Coatlicue: The Serpent-Skirted Goddess
The ancient Aztec idol Coatlicue was buried by the Spanish conquerors, only to be later discovered, but reburied, and later recovered again. Why? Was it because she was so mysterious and terrifying? Possibly. Yet, today the Aztec goddess represents a profound combination of feminism and power.
Ross Chambless: In the year 1790, as Spanish workers were digging a new aqueduct – under what is a central plaza in Mexico City - they accidentally unearthed a massive and terrifying stone deity. Coatlicue, or the ‘Serpent Skirt’ as she came to be known in English – Looming almost 9 feet tall, over 4 feet wide, and weighing in at 2 tons – was an awe-inspiring mother earth goddess.
Susan Vogel: She’s a massive block of stone. One piece of stone. She’s standing tall. She’s now in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The base of her feet - the bottom of her feet- are also carved. So, this is telling us she’s not just an object standing there, she’s a full being. Even if no one sees her feet, it’s important to have those represent her as well.
Ross: The conquering Spanish apparently regarded the statue as a hideously deformed monster. But the subjugated indigenous peoples had a different reaction.
Susan: What was observed was that while the Spanish were horrified by her, the indigenous people began bringing her offerings.
Ross: The Mexican Indians began visiting the goddess with candles and adorning her with flowers.
Susan: So, have we described her? Her head is made of two serpents heads coming together. Her arms have talons coming out. Her necklace is made of human hearts and hands. Her skirt is made of serpents. So, her name is actually "Snake Skirt."
Ross: This is Nuevas Voces and this is part 3 of the podcast that examines the intersection of Mexican art, history, and culture. In this episode, we’re talking about what the discovery of this ancient Aztec artifact tells us about feminism in ancient Mexico. You should take a look at Coatlicue, if you haven’t already – she is really terrifying. The Spanish rulers were evidently not excited by this frightening new idol, and even less so about the indigenous people’s affinity for her.
Susan: She was so frightening, that she was reburied. She was reburied two or three times. I think she was reburied two or three times before people could just tolerate her incredible power.
The Coatlicue statue was buried by the Christian Spanish invaders. Some think this was because she was considered pagan. She was later discovered in 1790 by, Antonio León y Gama, a historian, astronomer, and intellectual living in Mexico City at the time. "He drew illustrations of the sculpture and offered his interpretation of who it displayed (he claimed it was Teoyaomiqui). Not long after it was found, however, Coatlicue was reburied—she was considered too frightening and pagan. Eventually, she was uncovered again in the twentieth century, becoming one of the crowning objects of the National Anthropology Museum and a famous representative of Aztec artistic achievements in stone sculpture." (source: Essay by Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Coatlicue: Mother, goddess, sacrificial offering?", Khan Academy)
Ross: Coatlicue, it was discovered later, was part of a set of stone idols representing the ancient Aztec goddess. She was discovered in what was the most sacred spot in the center of the Aztec world. So, who was she?
Fanny: Coatlicue is the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the earth, the moon, and the stars, and her son Huitzilopchtli which is the god of the sun and war. She is the most important god, basically the creator of the universe. And it’s a female!
Ross: Coatlicue symbolizes power, of nature, and of motherhood.
Susan: I remember when I first looked at her I was like ‘oh my gosh, this is really scary'. But the more I thought about her, so is childbirth. And, the I though, in my job as a lawyer I come across some awful things. I read about someone molesting kids in park bathroom. And I thought, I want her there. If anyone is going to protect our kids, it’s Coatlicue. She’s awesome. She’s powerful. I started talking to my friends from Mexico, and they said she’s an incredible diosa (goddess). And a lot of historians are males, so they talk about these images as frightening, and they talk about her as so mysterious. Because they consider women mysterious. You'all consider women mysterious. But really, being a mom, you have to be tough. And if someone messes with our kids, watch out. All those fangs are coming out. That serpent head. Every earthly power we have we are going to use to protect our kids. And look at what’s going on around the world in terms of natural disasters. The earth itself, the mother is powerful. We can’t harness her. We can’t prevent these earthquakes and floods and tornados, and natural disasters. So she is Mother Earth. She has so much power and is frightening as well.
Ross: For modern Chicanos, Coatlicue does represent Mother Earth.
Luis Lopez: I pronounce it a little different, because of the right of Nahuatl I learned, is from Veracruz. She is incredible. The feathered serpents tie back to Quetzalcóatl. When you have that cultural knowledge, you know they are very important. But also represents knowledge, wisdom, understanding. Who better than a mother to understand you, right? Coatlicue also has evolved into who we call "Tonantzin" which is Nahuatl for “Our Mother”. So as Chicanos, we may not know that’s the origin, but it does come from that. So even in modern day, some of us still understand Mother Earth as this.
Susan: She was a mother who gave birth to the god of the sun through a virgin birth. So, this is going to be something important when we talk about how the Spanish Catholics converted the indigenous peoples.
Luis: The parallels between the Virgin Mary and Tonantzin.
Ross: Here’s where those efforts to keep Coatlicue buried connects to a larger discussion of hiding Mexico’s indigenous past. I wanted to know how do we know all this? How do we know what Coatlicue represented to the ancient peoples? Why was she such a threat to the conquering Europeans, and their ideas?
Luis: We know this from the codices. For example, memes, we see a meme and know what it means, because we have the key. They also know what the codices meant. Also, when the Spanish arrived, they were translating or notating Nahuatl with the Latin alphabet. So we also have records from indigenous people explaining their culture, what things meant, practices and stuff like that. We have a pretty good idea of what they actually thought.
Susan: The history of writing in Mesoamerica is fascinating. It’s a huge area of scholarship. We believe the Olmecs had the first system of writing. There’s controversy in this area. Different cultures had different ways of writing. Teotihuacanos apparently didn’t. The Mayans did. It’s fascinating to research and even watch videos on Youtube for how we have come to understand the writings of these peoples. By the time the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs had these codices which were writings. They wrote their history on different types of bark or paper. So, when the Spanish came...actually, there are murals that show they burned them. They burned these because they wanted to destroy their history. There are only four that remain. There were only four originals done prior to the Spanish that remain. And the Spanish made the indigenous peoples recreate these four. And so, we take those with a grain of salt.
Ross: That's also very important because how else would we know how they lived, their own story from their own perspective if they weren't documenting it, right?
Luis: One other unique aspect of these cultures is oral histories, which is something that is still practiced. So I've got a professor who is Nauha. A lot of his history hasn't been written down. A lot of it is passed down from generation to generation. A lot of his research is interviewing "los grandes", the older generation, doing it in a way that could be passed on this information.
Ross: And just a few other things about trying to understand Mesoamerican cultures, is that I understand they had their own calendar system, right? They had various other technologies. They were good at producing food, so they were well-fed, self-sustaining. What are some other aspects of this civilization that are important to mention?
Luis: For me, the aspect of nobility. We often think of these groups like tribes. But they were more like kingdoms. They had kings and queens, and systems of hierarchy. Different people had their assignments. There was trade. There was tribute or tax. These are very complex societies.
Fanny Blauer: For me what is important is that women had a major position in the society. Starting from the point of the main god - it's a goddess, it's a woman - the position of the woman as the one who will be in charge of harvesting and different positions in their society, played an important role. And to me, that is very relevant in comparison to when the conquistadors arrived and defeated that image. Other than the religious image of the Virgin Mary, women didn’t have much of a place in the history after that happened. The more I study, the more I realize that history has in many ways been written by men. There are not a lot of figures in the colonial era of Mexico, other than when the ancient cultures really established the position of a woman as a powerful figure.
Ross: Coatlicue is now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City along with other monuments that depict similar iconography. You can see an image of her on our website and the home for this podcast:
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis Lopez; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: Gypsy Neuvelos, Ricardo Lozano and Jorge Ramos. This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.