Reed mat of snakes

Snake Reed Mat

Folio 84 of the Florentine Codex, Book 11

Bernardino de Sahagún and Collaborators

16th century



Today, snakes do not generally enjoy a positive reputation.  Popularly, they are a symbol of danger or sneakiness as well as a cause of terror or revulsion.  For the Aztecs, however, the snake embodied none of these negative qualities.  Rather, the snake stood for fertility and plenty.  Looking at the abundant reproduction of these reptiles, the Aztecs believed that the top layer of the earth consisted of interlaced snakes.  The snakes formed a sacred mat from which other beings––humans, plants, animals––had grown [1].  In Book Eleven of his Florentine Codex, Bernardino de Sahagún provides an depiction of a snake interlace.  This image shows a tight, rectangular array of snake bodies interwoven in a zigzag or diagonal pattern.  As with the Coiled Serpent, it is difficult to tell where one part of a serpent’s body ends and where another part starts.  Sahagún glosses the mat of snakes, "This is not a single one; serpents are assembled, gathered, much as if they were made into a reed mat, on which is a serpent seat—or else it is separate.  And it goes, it travels, in this way:  it runs back and forth; it runs in all directions, because the serpents' heads lie in all directions making the serpent mat" [2].  In an example of a feathered serpent sculture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one can see the symbol for mats covering the eyes of the reptile. 

For the Aztecs, the snake was representative of the opposing and complementary elements that undergirded the structure of the cosmos.  The snake was a creature that could move between the different realms of earth, water, and sky [3].  Therefore, in Aztec thought, the snake was identified with the natural, generative forces of not only the sun but also the rain.  It was associated with the sun’s rays, the weapons of Xiuhcoatl or “the fire serpent” [4].  At the same time, the snake was also connected with driving rain, which recalls water-snakes dropping from the sky during a stormy downpour of rain [5].  A heavy rain also brings snakes out, the reptiles more common as they seek higher ground or chase prey like frogs.  Towards that end, when shown with feathers, the snake was associated with Quetzalcoatl, identified with wind and the rainy season [6]. 

Supporting this same energetic, life-generating aspect of snakes, Diego Durán writes that those priests who performed sacrifices prepared by painting themselves with a pitch called Teotlacualli, the Food of God.  It contained the poison of serpents [6].  Finally, snakes were also associated with Cihuacoatl (“woman serpent”), the earth and fertility deity—the female giver of life [7].

Coiled rattlesnake

Coiled Rattlesnake

Unknown Aztec Artist

c. 1300-1521

Granite and traces of paint

height 36 cm, diameter 53 cm

The British Museum

The Museo Nacional de Antropología has in its collection a knotted and tied stone snake similar to the Coiled Serpent in the depiction of reptile’s body.  Once again, the length of the snake is carved as closing in and over itself.  Rendering the snake this way, the artist captures the fertility and energy symbolism invested in the animal by the Aztecs.  That is, by creating a ball full of concentrated and contained movement, the artist of this serpent sculpture has depicted the snake as a core of energy and a life-generating center.

Although this example and the Coiled Serpent do not have well-delineated rattles, other Aztec representations of snakes do possess rattles.  In nature, the segments of a snake’s rattle are created by the snake’s shedding of skin, with a new one added each year.  Within the depiction of a coiled snake from the British Museum, the snake possesses thirteen segments in its rattle.  Such a number, it has been theorized, further connects the snake to life-generation:  the 260-day ritual calendar of the Aztecs is based on a cycle of thirteen day-numbers [8].  

Futher, this depiction of the snake captures the snake's status as an embodiment of the hidden reality of nature.  Carved on the bottom of the sculpture is a hidden underbelly which would have never been seen by most viewers.

Coiled Rattlesnake

Coiled Rattlesnake (Bottom View)





[1] Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Felipe Solís, Aztecs (New-York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 419

[2] Bernardino De Sahagún, "Earthly Things," trans. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, in Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research, 1970), 80-81.

[3] Joanne Pillsbury, "Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed April 26, 2017, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/321343.

[4] Matos Moctezuma and Solís, Aztecs, 419.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 412.

[7] Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar, trans. Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977), 115.

[8] Felipe R. Solís Olguín et al., Art Treasures of Ancient Mexico: Journey to the Land of the Gods (Amsterdam: De Nieuwe Kerk, 2002), 258.