On a recent tour, our participants heard an unforgettable story. It was shared to them by one of En Vía’s women borrowers, as they stood quietly together by an altar in the Church at Teotitlán del Valle. In the presence of burning candles and fresh flowers, she whispered…
“Look here, at this shell”. The group could hardly notice it beneath the gilded and glowing frames, the faded paintings, and the patient saints. “A snake was born from this shell. A snake that grew and grew until it was giant. It now lives below the church, where some say it guards a chamber of gold. On its great head, it has three feathers: one yellow, one white, and one red. Every hundred years it wakes and emerges. They say an old woman from the village was passing the church one evening many years ago, and came face to face with it. She realized that the only way to escape was to pluck one of the snake’s three feathers; and so she plucked the red. She returned home, not knowing, as the snake did, that the yellow feather brought wealth, the white; health, and the red; death. The next day, the woman passed away. Her family tried to find the feather that she had brought back from the church, but it was gone…”
The image of Quetzalcoatl, el Serpiente Emplumada, or Feathered Serpent God, clearly endures in this local legend. It is no wonder, as after all, the church was built on a Zapotec temple where he was once revered. He is at once a snake of the earth, and a bird of the sky. Depicted as both man and God, he molded his people from the bones of death and gave them life, and the knowledge to nourish it.
The legend of the snake beneath the church reflects clearly the ways in which ancient Mesoamerican beliefs have merged and mixed with those of the Catholic tradition. When the Spanish first built the Church of the Precioso Sangre de Cristo (Precious Blood of Christ) on this site, the people were afraid to enter. This fear of the Catholic Church as a new force in the lives of the Zapotec people can still be gleaned from the existence of the altars in the corners of the church yard; built to religiously accommodate those that were not willing to actually set foot inside the church itself.
Today, the church is a central artery of the town. On festival days it is happily hung with colored flags and flowers, and the churchyard filled with dancers. Every day it is meticulously attended by dozens of people belonging to a volunteer committee, and visited by the devout.
Perhaps what remained of the fear of the unknown and/or known oppression that came with imposition of a new religion was transferred to this idea of the giant snake. Perhaps the new authorities attempted to purposefully alienate Quetzalcoatl from his own people by turning him into a monster. Or then again, maybe the story has been whispered so many times, that the details have blurred and the legend has transformed into something just as valid and important as the very first whisper.
I know for certain, there is something beneath the church at Teotitlán; and it is not a monster. What is down there is memories and history; old rocks and deep roots, and echoes of another time when there was a multitude of feathers to choose from.
By Kim Groves