As a major deity in the Aztec Mythology, Coatlicue played a large role in Aztec arts. The statue, Coatlicue was created between 1300 and 1500 in Tenochtitlan, Mexico. Its style suggests that it was typical of this time as there are many other pieces showing similarities. For example, Coyotxauhqui made in 1469, Tlalteahtli made in 1502, and the Calendar Stone made between 1427 and 1474, who bears a similar face. Coatlicue’s face was also often carved on the bottom of other monuments so that it would always be in contact with the earth. Artists did this because Coatlicue was the goddess of earth and fire from the old religion. Much of the art at this time had to do with Aztec deities, particularly Huitzilopotchli and his family.
Aztecs settled and founded Tenochitlan in the middle of a lake in the mid 1300’s and by the 1400’s it had become the largest Indian empire and major force for one hundred years in Mesoamerica. By also having the largest army in Mesoamerica, they were able to acquire many prisoners of war. This was very important because a major aspect of Aztec life was ritual sacrifice. Sacrifice was important to the Aztecs because they believed that if they did not sacrifice things with life-sustaining blood, their gods would desert them, darkness would descend on their world, and life as they knew it would end.
They believed that they had already gone through four worlds before and that the gods sacrificed themselves so that they could live in this fifth and final world. If this one were to ever end, perhaps because they did not perform enough sacrifices, that would be the end of the Aztecs all together. Most of these sacrifices were the prisoners of war they captured. These sacrifices were mostly to Huitzilopotchli, the god of war, creating a continuous cycle. Aztecs sacrificed prisoners of war to the God of War ensuring their success in battle. Battles were fought successfully meaning more prisoners of war. More warfare, more prisoners, more sacrifices. The Aztecs also performed many sacrifices to Coatlicue, the mother of Huitzilopotchli. As a representation of death, this ritual sacrifice is depicted in her clothing because she wears a necklace of hands and hearts and a garnment of skin, she also has ferocious claws instead of hands portraying her as the devourer of the dead. This represents the death aspect but this deity was also viewed as a nourishing mother with her massive breasts. Both a monster and a matriarch at the same time, she represents life and death itself, both sides to one coin. In taking consideration to what she represents it is no wonder that she is often given ritual sacrifices by the Aztecs.
Coatlicue herself as a deity was important to Aztec life because she represented life, death, and rebirth. This statue was made out of stone which was important because it physically represented her as what she was, goddess of earth and fire, which is what you need to make stone. The importance this played on every day life of Aztecs is that these two things are also necessary for food. The fact that she is the goddess of fire is important because fire is what separates man from animals because they can create it. This statue was found religiously important not only by the Aztecs but also by the Spanish. Catholic missionaries saw her as related to Mary who birthed Jesus by God. While Coatlicue was not a virgin, Huitzilopotchli’s birth was from magic and when she became pregnant her children thought her dishonored, similar to Mary as well. The name Coatlicue means of the serpent skirts and she is often portrayed wearing a skirt of serpents. To the Aztecs, serpents represented both childbirth and blood so visually this was important for this sculpture because her skirt represented the childbirth aspect of this myth (Huitzilopotchli) and the decapitation of her head with the use of two serpents. As the goddess of childbirth, this comes into play as well when looking at Aztec women. While men trained for battles against men, women prepared for battle in childbearing. The Aztec believed that women who died in childbirth became goddesses which correlates to the myth of Coatlicue and her son Huitzilopotlchi.
The Aztec myth involving Coatlicue is a myth that involves the origins of the Aztec people and it states that she had been sweeping serpent mountain when a ball of fluff flew down, landed between her breasts, and caused her to become pregnant. Her other children, the stars (her sons), and Coyotxauhqu, her daughter, became jealous, fearing that they would no longer be the most important deities, and decided to murder Coatlicue. When her children decapitated her, it forced Huitzilopotchli to be born in full armor and he avenged his mothers death by decapitating his sister Coyotxauhqui. He then threw her body down serpent mountain and tossing her head into the sky to become the moon. This myth is also portrayed in the statue of Coyotxauhqui because it is her tossed and dismembered body. The Aztecs used this myth to serve as a metaphor for the way the sun overwhelms the moon and the stars when dawn comes as well as being their creation story. While this myth could be seen as a negative one, it is important because it is the origin myth of how the sun and moon came to be, since Huitzilopotchli is the sun god. Coatlicue’s statue is represented in this myth as both a monster and a victim. Monstrous because she is this half animal, half human deity, but also as a victim of her children’s own jealously and misconceived beliefs about her pregnancy. The myth continues on to say that Huilzilopotchli commanded the Aztecs to travel until they found a cactus with an eagle nesting in it. After a time they finally came upon the island on which they settled Tenochtitlan.
When this work was first found after the fall of the Aztecs, the people had been so scared of it and what it might have represented that they reburied it and it wasn’t found till years later. They, at that time, had a more Catholic of a mind set which made them perceive Coatlicue as some sort of demon, which in a sense she was. However, she was not a demon in the typical “evil” sense of the word. She was a part human, part animal, earth goddess that represented life and death to the Aztecs. She was the creator and the destroyer, the giver and the taker, and the Aztecs saw her as a major part of both their lives and their art.
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