Meaning of the Goddess Coatlicue
Coatlicue (pron. Co-at-li-cu-e) or ‘Snake Skirt’ was an important deity in the Aztec pantheon and was considered the goddess of mother earth. (Nahuatl: «Snake Skirt»)
Who is the Goddess Coatlicue ?
Aztec goddess of the earth, symbol of the earth as creator and destroyer, mother of gods and mortals.
Her breasts are flabby (she nourished many); her necklace is of hands, hearts and a skull (she feeds on corpses, for the earth consumes all that dies); and her fingers and toes are claws. Also called Teteoinnan («Mother of the gods») and Toci («Our grandmother»), it is a unique manifestation of the goddess of the earth. A multifaceted being who also appears as the fearsome goddess of childbirth, Cihuacóatl («Snake Woman»; as Coatlicue, called Tonantzin «Our Mother»), and as Tlazoltéotl, the goddess of sexual impurity and illicit behavior.
What Attributes does the Goddess Coatlicue have ?
In art, Coatlicue is represented in the colossal basalt statue found in Tenochtitlan, which now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The figure is 3.5 m high, 1.5 m wide and represents the goddess in her most terrible form with a head cut off and replaced by two coral snakes, representing the blood flowing. He wears a necklace of hands and human hearts cut with a large skull pendant.
He also wears his skirt typical of intertwined snakes, while his hands and feet have the large claws he uses to tear human corpses before he eats them. This may refer to the connection between Coatlicue and the stellar demons known as tzitzimime, which the Aztecs believed would devour the human population if the sun stopped rising.
On her back, her hair hangs in 13 braids symbolic of the 13 months and 13 heavens of the Aztec religion. Curiously, the base of the statue is carved with a monster from the earth, although it would never be seen. The statue was discovered in 1790 CE, but was thought to be so terrifying that it was immediately reburied.
The Coatlicue sculpture at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is one of the most famous Mexica (Aztec) sculptures in existence (its name is pronounced «koh-at-lee-kway»). Standing three meters high, the statue rises above the spectators as it leans toward them. With her arms bent and raised against her sides as if to strike, she is truly a breathtaking sight.
Numerous snakes seem to wriggle over the surface of the sculpture. In fact, the snakes form her entire skirt, as well as her belt and even her head. Coatlicue’s name literally means Snakes-Her-Skirt, so her clothes help identify her. Her snake belt is tied to her waist to hold a skull «buckle» in place.
Her upper torso is exposed, and we can see her breasts and rolls in her abdomen. The rolls indicate that she is a mother. A considerable necklace formed by hands and hearts largely obscures her breasts. Two huge snakes curl up from her neck to face each other. Their bifurcated or divided tongues bend downwards, and the resulting effect is that the heads and tongues of the snakes appear to be a single snake face facing forward.
The snakes coming out of the parts of the body, as we see here, were an Aztec convention of blood jets. Coatlicue, in fact, has been decapitated, and his serpentine head represents the blood coming out of his amputated neck. Her arms are also made up of snake heads, suggesting that she too was dismembered there.
What is the Power of the Goddess Coatlicue ?
She is both a creator and destroyer, governing fire, fertility, death and rebirth. She is the guardian of souls who die in childbirth.
History of the Goddess Coatlicue
Despite her fame in one of the most important Aztec myths about her patron god, Coatlicue did not record numerous stories about her during the 16th century (which we at least know).
Few surviving Aztec objects show it. However, another stone sculpture at the National Museum of Anthropology, on a much smaller scale, shows Coatlicue with her head intact. We can identify her by her snake skirt. Her face is partially skeletonized and skinned. Her nose is missing, revealing the cavity. However, he still has flesh on his lips, which are open to reveal uncovered teeth.
Even with her head, this version of Coatlicue still seems intimidating to us today. But was it perceived as terrifying by the Aztecs or is it just an impression of her from the 21st century? Before the Spanish conquest, Coatlicue was related to other female earthly deities, such as Toci (our grandmother).
Several 16th-century Spanish colonial sources mention that Coatlicue belonged to a class of deities known as tzitzimime (star-related deities), which were considered terrible and dangerous. For example, outside of the 360 days that formed the agricultural calendar (called the annual count or xiuhpohualli), there were five additional «nameless» days.
The Aztecs believed that this was an ominous time when bad things could happen. Tzitzimime, for example, could descend to the earth’s surface and eat people or at least wreak havoc, causing instability and fear. In Spanish colonial chronicles, tzitzimime is depicted with skeletal faces and monster claws, similar to what we see in the Coatlicue sculptures discussed here. These sources also call demons tzitzimime or demons.
However, despite its ferocity, tzitzimime also had positive associations. Ironically, this group of deities were sponsors of midwives or women responsible for helping mothers with their babies. People also invoked them for medical help and had associations with fertility. For these reasons, they had a more ambivalent role than simply as good or bad deities, so they were respected and feared.
Created, Buried, Found, Buried, Found again
After the Spanish conquest, the monumental Coatlicue sculpture was buried because the Spanish Christian invaders considered it an inappropriate pagan idol. After languishing in darkness for more than 200 years, it was rediscovered in 1790.
Myths About the Goddess Coatlicue
In Aztec mythology, Coatlicue was actually a priestess whose job it was to maintain the sanctuary on top of the legendary sacred mountain Coatepec («Mountain of the Serpent», also called Coatepetl).
Coatlicue: Mother of Huitzilopochtli
In a place called Coatepec, found today in Veracruz, the great mother goddess lived and did penance for a nameless transgression. She was ordered to sweep, keeping the temples and the city clean.
One day, while sweeping, a bundle of feathers fell from the sky, beautiful feathers of many shining birds. He marveled at the feathers, decided to keep them and put them on his chest. It would probably look like this when someone puts money in his bra to keep him safe. When he finished sweeping for the day, he took the feathers to look at them better, but couldn’t find them at all.
That’s when Coatlicue realized that the ball of feathers was now inside her and she was pregnant again. Unfortunately, some of her other children were not happy with this development.
Coatlicue with the Moon
The Centzon Huitznahua, the southern stars and his sister Coyolxuaqui were angry, saying that their mother had been indifferent and had embarrassed them by becoming pregnant by a stranger. They swore that they should kill her for being so evil and destroy the child within her. One of the star brothers, Cuahuitlicac, however, did not want to see his mother dead and warned his mother about the plot.
Coatlicue was frightened, knowing how powerful her children, especially her daughter, were. However, the boy in her womb comforted her. Don’t be afraid; I know what I will do,’ said Huitzilopochtli. Then he spoke to Cuahuitlicac saying: «Take good care of what they do and pay attention.
When Coyolxuaqui and his brothers, the Centzon Huitznahua, set out to kill his mother, Cuahuitlicac reported on his approach. He reported on his wreath warfare attire and paper nettles and the sharpened bells on his legs. He warned Coatlicue and Huitzilopochtli, saying: «They are coming, they are already in Tzompantitlan. Now they are in Coaxalpan. Now they are in Apetlac. Now they are in the mountain. Now they are here.
The Aztec legend tells the story of Coatlicue, the goddess of life and death and the mother of the four hundred southerners, Centzon Huitznahuas, gods of the southern stars and Coyolxauhqui who ruled her brothers. Coatlicue, lived in Coatepec, where he swept for penance. One day, while he was sweeping, a beautiful feather fell from the sky, he lifted it and placed it on his chest.
When he finished sweeping, he looked for the pen and couldn’t find it. Then she realized she was pregnant. The four southerners were furious to learn that their mother was pregnant. Their sister, Coyolxauhqui, convinced them that their mother had dishonored them all and they should die to pay for this affront.
Coatlicue was very scared and sad, but her son Huitzilopochtli, who was in her womb, told her not to be afraid because he would protect her. She was comforted and calmed her heart.
Meanwhile, Coyolxauhqui and her siblings planned revenge against her mother. Cuahuitlicac, one of the brothers, went to look for her and Huitzilopochtli to tell them their terrible plans. The Four Southerners led by Coyolxauhqui, then headed for the mountain, ready to kill their mother, but again Cuahuitlicac was able to inform them that the warriors were already on their way.
From the moment Huitzilopochtli was born, he instantly became an adult; he took a shield of eagle feathers, arrows and turquoise darts. Huitzilopochtli painted his arms and legs blue, drew diagonal stripes on his face and placed a crown of feathers on his head; he wore a feathered sandal on his right foot.
Using a snake that he controlled like a weapon, he managed to wound his sister Coyolxauhqui and then cut off her head; Her body rolled down and crumbled completely dismembered. Huitzilopochtli furiously threw her head towards the sky and thus became the moon. Then he chased the Southern Four, from the top of Coatepetl to the foot of the mountain. They had no chance against their mighty brother.
Many of them begged forgiveness, but only a few escaped his wrath and were able to survive. Those who escaped headed south, where they became stars. In another myth related to the goddess, she warned the Mexicas of her future demise. Aztec ruler Motecuhzoma II had sent a group of 60 magicians to visit Coatlicue in the mythical ancestral home of the Mexicas, Aztlán, in search of supreme knowledge.
However, overloaded with gifts, these wretched magicians got stuck on a hill of sand and the goddess revealed that Aztec cities would fall one by one. Then, and only then, would her son Huitzilopochtli return to her side. You can read elsewhere that Coatlicue was beheaded by her daughter or beheaded when her son was born from her cut neck (the idea has been adopted in part to explain this monumental sculpture).
However, the myth from which this story is derived does not really establish that Coatlicue suffered this fate. For this reason, it is useful to review the myth, one of the most important for the Aztecs. The main myth in which Coatlicue is involved relates the birth of the Aztec patron deity, Huitzilopochtli (pronounced «wheat-zil-oh-poach-lee»). This myth was recorded at the end of the 16th century after the Spanish conquest of 1521.
The main source from which we learn is the General History of Things in New Spain, also called the Florentine Codex (written 1575-77 and compiled by Franciscan Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, indigenous authors and artists and indigenous informants.
One day, Coatlicue, a goddess of the earth, was sweeping the top of Coatepec (or Snake Mountain), when a feather fell on her apron. At that time, she immaculately conceived a son, whose name was Huitzilopochtli (a warrior god and sun).
Upon hearing that his mother was pregnant, Coyolxauhqui (or Bells-Her-Cheeks, pronounced «coy-al-shauw-kee») became furious. She gathered her 400 siblings, the Centzonhuitz-nahua, to assault Snake Mountain and kill her mother.
One of the brothers decided to warn Coatlicue. Upon learning of this impending murder, Coatlicue became understandably frightened. But Huitzilopochtli consoled her, telling her not to worry.
By the time Coyolxauhqui approached her mother, Huitzilopochtli was born, fully developed and armed. She cut off her sister’s head and threw her body off the mountain. As she fell, her body broke until it stopped at the bottom of Snake Mountain.
At the time of this myth, Coatlicue already had many children. Among them, Centzon Huitznahuas, who later became four hundred southern stars, and Coyolxuahqui, his daughter, who later became the moon. Coyolxuaqui also ruled his brothers, the four hundred who became stars. This explains why the moon is much bigger and brighter than stars.
Sons of the Goddess Coatlicue
She is known as the Mother of the Gods, and her descendants shot themselves to the top of the pantheon. Her sons are Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl, her daughter is coyolxauhqui, and she also gave birth to Huitzilopochtli in very suspicious circumstances.
Her children include many gods, humans, the moon and even stars.
Temples of the Goddess Coatlicue
Represented as an old woman, it symbolized the antiquity of earth worship and presents one of the most fearsome figures in Aztec art. Coatlicue was also the patron of childbirth, associated with war, government and agriculture, and was considered the feminine aspect of the primordial god Ometeotl.
The goddess was worshipped at the Tozozontli spring ritual in the rainy season and at the Quecholli autumn hunting festival, when an imitator of the goddess was sacrificed. This battle would be commemorated with the installation of the Great Temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The giant pyramid was covered by sculptures of snakes and even the shadows cast by their steps were designed to refer to the mountain.
Coatepec Another link with the myth was the large stone placed at the base of the pyramid that has a carving in relief of the dismembered Coyolxauhqui.
Other Topics of Interest in ALPHAPEDIA
Images, Photos or Drawings of the COATLICUE AZTEC GOD