Coyolxauhqui Monolith

Coyolxauhqui Monolith, c. 1500, volcanic stone, Aztec, found at Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, excavated 1978 (Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] We’re in the Templo Mayor Museum, the museum dedicated to the main temple of the Aztecs here in Mexico City. We’re looking at an enormous stone monolith of a figure who features prominently in Aztec mythology, Coyolxauhqui. Did I say that right?

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:24] Pretty close. This monolith was found actually at the base of the Huitzilopochtli side of the Templo Mayor. Huitzilopochtli was the patron deity of the Aztecs, who was associated with warfare and the sun.

Dr. Harris: [0:36] There were two temples on top of the platform, one dedicated to the war god, Huitzilopochtli, and the other to Tlaloc, and this was found on the Huitzilopochtli side.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:46] It was found at the base of the stairs.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] This was clearly an important subject for the Aztec people, because as they enlarged the temple, they buried previous versions of the same subject and redid it on top in the same location. Both the subject and the location went together.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:02] There are seven major building phases of the Templo Mayor. Archaeologists have found that, with each phase, the same subject of this decapitated, dismembered, naked woman, Coyolxauhqui, was placed in the same location and repeated over and over.

Dr. Harris: [1:18] When we look at her, it’s a little bit difficult to put together that she’s dismembered, but we can clearly see that she’s got this scalloped shape where her neck is, indicating that she’s been decapitated. We see that same scalloping at her shoulders and at her hip joints.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:35] This scalloping is this sense of torn flesh, ripped flesh, which is indicating that she’s been dismembered and decapitated. If we look at the dismembered body parts, you can even see bones; protruding femurs are rising out of the legs.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] What happened to poor Coyolxauhqui?

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:56] This is actually a really unusual representation, because you don’t often see people who are ritually dismembered, decapitated, and particularly not nude because nudity was problematic.

[2:07] When this monolith was discovered in 1978 by electrical workers digging near the main plaza here in Mexico City, people were really excited because they were able to identify her based on a few key features.

[2:14] Not only that she’s dismembered and decapitated, but the bells on her cheeks are telling us who she is, what her name is, because Coyolxauhqui means “Bells-Her-Cheeks.”

Dr. Harris: [2:25] I’m going to refer to her as Bells-Her-Cheeks from now on. She’s got a feathered headdress on. She’s got prominent ear spools. She’s highly decorated, and yet here she is, naked, splayed on the ground, dismembered.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:42] What happens to Coyolxauhqui? This myth that I mentioned, this important Aztec myth, actually relates to the birth of the patron god, Huitzilopochtli.

[2:55] What happens in the myth is that the mother of Huitzilopochtli, Coatlicue, or Snakey Skirt, was sweeping on top of Snake Mountain and a ball of feathers falls into her apron and she’s miraculously impregnated.

[3:10] Her daughter Bells-Her-Cheeks, or Coyolxauhqui, becomes enraged and rallies her 400 brothers to storm Snake Mountain and kill their mother, Snakey Skirt, or Coatlicue.

[3:23] Before that happens, Huitzilopochtli, this patron god of the Aztecs, springs fully armed to defend his mother from her death. He chops the head off his sister and throws her body off the mountain, where it breaks into pieces, and she lands at the base of the mountain.

Dr. Harris: [3:34] We have that represented at the actual base of the temple, which the Aztecs thought of as a symbolic representation of the mountain from which Bells-Her-Cheeks was thrown.

[3:45] This was once painted with bright colors. It would have been much easier to read. We would’ve seen it from a different orientation than the one we’re looking at now.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:54] This would’ve been horizontal at the base of the stairs. It would have given this impression of this pinwheel composition, this chaotic movement. It would have been much easier to pick out the various motifs with color.

[4:06] The background would’ve been red, to give the impression of a pool of blood. Her body would’ve been painted in like a yellow color.

Dr. Harris: [4:15] One of the things that I can pick out even without that paint now is a skull that would’ve been at her back, a snake belt around her waist. I can pick out rolls of flesh and her breasts that hang down, maybe indicating that she was a mother or an older woman perhaps.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:31] The rolls in her abdomen and the breasts are actually indications that she is a mother. She has these wonderful monster-faced joints that you see on a lot of other deities.

Dr. Harris: [4:42] We have accounts that sacrifices were made at the temple and bodies were rolled from the top of the temple, down onto the stone.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:51] The Aztecs had a very active ritual calendar. There’s one monthly festival, the festival called Panquetzalitztli, or the Raising of the Banners, that was devoted to the reenactment of this myth of the events of Snake Mountain.

[5:04] During this particular festival, war captives would be killed at the top of the Huitzilopochtli side of the temple. They would be rolled down the temple to reenact the killing of Bells-Her-Cheeks, or Coyolxauhqui.

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Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Coyolxauhqui,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Key terms and concepts

  • Mexica (Aztecs)
  • Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan
  • Huitzilopochtli
  • gender messages
  • mythology and myth of Coatepec (Snake Mountain)
  • Panquetzaliztli and monthly feasts/rituals

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Coyolxauhqui Monolith," in Smarthistory, August 10, 2015, accessed June 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/coyolxauhqui-monolith/.