Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli (Earth Lord)

Capable of being male or female, the Earth Lord Tlaltecuhtli is shown here as a woman who has given birth.

Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli (Earth Lord), 1502, Mexica (Aztec), 4.19 x 3.62 m (Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City)

Key terms and concepts:

  • Aztec (Mexica)
  • Tlaltecuhtli
  • sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan
  • Templo Mayor
  • relief carving
  • Ahuitzotl (ruler or huey tlatoani)
  • tzitzimime

Additional resources

Another Tlaltecuhtli monolith at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Information on the Tlaltecuhtli excavations from The Great Temple Project (pdf)

Report on the installation of the Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli at the Museo Templo Mayor

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in Mexico City, in the Museum of the Templo Mayor, that is, the museum of the primary temple of the Aztec capital. We’re looking at one of the most recent finds. This is an image of the Earth Lord.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:18] This is the monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord, who could be male or female. The monolith that we’re seeing here is showing Tlaltecuhtli as a female. This is the largest Aztec monolith found to date. It’s about 14 feet tall. It’s showing Tlaltecuhtli very symmetrically.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] It’s a relief carving. It would have been seen flat, the way that we’re seeing it. In fact, there’s some speculation that it would have been used as a cover for the tomb of an Aztec ruler. What we do know is that it did cover a cache of ritual objects that had been interred. These include an eagle skeleton that wore jewelry. Just extraordinary finds.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:55] The Aztec emperor that we think may have been associated with this monolith, or perhaps buried underneath it, is the Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl. The reason for that is there’s a date glyph on this monolith which corresponds with the date that this ruler would have passed away.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] You can see that date glyph between the claws of the figure’s right foot. This is an incredibly aggressive representation. We see this very large face with wild, curly hair. There are these enormous talons on both the feet and the hands.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:29] Besides the curly hair, she has these really large ear spools, these decorative earring elements associated with the elite. Her mouth is open and defleshed, and there’s a stream of blood flowing into her mouth.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] Let me unpack a little bit of that. The Aztecs did, in fact, pierce their ears. Then, the elite would use increasingly large ear spools to widen and create these very elaborate earrings, or what now in the 21st century, we might know as ear plugs.

[1:56] She’s almost skeletal. She’s almost like a skull. We can see those teeth, but we see no lips, although we do have flesh for her nose. Then the consuming of this river of blood is one of the most unnerving things. I think it’s quite extraordinary because it almost looks like flame.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:11] She is naked from her waist up. We see that she has breasts and rolls of skin, indicating that she had given birth to children, so she’s a mother.

Dr. Zucker: [2:21] In fact, she’s in a squat, which is a representation of childbirth.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:25] That’s really interesting because she’s wearing a skirt that has skull and crossbones on it, which, for us, has negative connotations, but for the Aztecs, there were greater meanings affiliated with the skull and crossbones. In this instance, that she’s wearing a skirt is something that we often see associated with midwives or fertility, so it relates to life-giving properties.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] There’s a celestial aspect here too. If we look very closely at the middle part of the skirt, we can see a reference to the celestial sphere, what is sometimes referred to as the star band.

[2:57] Below that, we see tassels that are made out of braided snakes that end in the rattles of rattlesnakes.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:03] And even rows of feathers, elements associated with preciousness as well.

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] I’m quite taken with the fact that her knees and elbows have skulls, these monstrous forms.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:13] These are typically called monster joints. We see these types of joints on a lot of other deities affiliated with the earth or deities associated with, say, this class of dangerous women called the Tzitzimime, who also had relationships with midwives and fertility.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] She is the earth. She is the surface of the earth, this Earth Lord, and associated with this spectacular myth where every evening when the sun set, she devoured it.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:43] At that point, the sun had to travel through the underworld, engaging in battle. Then Tlaltecuhtli would expel the sun every day, would allow the sun to rise in the morning and journey across the sky.

Dr. Zucker: [3:56] We know these myths from 16th-century Spanish sources. It’s so exciting that archaeologists are now uncovering representations of the gods that enact them.

[4:04] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli (Earth Lord)," in Smarthistory, July 12, 2017, accessed July 18, 2024,