Sacrifices to the Sun: Coyolxauhqui, sacred vessel

20/02/2021

During pre-Hispanic times, the Coyolxauhqui monolith served as a sacred vessel in which the bodies of men sacrificed in honor of the Sun were deposited. The use of this carved stone was used during the rituals that recreated the myth about the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the central deity of the Mexica.

This has to do with the location of this relief at the foot of the shrine of Huitzilopochtli, located in the southern part of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, from the top of which the bodies of the sacrificed prisoners were thrown to fall on the monolith of the female deity related to the Moon and the defeated.

Archaeologist Felipe Solís Olguín, a specialist in Mexica culture, who in 1978 -the year the carved stone was found- was one of the first to identify it as the goddess Coyolxauhqui, explained that unlike other monoliths such as the Aztec Calendar, which was removed during the colonial era, this one was found in the same place it occupied in ancient Tenochtitlan.

This is the most evident proof that this relief of the lunar goddess had the purpose of materializing the mythological episode of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, since its strategic placement allowed recreating the scene in which the Sun defeats the Moon. The Templo Mayor represents the hill from which Coyolxauhqui was thrown and fell into pieces.

To understand the symbolism of the circular sculpture, it has to be analyzed together with the Great Temple and not in isolation.

The archaeological discovery of the relief was made in the same place it occupied in pre-Hispanic times, at the top of the stairway leading to the shrine of Huitzilopochtli located at the top of the Templo Mayor. In this way the Mexica represented the myth of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, in which it is related that Coatlicue, his mother, was sweeping and found a ball of feathers that she kept in her womb and became pregnant, when her daughter, Coyolxauhqui, and her brothers knew this, the 400 stars tried to kill her and combat began.

Huitzilopochtli is born armed on the Coatepec hill and kills his sister who falls from the top and is dismembered on the ground. The symbolic representation of this scheme was reproduced through the Templo Mayor, a building that alluded to the hill, in whose upper part the victors were placed with the Huiztilopochtli shrine, and in the lower part, the defeated with the monolith of Coyolxauhqui.

This same episode used to be represented during the rituals that were made in the festivity of Panquetzaliztli, in which the sacrifice of warriors captured in combat was made and that was offered in honor to Huitzilopochtli, the god of the war and the Sun. Just as Coyolxauhqui was thrown from the top of the Coatepec hill, once immolated, the bodies of the war captives were thrown from the top of the Templo Mayor and rolled down the stairway until they fell on the disc of Coyolxauhqui, which served as a sacred vessel.

First, they were decapitated, as was Coyolxauhqui, and then they were thrown from the top of the shrine to Huitzilopochtli. The bodies fell on the monolith, a kind of container. According to the dating, this monolith was created between 1469 and 1881 AD, during the reign of Axayácatl, and was part of the construction stage IVb of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan.

This carved stone is also the only Mexica sculpture with a high sexual connotation, in the sense that it is a clear representation of the female sex. The deity whose name means "She who decorates her cheeks with bells", appears naked in the monolith because one of the last stages of the defeat of the enemies was the humiliation, which consisted of stripping them of their clothes.

Another aspect that shows the role of this sculpture within the worldview of the Mexica culture is the two-headed serpent that adorns the belt of Coyolxauhqui. This element refers to a deity of the earth and the darkness of the night, that is, the goddess of the moon. The relevance of the finding of this circular sculpture stands out, because from this event a greater impulse was given to the archaeological investigation of the Mexica culture, which up to that moment was more focused on the study of the Mayan magnificence.

Source: INAH