The mythical Coatepec hill in the state of Hidalgo: between the ritual agricultural calendar and the geography of the Mezquital Valley

05/05/2021

The Coatepec hill is a central piece in the Mexica mythology for being the scene of Coatlicue's pregnancy and the birth of her son, the god Huitzilopochtli. Also of the sacrifice of her sister Coyolxauhqui and the battle against the Centzon Huitznáhua ("The four hundred southerners"), southern stars, sons of Coatlicue.

The mythical mountain, which appears in the work of several chroniclers, such as Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and Fernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc, could be located in the Mezquital Valley, where the Hualtepec hill was considered sacred since Teotihuacan times and could have been the place where the Aztecs stopped on their pilgrimage before reaching Tula.

The Coatepec hill, currently known as Hualtepec or Astillero hill, just 30 kilometers from the Pahñú archaeological zone, seat of the Xajay culture, whose antiquity is calculated from the Preclassic period (500 B.C. - 300 A.D.). According to tradition, the Mexica departed from the mythical Aztlan ("place of the herons"), stopped at Teoculhuacan-Chicomóztoc ("place of the seven caves") and then arrived at Coatepec ("Hill of the serpents"), before moving on to Tula, an ancient Toltec city.

The location of the mythical Coatepec hill, sacred to the Aztecs for being the place where Huitzilopochtli was born, in the territory of the State of Hidalgo, has been discovered thanks to archaeological evidence that coincides with pre-Hispanic and colonial historical sources, as well as the similarities between the myth and the geography of the Mezquital Valley.

For decades archaeologists and scholars of ancient Mexico have searched for and located both Aztlan and Coatepec in different parts of the country, from Durango, Zacatecas, Sinaloa and Nayarit. At the moment it is thought that these places could be closer to Michoacán, Guanajuato, Querétaro and Hidalgo. New technologies and current knowledge about the northern frontier of Mesoamerica allow postulating new hypotheses about the origin and route of the Aztecs and the location of Coatepec.

Archaeological evidence

The hypothesis that the Hualtepec could be the sacred mountain of the Aztecs is reinforced by the archaeological evidence found in the mountain of Hidalgo, whose field research dates back to 1991. On the highest peak, on the south side, there is a 20-meter long rectangular base with slopes, where there is currently a modest chapel made with rocks from the ancient pre-Hispanic structures. A 400 meter long causeway connects the other summit, north side, where there is another mound.

Archaeologists have also recorded sculptures of pre-Hispanic manufacture: a serpent's head carved in stone, perhaps a representation of Xiuhcoatl (weapon of teas with which Coyolxauhqui was killed), and at least seven ogival-shaped elements of what appear to have been battlements, which have a carved design of double arches and three circles; as well as stucco nails, stucco floors and blue paint on the flattened surfaces.

Another interpretation of these battlements, which integrate geometric motifs such as the wide band in the form of an arch, decorated with triangles that surround the edge of the decorative element, is that they could be related to the ornaments of Coyolxauhqui, and perhaps they are representations of feathers that formed a large Cuauhxicalli.

Furthermore, in the middle of Cerro Hualtepec is a rocky promontory known as Peña de la Luna which, according to the Aztec myth, is the head of Coyolxauhqui that was left on the sierra while his body rolled down in pieces. It is possible then that somewhere at the base of the volcanic dome is the representation of the dismembered body of Huitzilopochtli's sister, which we have not yet detected.

Although the hill was looted in the 40's and 50's, archaeologists detected the existence of two other snake heads in the surrounding villages, and by testimony of the locals it was known that they were extracted from Hualtepec. Only an archaeological excavation at the top of Hualtepec hill would corroborate the use of its shrines to celebrate the myth of Huitzilopochtli.

Sacred geography

The idea that Hualtepec is the mythical Coatepec is reinforced because it is at the center of a system of shrines that existed on the summits of the surrounding hills: El Calvario, near the town of Tecozautla; Las Cruces (Michimaloya); La Cruz (Tepetitlán); Colorado (La Cruz); de las Brujas (Huichapan); Ñatú (San José Atlán); Maravillas (Acazuchitlán) and Nopala (Nopala), among others.

In texts such as the Crónica Mexicáyotl, by Alvarado Tezozomoc, the Annals of Cuauhtitlán and the Florentine Codex, by Sahagún, there are references to Coatepec and its proximity to Tula, located 35 kilometers away as the crow flies.

The American researcher Paul Kirchhoff, who worked on the delimitation of the border of the Teotihuacan empire, proposed that Aztlán could be located near the lake of Yuriria and Teoculhuacán-Chicomóztoc could be the hill of Culiacán, in Guanajuato. In agreement, the Hualtepec hill is only 166 kilometers from the Guanajuato lake.

Kirchhoff's theory would place the Aztec crossing in a region of strong cultural exchanges and dynamics that gave rise to long-lasting processes, including ancestral east-west routes and roads. The Aztecs' journey does not seem to be as erratic as it has been interpreted: they followed a solar route from the west to the east, the place of sunrise, towards a sacred hill: Coatepec.

In the Mezquital Valley, which until the 18th century was called Teotlalpan ("Land of the Gods" or "Land of the Lords"), there are three sacred hills: the Coatepec, the Xithá or "of the ancestors" (today called Juárez, in Ixmiquilpan) and the Tezcatepec (Tézcatl), the hill of the mirror, which according to myth was the refuge of Copil, enemy of Huitzilopochtli.

Oral tradition and festivities

The inhabitants of El Astillero and Alfajayucan assert that below the Hualtepec hill "it was going to be Mexico", that the eagle landed there "before going to Mondá" (Mexico City). Other sources speak of "Little Mexico" or that "the eagle landed on this hill and here it was going to be Mexico". Until a few years ago, the settlers performed the Mexica ceremony of Floreo de Banderas (Potse ya bexte, in Otomí) on that hill, precisely on December 21, date related to the birth of Huitzilopochtli, in the winter solstice (December 21-22).

An outstanding ritual battle of naranjazos, between two sides representing eagles and tigers, takes place during the carnival in El Espiritu, Alfajayucan, associated with the spring equinox (March 20-21).

Some ritual practices currently celebrated in the Tecozautla-Alfajayucan region could be related to the ritual calendar, with the solar-lunar cycles, especially solstices and zenithal transits, which culminated with the feast to Huitzilopochtli in the Coatepec hill, around May 3. These calendrical celebrations, associated with Catholic saints, take place in towns such as San José (March 19), in Tula and Atlán; San Isidro (May 19), in Zimapantongo; Santa María Magdalena (July 22) and Santiago Apóstol (July 25), in Nopala and Chapantongo, respectively.

Antiquity of the myth

The myth of the birth of Huitzilopochtli would have an older origin to the journey of the Mexica towards the Valley of Mexico, dating from the XIV-XV centuries of our era. The search for Coatepec by the Aztecs at the beginning of their pilgrimage indicates that the mountain was already a sacred site from earlier times. One hypothesis is that the Teotihuacans entered this area thinking of this sacred hill, as did the Xajay of the region (Pahñú, Zethé and Zidada), who came from Acámbaro, Guanajuato and San Juan del Río, Querétaro. Thus, there could have been a conflict for the dominion of this place.

Source: INAH