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Coatlicue, c. 1500, Mexica (Aztec), found on the SE edge of the Plaza mayor/Zocalo in Mexico City, basalt,  257 cm high (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)

A conversation with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and we're looking at a monumental basalt sculpture. This is just fantastic. - [Voiceover] What we're looking at is the famous Coatlicue. - [Voiceover] Now, Coatlicue is an Aztec goddess. - [Voiceover] She is the mother of the patron deity, Huitzilopochtli. - [Voiceover] He's one of the principal gods of the Aztec pantheon. - [Voiceover] He's the god of war, and he's also associated with the sun. - [Voiceover] But here we're seeing a monumental sculpture of this goddess, and in fact, we think that she was one of several monumental figures of goddesses found in the Sacred Precinct, under what is now Mexico City. - [Voiceover] The Sacred Precinct was located at the very center of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. We refer to the Sacred Precinct as the "axis mundi," this Center of the World, the axis point around which the entire Universe revolved, for the Aztecs. - [Voiceover] This is late in Aztec culture. In just a couple of decades, the Spanish will arrive, and the Aztec Empire will be dismantled. But at this point, the Aztecs ruled Meso-America. - [Voiceover] They ruled a vast portion of Meso-America, not the entirety, but a large portion of what is today, say, Central Mexico. This is one of the most amazing sculptures to stand before and yet here we are, in the Anthropology Museum, and we're standing among so many incredible, finely carved basalt sculptures. What I always find so wonderful about her is that she's leaning forward. - [Voiceover] What makes her feel even more monumental, even more dangerous, even more present as we stand before her... So this is a really complicated figure. Let's start at the bottom. We do see two feet, but these feet have claws, and they have eyes. - [Voiceover] These are like monster feet. They're zoomorphized with these talons and eyes. - [Voiceover] And as we rise up, we see fur, or feathers, and patterned areas, and it's important to remember all of this would have originally been brightly painted. - [Voiceover] And above that, the most important component of the sculpture, at least, how we identify the sculpture, is the skirt. We have all of these amazing, intertwined snakes. - [Voiceover] And you can see not only the snakes' heads, but also their rattles. These are rattlesnakes, poisonous snakes, they're intertwined in the most complex ways. - [Voiceover] Her name literally means "snaky skirt" or "snakes her skirt". - [Voiceover] And, for instance, one of the other large, female figures that we see from this Precinct, is known as "hearts-her-skirt," and instead of snakes, we see human hearts. That skirt is bound together by this belt, which has, both on the front and the back, a human skull. - [Voiceover] And the skull is fastened together with another two snakes, and the tassels of the belt are the heads of these snakes. - [Voiceover] Perhaps the most terrifying part of this sculpture is just above that, where we see a necklace made up of alternating hands and human hearts. - [Voiceover] This necklace covers her exposed torso, and we can actually see her pendulous breasts, indicating that she had given birth to children, which is also referenced in the roll on her stomach. For me, I think the part that I always have found most interesting is the fact that she's decapitated. - [Voiceover] And we know that because we can see these circular forms, just above the clavicle. - [Voiceover] Those circles are signs of preciousness, which in this case is probably a reference to blood, some kind of precious liquid. - [Voiceover] So what we're seeing above that, is not her head, but instead, two snakes, that are winding out of her neck, and come together, face to face. - [Voiceover] This is a convention for spurting blood, and what's wonderful about this is these two snakes almost form a frontal-facing snake head. We see the tongues hanging down, the bared teeth, and this is really where Aztec sculptors, for me, are so impressive. We not only have the scales of the snakes to find, but also even the underbelly of the snakes. - [Voiceover] And then there are the arms. These are a little bit hard to read. We have her forearm up, so that the back of her hand is against her shoulder. - [Voiceover] It almost has this impression as if she's about to pounce, and then we have snakes rising from her wrists, which also indicates that she was dismembered at the wrists. And then again we have, maybe, spurting blood, from where her hands would have been. - [Voiceover] But this is only the front of the sculpture, and the sculpture is actually carved in the round. Not only on the sides, but also on the back, and even underneath. - [Voiceover] And as we watch the back, what you can also see on the arms that are pulled back, are, like the feet, monster joints, these kind of zoomorphized faces with bared teeth, with the eyes, and of course this wonderful snake skirt. - [Voiceover] And a kind of bustle, that shows the snakes, woven together, with their rattles as tassels. - [Voiceover] And another skull, fastened at the belt. - [Voiceover] But what I find most fascinating, is that this massive piece of stone, is actually carved below as well, with a shallow relief carving, which we can see in reproduction. - [Voiceover] On the bottom of this sculpture we have the Earth Lord, or Tlaltecuhtli. - [Voiceover] So this god, the Earth god, would have had this sculptural relief facing him, that is, facing down to the Earth. - [Voiceover] We actually see this on a lot of Aztec sculptures where this Earth Lord would have been touching the surface of the Earth. - [Voiceover] Think about the engineering that's involved here. Moving a piece of basalt this large, but then, being able to up-end it, so that you can carve the bottom of it, and then move it into place without destroying it, is a phenomenal idea. When the sculpture was found, in 1790, in what was then New Spain, this must have been a terrifying image that was counter to everything that the Europeans and their Christianity represented. - [Voiceover] When this was dug up, near the main temple of the Aztecs, in what had formerly been the Sacred Precinct, it was discovered with the famous Calendar Stone, or, more correctly, the Sun Stone, and people were both fascinated and disturbed by this sculpture in particular, because it was so different than anything that they had seen, and so, they re-buried it because it was considered so terrifying, whereas they took the other sculpture and placed it into the exterior of the cathedral. - [Voiceover] I love that this was so terrifying that it had to be re-buried, and that it was only excavated much more recently. So much of this iconography, so much of the imagery that's carved onto this figure is terrifying, is aggressive to our sensibilities today, and I think it's led so many people to emphasize the issue of human sacrifice in Aztec culture. - [Voiceover] Human sacrifice did occur, not to the extent that early Colonial Spanish sources proclaim. There are sources that claim that 84,000 people were killed in a single day which, logistically, just seems a little challenging. I think where we can see some of those potential references to sacrifice would be in things like the necklace of human hearts and hands. - [Voiceover] Which might be a poetic metaphor, but it may also be a metaphor for sacrifice itself. But now, in the 21st century, to see a towering sculpture ten feet tall, this massive stone depicting human hearts and human hands, fangs and snakes, it is a stunning image. - [Voiceover] And I think it's a true testament to the artists of Mexica culture, or Aztec culture. This particular sculpture is very well-preserved, and it shows us the interest in the natural world, say, in the snakes, but combined, where you have this wonderful vision of a supernatural deity. (soft piano music)