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Critique of Paulinyi Reading 'The Great Goddess' Literature

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Paulinyi’s (2006) The “Great Goddess” of Teotihuacan: Fiction or Reality? contends the idea of the ‘Great Goddess’ as the main divinity of Teotihuacan. In his judgment, “the goddess was created through a highly speculative line of argument, fusing several different iconographic complexes under that name” (Paulinyi, 2006). Consequently, he believes that the idea prevents “progress of iconographic research on the Teotihuacan supernatural world” and proposes that the Teotihuacan image interpreted as the great goddess is actually “six different gods and goddesses, several among them not yet subjected to analysis” (Paulinyi, 2006).

Jacobs (2001), in his Teotihuacan Mural Art: Assessing the Accuracy of its Interpretation, questions the assumptions and validity of the interpretations of Teotihuacan mural art. The premise of his dissatisfaction with current interpretations is that “the interpretation of the art, iconography and symbolism at Teotihuacan has remained elusive, or, where proposed, often there are conflicting interpretations” (Jacobs, 2001). This could be attributed to the fact that “no written histories of Teotihuacan are known” and that therefore, “Teotihuacan has to be reconstructed almost entirely on the basis of its archaeology” (Jacobs, 2001). He proposes that for an interpretation to be considered scientifically correct, it must have supporting evidence besides the interpretation being proposed, as well as evidentiary and theoretical basis of the assumptions on which the interpretations are made. This paper argues that Paulinyi’s conclusions do not conform to Jacobs’ guidelines on the interpretations of Teotihuacan art.

Critique of Paulinyi based on Jacobs’ Criteria for Interpretation

Paulinyi investigates various writers and archeologists’ writings on the idea of the Teotihuacan mural art “Tlalocan Patio” of Tepantitla and the “Jade Tlaloc Mural” of Tetitla. Of note is his critique of Esther Pasztory for “having found in the body of associated images attributed to the Rain God at least three images similar to each other that represented a new deity related to fertility” (Paulinyi 2006). After study of her work ranging from 1976 to 1993, he correctly asserts that her deductions of the images as representing the great goddess are incorrect, on the basis of the lack of evidence. He cites the fact that only half of the diagnostic traits associated with the goddess are found in trustworthy images of her. Moreover, he notes that further studies of Teotihuacan art were based on the assumptions that Pasztory had made, yet her deductions were incorrect. 

However, primarily, his conclusions are based on the assumption that the Teotihuacan mural art is indeed religious. He does not question the basis of the assumption but goes ahead to critique the interpretations of other researchers. His reading does not mention the word religion at all thus he takes it as a given that the art is religious in nature, without considering any other evidence or theory that the art could be any other than religious.

While rejecting the concept of the great goddess, Paulinyi goes on to claim that “we are dealing not with a single mega-goddess but, rather, with an incoherent group of several iconographic complexes and independent images that have been forcibly joined into the figure of a single goddess” (Paulinyi, 2006). He does not provide evidence of the multiple gods as required by Jacobs, not even through analogies and cross-cultural comparisons within Mesoamerican art, despite the limitations of this approach. The reader does not get an explanation of why he concludes that the image represents many gods, save for mentions of other authors who claimed the same.

Moreover, he claims the mural depicts an “incoherent group of iconographic complexes” without consideration of some of the questions that Jacobs posed. Jacobs wonders “is the art, and its components, the product of individual consumer’s and/or artist’s taste in decoration, or is it governed by a communal aesthetic? Who controlled the content of the art?” (Jacobs, 2001). Had Paulinyi considered these questions, he may have rethought his conclusions that they were an ‘incoherent group’. Peradventure, the various gods depicted in the mural represent the various facets of the same god. Without evidence it is difficult to say what they represent, however, they are a part of the art thus the artist must have had good reason to include them.

Paulinyi correctly notes that once the idea of the goddess is discarded, new areas of study become available to researchers. This is because all of the previous assumptions, on which much of the Teotihuacan art is based, will be put aside and much more objective study can be made without the bias that those assumptions had created. Newer assumptions based on evidence and theory can then be the basis for which plausible interpretations of the Teotihuacan art can be made. In his defense, he acknowledges the possibility that “we may in the future have images that belong to none of the deities listed, and we will confront images that, with our present knowledge, we cannot interpret” (Paulinyi, 2006).


Jacobs’s concerns about the broad interpretation of Teotihuacan art as religious, the ease with which believable interpretations are made without evidence, as well the acceptance of other author’s work without questioning the underlying assumptions, are clearly depicted in Paulinyi’s work. This could be another reason why so little is known of the culture and society of Teotihuacan art, since authors have not sought the bare truth, but have been consistently building on a faulty foundation. This denies the world’s accurate understanding of ‘one of the most influential cultural centers in Mesoamerica’ (Jacobs, 2001). Moreover, one wonders how factual are the current well known ‘facts’ about historical cultures and society derived from other archeological sites.

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