Friday, December 8, 2023

The Story Of A Fallen Aztec Goddess: Coyolxauhqui

The Aztecs maintained a very interesting legend about the founding of their empire. Known as the Mexica, they were said to have wondered about the deserts and mountainous terrain of Mexico for many decades living an insecure and nomadic life until a vision was revealed to their shamans informing them they could settle down in a promised land reserved for them. They were to look for a sign from the gods; an eagle resting upon a cactus clutching a serpent in its beak and claw. It was at this spot where the vision became reality that the once wandering tribe known as the Mexica would build their city Tenochtitlan in honor of the gods and develop the arts of civilization, eventually building a powerful empire before it would be conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century. 

Like all ancient peoples the Aztecs recorded their history in light of their legends and myths they themselves created. Their gods reflected the lives of humans could either cooperate or struggle against one another in their endeavor to create and bring about the world. Such myths are a people's means of explaining the natural phenomenon around them. And again, like all ancient peoples who created civilizations and cultures, they looked back at a prehistoric time before their civilization came into being. There are notable social changes in society when the transition is made from the nomadic to the settled life. One of these changes is the rise of the male patriarchal attitude importance and the closing or demeaning of the feminine. In religion this translates into the ancient worship of female deities which transforms into the glorification of male gods, and this pattern can be viewed in all historical societies. In ancient Sumer it was Inaana who was worshipped, the goddess of war and fertility. In India Kali and Durga are still worshipped, while in the ancient Indian epics there is mention of many female heroines and warriors. After founding civilization and the creation of books and scriptures, the female heroines begin to take a back seat in favor of male champions. Ancient Greek and Roman epics tell us about Amazons and other warrior women, their gods such as the Greek Athena and the Roman goddess Bellum (the name comes from the Latin word or war) were worshipped and sought for council and advice regarding warfare. These societies placed severe restrictions on women's rights and freedoms, with the eventual accepted narrative that women did not belong on the battlefield but in the kitchen or raising babies at home. 

The Aztec military which built a large empire in MesoAmerica was a male dominated institution, but like other societies their myths reveal otherwise. These myths, like founding myths in many cultures, focus on an ancient, somewhat magical prehistoric era when humans interacted with the gods and were themselves part deity and part mortal. According to the Aztec legends during that prehistoric era they roamed as nomads for generations until they settled and built their capital city. 

The myth and story of Coyolxauhqui reveals this pattern of the replacement of the feminine with male patriarchy in Aztec society. In 1978 in Mexico City a team of workers found a huge, round stone carved sculpture depicting the magnificent female warrior goddess Coyolxauhqui who, according to the legend, was defeated by her brother in battle. The stone carving at first glance seems to show her dancing but at a closer look one can see her body dismembered, as the tale tells this is what occurred after her brother won a battle against her forces. The sculpture, unique in Aztec art, stresses the importance of this rather grim event. 

In the Aztec pantheon, Coyolxauhqui, her name meaning 'she adorned with bells' due to her being depicted wearing bell like ornaments upon her face, was the daughter of Coatlicue the goddess of the Earth and fertility. Her brother was Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the deity who would lead the Mexica to their promised land. Coyolxauhqui led the Mexica and traveled many leagues through deserts and rocky hills facing many hardships, leading her people and acting as their leader. However, the Mexica suffered defeat in a battle with rival tribes which forced them to eventually find safety on the mountain of Coatepec, the hill of the snake. 

One evening while living on that hill, the earth Goddess Coatlicue was sweeping outside her hut when suddenly beautiful, colorful shining feathers descended from the sky. She picked them up and placed them over her heart. Miraculously, the feathers entered her bosom and disappeared from view as she become conscious of the fact that she was pregnant. Coyolxauhqui demanded to know who the father of this child was but Coatlicue simply recited to her daughter the miraculous events of the day, explaining it as the will of the gods. Believing her mother was lying and fearful that a new dynasty and leadership might replace her own Coyolxauhqui discussed the matter with a group known as the Centzon Huitznahual, or the warrior band of the Four Hundred Brothers. Jealous and angered at this sudden act of fate that threatened to overthrow her position of chief warrior and leader of the military, Coyolxauhqui suggested to the Four Hundred Brothers that her mother Coatlicue must be assassinated. One of members of her band was however a bit disturbed with this plan and slipped away at night to reveal the plan to Coatlicue, who became distraught and cried out to the gods in anguish. At that moment a voice spoke to her from her womb. It was her yet unborn son, the future Huitzilopochtli, who told her not to fret nor worry as he was sent tpo protect her and defeat any who would cause her harm. 

Coyolxauhqui and her force of four hundred climbed to the top of the hill of snakes, Coatepec, intent on slaying the goddess Coatlicue who shivered in fear, protected by a handful of loyal guards. Just as the battle was about to commence Coatlicue gave birth to her new born son Huitzilopochtli, who emerged from the womb dressed and armed as a warrior. He led the loyal bodyguards into the fray and they slew many of the Four Hundred in terrible combat. Finally, in the midst of the battle Huitzilopochtli came upon his sister Coyolxauhqui. The siblings engaged in fierce combat, Coyoxauhqui being armed with a heavy macahuatl sword, a weapon studded with sharp obsidian blades. Huitzilopochtli raised his fire sword named Xiucoatl the 'Fire Serpent' and with one sweep decapitated his sister. Her bloodied head revealing a gaze of shock and terror upon her face flew up high into the sky and became the Moon, while her force of the slain Four Hundred Brothers became the stars. Huitzilopochtli then began to dismember his sister's body and threw her limbs down the hill into a ravine. All the Mexica now acknowledged Coatlicue and her son Huitzilopochtli as supreme. Soon her son would lead them to their promised land as foretold, where they would build their city Tenochtitlan, then an empire so as to attain everlasting glory. 

The Aztecs utilized this tale to explain the victory of the Sun over the Moon and the stars of the night, an example of the victory-of-light-over-darkness narrative so common among all human societies. Some also believe that this story is a reenacted with the change of the seasons, with Winter representing Coyolxauhqui who is forced every year to yield to the coming of Spring. The new empire justified violence, conquest and sacrifice with this myth. 

The retelling of this victory was significant and important for the Aztecs who, like many ancient societies after establishing themselves as sophisticated cultures and civilizations, minimized the role of the feminine in society, transforming it from warrior, leader and protecter to household subject. As in ancient Rome or Greece women seldom took part in military campaigns in Aztec history. Only in myth and legend could we learn of the deeds of such powerful female personalities as Coyolxauhqui, who seems to represent a earlier society that treated women as equals. Clearly, the transformation of communities brought about the decline of women in positions of power, thought they remained as spiritual symbols who the populace could love and invoke whenever danger threatened. There were a few powerful queens to be sure, but the Aztec empire remained the realm of men. The example of Coyolxauhqui's demise was a means to dismember not only her body but her power and importance, seemingly purposely defined as an aggressive and jealously greedy woman who needed to be put in her place. These myths and legends of ancient, powerful women are interesting in that they reveal something that later generations may have conveniently forgot, in that women did lead armies and fight in battles in the distant past. This demoting of the feminine may have been a natural occurrence due to the change of gender roles as a society settled into the comforts of civilization rather than forced out of necessity to hunt and gather. The study of these myths of powerful women reveal something hidden within the male psyche, the same mentality that told and retold stories of the necessity to defeat the Amazons, who represented an obstruction to a civilization dominated by males. It all remains a mystery nonetheless. Coyolxuahqui's story is but another example of the process and transformation of ancient societies. 

Copyright Ismail Butera, 2023 

Aztec queen and cactus   Photography, Eva Trejo
Coyolxauhqui Stone, discovered Mexico City 1978
Battle on the hill, Duran Codex
The defeated Coyolxuahqui on Snake Hill, Florentine Codex
Aztec princess enthroned, photographer unknown

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