The British Museum
- Olmec stone mask
- Olmec Jade
- Olmec figurine
- Maya, an introduction
- Maya: The Yaxchilán Lintels
- Maya: The Fenton Vase
- Jade plaque of a Maya king
- Aztec (Mexica), an introduction
- Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca
- Stone kneeling figure of Chalchiuhtlicue
- Double-headed serpent
- Serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl or Tlaloc
- Sacrificial Knife with Mosaic Handle and Chalcedony Blade
- Mixtec: Codex Zouche-Nuttall
Mosaic of a double-headed serpent, c. 15th-16th century, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, oyster shell, hematite, and copal, 20.5 x 43.3 x 6.5 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum
An icon of Mexica (Aztec) art, this striking object was probably worn on ceremonial occasions as a pectoral (an ornament worn on the chest). It is carved in wood (Cedrela odorata) and covered with turquoise mosaic. The wood is hollowed at the back.
Serpent imagery occurs throughout the religious iconography of Mesoamerica. The serpent played a very important role in Aztec religion. The word for serpent in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, is coatl and is associated with several gods such as Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent), Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent) or Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt), the mother of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli. The habit of snakes to shed their skin each year probably led to them being used to convey ideas concerning renewal and transformation. Likewise the ability of many species to move freely between water, earth and the forest canopy helped underline their symbolic role as intermediaries between the different layers of the cosmos (underworld, earth and sky).
Double-headed serpent, 15th-16th century C.E., turquoise mosaic, Mexica (Aztec) 20.5 x 43.5 cm (British Museum), © Trustees of the British Museum
The word coatl is also part of many place names, such as Coatepec ("the hill of the serpents"). Coatepec is the birthplace of the god Huitzilopochtli, the principal Aztec god, and thus one of the most important places in Aztec mythology.
Serpents were also used as architectural elements, for example, a wall of serpents (coatepantli) was often used to mark out sacred spaces within a ceremonial area. At the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, such a wall surrounded part of the Great Temple, which was the ritual focus for the entire city.
Mosaic of a double-headed serpent (detail), c. 15th-16th century, cedrela wood, turquoise, pine resin, oyster shell, hematite, and copal, 20.5 x 43.3 x 6.5 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum
Spondylus (thorny oyster) shell was used for the bright red details around the nose and mouth of both of this object's serpent heads. Strombus (conch) shell was used for the white teeth. Within the gaping mouths the resin adhesive was colored bright red with hematite. Beeswax adheres to the edges of the empty eye sockets which were probably originally inlaid, perhaps with iron pyrites.
The reverse of the body is undecorated, although the surface may have originally been gilded, but the heads are worked in mosaic on both sides. Resins from pine and Bursera (copal) were used as adhesives for the mosaic.
C. R. Cartwright and N. D. Meeks, "Aztec conch shell working: high- tech design," British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 1, (2007), 35-42.
C. McEwan, A. Middleton, C.R. Cartwright, R. Stacey, Turquoise mosaics from Mexico (London, The British Museum Press, 2006).
C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1994).
R. J. Stacey, C. R. Cartwright and C. McEwan "Chemical Characterization of Ancient Mesoamerican ‘Copal’ Resins: Preliminary Results." Archaeometry 48, (2006), 323-340.
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Want to join the conversation?
- In the second paragraph, it says that the word "Coatl" is used commonly. But why?(5 votes)
- Because snakes held such strong symbolic significance a lot of places and things ended up being associated with them. A hill or a river could have something to do with snakes in fact or in mythology and acquire a name that had something to do with serpents, thus "coatl". If it was used commonly, then its mostly due to the preponderance of snake mythology in the mexica culture.(10 votes)
- If snakes were so important to their religion, did they have laws against harming snakes like in India with cows?(5 votes)
- nothing in the essay says that there were or weren't laws against harming snakes. You'll have to dig deeper, and elsewhere, to discover if there were such laws, or if there was a disrespect for snakes in general.(4 votes)
- why snakes why not other animals(3 votes)
- I think it has something to do about the myth where they said the Mexica looked for a place to settle by looking for a sign. Eventually they stumbled across a battle between an eagle and a snake and that was their sign. It's just a theory(4 votes)
- Why are snakes depicted so much in ancient history and ancient mythology ?(1 vote)
- I hope this helps. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes_in_mythology
Snakes were central to many mythologies because of their perceived quality of being both familiar and exotic. The behaviour of snakes and their facial features (e.g. the unblinking, lidless eyes) seemed to imply that they were intelligent, that they lived by reason and not instinct, and yet their thought-processes were as alien to humans as their ways of movement.(2 votes)
- We read, " Resins from pine and Bursera (copal) were used as adhesives for the mosaic."
I would have thought that natural resins of this sort would have dried out or otherwise lost their "adhesiveness" over time if not rather quickly? Is this object stored under an intense climate controlled environment?(0 votes)
- Pure resin is brittle, although some more than others. By mixing resin with other substances it is possible to get durable glues that do not crack easily. Soot or powdered coal is a normal additive, so is animal droppings from herbivores and beeswax. The ratios of resin to additives matter. However, any composite object and wood object would be best preserved in a climate controlled environment(3 votes)
- why this snake two haude(1 vote)
- From the author:In the language of the Mexica, Náhuatl, the word for snake, cóatl also means twin and such double headed or twin headed snakes are fairly commonly represented.(1 vote)
- The word coatl is also part of many place names, such as Coatepec ("the hill of the serpents"). Coatepec is the birthplace of the god Huitzilopochtli, the principal Aztec god, and thus one of the most important places in Aztec mythology.(0 votes)
- In the beginning the word Mexica is metoned do they mean Mexico?(0 votes)
- From the author:The Mexica are a people commonly referred to as the Aztec. Mexico is a nation. They are different.(1 vote)
- why did they have a double headed serpent(0 votes)