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Coyolxauhqui Stone

The Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City is home to a large stone monolith of Coyolxauhqui, an important character in Aztec mythology. Found in 1978, this decapitated and dismembered figure was repeatedly placed in the same location during seven major building phases, revealing a rich layer of Aztec history and culture.

Coyolxauhqui Monolith (Aztec), c. 1500, volcanic stone, found Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, excavated 1978 (Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank

Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(cheerful piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the Templo Mayor Museum, the museum dedicated to the main temple of the Aztecs here in Mexico City and we're looking at an enormous stone monolith of a figure who features prominently in Aztec mythology: Coyolxauhqui. Did I say that right? - [Voiceover] Pretty close! So this monolith was found actually at the base of the Huitzilopochtli side of the Templo Mayor. So Huitzilopochtli was the patron deity of the Aztecs, who was associated with warfare and the sun. - [Voiceover] There were two temples on top of the platform. One dedicated to the war god, Huitzilopochtli and the other to Tlaloc and this was found on Huitzilopochtli side. - [Voiceover] It was found at the base of the stairs. - [Voiceover] And this was clearly an important subject for the Aztec people because as they enlarged the temple they buried previous versions of the same subject and redid it on top in the same location. So both the subject and the location went together. - [Voiceover] There are seven major building phases at the Templo Mayor. And archeologists have found that with each phase, the same subject of this decapitated, dismembered, naked woman, Coyolxauhqui, was placed in the same location and repeated over and over. - [Voiceover] When we look at her it's a little bit difficult to put together that she's dismembered but we can clearly see that she's got these scalloped shape where her neck is, indicating that she's been decapitated and we see that same scalloping at her shoulders and at her hip joints. - [Voiceover] This scalloping is in the sense of torn flesh, ripped flesh, which is indicating that she's been dismembered and decapitated. And if we look at the dismembered body parts, you can even see bones, protruding femurs are rising out the legs. - [Voiceover] What happened to poor Coyolxauhqui? - [Voiceover] So this is actually a really unusual representation because you don't often see people who are ritually dismembered, decapitated and particularly not nude because nudity was problematic. So when this monolith was discovered in 1978 by electrical workers digging near the main plaza here in Mexico City, people were really excited because they were able to identify her based on a few key features. Not only that she's dismembered and decapitated but that the bells on her cheeks are telling us who she is, what her names is because Coyolxauhqui means "Bells Her Cheeks". - [Voiceover] I'm gonna refer to her as Bells Her Cheeks from now on. She's got a feathered headdress on, she's got prominent ear spools, she's highly decorated and yet here she is, naked, splayed on the ground, dismembered. - [Voiceover] And so what happens to Coyolxauhqui? This myth that I mentioned, this important Aztec myth actually relates to the birth of the patron god, Huitzilopochtli. And so what happens in the myth is that the mother of Huitzilopochtli, Coatlicue or "Snakey Skirt", was sweeping on top of Snake Mountain and a ball of feathers falls into her apron and she's miraculously impregnated. And her daughter, Bells Her Cheeks or Coyolxauhqui, becomes enraged and rallies her 400 brothers to storm Snake Mountain and kill their mother "Snakey Skirt" or Coatlicue. But before that happens, Huitzilopochtli, this patron god of the Aztecs springs fully armed to defend his mother from her death and he chops the head off his sister and throws her body off the moutain where it breaks into pieces and she lands at the base of the mountain. - [Voiceover] We have that represented at the actual base of the temple, which the Aztecs thought of as a kind of symbolic representation of the mountain from which Bells Her Cheeks was thrown. This was once painted with bright colors, it would've been much easier to read and we would've seen it from a different orientation than the one we're looking at now. - [Voiceover] This would have been horizontal at the base of the stairs and it would have given this impression of this pinwheel composition, this chaotic movement but it would've been much easier to pick out the various motifs with color. The background would've been red, to give the impression of a pool of blood and her body would've been painted in like a yellow color. - [Voiceover] One of the things that I can pick out even without that paint now is a skull that would've been at her back, a snake belt around her waist. I can pick out rolls of flesh and breasts that hang down maybe indicating that she was a mother or an older woman perhaps. - [Voiceover] Yeah the rolls in her abdomen and the breasts are actually indications that she is a mother. She has these wonderful monster-faced joints that you see on a lot of other deities. - [Voiceover] We have accounts that sacrifices were made at the temple and bodies were rolled from the top of the temple down on to the stone. - [Voiceover] The Aztecs had a very active ritual calendar and there's one monthly festival. The festival called Panquetzalitztli or the Raising of the Banners that was devoted to the reenactment of this myth of the events of Snake Mountain. And so during this particular festival war captives would be killed at the top of the Huitzilopochtli side of the temple and they would be rolled down the temple to reenact the killing of Bells Her Cheeks or Coyolxauhqui. (cheerful piano music)