Coatlicue: History, Meaning And Images

Coatlicue was the Aztec goddess of life, death, and fertility. Its name means in Nahuatl “the one with a snake skirt” and refers to the outfit with which the divinity appears in the statues that have been found.

The skirt made of snakes, the drooping breasts and a necklace of human hands and hearts are symbolic elements that represent the different natures of the Aztec mother goddess. Together they symbolize life and death, rebirth and fertility. Coatlicue was the mother of the Aztec gods, among whom was Huitzilopochtli.

Coatlicue (National Museum of Anthropology and History of Mexico City) – Source: El Comandante / CC BY-SA (

As mother of the gods, of the earth and of man, Coatlicue was revered by the Aztecs and human sacrifices were offered to her. When they were carried out, the intention was to appease the hunger of the goddess and to grant better harvests. The sacrificial victims were beheaded in a representation of the death of Coyolxauhqui, one of Coatlicue’s daughters.

The best known representation of the goddess is a statue found in August 1790 in Mexico City and which is now preserved in the National Museum of Anthropology in the Mexican capital.

Coatlicue “The one with the serpents skirt”

Coatlicue Illustration

Coatlicue, whose name means “the one with the serpents skirt”, was the mother goddess of the Aztecs. For these people, divinity was related to fertility, life and death.

The best known representation of the goddess is an anthropomorphic figure, dressed in a skirt of snakes and adorned with a necklace made of hands and hearts torn from the victims.

Mother goddess

Coatlicue was for the Aztecs the mother goddess of men, the earth and the rest of the gods. This divinity represented the relationship between life and death, as well as fertility.

Coatlicue was the mother of the Centzon Huitznahua, the southern star gods, of Coyolxauhqui, the representation of the moon, and of Huitzilopochtli.

Despite her relationship with motherhood, Coatlicue also had a terrifying side, as seen in her depictions. Thus, along with her character as a giver of life, the goddess could appear as an entity that devoured everything that lives.

The Aztecs thought that Coatlicue fed on the dead, just as the earth consumes corpses when they are buried.

Coatlicue representation

Annotations and drawings by Antonio de Léon y Gama. Leah Shrestinian / CC BY-SA (

The National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico preserves the most important representation of the goddess that has been found to this day. It is about a stature in which Coatlicue appears with her characteristic entwined serpent skirt, with her hands and feet in the shape of claws and with her chest covered by human hands and hearts.

On the other hand, the breasts of the goddess are sagging, which is considered a symbol of having suckled the gods and humans. In addition, the goddess wears a belt made with skulls, an element that the Aztecs associated with death.

The claws that replace her hands and feet were used by the goddess to tear. After doing so, it devoured the remains.

The goddess was represented without a head. In their place, two jets of blood appeared that took the form of snakes. Upon joining, a terrifying face could be seen.

The statue

Engraving from an exposition of Old Mexico by William Bullock (1824)

The mentioned statue of Coatlicue was found in 1790 together with an Aztec calendar. One theory suggests that it was buried to prevent it from being destroyed by the Spanish. Once unearthed, the figure was hidden for a time in the university and later in the Casa de la Monera. Finally, in the 20th century, it was transferred to the museum.

The Coatlicue sculpture is believed to have been made in the late 15th century. It is built with basalt and is 1.60 meters wide and 2.50 meters long.

Experts have tried to unravel the meaning of the multiple symbolic elements that appear in the piece. Some of these iconographic elements have a very realistic character.

Historians believe that the figure represents the cycle of sacrifice, death and resurrection, something very present in the religious beliefs of the Aztecs. They thought that they lived under the fifth sun and that it was essential to perform ritual sacrifices so that it continued to shine.

The myth

Coatlicue, as noted, was the mother of the four hundred southern star gods, the Centzon Huitznahua. One of his daughters was Coyolxauhqui, who ruled all of his brothers.

The goddess Coatlicue lived on the hill of Coatepec, a place where she performed penance and her job was to sweep. On one occasion, while I was sweeping, a beautiful feather fell from the sky. The goddess picked it up and placed it on her chest.

At the end of sweeping, Coatlicue searched for the feather without being able to find it. At that moment, she became pregnant with what would be the god Huitzilopochtli. The news of the pregnancy upset the rest of her children who, under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui, decided to kill their mother.

However, Huitzilopochtli came to the world fully armed and killed his brothers and sisters. The god cut off the head of Coyolxauhqui, whose body remained on top of the hill while his head rolled down the slope.

Huitzilopochtli, described in the Tellerian Codex

This story was represented in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan and was remembered in the human sacrifices that were celebrated there.

The Enclosure of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan. Steve Cadman from London, UK / CC BY-SA (

Relationship with human beings

The Aztecs believed that Coatlicue and her family were the representation of the universe. The mother goddess was the Earth, Coyolxauhqui, the moon, and Huitzilopochtli, the sun. For their part, the Centzon Huitznahua were the stars.

Twice a year, the Aztecs performed ceremonies in his honor: in spring, to cure diseases; and in the fall, in order to ensure that the hunt was profitable.

Likewise, the Aztecs offered hundreds of human sacrifices to Coatlicue, in which they represented what happened when Huitzilopochtli killed his sister. Thus, the victims were beheaded and the head rolled down the stairs of the temple. These sacrifices had the purpose of feeding the goddess and that the harvests were abundant.


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