The Earth Mother

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Itzpapalotl, the 'Obsidian Butterfly,' was goddess of the northern Chichimeca wilderness beyond the Mesoamerican civilizations - and the tribal peoples who still inhabited it. As Aztec legend recalled their ancient wanderings among the wild deserts, they looked to Itzpapalotl as a goddess as savage as their original homeland. She was indeed among the most terrible deities to behold in the Aztec world, and that's saying something. In the stele at left, you can see her descending toward the earth with sharp jaguar talons in her hands and razor butterfly wings flanking her arms. The relief at right presents her as a butterfly with sacrificial knives lining her deadly wings.

National Museum of Anthropology and History


Many of the goddesses related to the earth were portrayed in a flat, squatting posture, recalling a frog upon the earth yet also the goddess herself descending from the sky to its surface. Xochiquetzal, the 'Flower-Quetzal Feather,' had both benevolent and frightening aspects, an example of the dual nature that characterized the nature of Mesoamerican deities. Here we can see both extremes. On the right is a small ceramic portraying her as a young, lovely maiden with floral bouquets in outstretched hands, the promise of growth and fertility. At left she appears as a colossal monster with fangs and claws as instruments of her wrath upon the earth. Both forms commanded respect toward the earth and its cycles.

National Museum of Anthropology and History


Arguably the most famous goddess sculpture in all Aztec art, this monolithic figure is one of the masterpieces in the tradition. Standing over 11 feet tall, she looms over you like the presence of the Aztec empire itself. She was, in effect, the mother to the empire as it was she who gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the patron of the Mexica Aztec group. Her name comes from 'Her Serpent Skirt,' a weave of writhing rattlesnakes, and her head and hands are themselves formed from serpent heads. The prominent images recall how the serpent embraces the earth and also flows upon it like a stream of living energy.

National Museum of Anthropology and History

Skeletal Coatlicue

This rendition of Coatlicue is considerably smaller, but she has her own menacing presence. Here she bears a death's head and taloned hands and feet. What's especially interesting about this figure are the sockets upon its cheekbones and chest, which would have originally held jade, turquoise, or other precious gemstones. Her deathly form resembles the skeletal imagery of the underworld goddess; however, it is important to remember that distinctions among gods were not always neat, and many images freely borrowed from multiple divinities.

National Museum of Anthropology and History


The 'Serpent Woman' wears a cloak rising to a serpentine hood. She holds a rattle in her left hand and a serpent in her right. Cihuacoatl was not only a goddess's name but additionally the title of one of the highest ranking priests in the Aztec hierarchy. This Aztec sculpture comes from Cuernavaca, Morelos.

National Museum of Anthropology and History


One of the first details to highlight is the name itself, literally 'Earth Lord.' Even though Aztec religion and culture were becoming more patriarchal as military expansion received more glory, hints of the original equality between male and female roles were preserved in their Nahuatl language. The Aztecs and other ancient Mesoamericans believed that gender was a fluid concept, and every person and god had varying degrees of masculinity and femininity. This explains how the title of 'Serpent Woman' could be used for a male priest and, in this case, how a male title could be used for a female deity.
The Aztec Great Temple Museum presents two of the greatest known representations of the Aztec earth goddess. The smaller relief at left shows a fragmented image of Tlalteuctli likened to a squatting frog, with a massive skull upon her back and great claws upon her extremities. The most critical part of this image is her gaping mouth, whence she sticks out her sacrificial blade tongue. Her hair is a wild tangle with sprouting plants, a symbol for the earth's dark recesses from which new life springs. Together her whole head can be seen as representing the cyclicity of creation: the Earth must devour life into its gut in order to bring new life to surface. At right is one of the most massive sculptures ever made of an Aztec god: a panel of andesite stone over 13 feet long, with Tlalteuctli in a ravenous, savage repose.

Aztec Great Temple Museum

The Earth Monster

A more bestial representation of the Earth as the great consuming monster. The Earth was seen as an indiscriminate devourer, consuming life in order to generate it anew. While in some myths the earth was in fact formed from the back of the great crocodilian beast Cipactli, the crocodilian aspects are not as pronounced here. The open jaws stretch across the top of the piece, though the eyes are both on the same side of the head. Richard Townsend has suggested that the Earth Monster may further specify the conquered Aztec world, or the lands that the Aztecs "civilized" in their expansion.

National Museum of Anthropology and History