Great Goddess of Teotihuacan

Great Goddess of Teotihuacan


Discovery and interpretation

In years leading up to 1942, a series of murals were found in the Tepantitla compound in Teotihuacan. The Tepantitla compound provided housing for what appears to have been high status citizens and its walls (as well as much of Teotihuacan) are adorned with brightly painted frescoes. The largest figures within the murals depicted complex and ornate deities or supernaturals. In 1942, archaeologist Alfonso Caso identified these central figures as a Teotihuacan equivalent of Tlaloc, the Mesoamerican god of rain and warfare. Thirty years later, researcher Esther Pasztory re-examined the murals and concluded that many paintings of "Tlaloc" instead showed a "feminine" deity, an analysis based on a number of factors including the gender of accompanying figures, the green bird in the headdress, and the spiders seen above the figure. [Pasztory (1977, pp.83–85).] Pasztory concluded that the figures represented a vegetation and fertility goddess that was a predecessor of the much later Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal. In 1983, Karl Taube christened this goddess the "Teotihuacan Spider Woman". The more neutral description of this deity as the "Great Goddess" has since gained currency.

The Great Goddess has since been identified at locations other than Tepantitla – including Teotihuacan's Tetitla compound (see photo below), the Palace of the Jaguars, and the Temple of Agriculture – as well as on several vessels. [Pasztory (1977, pp.87–91).]

The Great Goddess

In the Tepantitla and Tetitla murals, the Great Goddess wears a frame headdress that includes the face of a green bird, generally identified as an owl or quetzal. [Pasztory (1977, p.87).] She is shown among several spiders and with a yellow body coloration, further distinguishing her from other Mesoamerican deities. Her single most distinguishing feature is a nosepiece consisting of a rectangular bar with three circles. Immediately below this bar hang three or five "fangs". The outer fangs curl away from the center, while the middle fang points down.

In the depiction from the Tepantitla compound, the Great Goddess appears with vegetation growing out of her head, perhaps a world tree [See course notes by Kappelman (2002). Note, however, that there appear to be "two" separate and differently colored trees, one with spiders and one with butterflies.] or hallucinogenic morning glory vines. [Furst (1974).] Spiders and butterflies appear on the vegetation and water drips from its branches and flows from the hands of the Great Goddess. Water also appears to be flowing from her lower body. It was these many representations of water that led Caso to declare this to be a representation of the rain god, Tlaloc.

Below this depiction, separated from it by two interwoven serpents and a talud-tablero, is a scene showing dozens of small human figures, usually wearing only a loincloth and often showing a speech scroll (see photo below). Several of these figures are swimming in the criss-crossed rivers flowing from a mountain at the bottom of the scene. Caso interpreted this scene as the afterlife realm of Tlaloc although this interpretation has also been challenged, most recently by María Teresa Uriarte, who finds that "this mural represents Teotihuacan as [the] prototypical civilized city associated with the beginning of time and the calendar". [Uriarte (2006, abstract).]


The Great Goddess is thought to have been a goddess of the underworld, darkness, the earth, water, war, and possibly even creation itself. To the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, the jaguar, the owl, and especially the spider were considered creatures of darkness, often found in caves and during the night. The fact that the Great Goddess is frequently depicted with all of these creatures further supports the idea of her underworld connections.

In many murals, the Great Goddess is shown with many of the scurrying arachnids in the background, on her clothing, or hanging from her arms. She is often seen with shields decorated with spider webs, further suggesting her relationship with warfare. Her nosepiece is the single most recognizable adornment of the deity, finalizing her transformation into the arachnid-like goddess.

Other interpretations

While the consensus is that these murals show a single deity or supernatural, there are other interpretations within the archaeological community:
* In a 2006 article in "Ancient Mesoamerica", Zoltán Paulinyi argues that the Great Goddess or Spider Woman is "highly speculative" and is a result of fusing up to six unrelated gods and goddesses.
* In "The Olmec Mountain and Tree Creation in Mesoamerican Cosmology", Linda Schele states that the primary Spider Woman mural is "either a Teotihuacan ruler or the Great Goddess". [Schele (1996, p.111, fig. 20). [ See also this synopsis.] ]
* Similarly, in his web article, John Q. Jacobs finds that "While differing on specifics, most authors accept a religious interpretation for many elements of the mural art. I question whether evidence supports this broad interpretation." [Jacobs (2002).]

imilar deities

Some American Indians, such as the Pueblo and Navajo, revered what seems to be a similar deity. Referred to as the Spider Grandmother, she shares many traits with the Teotihuacan Spider Woman.

ee also

*Cihuacoatl (goddess)



: cite book|author=aut|Furst, Peter |year=1974 |chapter=Morning Glory and Mother Goddess at Tepantitla, Teotihuacan: Iconography and Analogy in Pre-Columbian Art |editor=Norman Hammond (ed.) |title=Mesoamerican Archaeology: New Approaches |series=proceedings of a Symposium on Mesoamerican Archaeology held by the University of Cambridge Centre of Latin American Studies, August 1972 |location=Austin|publisher=University of Texas Press |pages=pp.187–215 |isbn=0-292-75008-0 |oclc=1078818 : cite web |author=aut|Jacobs, James Q. |year=2002 |title=Teotihuacan Mural Art: Assessing the Accuracy of its Interpretation |url= |work=Mesoamerican Web Ring | |accessdate=2007-09-15 : cite web |author=aut|Kappelman, Julia G. |year=2002 |title=Mesoamerican Art - Teotihuacan |url= |format=ART347L course syllabus and notes |work=Precolumbian Art and Art History |publisher=Department of Art & Art History, University of Texas at Austin |accessdate=2007-09-15: cite book |author=aut|Miller, Mary |authorlink=Mary Miller |coauthors=and aut|Karl Taube |year=1993 |title=The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion |publisher=Thames and Hudson |location=London |isbn=0-500-05068-6 |oclc=27667317 : cite paper |author=aut|Pasztory, Esther |title=The Murals of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan |date=1971 |url= |format=PhD thesis |publisher=Columbia University: cite book |author=aut|Pasztory, Esther |year=1977 |chapter=The Gods of Teotihuacan: A Synthetic Approach in Teotihuacan Iconography |editor=Alana Cordy-Collins and Jean Stern (eds.) |title=Pre-Columbian Art History: Selected Readings |publisher=Peek Publications |location=Palo Alto, CA |pages=pp.81–95 |isbn=0-917962-41-9 |oclc=3843930. : cite journal |author=aut|Paulinyi, Zoltán |year=2006 |date= |title=The “Great Goddess” of Teotihuacan: Fiction or Reality? |journal=Ancient Mesoamerica |url= |format= |volume=17 |issue=1 |pages=pp.1–15 |location=London; New York |publisher=Cambridge University Press |doi=10.1017/S0956536106060020 |issn=0956-5361 |oclc=21544811|doi_brokendate=2008-06-20 : cite book |author=aut|Schele, Linda |authorlink=Linda Schele |year=1996 |chapter=The Olmec Mountain and Tree Creation in Mesoamerican Cosmology |editor= |title=The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership |edition=Cloth edition, distributed in 1996 by Harry N. Abrams, ©1995 |others=Catalog of an exhibition held Dec. 16, 1995—Feb. 25, 1996 at the Art Museum, Princeton University, and Apr. 14—June 9, 1996 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston |location=Princeton, NJ |publisher=The Art Museum, Princeton University in association with Harry N. Abrams (New York) |pages=pp.105–119|isbn=0-8109-6311-6 |oclc=34103154 : cite journal |author=aut|Taube, Karl |authorlink=Karl Taube |year=1983 |date= |title=The Teotihuacan Spider Woman |journal=Journal of Latin American Lore |url= |format= |volume=9 |issue=2 |pages=pp.107–189 |location=Los Angeles |publisher=UCLA Latin American Center |doi= |issn=0360-1927 |oclc=1845716: cite journal |author=aut|Uriarte, Maria Teresa |year=2006 |title=The Teotihuacan Ballgame and the Beginning of Time |journal=Ancient Mesoamerica |url= |format= |volume=17 |issue=1 |pages=pp.17–38 |location=London; New York |publisher=Cambridge University Press |doi=10.1017/S0956536106060032 |issn=0956-5361 |oclc=88827568 |doi_brokendate=2008-06-20

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