A Brief Linguistic Journey for the Feast of La Virgen de Guadalupe

Today (12 December), on the Catholic Calendar, marks the feast of la Virgen de Guadalupe (one of the more important feasts for me, personally), and thus it seemed an auspicious time to go through a brief, and lighthearted, exploration of the evolution of the name at the center of the feast.

The story begins with a place in Spain, which at one point had an Arabic name, perhaps Wadi al-Hub[1] (وادي الحب). That name was later transliterated into the Latin script as Guadalupe.[2] A famous Black Madonna statue would later be associated with that place, and come to be known as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe).

Some time later, across the Atlantic, in what is now called Mexico, a rapid explosion of conversions was fueled by a legend about a Native meeting the Virgin Mary, who spoke to him in an indigenous language, Nahuatl, and provided him with an icon (that being the now famous Mexican image of la Virgen de Guadalupe).[3]

As the story goes, the Virgin Mary described herself using a Nahuatl term, perhaps Coatlaxopeuh[4] (“she who dominated the serpent”), which the Spanish bishop associated with Guadalupe (the name of the aforementioned Black Madonna in Spain).[5]

In the centuries since then, the strong devotion of millions of Mexicans to la Virgen de Guadalupe has had an impact on the rest of the Catholic Church. The Mexican icon has spread around the globe.[6] For example, here is the image appearing in a Palestinian church:

Part of the reason for the global spread of the image is (a) Mexico’s proximity to the United States, (b) the increasing contribution of Mexican Catholics to Catholicism in the United States, and (c) the way the culture of the United States subsequently influences the rest of the world.

As the popularity of la Virgen de Guadalupe has spread, there are now people referring to her in Arabic as Ghwadalubay[7] (غوادالوبي), which I have heard some in turn read as Ghwadalubi. And that captures the linguistic journey alluded to in the title of this blog entry. It is a journey in which a name started in Arabic as Wadi al-Hub, and then traveled through Spanish and English (with Nahuatl playing a role), only to eventually return to Arabic, centuries later, as Ghwadalubi.


Nota Bene: The featured image for this blog entry captures a mural on a building near the corner of South Ashland avenue and West 19th street, in Chicago, Illinois (USA). Other images of that corner can be seen here.

(1) I wrote “perhaps” because I have seen other sources argue instead for Wadi al-Lub (وادي اللب) and even Wadi al-Lubi (وادي اللبي), with the interesting explanation being that the Arabic name itself might have borrowed a Latin word for wolf or wolves (lupus, but lupi in the nominative plural and genitive singular, and lupe in the vocative singular). Apparently this alternative claim is based on old Spanish sources stating that the name meant valley of the wolf. If the claim of the Arabic name incorporating Latin is true, it would make this linguistic journey all the more labyrinthine.

(2) For one wondering why a ‘G’ was employed in transliterations, note that ‘gu’ was often used to capture a sound like the English ‘w’ or Arabic wa. For example, in some forms of Spanish, whisky is spelled güisqui.

(3) For an example of a depiction of the story in film, see here.

(4) I wrote “perhaps” because, while Coatlaxopeuh is the most popular reconstruction of the apparently now lost Nahuatl term, there are other phrases proposed.

(5) For anyone interested, my wife wrote a paper on the subject the Spanish statue and the Mexican icon which are both called Guadalupe.

(6) Interestingly, the Catholic devotion is starting to leak into Orthodox Christianity. This nearly nine year old thread has Orthodox Christians discussing the subject, with one contributor saying that he saw the Mexican icon in the home of an Orthodox Bishop in New York, and another contributor giving various examples of Orthodox Churches displaying the icon. See also this recent FaceBook post.

(7) See, for example, this post or this post.

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18 replies

  1. Thanks Denis, I noticed you referred to “a legend about a Native meeting the Virgin Mary”. Is it not unusual for a Catholic to call it a legend? Catholics usually see it as an objective apparition of Mary.

    • Just to be clear, I did not mean “legend” in the sense of fiction, but rather in the sense of a popular story. Catholics used to employ the word “legend” (or related terms in French and Latin) to describe a popular, moving or powerful story about a saint, without any implication of the story being untrue. As I understand it, the word “legend” later took on a negative connotation when it was used sarcastically in reference to those sorts of stories, which many (especially Protestants) considered spurious. Nonetheless, vestiges of the older, more benign sense of the word live on in the way that modern English might apply it to an incredibly successful or popular artist, politician or athlete (“he’s a legend!”).

  2. Paul,

    With all due respect sir, what was the point of that? Aside from me reeling in disgust and horror, and praying that justice will be done for the victims and their families – and the guilty party may experience a true repentance from these heinous sins – I can’t help feeling what you’ve done here is the equivalent of me going on a Muslim’s blog post about the benefits of salaat, and commenting:

    “On a different subject, I see that Islamic extremists gunned down a bunch of Christians in Nigeria.”

    I, even as an ex-Muslim, would do no such thing.

    Check your niyaa, ya akhi, as I need to check mine.

    • I don’t see what you’re getting so jumped up about.

      I was not making an anti-Catholic bitchy comment, but carrying on a friendly conversation with Denis about some extremely significant news that had just then broken. This blog is irenic in tone and purpose. You appear to be importing the rough polemics of some other blogs.

      If a Christian broke some news about some atrocity on a Muslim post I would not mind. The intention is what matters, as you say.

      On a different matter, why did you leave Islam?

  3. Hi Paul,

    My apologies. You can read about it here:


    In addition, I would add that something I’ve found compelling, which has provided strong confirmation to my decision, is the fact of the ancient, First Temple religion of Israel. Muslims often claim a similarity to Judaism, and I certainly would grant that; however, Islam is similar to Rabinnic Judaism, not the ancient, Biblical temple religion of Israel, which included a veneration of the Great Lady in the Temple, a sacramental theology, iconography, the divinization of man, and a sacrificial priesthood – all of which have continued in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity to date.

    I strongly recommend the work of Margaret Barker, who does groundbreaking work on “Temple Studies.”

    God Bless,


    • an interesting story. I myself moved from Catholicism to Islam. Thanks.

    • Actually, if you ask Biblical scholars, the Israelite religion was essentially a pagan one. They base this on the internal clues in the Bible. I recommend Mark Smith’s book “The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel” for more information.

      This would, of course, not be surprising. The ancient Israelites lived in a world dominated by paganism. They spent centuries in Egypt, and the strong influences of paganism led them to worship the golden calf. It is not surprising at all that these pagan influences continued to reappear over and over again, and hence why God kept sending prophets to the Israelites to guide them back to the pure monotheism. But alas, the paganism never truly left and that is why the Bible continues to harbor its insidious influence.

      And yes, some of that pagan influence has found its way into Christianity in general (e.g. the worship of Jesus as “God”), and especially Catholicism (veneration of saints and icons).

  4. Holy Mother church’s arms are always wide open if you ever feel led to come back home brother.

  5. The Arabic seems to be the meaning of:
    “The Valley (Wadi = dry stream that becomes a stream or river in rainy seasons) of Love”

    حب = love

    We have both “Wadi” وادی and Hob / Hub حب and it’s derivatives in Farsi.

    The words Habibi حبیبی (beloved), Mahboob محبوب (beloved), Habib حبیب (beloved) , Mohabat محبت (love, kindness) are derived from that root.

    We have all of those in Farsi, coming from the Arabic original.

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