Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec/Mexica moon goddess and warrior

In the early hours of February 21st of 1978, in the heart of Mexico City, a team of workers found a round monolith completely carved on its upper face. In the spectacular circular stone sculpture, the Mexica/Aztec lunar deity was represented: Coyolxauhqui a magnificent female warrior who met her brother for battle to be defeated and later beheaded. 

This massive carved stone, weighting 8 tons with 10.5 ft in diameter, at first sight presents the dynamic figure of a woman who appears to be dancing. However, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the image presented is that of a powerful warrior’s demise with her head, arms, and legs dismembered. This unique piece depicts the importance of her defeat by Huitzilopochtli in Aztec/Mexica religion and has become a symbol for Mexican national identity.

Who is Coyolxauhqui?

According to Mexica/Aztec mythology, Coyolxauhqui, whose name in Nahuatl means "the one adorned with bells," was the leader of her 400 brothers, known as the Centzon Huitznahua (the 'Four Hundred Huitznahua' who represented the stars of the southern sky). She was the daughter of Coatlicue, "the one with the serpent skirt," goddess of the earth and fertility, and the sister of Huitzilopochtli, "the left-handed or southern hummingbird," the Mexica/Aztec god of war and main deity who would lead the Mexica people to Tenochtitlan, the promised land.

The myth of Coyolxauhqui is closely related to that of Huitzilopochtli’s and it recounts the story of his birth, tied with Coyolxauhqui’s demise. It takes place during the migration of the Aztec people from Aztlán to Tenochtitlán, the ancestral promised land, what is now Mexico City. This important myth recalls a time during their migration when they briefly settled at the sacred mountain of Coatepec, the “hill of the snake,” located next to the town of Tula (what is now the state of Hidalgo).

The myth goes like this:

One night, Coatlicue was sweeping a small hut on top of the sacred mountain Coatepec, when suddenly a bundle of beautiful feathers descended from the heavens and landed in front of her. Slowly, she picked them up and put them to her heart. Miraculously, the feather disappeared into her bosom and impregnated her with a son. This son in time would be the deity who would embody the warrior ideals of the Mexica: Huitzilopochtli.
Upon learning of her mother's condition, Coyolxauhqui, Coatlicue's eldest daughter, could not bear the shame and dishonor of Coatlicue’s pregnancy, especially as they did not know who the man responsible for the pregnancy was. So, she conspired with her four hundred brothers (Centzon Huitznahua) to kill her mother.
However, one of the brothers, Cuauhtlicac, disagreed with the plan and warned his mother and of Coyolxauhqui’s plan. Distraught, Coatlicue drowned her anguish with tears until Huitzilopochtli spoke to her from her womb to comfort her, telling her that she had nothing to worry about, as he would defend her and defeat the attackers.
When Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred brothers finally reached the top of Coatepec hill to end their mother’s life, Coatlicue gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, who was born a fully armed warrior, with his face painted blue, and his head decorated with eagle feathers.
The warrior-god Huitzilopochtli immediately rushed to where his sister was, and with his mighty weapon, the xiuhcoatl ('Fire Serpent') which was actually a ray of the sun, swiftly butchered his unruly siblings and, chopping up Coyolxauhqui into several large chunks, he tossed the pieces down the mountainside. The head of the goddess was tossed into the sky, and it became the moon and his brothers the stars of the firmament.

Coyolxauhqui's demise at the hands of Huitzilopochtli is said to symbolize the daily victory of the sun (one of Huitzilopochtli’s associations) over the moon and stars and/or light over darkness. However, other scholars suggests that this myth intended to narrate the tensions between fractions who wanted to settle at Coatepec versus those who wanted to continue their search for Tenochtitlán. Others also suggest that with this myth, the Aztecs justified the violence used to conquer and demand tribute from other Mesoamerican peoples.

The myth of Coyolxauhqui and Huitzilopochtli’s birth, was so significant for the Mexica/Aztec people that, commemorating the victory of Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica carved this large stone disk which sat at the base of the stairs of the Huēyi Teōcalli, or the Templo Mayor. They recreated the birth of Huitzilopochtli in ceremonies performed in the precinct of Tenochtitlán, including the demise of Coyolxauhqui as an important part of these celebrations.

Currently exhibited in room 4 of the Museo del Templo Mayor, this beautiful piece is as imposing as it is revealing of what Mexica/Aztec culture was like before the arrival of the Spanish. Although the pre-Hispanic piece was already mentioned in the chronicles of Spanish missionaries as part of the Mexica culture, it was until 44 years ago, when it was discovered, that it has been the subject of multiple research and conversations about Mexica deities. Even more importantly, the finding of this monolith is what led to the excavation of the Tempo Mayor de Tenochtitlán, located in the zocalo of Mexico City, and now visible to those who visit.

The image of Coyolxauhqui (the same as that of her mother, Coatlicue) today has been used by Chicana feminist scholars (First developed by Gloria Anzaldúa) to speak about the ongoing and lifelong process of healing from traumatic events which fragment, dismember, or wound the self. The concept has been used in various contexts where healing is necessary such as that of identity, cultural, educational, and even historical, making Coyolxauhqui as important and relevant as it was centuries ago.

So, what do you think? Have you ever seen this carved stone in Templo Mayor? What about pictures of it? Were you familiar with the myth of Coyolxauhqui or any other part of Aztec/Mexica mythology? What do you think about it? We would love to hear from you!

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1 comment

Chris

I saw the stone when it was on display at Wichita State University decades ago. I also taught the legend to my Spanish students.

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