The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan
One of the most intriguing mythological figures is the Great Goddess, the theorized deity of the Moon Temple of the ancient Mesoamerican city-state Teotihuacan. Immense mystery surrounds this figure. The citizens of Teotihuacan did not keep written records and material remains are limited, leaving historians and anthropologists alone in the dark without a star in the sky to guide them. However, what has been compiled is increasingly fascinating for the study of Mesoamerican religion.
What archaeologists have compiled is a rough understanding of the Great Goddess as a deity of rebirth and fertility. There is a duality present in these deities; for example, the Teotihuacan god of rain represents both the life-giving and destructive potential of water. This is not uncommon for deities, as in European polytheistic traditions gods are found to represent numerous elements of life. For instance, Zeus was also known as the god of getting rid of flies (Apomyius). Therefore, the Great Goddess is thought to have more representations (Hallucinogens, psychedelics, death, etc). It is this multi-faceted nature of polytheistic deities that adds extra dimensions to our understanding of ancient societies.
A brief introduction to the Teotihuacan civilization illustrates the societal environment that produced the Great Goddess, shedding further light on the mystery. Beginning as a small settlement in 200 BC, Teotihuacan became the largest city in the Basin of Mexico until its abandonment in 750 AD; the estimated population was between 30–100 thousand people. As previously mentioned, the practice of writing was not an integral part of their culture. In previous archaeological traditions, such as established by Childe in the 1920–40s, Teotihuacan would not have been considered an advanced civilization. However, in the last 80 years, there has been a renewed interest in the site from Mexican officials and archaeologists. What they have uncovered is an incredibly complex and unique city-state society that dominated the Mexican Basin and could be linked to the formation of the Aztecs.
Fascination with volcanoes and mountains dominated the cultural landscape of the city. The pyramid remains, originally with large temples affixed upon them, are theorized to be constructed mountains for ceremonial purposes. Caves were also thought to be mythical places, where the ancestors of Teotihuacan emerged (based on later Mesoamerican beliefs concerning the city). Excavations on the Pyramid of the Moon reveal a constructed cave system underneath, furthering this theory. Therefore, the entire city of Teotihuacan can be interpreted as a cosmological space, and the Great Goddess was central to the cosmic topography. Within her representations, it is possible to examine these geographic elements.
Two images are widely circulated: the first being a statue composed of volcanic stone, and the second being a large mural from the Tepantitla apartment compound.
The volcanic statuary is a simple design that provides a basic understanding of the Great Goddess. The composition of the statue indicates the Teotihuacan skill in statuary crafting and demonstrates the value of volcanic sediment in the tradition. Furthermore, the tip of her hat is dipped in the middle, reflecting the dip located atop the Cerro Gordo peak the Temple of the Moon aligns with. Water appears to come out of her hands, and there is a circular hole in her upper chest. Archaeologists are not entirely certain what this was for, but it could have been a resting place for a sacred gem or item. Personally, I believe that it reflects the jewelry located on the necklace within the Tepantitla mural. Based on that same mural, this statuary could have been painted and adorned with feathers.
The Tepantitla piece is the most detailed image of the Great Goddess that we have. Adorned with a large headdress comprised of a bird and many plumes, the Goddess boasts a fanged mouth guard and pieces of shell and jade flowing down a stream of water pouring from her hands; water flows around the edges of the mural, encasing the entire piece in a stream. A great tree emerges from her head, representing life itself. It is theorized that the Great Goddess was responsible for giving birth to the world and its people, along with the world’s agricultural fertility. This would make the stream thematic very fitting; furthermore, the rain god Tlaloc can be seen in the corner of the mural. There is intersectionality between deities and their roles in the Teotihuacan cosmology. Both the Great Goddess and Tlaloc share roles in water and fertility, and the life that it brings.
Furthermore, the Great Goddess has spiders spinning down from her arms, and apparently, butterflies in the trees (Although these can be noticed in the lower register of the mural). In Mesoamerican mythology (Aztec mostly) spiders were associated with women and their reincarnated spirits; weaving was one shared trait between the two. In turn, butterflies were associated with the reincarnated spirits of male warriors. Therefore, the Great Goddess is associated with both genders, which lends itself to the theory of the third gender. Two priestesses flank the Goddess, matching her dress stylistically. As mentioned, there is a bottom register to the mural. A great mountain is depicted, suggesting some association with the Great Goddess or her created temple. Furthermore, people and butterflies emerge around the mountain, furthering the association with rebirth from the Great Goddesses mythological-geographic space.
At first, this evidence pointed to the Great Goddess providing a central role in Teotihuacan mythology. However, the presence of Quetzalcoatl (becoming a central Aztec god) and the presence of potential sacrifices would provide a different interpretation. It is not impossible that the two deities would intersect in authority, or if any notion of hierarchy existed in Mesoamerican mythology. There is an interesting theory that the Great Goddess represents a third gender.
One of the largest indicators is the appearance of the Great Goddess. Her headdress, jewelry, and nose ornaments were not specific to one gender. Furthermore, what is interesting is that the two branches in which the spiders and butterflies are located are different colors; purple and yellow respectively. What is further interesting is that both attendants pour a libation of equal color. This is perhaps a representation of a gender duality that melds into the figure of the Great Goddess, a gender equilibrium according to Annabeth Headrick. Some scholars believe that there was no great goddess, or that she was not as important as scholarship presents her.
Elisa C. Mandell provides a comprehensive and ultimately extremely thoughtful view of all the theories in comparison to each other. “A New Analysis of the Gender Attribution of the ‘Great Goddess’ of Teotihuacan” concludes on the note that the diety is gender-neutral, being just a Diety, based on the lack of evidence for “multiple gender identities in American antiquity”. The Diety is complex, comprised of many layers of representation. It is difficult to interpret due to a lack of knowledge of the written language and Teotihuacan’s lack of identifying their rulers. Mandell seeks to establish that there are many assumptions in scholarship that need to be evaluated to continue the scholarly dialogue. As I conclude this brief introduction into the Great Goddess, I urge you to examine her closely and research any burning questions you may have. As Mandell states, the Great Goddess’s mixed-gender might “have had a wider appeal to a society of diverse individuals, and different genders and ethnicities.” Perhaps, she is meant to remain within this fluid model of interpretation, never intended to be solidified in stone.