Coatlicue’s name translates to “Snakes-Her-Skirt,” from the Nahuatl “coatl” for “serpent” and “icue” for “her skirt.” For the Mexica, she is considered the mother of gods, a guide to reincarnation, and patron of life and death. Furthermore, she is grouped within the Earth Cult, as a deity closely associated with fertility and crops (1). Naturally, the most distinguishing element of her iconography is her skirt of writhing snakes, featured in all of the images of the collection to the right. The serpent’s ability to shed and regenerate skin connects her to reincarnation and fertility.
The most iconic representation of Coatlicue is the colossal basalt statue in Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología. Furthering the theme of serpents, her head is composed of two snake heads facing each other to resemble a single, forward-facing face. Details such as the bifurcated tongue and fangs create an aggressive, even terrifying, image. Looking at her torso, we see two important elements of iconography: her necklace and breasts. The necklace is made up of four human hands, two human hearts, and one human skull; this attribute connects her to the human sacrifice she demands. In addition, it intensifies the fear a viewer feels when looking up at the figure. Her breasts directly connect her to female identity, symbolizing her role as the mother of gods and a patron of fertility (2). Lastly, her feet are arguably eagle claws, this would be congruent with the eagle-feather imagery Sahagún records. (3) He provides a list of Coatlicue’s iconography in Primeros Memoriales, “Her facial paint is chalk. On her head is the eagle-feathered headdress. Her shift is white. Her skirt is of serpents. Her small bells. Her sandals are white. Her shield is covered with eagle feathers. Her serpent staff.” Overall, the prominence of the active, writhing snakes and the morbid necklace create a deity of opposing forces: birth and death, creation and destruction.
As the Mexicas conquered and expanded they appropriated certain deities; hence within the Aztec pantheon, some deities are often blended and confused. An example of this is Coatlicue with Cihuacoatl. The latter, whose name translates to “Serpent Woman,” is “associated with the earth, agricultural fields and crops, and with the ‘war’ of parturition” (4). She is also grouped under the Earth Cult as a patron of fertility and shares serpent and eagle imagery with Coatlicue. Sahagún records, “Her facial paint; the lips are painted with rubber, [her face] is half red, half black. Her headdress of eagle feathers. Her gold ear plugs. On her is evening primrose shift. Her undershift has her fingers. Her white shift” (5). This imagery is clear in a drawing from the Florentine Codex of an Aztec priest, or [vocab], dressed as the deity. Sahagún does not include a similar drawing for Coatlicue’s iconography.
However, the text that describes of Cihuacoatl in the Florentine Codex tells that "when she appeared before men, she was covered with chalk, like a court lady, with obsidian ear-plugs. She was in white, having garbed herself in white, in pure white" (6). This directly references the description of Coatlicue quoted above and further blends these two goddesses.
- Townsend, The Aztecs, 116
- McDonald, Colossal Stone Statue of Coatlicue
- Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales, 106
- Townsend, The Aztecs, 204
- Sahagún, Primeros Memoriales, 105
- Sahagún, Florentine Codes, 3