There is a mountain standing watch over the village of Teotitlán de Valle in Oaxaca. Referred to as Brother Mountain by the locals, and otherwise known as Picacho, this mountain plays a very important role in the community here in the central valley region of Oaxaca. Teotitlán del Valle is a small community of around 6,000 people just 30 minutes’ drive from central Oaxaca, but it is also another world. One in which spirits from other realms and MesoAmerican gods still play a part in everyday life.
People in the local community will tell of the time Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god, was banished from Tula, and the journey he and his supporters took as they made their way to their new home in Guatemala.
On their way, they travelled through (what was) Teotitlán, and Quetzalcoatl (who was flying, as you do when you are a winged serpent god) rested on the top of Picacho, recognising the mountain as sacred site.
The locals, who knew of the power, gifts and knowledge of Quetzalcoatl, offered their daughters to him in marriage so that he would choose instead to make Teotitlán his home.
Their cunning plan apparently succeeded, and so this is how Teotitlán del Valle got it’s Náhuatl name, meaning Land of the Gods.
A Spanish Friar, living in Teotitlán in the 16th century, documented the following event which reportedly occurred in 34AD.
“On the day we call Tecpatl [The Aztec name for the day sign flint knife] a great light came from the north-eastern sky. It glowed for four days in the sky, then lowered itself to the rock; the rock can still be seen at Tenochititlan (Teotitlán) de Valle in Oaxaca. From the light there came a great, very powerful being, who stood on the top of the very rock and glowed like the sun in the sky. There he stood for all to see, shining day and night. Then he spoke, his voice was like thunder, booming across the valley.” “Source: Vocabulario en lengua çapoteca
Another local legend connects this bright light from the top of Picacho with a similar one (possible a lightning strike) at the site of the temple, now the (Spanish built) Sangre de Christo church. According to many in the town, Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god lives under the church in his snake form, and if you visit on a moonlit midnight, you may glimpse him as he emerges for food, covered in grey grecas, and with three feathers atop his head, containing powers of health, wealth and death.
It has been theorised that Teotitlán del Valle was first inhabited as a hunter-gathered community well before people starting leaving Monte Alban. This village is considered to be one of the first in the central valleys region founded by the Zapotecs around 1465. It is situated close to the other centre of power at the time, Mitla, but has its own water source and so was considered a prosperous location.
Today the community of Teotitlán is now known internationally for its tapetes; made with sheep’s wool, dyed using traditional methods and woven using pedal looms first bought by the Spanish clergy when they arrived in the area in 1521.
Every family I know living in Teotitlán owns a loom, and weaves together, even if they also operate another business as well. Families will weave together in the evenings and nights, each person at his or her own loom (they start on their own looms at around 12 years of age). They swear it is relaxing, but it is also very detailed and time consuming work.
Teotitlán has an incredibly rich history and many ancient customs and celebrations are still observed today, for example, the Dance of the Old Men, performed after Easter each year.
The majority of the families in the community speak Zapotec as a first language, and the children only learn Spanish when they go to school. Being fluent in Zapotec is considered very important by the community, and their are certain roles and offices you cannot hold if you do not speak this indigenous language.
In Teotitlán del Valle, you get the feeling that what can be seen, and what can be felt live pretty closely together. Just make sure you wear decent sneakers when you visit. Just in case the winged snake god Quetzalcoatl emerges from under the church…