The story of Coyolxauhqui is a part of one of the most essential narratives in Aztec mythology: The birth of Huitzilopochtli. After a ball of down impregnated their mother, Coatlicue, Huitzilopochtli burst forth, fully formed. Coatlicue lead an army of their siblings to kill Huitzilopochtli and reign over Mt. Coatepec, but she was defeated. Huitzilopochtli used his xiuhcoatl, or “fire serpent” to decapitate Coyolxauhqui. Her body was torn limb from limb, and thrown to the bottom of the mountain.
Both the symbolism within the relief carving and the placement of the stone within the imperial context of Tenochtitlan are packed with symbolism and multiple meanings, in traditional Mexica artistic style. The stone is a monolith, 10.7 feet in diameter, though it is not a perfect circle; and irregular edge frames Coyolxauhqui's figure, and the exact cause of such irregularity remains unknown.
To begin unpacking the iconographical content of this monument, one must begin with the basic form of Coyolxauhqui’s body. Even in death her body position suggests dynamism, energy, and movement as her arms and legs are splayed in an active position and her severed head is cocked backward, eyes upward. Still, the ends of bones protrude from her limbs, and the angle of her head gives the awkward, unsettling sense of an impossible, painful body position[i]. Townsend describes this position as “swastika like”[ii]. Her breasts are bare, something that would have been traditional for Mexica people at the time, and her skirt would have been held up by the rope belt depicted around her waist.
On Coyolxauhqui’s knees, feet, and arms, we see the fanged masks common in depictions of earth deities. In addition to these masks are snakes tied around her arms and legs, undoubtedly a symbol of both the earth but also perhaps the xiuhcoatl that her brother used to decapitate her. A skull placed to her side symbolizes death, earth, and defeat.
Coyolxauhqui’s elaborate headdress is made up of a radial floral pattern. In Nahuatl, this flower is known as the cempalxochtli, otherwise known as the Tagetes Erecta or Mexican Marigold[iii]. Some chronicles of the Mexica people suggest that in ceremonies, this headdress may have consisted of feather made to look like marigolds[iv]. While it is odd that a goddess who symbolizes defeat would wear this, perhaps this headdress is supposed to suggest her powerful lineage, especially because this flower in particular is associated with sovereignty. The marigold may also be associated with death, particularly when one considers the marigolds in conjunction with the balls of feather down in her hair (carved as low, flat circles), which symbolize sacrifice, associated with the impregnation of her mother, Coatlicue.
Interestingly, a few aspects of the Coyolxauhqui stone don’t quite seem to fit. Firstly, this sculpture does not depict a young woman[v].If one looks just below the right portion of her belt, a distinct wrinkly is visible, indicating a stomach that is not flat—more likely than not, this suggests that she has already given birth. However, we know from chronicles that Coyolxauhqui was a young goddess at the time of her dispute with Huitzilopochtli, and had never given birth. The exact symbolism of this is difficult to pin down, but researchers continue to theorize.
Another puzzling aspect of the stone brings us back to the idea of marigolds. The marigolds suggest even more in common with Coatlicue, Coyolxauhqui’s mother; Mexica artists used flowers such as this to symbolize vegetation, life, and the earth. Marigolds were commonly used in vegetation and water ceremonies. Some suggest that this could signify a blending Coyolxauhqui with her mother, assigning her a strong role as an earth deity as well as her obvious role as a defeated warrior. This potential connection is further explained in the discussion of placement.
[i] Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos. “Symbolism of the Templo Mayor”. Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed. The Aztec Templo Mayor, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987).
[ii] Townsend, Richard F. “Coronation at Tenochtitlan”. Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed. The Aztec Templo Mayor, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987).
[iii] Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos. “Symbolism of the Templo Mayor”. Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed. The Aztec Templo Mayor, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987).
[iv] Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos. “Symbolism of the Templo Mayor”. Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed. The Aztec Templo Mayor, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987).
[v] Boone, Elizabeth H. “Templo Mayor Research, 1521-1978”. Elizabeth Hill Boone, ed. The Aztec Templo Mayor, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987).