Coyolxauhqui (Analysis of the Head of Coyolxauhqui)

by Dave

In 1829, archeologists unearthed a colossal pre-Columbian stone monument from a colonial church’s foundations in Mexico City. This monument, the Head of Coyolxauhqui, was carved in Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec world. We will discuss its iconographical significance, theorize reasons for its creation, its function in the pre-Columbian world, and what became of the monument since.

The Colossal Head of Coyolxauhqui is a stone monument carved in pre-Columbian Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec world. In 1829, archaeologists unearthed it from the foundations of a colonial church in Mexico City. At this time, archaeologists had found only a few Aztec monuments, like the Calendar Stone and the Coatlicue Monument. The Head of Coyolxauhqui is three feet high and carved out of diorite, or greenstone. The overall structure retains the curved form of a boulder. However the smooth surface and precise lines show the work put into this monument and its importance as an object. This monument includes the head and a relief carving on the base. We will discuss the iconographical significance, theorize reasons for its creation, its function in the pre-Columbian world, and what became of the monument since.

Analysis of the Myth Behind the Stone

The myth of Coyolxauhqui, as collected by Sahagún, is integral to the myth-history of the Mexica people. This is because she is the sister of the god Huitzilopochtli, the patron deity of the Mexica people. Coyolxauhqui, represented with bells on her cheeks, is the daughter of Coatlicue, She of the Serpent Skirt. As the story goes, directly after his birth, Huitzilopochtli defended his mother from Coyolxauhqui, dismembered her body, and threw it from the top of the sacred mountain Coatepec.

The Templo Major shows the importance of this story to the Aztec. They dedicated the right side of the temple to Huitzilopochtli and used it to represent the mountain Coatepec where he was born. Also included in the temple is a representation of Coyolxauhqui’s dead body, the Coyolxauhqui Stone, which shows her dismembered body. Coyolxauhqui is also important to the Mexica as a part of the pantheon relating to the moon and fertility. The myth can be interpreted as Huitzilopochtli is the dawn that kills the moon, or Coyolxauhqui, and her 400 brothers, the stars. More generally, she symbolizes any enemy of the Mexica that will be cut down by the people of Huitzilopochtli.

Artistic Analysis- What We Can Learn

There are many visual details of the Head of Coyolxauhqui that have iconographic connections. Some of them are more obvious than others. For example, we can see the bells on her cheeks for which Coyolxauhqui is named. Also, the sculptors carved her with drooping eyelids, showing that she is dead. This means the Aztec created this monument as of her head after her brother killed her, rather than a sculpture of her as she would have been alive.

Her earrings are gold trappeze earrings. The Mexica placed examples of these in offering deposits around the Templo Mayor. The nose-adornment is common for the time period. Also there appears to be a triangle, presumably representing gold, piercing her lips. The smaller circular spots on the front of her headband represent down feathers. This connects to the birth of Huitzilopochtli, whose name means “Left-Side Like a Hummingbird”. Eagle feathers make up The rest of the headband and it has a flower on the top. This flower is the cempoalxochitl, or “Mexican marigold”.

The Importance of the Environment

In Mexica tradition, this flower is connected to death, which connects to Coyolxauhqui’s death at the hands of her brother. This is important in this context because the birth of Huitzilopochtli represents the rise of the Mexica. In addition, as a plant the cempoalxochitl is a connection to water, referencing Coyolxauhqui’s association with fertility. The circular pattern of bright yellow or orange petals of the cempoalxochitl flower is an obvious connection to the sun. Thus a symbol of power and diety. The eagle feathers on her headband also connect to the idea of the sun, which references the cempoalxochitl flower. Together these iconographic features would have allowed any knowledgeable Mexica person to understand the underlying mythological connections secured to the monument. These same things are what allow researchers to identify Coyolxauhqui and to determine the story being told by the monument.

Using the Calendar in the Analysis

The sculptors carved a relief showing two snakes entwined with water, ropes of fire, and plumes on the bottom of the monument. The two snakes could represent the mountain where the story happens and where Coyolxauhqui dies, Coatepec, or Snake Mountain. The fire and water together are the Aztec glyph for atl-tlachinolli. This means water and scorched-earth, signifying warfare, destruction, and something with great power. This could mean that Coatepec is a source of power. As it is the birthplace of Huitzilopochtli, and so the beginning of the Mexica source of power. It could also mean that the severed head of Coyolxauhqui is a source of power; that as a goddess, she carries both destructive fire and creative water inside of her.

Also, in the upper left corner is a badly damaged date glyph showing the year 1 Rabbit. This could be simply the year the Aztec finished this monument. Or it could be referring to the general year of 1 Rabbit as the year before 2 Reed, the year of New Fire Ceremonies. This would connect to Coyolxauhqui’s death because the New Fire Ceremony is a rebirth of the Mexica power and a continuation of the cosmos. In this case, Coyolxauhqui’s death would represent the death of the old world. The next year, 2 Reed, would represent the birth of the new world, in which Huitzilopochtli, and the Mexica themselves, are in power.

A Closer Look at the Dates

Another explanation would be that 1 Rabbit is the mythical creation date of the Earth. This connects to the rest of the symbolism in the relief, because the snakes, water, and fire could also represent her blood as it touches the ground. Because the relief would have been touching the ground, this symbolically means the blood from her death flows into the earth. The Mexica would understand this to represent her power and life-force are given to Tlaltecutli, the embodiment of the Earth. He would then ensure the continuation of the Sun and the cosmos. The most obvious meaning of the relief sculpture is that the head was a complete sculpture and not a fragment from some larger Coatlicue-esque statue. However, the symbolism presents many different ideas about how the Mexica would have conceptualized the death of a goddess.

The Bigger Picture – Other Art Pieces

Clearly the Head of Coyolxauhqui relates to the other large monument representing her, the stone showing her dismantled body. This monument, simply called the Coyolxauhqui Stone, is a very large, flattened circular stone and shows a relief of Coyolxauhqui’s dismembered body. Architects represented Coyolxauhqui with bells on her cheeks, trapeze earrings, and a headband of down and eagle feathers. However, architects would paint this stone, whereas they would have left the Head Monument the original greenstone. There were many other monuments with reliefs on their bases. Many of those reliefs were either of Tlaltecutli or relating to him.

Another Example – Connection to Themes

Another monument with a 1 Rabbit glyph is the Teocalli of Sacred Warfare, a stone model of a temple. On this monument, the 1 Rabbit glyph is with the 2 Reed glyph, representing the transition of the cosmos from New Fire Ceremony. Also Mocteczumma II used the Teocalli as a political piece, whoing the he influeeced the cosmos as a god did. The Head of Coyolxauhqui could similarly be propaganda for a king, where Coyolxauhqui represents a defeated enemy and so shows the power of his reign. The Mexica intended it to be viewed through the context of the time. This includes the contemporary political climate and similar stone works that would have been displayed in  pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Archeologists discovered the monument during renovations to the church Santa Teresa la Antigua. However, this is some streets away from the Templo Mayor, and not close to the circular Coyolxauhqui Stone. This leads us to theorize that while the Mexica had it as part of the Templo Mayor, the Spanish moved it during the early colonial period. During this time, the Spanish began to use the monuments for building Nueva Espana, which would explain how it wound up being used in the foundations of a church.

Using What We Know to Learn About Art

The function of many Aztec monuments is dependent on their placement. We see this in the circular Coyoxauhqui Stone. The Aztec placed it in front of the steps of the Huitzilopochtli side of the Templo Mayor. This suggests that the Mexica conceived and used the Templo Major as a ritual space rather than as a pedestal for the temples at the top. During the calamitous time of the Conquest, spaniards, or even indigenous community members, would deliberately move and change Aztec monuments. Because of this, few of the existing artifacts have been found in their original position.  

Because we do not know where the monument was kept during pre-Colonial times, we are unable to entirely know its function. However, we can theorize. Archeologists found most the monumental sculptures in downtown Mexico City. Seler hypothesizes that the Aztec placed the Head of Coyolxauhqui on a platform on the temple. Nicholson suggests that the mentioned the head as part of the temple during the rule of Ahuitzotl, an earlier tlatoani, or king, of Tenochtitlan. This would make it seem like for each phase added to the temple, each new tlatoani made preperations to recreate the mythical setting of Coatepec and the story of Huitzilopochtli’s birth. This would explain why there are multiple sculptures of Coyolxauhqui for the Templo Mayor.

Aztec Life Learned Through Remaining Sculpture

In this paper, we have examined the iconography of the Head of Coyolxauhqui to attempt to explain the importance and function of the monument. Coyolxauhqui is the sister and enemy of Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Mexica people who live in Tenochtitlan. Her death represents the rise of power of the Aztecs. The Aztec intended for the entire Templo Mayor to recreate this story, including this monument. Thus recreating the story at Coatepec in the middle of the city. The many symbols carved into the stone aid the telling of that story.

However, it is impossible for us today to completely understand this context, because most of the temple was destroyed during the Conquest, and the artifacts split up or crushed. Today this monument stands in the National Museum in Mexico City. However, what remains today is an incomplete picture, but by analyzing artifacts like the Colossal Head of Coyolxauhqui, we can learn more about the past inhabitants of Tenochtitlan.