Coatlicue: Aztec Lady of the Serpent

Coatlicue is an Aztec diety that represents Mother Earth. Pronounced “koh-at-lee-kway” in the Nahuatl language, Coatlicue translates to “the one with the skirt of serpents”, or more literally, “snakes-her-skirt”. This Earth goddess was important in Aztec society as a goddess with many different associations and interpretations. She is known by many other names such as Teteoinan or Teteo Inan, representing the Mother of Gods who birthed the moon, stars, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of sun and war. She is also known as Toci, “Our Grandmother”, and Cihuacoatl, “The Lady of the Serpent”, who is the protector of women who die in childbirth.

A statue of Coatlicue, also known as the Coatlicue Stone, was created between 1300 and 1500 in Tenochtitlan, Mexico. After the statue’s rediscovery in 1790, Native peoples in the area began worshipping her anew, in stark contrast to Europeans and Criollos who found the statue disturbing and terrifying. As a result of these conflicts generated by Coatlicue’s re-emergence, the statue was reburied in the patio of University of Mexico to avoid future confrontations. The massive basalt sculpture, which reaches almost nine feet tall, now resides in Mexico City at the National Museum of Anthropology. The Coatlicue Stone illustrates the Earth goddess in her most terrifying form: severed head replaced by two snakes, her necklace formed of human hands, hearts, and skulls, huge claws for hands and feet—and of course, her skirt of many intertwined snakes. Her breasts are depicted as flaccid from nursing. Her hair hangs down her back in thirteen tresses, symbolic in Aztec religious for representing the thirteen months and thirteen heavens.

Represented as an older mother figure that was by no means beautiful, Coatlicue symbolized earth worship and was often depicted as grotesque in Aztec art. She represents many dualities—the loving nurturing mother, yet also a deadly monster. Her loving qualities are attributed to her sunken breasts that have nurtured so many, and her deadly qualities are attributed to her necklace of human bodies she has consumed. In this case she represents both the creator and the destroyer, symbolic of the Earth that has the power to create and destroy humans, where both the grave and the womb exist simultaneously. Similarly this goddess is associated with themes of death and rebirth. The snakes are representative of blood spurting out of her body and in Aztec tradition symbolize divine fertility, literally the power of life and death. Coatlicue was worshipped during particular moments throughout the year, especially to ensure rain (the spring ritual of Tozozontli) and for the fall hunting festival of Quecholli, when an impersonator of the goddess, often a young woman, was sacrificed. The Aztecs performed many sacrifices to Coatlicue, as she was a major representation of death.

According to Aztec legend, Coatlicue’s daughter Coyolxauhqui rallied four hundred of her brothers to attack and decapitate their own mother because she was pregnant. Coatlicue’s husband was Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent and god of the chase, and they were the mother and father of Coyolxauqui and the four hundred brothers. It is said that a ball of feathers fell on Coatlicue while she was sweeping a temple, and magically impregnated her, angering her daughter greatly. Coyolxauhqui, or “Face painted with Bells”, was deeply upset by her mother’s pregnancy and commanded her brothers, the “Centzon Huitznahua”, to help destroy their mother. The moment Coatlicue was killed, the powerful god of war Huitzilopochtli emerged from her womb fully-grown and ready for battle. He killed many of his own siblings, including Coyolxauhqui, whose head he threw into the sky to become the moon. As a result of the battle, many of the four hundred brothers became stars, representing the southern star gods. Several different accounts claim that Huitzilopochtli’s weapon in the great battle was some sort of serpent: in one retelling it is a ray of the sun referred to as the “Fire Serpent” and in another story the weapon is a literal snake that attacks Coyolxauhqui. In several versions of this particular legend, it is Huitzilopochtli that was conceived in the magical impregnation incident and was born just in time to save his own mother. This myth is symbolic in demonstrating the victory of the sun over the moon and stars, as Huitzilopochtli represents the sun, and Coyolxauhqui and her brothers represent the moon and stars.

This story of Coatlicue is the most commonly retold in modern literature, yet there are many other myths involving her. According to Aztec mythology, Coatlicue was actually a priestess whose job it was to maintain the shrine on the top of the legendary sacred mountain Coatepec or “Snake Mountain”. Coatlicue also gave birth to Quetzalcoatl, the famous feathered serpent god and Xolotl, the god of lightning who assists the dead to the transition into the underworld. In another myth Coatlicue warned the Mexica of their future demise. The great Mexica ruler Motecuhzoma I sent a party of sixty magicians to visit Coatlicue in Aztlan, in order to obtain supreme knowledge. The magicians struggled to get to Coatlicue; their path was obstructed by a sandy hill that was difficult to climb because they were heavily burdened with gifts for the goddess. Eventually the Earth goddess revealed that the Aztec cities would fall one by one, and once Huitzilopochtli lost those cities, he would return home to this mother. At this point of the myth, Coatlicue misses her son greatly, and is happy that Huitzilopochtli was going to be returning home. Coatlicue is a fascinating, powerful Aztec deity, revered as an Earth Mother serpent goddess, and continues to serve as a symbol of mother and monster, life and death, fertility and childbirth, and strength and war.

Coatlicue Analysis

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