Late fifteenth century CE
The Vanishing Non-Technological World : Middle America : Mexico : Aztec
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Coatlicue ("serpent skirt") was one of an array of earth goddesses in Aztec mythology. Here she is pictured as a cosmic process rather than as a female deity, that is, as the force that offers life but is maintained by death in a struggle of the opposites that is inevitable, even necessary.
This stone figure consists of a female form draped with a blouse of severed human hands and hearts, a skirt of intertwined serpents with skull belt buckles in the front and in the back, ferocious rattlesnakes for hands, and a head composed of two giant rattlesnake heads facing one another. Her feet are giant jaguar claws. From beneath her skirt of serpents flows a serpent of blood.
Coatlicue was one of the five moon goddesses worshiped by the Aztecs. Or, according to another view, she was a single earth goddess with five aspects: the four directions and their center. She embodies the cosmic force that solidifies all that is potential into concrete form, not as matter only but as the dynamic matter of living things. Through her the transcendent becomes tangible.
For a time, her existence remained unknown. She languished, lonely and barren, in a cloud. When the Sun discovered her, however, and then took her as his bride, all of her powers to create quickened. From this time forward, it was her power that lay behind the seed and its flowering, the animals and their coupling. If this description seems too kindly to fit the terrifying vision of the goddess revealed in her statue, it is because Coatlicue--as goddess of life-is actually a vast cosmic process. What appears as cruelty is actually far away from either cruelty or compassion. It is the objective nature of living beings: eat or be eaten.
Justino Fernandez has described the symbolism of the statue in his study of the goddess. The skirt of entwined serpents, hanging from two creator gods that form her belt, represents mankind. The skulls that serve as ornaments represent the rhythm of life growing or merging into death. Behind hang thirteen leather thongs that are encrusted with snails. These represent the thirteen heavens that rise up over their foundation in the city at the center of the earth, Tenochtitlán. The goddess is clad about the thorax with a garment of human skin, a reminder that she is connected to Xipe Totec, the flayed god of spring. Hands and hearts are strung together to form her necklace, a reminder of the ritual of human sacrifice, which was necessary in order to maintain the gods and to uphold the cosmic order.
At the highest point of the statue is Omeyocan ("place of duality"), the thirteenth heaven and the dwelling place of the primordial, androgynous deity, Ometeotl, who gave birth to the first, creator gods. Omeyocan is represented by two rattlesnake heads in place of the goddess's head. In this manifestation of her numinous reality, the goddess reveals herself not as woman but as cosmic mountain: as the force that underlies the dynamic of life and death, she holds the cosmos together and provides the primary material for the drama that includes both the gods and mankind. Bloodthirsty and warlike to mortal eyes, she is in reality the principle that provides both stability and endurance to the cosmos.
This statue of the goddess Coatlicue emphasizes two aspects of her divinity: the elemental nature of life and death, and the centrality of this nature for the stability of the cosmos. One of her symbols is the blood that supports life and announces death-- the life's blood as the central fact of the living organism.
In ancient Aztec religion, human sacrifice was performed in order to provide the vitality that the gods needed in order to maintain the cosmos. Human sacrifice found its model in the self-sacrifice of the gods during the founding of this age. Indeed, divine sacrifice is fairly common in the myths of the world's religions. In ancient India, the first god dismembered himself in order to provide the components of the world. In Scandinavia, the gods dismembered the giant Ymir for the same reason. Odin sacrificed himself on the world tree to gain wisdom, and Inanna was sacrificed by her underworld sister, Ereshkigal, in a myth of death and renewal. The sacrifice of the god is found also in the crucifixion of Jesus in the Christian tradition.
Human sacrifice has been a widespread and complex phenomenon throughout history. In ancient China, the king was considered alive after death. He could be buried together with an diverse community of living companions, as, for example, at An-yang (c. 1500-1400 BCE) where an entire company of soldiers, four charioteers, their companions, and their horses have been unearthed. Japanese samurai, drawing on a warrior tradition dating back to the eleventh century, might commit ritual suicide (seppuku) in atonement for transgressions, to avoid being captured in war, at the death of one's lord, etc. Among the Aztec, the meaning of human sacrifice is connected to the order and vitality of the cosmos. Apparently, the Aztec universe was ontologically unstable. Only human sacrifice could prevent its collapse, and that only temporarily.
In addition to human sacrifice, the Aztec practiced ritual bloodletting. Often the blood was placed on pieces of paper and offered to the gods. It was in the movement of the blood and the pulse of the heart that the presence of that cosmic force so important to the gods was revealed. And it was in the recognition of the dependence of one living thing on the death of other living things that the Aztec saw the presence of Coatlicue as an impersonal, inevitable force.
This image of Coatlicue as mother and earth, as the blood-force of the universe, is certainly a good example of what Erich Neumann called the Terrible Mother. When ego-consciousness is experienced as masculine, and as developing out of a maternal matrix called the unconscious, the symbolism of the struggle between the hero and the Great Mother arises: "In other words, the dialectical relation of consciousness to the unconscious takes the symbolic, mythological form of a struggle between the Maternal-Feminine and the male child, and here the growing strength of the male corresponds to the increasing power of consciousness in human development" (Neumann, 148).
In so far as the liberation of consciousness is painful and difficult (which it always is), the unconscious is perceived symbolically as the so-called Terrible Mother. "Just as world, life, nature, and soul have been experienced as a generative and nourishing, protecting and warming Femininity, so their opposites are also perceived in the image of the Feminine; death and destruction, danger and distress, hunger and nakedness, appear as helplessness in the presence of the dark and Terrible Mother.... This Terrible Mother is the hungry earth, which devours its own children and fattens on their corpses; it is the tiger and the vulture, the vulture and the coffin, the flesh-eating sarcophagus voraciously licking up the blood seed of men and beasts and, once fecundated and sated, casting it out again in new birth, hurling it to death, and over and over again to death (ibid., 149f.).
Material or Technique
Height: 8 ft. 6 in. (2.59 m.)
Mexico: Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), main plaza
Repository or Site
Mexico: Mexico City, Museo Nacional tie Antropologia
Sierksma, F., The Gods as We Shape Them (Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, 1960): 57.
Brundage, Burr C. The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World. Austin, 1979.
Fernandez, Justino. Coatlicue: Estética del arte indigene antiguo. 2d ed. Mexico City, 1959.
Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. New York, 1955.
Nicholson, H. B. "Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico." In volume 10 of Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope. Austin, 1971.
Nicholson, Irene. Mexican and Central American Mythology. London, 1967.
Townsend, Richard. State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlán. Washington, D.C., 1979.
OMETEOTL (Aztec: "lord of duality")--The Aztec high god, Ometeotl is an androgynous divinity that lives in the thirteenth and highest heaven. All-knowing and all-powerful, Ometeotl generated the four gods who created the universe.
XIPE TOTEC--Aztec god of spring. Xipe Totec combined martial aspects with those of vegetation. His festival, the Feast of the Flaying of Men, included the flaying of the sacrificial victim and the cermonial wearing of the skin by the priest or priestess in charge. His insignia, including the pointed cap and rattle staff, was the war costume of the Méxica emperor.