Dancing the Matachines


Christmas Eve I went to the Pueblo of Okay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) to watch the ritual reenactment of the Matachines’ Dance. This drama celebrated during important feast days of the year in both winter and summer is the only one that is performed in both Pueblo Indian and Hispano communities in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. There are at least 44 versions of this dance!

The common element between them, at least in New Mexico, is the symbolic battle between light and dark forces that culminates in a transformation which is presently enacted by a young virgin, a bull, abuelos (grandfathers/tricksters), or clowns, and two lines of masked dancers that appear to be soldiers. One of the abuelos or clowns carries a whip, and sometimes the other is an edgy transvestite. In the final segment of the dance the virgin maiden will confront the bull, the bull will be overpowered, symbolically killed and castrated, and his seed will be cast into the joyful crowd. Only after the bull is sacrificed will the ogress (also played by a man) fall down on the ground on his side and “give birth” to a new born abuelito, the spirit of the dance for the following year.

The dance itself is both festive in terms of elaborate dress with a rainbow of ribbons flowing from the dancers regalia, the attention to the exquisite detail of beaded arm bands, the rattles, tridents or palmas carried by the masked dancers who also wear magnificent beaded moccasins, elaborate headdresses called cupiles, and somber because it carries a subtle undertone of violence that culminates in the death and castration of the bull and spilling of his seed…

The mood of the dance was solemn when the darkening pewter and shark gray clouds scudded over the evening horizon as the dancers emerged from the church to the sound of the mighty and resonant church bell that tolled over and over. Venus clung to the heavens of the twilight sky. Farolitos lit the area around the church and the carefully constructed stacked cedar logs called Luminarios blazed, lighting up the plazas. Crackling fires produced billowing black smoke and sparks flew in every direction. A single shot from a gun could be heard as the entourage moved from one plaza to the next. The music (guitar and violin) was often dissonant and carried a sense of foreboding. Pentitentes* chanted repeatedly to the Virgin – “Santa Maria” – invoking her assistance in Spanish as the sounds of the dancers’ bells and rattles could be heard if not seen because of the crowds of people that were moving with the dancers. The elaborately bejeweled headdresses of the “soldiers” seemed familiar; then I realized that some of them vaguely resembled the miters that Catholic Bishops wore. The fringed headdresses some believed pointed to a Moorish European influence (The Spaniards had conquered the Moors before coming to America to destroy the Indigenous peoples way of life). The dancers faces were covered in much the same way that Muslim women are veiled – only these brightly colored scarves were covered with roses. The masks lent an air of mystery and perhaps even malevolence to each participant.

I was riveted by the deep brown shining eyes of the small Indian girl (who was dressed in Native attire) whose cheeks had been painted with red circles to denote her purity. Her consort, the young bull, also very young, wore horns and a hide was draped over his back. His eyes glowed like coals and he had diagonally striped marks on his cheeks. (The Malinche and the bull are on the left of the picture below)


As the dancers returned to the church for the final part of the ritual enactment, my friend and I decided to leave. My senses were on overload, humming through my body. I had the feeling that I had seen this dance before, perhaps in another context. Only later that night did I recall that I had seen the Matachines dance during holy week on the Pasqua Yaqui reservation outside of Tucson Arizona. The role the Matachines played in the Deer Dances held Easter week was to banish evil forces.

What was the underlying story behind this astonishing ritual enacted at the Pueblo on Christmas Eve? My friend Iren kindly sent me some Matachine literature that I began to devour after I got home that night. Some scholars suggest that the point of the dance was to reveal that a spiritual marriage had occurred. Some Pueblos attribute the dance to Montezuma, a Mexican king who is in some versions paired with the Virgin who is the only character who does not wear a mask. The fact that she also wears a communion dress (although not in this particular dance) may suggest a spiritual marriage between the two. In another story Montezuma in the form of a bird flew north warning the Pueblo people that foreigners were coming and that if the people mastered the dance, the strangers would learn respect for the people of the Pueblos.

Others suggested that the dance represents the triumph of good over evil, because the virgin, represented by the only female in the dance, who often wears a white first communion dress (and is associated with a Christianized Guadalupe), converts a pagan king to Christianity. The problem here is that Guadalupe is NOT the Virgin Mary. She first appeared at the site belonging to an ancient Mexican Earth Goddess,Tonanztin in the 1500’s and she was dark skinned, an Indian. The Catholic Church adopted her because they couldn’t get rid of her.

Perhaps as a few scholars indicate this dance tells the story of Native people’s resistance to Spanish invasion and their regeneration in spite of the foreigners’ repeated attempts to destroy their culture. No one knows precisely when the Rio Grande Pueblos incorporated the dance into their ritual calendar but it is assumed by many that this dance signaled the Pueblo’s conversion to Christianity and this explanation also seems to be eminently plausible because it has a historical antecedent.

I also read that a handful of historians believed this was a man’s homoerotic dance celebrating the power of men. I think all of the above ideas have validity. The plot is played out differently in each Pueblo indicating that this dance is able to adapt itself to whatever the pueblo people might need at a particular time.

Even the name Matachines creates controversy. The word first appeared in Italy in the 1500’s. The Italian term Mattaccini was used to describe strange and unfamiliar dances. Mattachines was the Spanish name given to the dances that were done by the Indians who had been taken as captives to Europe. The term may also have originated as an Italian mispronunciation of a Nahuatl word.



Curiously, the “newest” additions to the Matachines dance are the Malinche ( female child-virgin), el Toro (the bull) and the Abuelos. Originally the dance had little or no narrative content and the dancers had more intricate steps. The Matachines was first danced in Bernalillo New Mexico in 1530, but it is not known how or when the story became more complex.

As a feminist and long time student of mythology I was astounded when I realized that the “newest” additions to the dance opened the door to a very ancient mythical story. In Neolithic times (8000BCE – 3000BCE) the Great Mother in her Virgin aspect (whole -one unto herself –having nothing to do with sexual purity – she was often a priestess) had a consort (sometimes a bull) who she sacrificed on a yearly basis to fertilize the earth so that the crops would grow. His seed could also regenerate a new king who would reign until he was sacrificed again the following year. We see this mythological drama of mother/consort repeating yearly in the ancient myths of Innana and Dumuzi, Cybele and Attis, Isis and Osiris, to mention a few, and finally in the story of Jesus who was also sacrificed (as a king) to save mankind. Unfortunately by the time Jesus was crucified male dominated Patriarchal Judaism had taken root, forcing the female as a divine figure underground. Females had almost totally disappeared from religious rites as the Judeo- Christian tradition replaced the earlier matristic or woman centered Neolithic Age. The Virgin Mary, the sexually pure maiden, the sorrowful mother, the mediator between men and their god was all that was left of the Great Goddess…And yet, to my great astonishment here she was rising again from out of the ashes like a phoenix through another mythical story with the identical themes of sacrifice, and transformation! I find this trend encouraging, and if I am correct it puts the Matachine dance in a much larger context, one that merges the present with the distant past, a mythical past that is still meaningful today.

It seems fairly obvious that the Malinche is associated with the virgin Mary, or Guadalupe. I would argue that the Malinche is not a symbol of sexual purity but rather the Spirit of Woman (that includes her sexuality) rising out of the Earth through an ancient archetypal story. The role the Malinche plays in the dance today suggests that she is the “hope” of the future. Interestingly, the Malinche is also associated with all phases of the moon and the new dawn (like so many goddesses before her). One might ask if one of the unintended meanings of this dance is to bring back the lost feminine as a divine power in her own right, a power that might be able to provide a perspective that is life affirming in ways we can’t imagine?

What I love best about this dance is that it is so complex! It crosses mythical, national, and cultural boundaries as archetypal stories have a tendency to do. It is a dance with many layers of meaning, a dance that is always changing, reminding us that innovation and change are constants in the Matachine tradition. The dance is always evolving and yet there are elements of the both the mythical and historical past that are part of its genesis and perhaps its future.


*The Penitentes, or Brother of Light have existed in New Mexico since the late 1790’s. These men devote their time and effort to care for the people of the pueblo. They also pray for the people during holy week and perform rituals in the moradas, buildings that are separate from the church. They chant rosaries for the dead, prepare burial plots, help grieving families, and care for widows and orphans.