The Mother Goddess Coatlicue: Aztec Myth & Statue

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, mother to gods, mortals, the stars, and the moon. Within, learn about the myth of how she bore the Aztec god of war and the strange preservation of her statue from Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capitol.

Not Your Typical Mother Goddess

You may have seen depictions of mother goddesses before. Fertile, compassionate, and beautiful, are the images that usually come to mind. However, the Aztec mother goddess, Coatlicue, looks very different from the images you might be used to seeing. A fierce and frightening mother, she has serpent fangs, a skirt woven of snakes, and a necklace made from human skulls, hearts, and hands. This is definitely one mom you don't want to mess with, even on her best days.

Face of Coatlicue
statue face

She is both a creator and destroyer god, ruling fire, fertility, death, and rebirth. She is the guardian of souls who die in childbirth. Her children include many gods, humans, the moon, and even the stars. Later in this lesson, we'll take a deeper look at how she was depicted in ancient sculpture, but first, we should get to know her better through one of the great myths about her, how she conceived and bore the god Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, and god of war.

Coatlicue: Mother of Huitzilopochtli

At the time of this myth, Coatlicue already had many children. Among them, the Centzon Huitznahuas, who later became the four hundred southern stars, and Coyolxuahqui, her daughter, who later became the moon. Coyolxuaqui also ruled over her brothers, the four hundred who became stars. This explains why the moon is much larger and brighter than the stars.

At a place called Coatepec, found today in Veracruz, the great mother goddess lived and did penance for an unnamed transgression. She was instructed to sweep, keeping the temples and city clean. One day, while sweeping, a bundle of feather fell from the sky, beautiful feathers from many bright birds. Marveling at the feathers, she decided to keep them and placed them on her breast. Likely, this would resemble when someone stuffs money into their bra for safe keeping.

When she finished sweeping for the day, she reached for the feathers to take a better look at them, but could not find them at all. It was then that Coatlicue realized that the ball of feathers was now inside her and she was once again with child. Unfortunately, some of her other children were not happy about this development.

Coatlicue holding Coyolxuaqui the Moon
Coatlicue with Moon

The Centzon Huitznahua, the southern stars, and their sister Coyolxuaqui were angry, saying their mother had been wanton and shamed them by becoming pregnant with a stranger. They swore they must kill her for being so wicked and destroy the child within her. One of the star brothers, Cuahuitlicac, however, did not want to see his mother slain and warned his mother of the plot.

Coatlicue was frightened, knowing how powerful her children were, especially her daughter. However, the child in her womb comforted her. 'Have no fear; already I know what I shall do,' spoke Huitzilopochtli. He then spoke to Cuahuitlicac saying, 'Watch well what they do and pay careful heed.'

When Coyolxuaqui and her brothers, the Centzon Huitznahua, set forth to kill their mother, Cuahuitlicac reported their approach. He reported their war garb of paper crowns and nettles and the sharpened bells on their legs. He warned Coatlicue and Huitzilopochtli, saying 'They are coming, they are already at Tzompantitlan. Now they are at Coaxalpan. Now they are at Apetlac. Now they are at the mountain. Now they are here.'

It was at the moment of their arrival that Huitzilopochtli burst forth from his mother's womb, arrayed in his own war armor. From birth, he carried his shield named Tehuehuelli, his darts, and his atlatl, a dart thrower named Xiuhahtlatl. All these were made of blue stone. His face was painted for war with diagonal stripes made from the waste of the womb. The feathers of his conception crowned his head and protected the sole of his left foot. His thighs and upper arms were blue, stained with minerals of the earth.

He struck down his sister, who would then become the moon, and pursued his brothers, the stars. They begged for mercy but he showed them none. The few who escaped journeyed south where they found a haven. From the slain, he took their armor and crowns, adorning himself with the spoils of war. Then, he cast them into the night sky to become the moon and the stars. This is why he is cherished among his people.

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