Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Dance of Teonantli

**This is a repost - Somehow I managed to delete it from my published posts when I was trying to view it.**

I've been doing some reading about the San Francisco de Asis church. It's surprising to me how little literature is available, but I checked out the two books that they had at the library, one of which features many different artists' paintings and photos of the church, and the other of which focuses on the restoration that occurred in 1979.

I've discovered a few interesting things. First, there's some controversy about when the church was actually built. It could have been as early as 1710 or as late as 1810 - a hundred year discrepancy that even the church records don't clarify. Neither book acknowledges the statues of Clare and Francis that I so adore. I went into the church gift shop and the woman at the counter said the Francis statue has been there maybe ten years, and the one of Clare only for four or five. She didn't know who made them. An online search for this information brought me to my own blog.

In the book about the church restoration, titled simply Ranchos de Taos, I learned that the annual remudding of the church was traditionally done by the women. In recent decades, it seems this has changed. I'm not sure they even make it an annual event anymore, but for a long time, it was a ritual as sacred as any that took place inside the building.

As I mentioned in another post, I'm inspired by the fact that the energy of many hands is infused into the walls of the building, giving it a quality of aliveness. That most of those hands have been women's is very interesting to me. It just makes sense. The shape of the building, with its rounded edges, and the velvet look and feel of the adobe both suggest femininity, a softness embodying strength. Catholics refer to "Mother Church," and in the case of the Ranchos church, this is especially fitting.

The feminine aspect of the Ranchos church has also come to me in another way recently. When I went to the bazaar held at the church school, I was completely enchanted by the performance of a dance group made up of five women and a teenage boy (the son of one of the dancers). Once I can figure out how to do it, I'll update this post with the video that I took of them dancing.

One of the women introduced the group as Teonantli, which means "our godly mother" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. She said that with this name, they "give honor to Mary, The Mother of God; Our Mother Earth; and to all mothers." She said that each danza is a prayer, which is why they begin by forming a cross with their feet. They also form a cross in the offering of sage and copal, with smoke rising out of a ceremonial cup.

The danzas were riveting. As one of the dancers told me later, their purpose is to create "powerful, kinetic, spiritual prayer." They were accompanied by flute, a large standup drum called a huehue, and a small hand drum (teponatzli). While three men drummed, the dancers performed intricate, harmonized movements, enhanced by the use of a variety of items.

They began their danzas by blowing through conch shells (caracols), which reminded me of the Jewish tradition of the shofar.

They do this to honor the four winds or compass directions, and also to ask permission of the Animas (souls of ancestors) to open the circle. They do it again at the end to give thanks and ask permission to close the circle.

The headdresses that you see are called copilli, and the ankle bracelets (ayayotes) are actually rattles. Each of the costumes is uniquely decorated with elaborate designs and images in the Aztec style.

I apologize for the fuzzy quality of the photo below left, but I really wanted to show this costume detail. The woman on the right is holding a sonaja, a hand rattle.

During the danzas, the buildup of kinetic and spiritual "charge" was tangible, and the dancers sometimes spontaneously shouted, "El es Dios," meaning "He is God."

These are ordinary women. One works for a judicial district office, another for the Department of Public Health. As you can see in the photos, this performance took place in a cracked parking lot surrounded by orange construction barrels. And yet, through their inspiration, devotion, and intention, the dancers created an electric, mesmerizing experience, fascinating in its blend of Aztec and Catholic elements. As one of the dancers put it:
For centuries the Aztecs honored many gods: the god of rain, fire, wind, war, healing, and many others. The danza has incorporated into it many aspects of the Catholic faith brought to the new world by the Spaniards. Each step (paso) is a prayer.
It was primarily the Franciscans that brought the Catholic faith to Mexico. Ironically, this order, of the lineage of the gentle and respectful St. Francis, forced Catholicism on the Aztecs, sometimes violently. What resulted has been seen in many cultures, a hybridization of religious belief and practice. One of the primary manifestations of this was the incorporation of the Virgen de Guadalupe into the Catholic faith of the Mexicas. The Aztecs could not accept a religion that did not venerate both a male and a female deity. But the Franciscans could not accept a non-monotheistic religion. Interestingly, in pre-Christian Aztec religion, women played important priestly roles, and in at least one festival, women priests led dancing rituals.

The world has historically operated from such an us-against-them position. But ever so slowly, it seems to be changing. Many people are examining their collective pasts, synthesizing traditionally disparate elements. Where there was once a battle, there is now a dance. Teonantli is a glorious example of this. This group - in blending Aztec and Catholic, dance and prayer, reverence for the Father and the Mother - creates a seamless collage, a beautiful enigma, and ultimately, redemption and healing.


  1. It's a welcome surprise the way the Aztecs and other New World tribes were able to adapt so well and so willingly to the alien religion brought from Europe. I think the fact that women were at the center of that transition (and still take a leading role in the new religion's practices) speaks volumes for the peacefulness and harmony that resulted.

    I sure wish I'd been there to see those danzas...

  2. Well, hopefully I'll be able to get the video up, and then you can see at least part of it.

  3. This is a beautiful post...I was so excited to see your work that I said, yeah yeah as I scrolled down my reading list hoping for my "nugget"! WHAT A BEAUTIFUL NUGGET TODAY!

    We recently learned about the Cherokee women and their role within the Cherokee tribal structure, literally making vital and critical decisions within the tribe.

    There is a divine purpose in being as we are created. I truly needed to be reminded of the beauty we encompass as women and the freedom we need as the nurturers of this world to deliver ourselves to others as we are created. Thank you for this insight and education.

  4. Hi Polly

    I so thoroughly enjoyed this you I enjoy delving into things and coming up with a little more background than I had before.
    I find your story of the blend of Aztec and Catholic culture very interesting and the women so beautiful in their costumes of colour and sound...
    It is interesting that in many cultures that appeared patriarchal women played very significant roles, whilst often not holding obvious positions of esteem in the community they have been the glue that holds the family and the neighbourhood together.
    I am thinking of the limited functions of women within the Jewish religion but it is said that the Jewish Mother runs the family. One of my sisters married an Israeli and her family lives in Tiberias.
    I think that perhaps Christianity had some part to play in the devaluing of women's roles in society.

    thanks for this great post Polly

    Happy days

  5. While my personal beliefs are not in line with this thought processing- YOU are becoming an incredible writer! Excellent.

    Those pictures look great too. What is the pixel of your camera? What kind do you have?

  6. Jennifer - Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, we women often need to value our feminine strength more than we do.

    Delwyn - I've been interested in the representation of the "feminine divine" in world religions for a while now. It's amazing how a feminine spirituality has survived through an extremely long patriarchal domination, which seems to manifest in most of the world's religions.

    Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you appreciated this post!

    Kat - Thanks! And thanks for visiting!

    EC - That's high praise, thank you! That's one of the things I like about you - the ability to appreciate something even if you don't agree with it, and then to be honest about that. Ok, I guess that's two things.

    RE: camera - This is a funny story. I FOUND my camera at a place we have here in Taos called "the free box," where people just drop off and pick up whatever they want. It's a Kodak EasyShare and 9 megapixels. Before I found this camera, I avoided taking photos like the plague. I just had a weird aversion to it. But now I'm loving the heck out of it!

  7. Polly,

    This is just awful. I just got a camera (pink) but the guy at the store left the owner's CD (now booklet) out of my case.

    Therefore, I do not know how to get my pictures out of my camera and into my computer! Got my memory card stuck in the tower and had to pull it out with pliers. Oh, lord. I'm no good with technology.

    I'm going to call my computer guy to come over and fix the problem, 'cause he intalled this antivirus firewall thingamajiggy and I think it's blocking my camera's software. I dunno.

    And thank you too, for the praise. You're right- while I might not agree, I do appreciate!

    It just can get so narrow and boring when you only have friends around you similair to your own likes, tastes, etc.

    Anyway, I can't believe you "found" your camera! Now if only I could "find" my instructions. Ha.

    (I googled them. Nadda.)

  8. Since I found my camera, I too, do not have an instruction booklet. Nor do I have a cord to plug the camera into the computer with. So I have to wait until I have enough photos to put on a CD, then go to Wal-Mart, order the CD, and then wait around while they make it.

    Last time I did this I read almost the whole Patrick Swayze autobiography while I was waiting.



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