Coatlicue

        In 1790, renovators found this massive monument buried under the Zócalo, the major plaza of Mexico City. It was unearthed less than half a mile south of the site of Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor. Scholars generally accept this monument as representing the deity Coatlicue, or “Snakes Her Skirt.” The monument stands eight feet and nine inches tall, four feet and three inches wide, and four feet and three inches deep.[1] It is currently housed in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, along with other monuments that depict similarities in iconography.

        Bernardino de Sahagún describes Coatlicue in his account of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the deity who led the Mexica people to Tenochtitlan. Coatlicue was the mother of “four hundred gods of the south and their sister Coyolxauhqui.”[2] One day Coatlicue was sweeping and a ball of feathers came down to impregnate her. Her children became angry and plotted to kill her, but the ball of feathers—later Huitzilopochtli—comforted Coatlicue from the womb and later was born at the perfect moment in order to kill Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred siblings.[3] Coatlicue’s role as the mother of the gods and Huitzilopotchli leads to her depiction as an aged earth mother figure.

        Connections to the earth and motherhood can clearly be seen through a reading of the monument’s iconography. The deity is depicted as a standing figure with her arms bent at the elbows and her hands near her shoulders. The figure features eagle claws for feet, serpents displaying their fangs for hands, and two serpents which curl over her shoulders and meet face to face to form a head. Interestingly enough, she can still be read as human. She stands on two legs like a human, has two arms, and even features exposed breasts which sag to symbolize many years of being a mother.[4] The combination of human and non-human body parts presents an interesting depiction of how the Mexica conceptualized being a mother and giving life. Because she stands as a human, one understands her to be a woman. Because her breasts are exposed, one associates her with motherhood and life-giving qualities. Because she features serpent qualities, one relates her to fertility, as serpents are largely understood to be symbols of fertility in Mexica works.

           The massive Coatlicue is well known for her skirt made of interwoven serpents. Serpents represent both fertility and the earth in Aztec iconography. [5] In general there is a connection between fertility and the earth as the Mexica economy and society was largely agriculturally based. The skirt is topped with a belt made of similar intertwined serpents. She wears wrist bands of streamers and leg bands of eagle feathers and bells. She also wears an apron made of a skull, leather, shells, and eagle feathers on her back.[6] Eagle feathers symbolized the cosmos, or the sky, in Mexica iconography. The feathers also point to the ancient narrative of Huitzilopotchli’s founding of Tenochtitlan—as the city was marked by an eagle perched on a cactus.[7] Many aspects—such as the inclusion of both land and sky iconography—seem to be contradictory or dualistic. This idea of two concepts being compared can be seen primarily through the two serprents that form the godess’ head, which face each other as if literally “butting heads.” The juxtaposition between both serpent and eagle motifs create a contradiction between land, or the earth, and the sky, or the cosmos. She wears a necklace of hearts, hands, and a skull—or symbols of life and death. The general conceptualization of a life-giving earth mother as a decapitated figure is rather contradictory. Is the primary motive of this monument to bring about thoughts of life or death? Does Coatlicue’s realm of influence consist of the land, sky, or both? The overall symmetry of the work only further supports the dual nature.

      One important aspect of the figure is the relief under it, which displays the male earth lord, Tlaltecuhtli. This deity was often carved into the bottom of monuments in order for him to be in as close contact as possible with the earth below him.[8] Again, a pairing of two is made between a male earth lord and a female earth mother. The gender of the two figures is opposing, but this does not bar the two from working together. The Tlaltecuhtli relief demonstrates the importance of the monument as a devotional, sacred item. No one at the time would have been able to view the relief, it was carved purely for the purpose of direct contact with the gods. As the Coatlicue exists today in a museum, it loses its devotional value. It is important, though, to remember the original purpose of the sculpture as seen in large part through the Tlaltecuhtli relief. This work is dynamic. Each of its components was meant to work in dialogue with one another. They were also meant to work in dialogue with other works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

[1] "Coatlicue," Museo Nacional de Antropología, accessed April 24, 2014.

[2] Miguel León-Portilla and Earl Shorris, "Sacred Narrative: The Founding of Tonochtitlan and the Birth of Huitzilopotchli," in In the Language of Kings: Mesoamerican Literature—Pre-Columbian to the Present. (New York:Norton, 2001), 205.

[3] León-Portilla and Shorris, "Sacred Narrative," 206-207.

[4] Elizabeth Hill Boone, "The 'Coatlicues' at the Templo Mayor," Ancient Mesoamerica, 10 (1999): 190.

[5] Richard Townsend, The Aztecs (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009), 114.

[6] Boone, "The 'Coatlicues,'" 191.

[7] León-Portilla and Shorris, "Sacred Narrative," 205.

[8] Boone, "The 'Coatlicues,'" 192.

Coatlicue