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 (وادي الحب). That name was later transliterated into the Latin script as Guadalupe. 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).
As the story goes, the Virgin Mary described herself using a Nahuatl term, perhaps Coatlaxopeuh (“she who dominated the serpent”), which the Spanish bishop associated with Guadalupe (the name of the aforementioned Black Madonna in Spain).
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. 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 (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.