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COATLICUE ("serpent skirt") was one of an array of Aztec earth-mother goddesses, the Teteoinnan, who represented the notion of maternal fertility associated with the earth. Coatlicue's monumental stone image, excavated in 1790 in the heart of Mexico City, is one of the finest and most monstrous achievements of Mesoamerican religious art. It is an eight-foot-tall stone figure consisting of a female form draped with a blouse of severed human hands and hearts, a skirt of intertwined serpents with skull belt buckles in front and back, ferocious rattlesnakes for hands, and a head composed of two giant rattlesnake heads facing one another. According to art historians, these two giant serpent heads emerge from spurts of blood resulting from Coatlicue's decapitation. Her feet are giant jaguar claws. A serpent of blood flows from beneath her skirt of serpents. This masterpiece of Mesoamerican sculpture, located today in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, reflects the combined qualities of terror and destruction associated with some aspects of the goddess cult of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (13251521).

Coatlicue's primary creative act, told in book 3 of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún's Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (compiled 15691582; also known as the Florentine Codex), consisted of the dramatic birth of the war god Huitzilopochtli. This teotuicatl ("divine song") tells how Coatlicue was sweeping out a temple on Coatepec ("serpent mountain") when a ball of feathers made her pregnant with Huitzilopochtli. Her children, the centzon huitznahua ("four hundred southerners"), became outraged at this and prepared for war against their mother. Led by Coatlicue's aggressive daughter, Coyolxauhqui ("she of the golden bells"), the four hundred warriors began their march toward Coatepec. When Coatlicue became frightened, a voice from her womb comforted her, saying, "Do not worry, I know what must be done." When the warriors arrived at Coatepec, Coatlicue gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, fully grown and dressed as a warrior. Using his xiuhcoatl ("serpent of lightning"), he dismembered his sister Coyolxauhqui and slaughtered most of the rest of his siblings as well.

Along with the goddess Cihuacoatl ("serpent woman"), Coatlicue represents the aggressive mortuary aspect of Aztec goddesses.


Brundage, Burr C. The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World. Austin, 1979. See especially Brundage's helpful chapters on "The Quality of the Numinous" (pp. 5079) and "The Goddesses" (pp. 153175). Brundage's work takes seriously the religious factor in Aztec society and develops in this book a framework to relate specific aspects of the sacred to a general understanding of the religious system.

Fernandez, Justino. Coatlicue: Estética del arte indígena antiguo. 2d ed. Mexico City, 1959. Fernandez's work, with a stimulating prologue by Samuel Ramos, discusses Coatlicue's aesthetic character in relation to a general model of Aztec art.

New Sources

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. Piedras negadas: de la Coatlicue al Templo Mayor. (Neglected Stones: From Coatlicue to the Great Temple ). Mexico City, 1998.

DavÍd Carrasco (1987)

Revised Bibliography