Coatlicue (pronounced koh-ah-tlee-kweh) is the Aztec goddess who gave birth to the moon, stars, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war. She is also known as Toci (Tocî, “our grandmother”) and Cihuacoatl (Cihuācōhuātl, “the lady of the serpent”), the patron of women who die in childbirth.
The word “Coatlicue” is Nahuatl for “the one with the skirt of serpents.” She is referred to variously by the epithets “Mother Goddess of the Earth who gives birth to all celestial things”, “Goddess of Fire and Fertility”, “Goddess of Life, Death and Rebirth”, and “Mother of the Southern Stars.”
She is represented as a woman wearing a skirt of writhing snakes and a necklace made of human hearts, hands, and skulls. Her feet and hands are adorned with claws and her breasts are depicted as hanging flaccid from nursing. Her face is formed by two facing serpents (after her head was cut off and the blood spurt forth from her neck in the form of two gigantic serpents), referring to the myth that she was sacrificed during the beginning of the present creation.
Most Aztec artistic representations of this goddess emphasize her deadly side, because Earth, as well as loving mother, is the insatiable monster that consumes everything that lives. She represents the devouring mother, in whom both the womb and the grave exist.
According to Aztec legend, she was once magically impregnated by a ball of feathers that fell on her while she was sweeping a temple, and subsequently gave birth to the gods Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl. Her daughter Coyolxauhqui then rallied Coatlicue’s four hundred other children together and goaded them into attacking and decapitating their mother. The instant she was killed, the god Huitzilopochtli suddenly emerged from her womb fully grown and armed for battle. He killed many of his brothers and sisters, including Coyolxauhqui, whose head he cut off and threw into the sky to become the moon. In one variation on this legend, Huitzilopochtli himself is the child conceived in the ball-of-feathers incident and is born just in time to save his mother from harm.
A new article by Cecelia Klein argues that the famous Coatlicue statue in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico, and several other complete and fragmentary versions, may actually represent a personified snake skirt. The reference is to one version of the creation of the present Sun. The myth relates that the present Sun began after the gods gathered at Teotihuacan and sacrificed themselves. The best known version states that Tezzictecatl and Nanahuatzin immolated themselves, becoming respectively the moon and the sun. However, other versions add a group of female deities to those who sacrificed themselves, including Coatlicue. Afterwards the Aztecs were said to have worshipped the skirts of these women, which came back to life. Coatlicue thus has creative aspects, which may balance the skulls, hearts, hands, and claws that connect her to the earth deity Tlaltecuhtli. The earth both consumes and regenerates life.
Stephanie Guajardo, Coatlicue