saint of Chicanos.  Cuando Carito, mi hermanito [when Carito, my brother] was missing in action and, later, wounded in Viet Nam, mi mama got on her knees y le prometió a Ella que sis u hijito volvía vivo [and promised Her that if her son returned alive] she would crawl on her knees and light novenas in her honor.

Today, la Virgen de Guadalupe is the single most potent religious, political, and cultural image of the Chicano/mexicano.  She, like my race, is a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races in our psyche, the conquerors and the conquered.  She is the symbol of the mestizo true to his or her Indian values.  La cultura chincana identifies with the mother (Indian) rather than with the father (Spanish).  Our faith is rooted in indigenous attributes, images, symbols, magic, and myth.  Because Guadalupe took upon herself the psychological and physical devastation of the conquered and oppressed india, she is our spiritual, political, and psychological symbol.  As a symbol of hope and faith, she sustains and insures our survival.  The Indian, despite extreme despair, suffering, and near genocide, has survived.  To Mexicans on both sides of the border, Guadalupe is the symbol of our rebellion against the rich, upper and middle class; against their subjugation of the poor and the indio.

Guadalupe unites people of different races, religions, languages: Chicano protestants, American Indians, and whites.  “Nuestra abogada siempre serás/Our mediatrix you will always be.”  She mediates between the Spanish and the Indian cultures (or three cultures as in the case of mexicanos of African or other ancestry) and between Chicanos and the white world.  She mediates between humans and the divine, between this reality and the reality of spirit entities.  La Virgen de Guadalupe is the symbol of ethnic identity and of the tolerance for ambiguity that Chicanos-mexicanos, people of mixed race, people who have Indian blood, people who cross cultures, by necessity possess.

La gente Chicana tiene tres madres.  [The Chicana people has three mothers.]  All three are mediators: Guadalupe, the virgin mother who has not abandoned us, la Chingada (Malinche), the raped mother whom we have abandoned, and la Llorona, the mother who seeks her lost children and is a combination of the other two.

Ambiguity surrounds the symbols of these three “Our Mothers.”  Guadalupe has been used by the church to mete out institutionalized oppression: to placate the Indians and mexicanos  and Chicanos.  In part, the true identity of all three has been subverted – Guadalupe to make us docile and enduring, la Chingada to make us ashamed of our Indian side, and la Llorona to make us long-suffering people.  This obscuring has encouraged the virgen/puta (whore) dichotomy.

Yet we have not all embraced this dichotomy.  In the U. S. Southwest, Mexico, Central and South America the indio and the mestizo continue to worship the old spirit entities (including Guadalupe) and their supernatural power, under the guise of Christian saints.

Las invoco diosas mías, ustedes las indias
sumergidas en mi carne que son mis sombras.
Ustedes que persisten mudas en sus cuevas.
Ustedes Señoras que ahora, como yo,
están en desgradia. 


Before the Aztecs became a militaristic, bureaucratic state where male predatory warfare and conquest were based on patrilineal nobility, the principle of balanced opposition between the sexes existed.  The people worshipped the Lord and Lady of Duality, Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl.  Before the change to male dominance, Coatlicue, Lady of the Serpent Skirt, contained and balanced the dualities of male and female, light and dark, life and death.

The changes that led to the loss of the balanced oppositions began when the Azteca, one of the twenty Toltec tribes, made the last pilgrimage from a place called Aztlán.  The migration south began about the year C.E. 820.  Three hundred years later the advance guard arrived near Tula, the capital of the declining Toltec empire.  By the 11th century, they had joined with the Chichimec tribe of Mexitin (afterwards called Mexica) into one religious and administrative organization within Aztlán, the Aztec territory.  The Mexitin, with their tribal god Tetzauhteotl Huitzilopochtli (Magnificent Humming Bird on the Left), gained control of the religious system.  (In some stories Huitzilopochtli killed his sister, the moon goddess Malinalxoch, who used her supernatural power over animals to control the tribe rather than wage war.)

Huitzilopochtli assigned the Azteca-Mexica the task of keeping the human race (the present cosmic age called the Fifth Sun, El Quinto Sol) alive.  They were to guarantee the harmonious preservation of the human race by unifying all the people on Earth into one social, religious, and administrative organ.  The Aztec people considered themselves in charge of regulating all earthly matters.  Their instrument: controlled or regulated war to gain and exercise power.

After one hundred years in the central plateau, the Azteca-Mexica went to Chapultepec, where they settled in 1248 (the present site of the park on the outskirts of Mexico City).  There in 1345, the Azteca-Mexica chose the site of their capital, Tenochtitlan.  By 1428, they dominated the Central Mexican lake area.

The Aztec ruler, Itzcoatl, destroyed all the painted documents (books called codices) and rewrote a mythology that validated the wars of conquest and thus continued the shift from a tribe based on clans to one based on classes.  From 1429 to 1440, the Aztecs emerged as a militaristic state that preyed on neighboring tribes for tribute and captives.  The “wars of flowers” were encounters between local armies with a fixed number of warriors, operating within the Aztec World, and, according to set rules, fighting ritual battles at fixed times and on predetermined battlefields.  The religious purpose of these wars was to procure prisoners of war who could be sacrificed to the deities of the capturing party.  For if one “fed” the gods, the human race would be saved from total extinction.  The social purpose was to enable males of noble families and warriors of low descent to win honor, fame, and administrative offices, and to prevent social and cultural decadence of the elite.  The Aztec people were free to have their own religious faith, provided it did not conflict too much with the three fundamental principles of state ideology: to fulfill the special duty set forth by Huitzilopochtli of unifying all peoples, to participate in the wars of flowers, and to bring ritual offerings and do penance for the purpose of preventing decadence.

Matrilineal descent characterized the Toltecs and perhaps early Aztec society.  Women possessed property, and were curers as well as priestesses.  According to the codices, women in former times had the supreme power in Tula, and in the beginning of the Aztec dynasty, the royal blood ran through the female line.  A council of elders of the Calpul headed by a supreme leader, or tlactlo, called the father and mother of the people, governed the tribe.  The supreme leader’s vice-emperor occupied the position of “Snake Woman” or Cihuacoatl, a goddess.  Although the high posts were occupied by men, the terms referred to females, evidence of the exalted role of women before the Aztec nation became centralized.  The final break with the democratic Calpul came when the four Aztec lords of royal lineage picked the king’s successor from his siblings or male descendants.

La Llorona’s wailing in the night for her lost children has an echoing note in the wailing or mourning rites performed by women as they bid their sons, brothers, and husbands goodbye before they left to go to the “flowery wars.”  Wailing is the Indian, Mexican, and Chicana woman’s feeble protest when she has no other recourse.  These collective wailing rites may have been a sign of resistance in a society that glorified the warrior and war and for whom the women of the conquered tribes were booty.

In defiance of the Aztec rulers, the macehuales (the common people) continued to worship fertility, nourishment, and agricultural female deities, those of crops and rain.  They venerated Chalchiuhticue (goddess of sweet or inland water), Chicomecoatl (goddess of food), and Huixtocihuatl (goddess of salt).

Nevertheless, it took less than three centuries for Aztec society to change from the balanced duality of their earlier times and from the egalitarian traditions of a wandering tribe to those of a predatory state.  The nobility kept the tribute, the commoner got nothing, resulting in a class split.  The conquered tribes hated the Aztecs because of the rape of their women and the heavy taxes levied on them.  The Tlaxcalans were the Aztec’s bitter enemies and it was they who helped the Spanish defeat the Aztec rulers, who were by this time so unpopular with their own common people that they could not even mobilize the populace to defend the city.  Thus the Aztec nation fell not because Malinali (la Chingada) interpreted for and slept with Cortés, but because the ruling elite had subverted the solidarity between men and women and between noble and commoner.

Sueño con Serpientes

Coatl.  In pre-Columbian America the most notable symbol was the serpent.  The Olmecs associated womanhood with the Serpent’s mouth which was guarded by rows of dangerous teeth, a sort of vagina dentate.  They considered it the most sacred place on Earth, a place of refuge, the creative womb from which all things were born and to which all things returned.  Snake people had holes, entrances to the body of the Earth Serpent; they followed the Serpent’s way, identified with the Serpent deity, with the mouth, both the eater and the eaten.  The destiny of humankind is to be devoured by the Serpent.

the doctor by the operating table said.
I passed between the two fangs,
the flickering tongue.
Having come through the mouth of the serpent,
I found myself suddenly in the dark,
sliding down a smooth wet surface
down down into an even darker darkness.
Having crossed the portal, the raised hinged mouth,
having entered the serpent’s belly,
now there was no looking back, no going back.

Why do I cast no shadow?
Are there lights from all sides shining on me?
Ahead, ahead,
curled up inside the serpent’s coils,
the damp breath of death on my face.
I knew at that instant: something must change
or I’d die.

Algo tenía que cambiar. 

After each of my bouts with death I’d catch glimpses of an otherworld Serpent.  Once, in my bedroom, I saw a cobra the size of the room, her hood expanding over me. When I blinked she was gone.  I realized she was, in my psyche, the mental picture and symbol of the instinctual in its collective impersonal, pre-human form.  She, the symbol of the dark sexual drive, the chthonic (underworld), the feminine, the serpentine movement of sexuality, of creativity, the basis of all energy and life.

The Presences

She appeared in white, garbed in white,
standing white, pure white.
Bernardino de Sahagún

On the gulf where I was raised, en el Valle del Río Grande in South Texas – that triangular piece of land wedged between the river y el gulfo [and the gulf] which serves as the Texas-U.S./Mexican border – is a Mexican pueblito [little village] called Hargill (at one time in the history of this one-grocery-store, two-service-stations town there were thirteen churches and thirteen cantinas [bars]).  Down the road, a little ways from our house, was a deserted church.  It was known among the mexicanos that if you walked down the road late at night you would see a woman dressed in white floating about, peering out the church window.  She would follow those who had done something bad or who were afraid.  Los mexicanos called her la Jila.  Some thought she was la Llorona.  She was, I think, Cihuacoatl, Serpent Woman, ancient Aztec goddess of the Earth, of war and birth, patron of midwives, and antecedent of la Llorona.  Covered with chalk, Cihuacoatl wears a white dress with a decoration half red and half black.  Her hair forms two little horns (which the Aztecs depicted as knives) crossed on her forehead.  The lower part of her face is a bare jawbone, signifying death.  On her back she carried a cradle, the knife of sacrifice swaddled as if it were her papoose, her child.  (The Aztecs muted Snake Woman’s patronage of childbirth and vegetation by placing a sacrificial knife in the empty cradle she carried on her back (signifying a child who died in childbirth), thereby making her a devourer of sacrificial victims.  Snake Woman had the ability to change herself into a serpent or into a lovely young woman to entice young men who withered away and died after intercourse with her.  She was known as a witch and a shape-shifter.)  Like la Llorona, Cihuacoatl howls and weeps in the night, screams as if demented.  She brings mental depression and sorrow.  Long before it takes place, she is the first to predict something is to happen.  Back then, I, an unbeliever, scoffed at these Mexican superstitions as I was taught in Anglo school.

Four years ago a red snake crossed my path as I walked through the woods.  The direction of its movement, its pace, its colors, the “mood” of the trees and the wind and the snake – they all “spoke” to me, told me things.  I look for omens everywhere, everywhere catch glimpses of the patterns and cycles of my life.  Stones “speak” to Luisah Teish, a Santera; trees whisper their secrets to Chrystos, a Native American.  I remember listening to the voices of the wind as a child and understanding its messages.  Los espíritus [the spirits] that ride the back of the south wind.  I remember their exhalation blowing in through the slits in the door during those hot Texas afternoons.  A gust of wind raising the linoleum under my feet, buffeting the house.  Everything trembling.

We’re not supposed to remember such otherworldly events.  We’re supposed to ignore, forget, kill those fleeting images of the soul’s presence and of the spirit’s presence.  We’ve been taught that the spirit is outside our bodies or above our heads somewhere up in the sky with God.  We’re supposed to forget that every cell in our bodies, every bone and bird and worm has spirit in it.

Like many Indians and Mexicans, I did not deem my psychic experiences real.  I denied their occurrences and let my inner senses atrophy.  I allowed white rationality to tell me that the existence of the “other world” was mere pagan superstition.  I accepted their reality, the “official” reality of the rational, reasoning mode which is connected with external reality, the upper world, and is considered the most developed consciousness – the consciousness of duality.

The other mode of consciousness facilitates images from the soul and the unconscious through dreams and the imagination.  Its work is labeled “fiction,” make-believe, wish-fulfillment.  White anthropologists claim that Indians have “primitive” and therefore deficient minds, that we cannot think in the higher mode of consciousness – rationality.  They are fascinated by what they call the “magical” mind, the “savage” mind, the participation mystique of the mind that says the world of the imagination – the world of the soul – and of the spirit is just as real as physical reality.  In trying to become “objective,” Western culture made “objects” of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing “touch” with them.  This dichotomy is the root of all violence.

Not only was the brain split into two functions but so was reality.  Thus people who inhabit both realities are forced to live in the interface between the two, forced to become adept at switching modes.  Such is the case with the india and the mestiza.

Institutionalized religion fears trafficking with the spirit world and stigmatizes it as witchcraft.  It has strict taboos against this kind of inner knowledge.  It fears what Jung calls the Shadow, the unsavory aspects of ourselves.  But even more it fears the supra-human, the god in ourselves.  Voodoo, Santeria, Shamanism, and other native religions are called cults and their beliefs are called mythologies.  In my own life, the Catholic Church fails to give meaning to my daily acts, to my continuing encounters with the “other world.”  It and other institutionalized religions impoverish all life, beauty, pleasure.

The Catholic and Protestant religions encourage fear and distrust of life and of the body; they encourage a split between the body and the spirit and totally ignore the soul; they encourage us to kill off parts of ourselves.  We are taught that the body is an ignorant animal; intelligence dwells only in the head.  But the body is smart.  It does not discern between external stimuli and stimuli from the imagination.  It reacts equally viscerally to events from the imagination as it does to “real” events.

So I grew up in the interface trying not to give countenance to el mal aigre, evil non-human, non-corporeal entities riding the wind, that could come in through the window, through my nose with my breath.  I was not supposed to believe in susto, a sudden shock or fall that frightens the soul out of the body.  And growing up between such opposing spiritualties how could I reconcile the two, the pagan and the Christian?

No matter to what use my people put the supranatural world, it is evident to me now that the spirit world, whose existence the whites are so adamant in denying, does in fact exist.  This very minute I sense the presence of the spirits of my ancestors in my room.  And I think la Jila is Cihuacoatl, Snake Woman; she is la Llorona, Daughter of Night, traveling the dark terrains of the unknown searching for the lost parts of herself.  I remember la Jila following me once, remember her eerie lament.  I’d like to think that she was crying for her lost children, los Chicanos/mexicanos.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: