Part One: Mythology and Ritual of the Goddess and Her Son
Coatlicue (kwat-LEEK-ay) was the Great Mother Goddess of the Aztecs (or Mexica, as they called themselves). She gave birth to the moon, the stars and the sun.
Coatlicue maintained the shrine on the top of the legendary sacred mountain Coatepec (Snake Mountain). One day, as she was sweeping, a ball of feathers descended from the heavens, and when she tucked it into her belt it miraculously impregnated her. The resulting child was the powerful war god Huitzilopochtli. However, Coatlicue’s other offspring, her daughter Coyolxauhqui and her sons the four hundred Huitznahua were outraged at this shameful episode and they stormed Mt. Coatepec with the intention of killing their dishonoured mother. The plot came unstuck, though, when one of the Huitznahua lost heart and decided to warn the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Rising to his mother’s defense, the god sprang from the womb fully-grown and fully-armed. The warrior-god swiftly butchered his unruly siblings and Coyolxauhqui, whose head he cut off and threw into the sky to become the moon.
The Aztecs commemorated this battle at the Templo Mayor in their capital of Tenochtitlan. The giant pyramid was covered in snake sculptures. There was a large stone at its base with a relief carving of the dismembered Coyolxauhqui.
This myth depicts the daily birth of the sun and the consequent “destruction” of the moon and stars as the sun replaces them in the sky. The dismemberment of Coyolxauhqui also suggests the moon’s various phases as it waxes and wanes as well as its disappearance between cycles.
Much of the myth’s meaning turns on the opposition between male sun and female moon: Huitzilopochtli defends his mother while Coyolxauhqui betrays her; he stands alone bravely, she acts only with many followers. He vows to defend Coatlicue while he is still in her womb. His birth from one female immediately precedes his destruction of another female. A female gives him birth; he takes a female life.
But the Aztecs knew that with the coming of night he too would be metaphorically destroyed by being swallowed by the female earth. This further reversal (he destroys a female and is then destroyed by one) suggests both the solar/lunar cycle as well as the nature of cosmic reality, which both creates and destroys life.
When the sun is at its midday height, suggested by Huitzilopochtli’s temple at the top of the pyramid, the moon will be in the depths of the underworld, the land of the dead. The Aztecs also knew that just as the coming of the night would reverse those positions, so their own individual vitality – and their empire – would eventually perish in the cyclic flux of the cosmos, only to be reborn.
On a profound level, then, the myth of the destruction of the moon by the sun is clearly meant to delineate the cyclic alternation between creation and destruction which seemed to the Mesoamerican mind to characterize the rhythmic movement of the cosmic cycles for which the sun provided a metaphor.
So the killing of Coyolxauhqui paradoxically guaranteed the rebirth of Huitzilopochtli and the continuation of the cosmic cycle of life, just as the sacrifice of captured warriors at the Temple of Huitzilopochtli and the rolling of their dead bodies down the pyramid to the stone of Coyolxauhqui at the base was seen as vital to the continuation of life and the life of the sun. Prisoners captured in battle and slaves were regularly sacrificed in ceremonial rituals, their hearts torn out of their living bodies and offered to the sun, and their bodies (like that of Coyolxauhqui) hurled down the long temple steps to the underworld.
The Aztecs also performed many sacrifices to Coatlicue, who was known as Toci (“our grandmother”), but also as Cihuacoatl (“the lady of the serpent”). She was both a monster and a victim: monstrous because she was part animal, part human and part deity; but also victim of her children’s jealously. They worshipped her in the spring ritual of Tozozontli in the rainy season and in the autumnal hunting festival of Quecholli, when they sacrificed a woman who impersonated her.
Almost every aspect of her appearance depicted ritual sacrifice. Two facing serpents formed her face. She wore a skirt of writhing snakes and a necklace made of human hearts, hands and skulls. Her feet and hands were adorned with ferocious claws to devour the dead. Her great breasts, however, indicated her role as a nourishing mother. Both monster and matriarch, she represented birth, death and rebirth – reality in its starkest form.
She, the earth, both consumed and regenerated life. In her lived the greatest paradoxes: nourishment and famine, sacred and profane, ecstasy and horror. In this imagination life and death were not opposites; rather, birth and death were opposites, and both were aspects of life.
Both the womb of creation and the grave of destruction existed in her, all coming together in the notion of the necessary, continuing sacrifice of the outmoded for the greater purpose of the creation of new life. As the great mythologist Mercea Eliade put it:
Generation, death, and regeneration were understood as the three moments of one and the same mystery, and the entire spiritual effort of archaic man went to show that there must be no caesuras between these moments. . . . The movement, the regeneration continues perpetually.
She was the insatiable monster who consumed everything that lived. In this regard, she had no parallel with the one-dimensional, all-loving, compassionate mother goddess of Christianity – or as many New Age adherents would prefer to see her. In all of world mythology few deities, perhaps only India’s Kali, share the terrifying fullness of Coatlicue.
Read Part Two Here.