Great Goddess of Teotihuacan

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Mural from the Tepantitla compound showing what has been identified as an aspect of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, from a reproduction in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan (or Teotihuacan Spider Woman) is a proposed goddess of the pre-Columbian Teotihuacan civilization (ca. 100 BCE - 700 CE), in what is now Mexico.

Discovery and interpretation[edit]

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. This was the consensus view for some 30 years.

In 1974, Peter Furst suggested that the murals instead showed a feminine deity, an interpretation echoed by researcher Esther Pasztory. Their analysis of the murals was 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.[1] 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 termed 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 Teotihuacan locations other than Tepantitla – including the Tetitla compound (see photo below), the Palace of the Jaguars, and the Temple of Agriculture – as well as on portable art including vessels[2] and even on the back of a pyrite mirror.[3] The 3-metre-high blocky statue (see photo below) which formerly sat near the base of the Pyramid of Moon is thought to represent the Great Goddess,[4] despite the absence of the bird-headdress or the fanged nosepiece.[5]

Esther Pasztory speculates that the Great Goddess, as a distant and ambivalent mother figure, was able to provide a uniting structure for Teotihuacan that transcended divisions within the city.[6]

Actual mural from the Tetitla compound showing a similar portrait.

After Teotihuacan[edit]

The Great Goddess is apparently peculiar to Teotihuacan, and does not appear outside the city except where Teotihuacanos settled.[7] There is very little trace of the Great Goddess in the Valley of Mexico's later Toltec culture, although an earth goddess image has been identified on Stela 1, from Xochicalco, a Toltec contemporary.[8] While the Aztec goddess Chalchiuhtlicue has been identified as a successor to the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, archaeologist Janet Catherine Berlo has suggested that at least the Goddess' warlike aspect was assumed by the Aztec's protector god – and war god – Huitzilopochtli. The wresting of this aspect from the Great Goddess was memorialized in the myth Huitzilopochtli, who slew his sister Coyolxauhqui shortly after his birth.[9]

Berlo also sees echoes of the Great Goddess in the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe.[10]

The Great Goddess[edit]

Two major defining characteristics of the Great Goddess are a bird headress and a nose pendant with descending fangs.[11] In the Tepantitla and Tetitla murals, for example, the Great Goddess wears a frame headdress that includes the face of a green bird, generally identified as an owl or quetzal,[12] and a rectangular nosepiece adorned with three circles below which hang three or five fangs. The outer fangs curl away from the center, while the middle fang points down.

Other defining characteristics include the colors red and yellow;[13] note that the Goddess appears with a yellowish cast in both murals.

In the depiction from the Tepantitla compound, the Great Goddess appears with vegetation growing out of her head, perhaps hallucinogenic morning glory vines[14] or the world tree.[15] Spiders and butterflies appear on the vegetation and water drips from its branches and flows from the hands of the Great Goddess. Water also flows from her lower body. These many representations of water 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 provides a more commonplace interpretation: that "this mural represents Teotihuacan as [the] prototypical civilized city associated with the beginning of time and the calendar".[16]

A portion of the actual mural from the Tepantitla compound which appears under the Great Goddess portrait.


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.[citation needed]

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. The Great Goddess is often shown in paradisial settings, giving gifts.[17] For example, the mural from Tepantitla shows water dripping from her hands while in the tableau under her portrait mortals swim, play ball, and dance (see photo to right). This seeming gentleness is in contrast to later similar Aztec deities such as Cihuacoatl, who frequently has a warlike aspect.[18] This contrast, according to Esther Pasztory, an archaeologist who has long studied Teotihuacan, extends beyond the goddesses in question to the core of the Teotihuacan and Aztec cultures themselves:

"Although I cannot prove this precisely, I sense that the Aztec goal was military glory and staving off the collapse of the universe, whereas the Teotihuacan aim seems to have been the creation of paradise on earth."[19]

This is not to say, however, that the Great Goddess does not have her more violent aspect: one mural fragment, likely from Techinantitla, shows her as a large mouth with teeth, framed by clawed hands.[20]

Other interpretations[edit]

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 mural represents "either a Teotihuacan ruler or the Great Goddess".[21]
  • In her 2007 book, The Teotihuacan Trinity, Anna Headrick is cautious in identifying the murals as portraits of the Great Goddess, preferring the term "mountain-tree". Headrick identifies the tree which sprouts from the headdress as the Mesoamerican world tree.[22]
This statue is generally identified as the Great Goddess, and formerly stood near the base of the Pyramid of the Moon.[23]

Similar deities[edit]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pasztory (1977), pp. 83–85.
  2. ^ Pasztory (1977), pp.87–91.
  3. ^ Berlo (1992), p. 145. This mirror back is presently in the Cleveland Museum of Art and can be seen here.
  4. ^ Headrick (2002). Berlo (1992), p. 137.
  5. ^ The absence of the bird-headdress and the fanged nosepiece is noted in Cowgill (1997), p. 149.
  6. ^ Pasztory (1993), p. 61-62.
  7. ^ Pasztory (1993), p. 56-57.
  8. ^ Berlo, p. 154.
  9. ^ Berlo, p. 152.
  10. ^ Berlo, p. 154.
  11. ^ Cowgill, p. 149. Headrick (2007), p. 33.
  12. ^ Pasztory (1977), p.87.
  13. ^ Berlo, p. 140.
  14. ^ Furst (1974).
  15. ^ Headrick (2002), p. 86. Headrick (2007). See also 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.
  16. ^ Uriarte (2006, abstract). Note that Uriarte's description gibes with Pasztory's assessment of a Teotihuacan culture dedicated to the creation of paradise on earth.
  17. ^ Pasztory (1993), p. 61.
  18. ^ Miller & Taube, p. 61.
  19. ^ Pasztory (1993), p. 49.
  20. ^ Berrin & Pasztory, p. 195.
  21. ^ Schele (1996), p.111, fig. 20. See also this synopsis.
  22. ^ Headrick (2007), p. 141.
  23. ^ Headrick, Annabeth (2002), p. 86. Headrick (2007), p. 33.


Berlo, Janet Catherine (1992) "The Great Goddess Reconsidered", in Art, Ideology, and the City of Teotihuacan", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.
Cowgill, George (1997). "State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico" (PDF online reproduction). Annual Review of Anthropology. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews Inc. 26 (1): 129–161. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.26.1.129. OCLC 202300854. 
Furst, Peter (1974). "Morning Glory and Mother Goddess at Tepantitla, Teotihuacan: Iconography and Analogy in Pre-Columbian Art". In Norman Hammond. Mesoamerican Archaeology: New Approaches. proceedings of a Symposium on Mesoamerican Archaeology held by the University of Cambridge Centre of Latin American Studies, August 1972. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 187–215. ISBN 0-292-75008-0. OCLC 1078818. 
Headrick, Annabeth (2002) "The Great Goddess at Teotihuacan" in Andrea Stone Heart of Creation: the Mesoamerican World and the Legacy of Linda Schele, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ISBN 0-8173-1138-6.
Headrick, Annabeth (2007). The Teotihuacan Trinity: The Sociopolitical Structure of an Ancient Mesoamerican City. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-71665-6. 
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Pasztory, Esther (1977). "The Gods of Teotihuacan: A Synthetic Approach in Teotihuacan Iconography". In Alana Cordy-Collins; Jean Stern. Pre-Columbian Art History: Selected Readings. Palo Alto, CA: Peek Publications. pp. 81–95. ISBN 0-917962-41-9. OCLC 3843930. .
Pasztory, Esther (1993). "Teotihuacan Unmasked". In Berrin, Kathleen and Esther Pasztory. Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods. New York: Thames and Hudson. pp. 44–63. 
Paulinyi, Zoltán (2006). "The "Great Goddess" of Teotihuacan: Fiction or Reality?". Ancient Mesoamerica. London; New York: Cambridge University Press. 17 (1): 1–15. doi:10.1017/S0956536106060020. ISSN 0956-5361. OCLC 21544811. 
Schele, Linda (1996). "The Olmec Mountain and Tree Creation in Mesoamerican Cosmology". In  . The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. 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 (Cloth edition, distributed in 1996 by Harry N. Abrams, ©1995 ed.). Princeton, NJ: The Art Museum, Princeton University in association with Harry N. Abrams (New York). pp. 105–119. ISBN 0-8109-6311-6. OCLC 34103154. 
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