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The Myths and Legends of the Aztec World: The Holy Serpent

For both the Aztecs and their Mesoamerican neighbors and forebears, snakes had complex, deep-seated, and powerful associations with celestial fire, physical strength, and the natural world. The creatures suggested the life-giving power of the sun-they also had connotations with rainstorms, rivers and floods, sea water, the earth and plant life, human sexuality and reproduction.

The Myths and Legends of the Aztec World: The Holy Serpent

By Mr Ghaz, December 15, 2010

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The Myths and Legends of the Aztec World: The Holy Serpent

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Tracing the distant origins of the great Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl as a primeval Mesoamerican fertility and storm deity provides evidence of the serpent’s associations with the sky and the sun. Scholars identify the twin-headed serpent represented in Aztec art and jewelry as an image of the wide sky. The snake also represented the burning power and generative force of the sun: the Aztec sun god Tonatiuh followed a fire snake, or xiuhcoatl, as he made his way across the sky by day. By night, when he had to endure a series of trials in the underworld, the sun fought off his adversaries using the xiuhcoatl as a trick. The solar fire snake became generally associated with physical strength: the Aztecs’ tribal god Huitzilopochtli, who was also a sun god, used a xiuhcoatl to dispatch his brothers and his elder sister the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui when he attacked them with typically martial vigor in the first minutes of his life.

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The serpent represented both elements of a significant duality-not only fire but also water: the fire serpent was xiuhcoatl, the water serpent Quetzalcoatl. For serpents were also associated with life-giving rains and the most precious liquid of all, sacrificial blood. The rain god Tlaloc typically was depicted with goggles resembling curled snakes around his eyes and a snake on his upper lip; he also carried a serpent scepter; Aztecs saw a storm of driving rain as a mass of water serpents. The reclining chacmool figures into which priests flung the heart of the sacrificial victim were representations of Tlaloc, which can be surmised by the serpentine features of their faces. A magnificent statue of the earth deity Coatlicue showed the goddess without a head, but with snakes streaming from her severed neck to represent her lifeblood. A sacrificial stone, discovered on the Gulf of Mexico coast in the nineteenth century, was made in the form of a twin-headed sky snake with an arched back on which the victim was pressed in order to have his heart sliced from his chest.

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In creation mythology both heavens and Earth were at the beginning of the current world age by the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca from the serpentine body of the earth monster Tlatecuhtli. The serpent also had strong links to the earth. Ancient hunting god Mixcoatl and earth goddess Cihuacoatl both had serpent identities-their names meant Cloud Serpent” and “Lady Serpent”: and in one narrative, they were the parents of Quetzalcoatl. Another earth goddess Coatlicue was said to have petticoats or skirts made of snakes. Moreover in some Aztec accounts the surface of the land was described as an intertangling layer of snakes from which all life including plants, animals, and humans had emerged.

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The snake’s association with hidden knowledge and arcane rituals is found in its link to visionary religious experience in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs’ Maya neighbors believed that individuals who experienced religious ecstasy following rites of blood sacrifice would encounter a vision serpent and cloud travel along the divine snake’s body to meet the gods or enter the world of spirits; one of a celebrated series of lintels carved in the Maya city of Yaxchilan depicts Lady Xoc, the wife of the city’s ruler, in ecstatic communion with the vision serpent after making a sacrifice of her own lifeblood to the gods. In Aztec religious carving the wide mouth of a serpent often represents the opening to a holy chamber or sacred cave of the kind found beneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan: the Aztecs believed such caves were an entrance to the underworld or the realm of divine spirits. Monumental serpent heads adorned the steps of their temples. Serpents also carried great Quetzalcoatl away from Mexico. In the sadness of his grief, after his fall from power in Tollan, Tropiltzin-Quetzalcoatl journeyed to the seashore and departed eastward on a raft of snakes.

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Comments (5)
Ranked #41 in History

Another brilliant research here. Thanks for sharing Mr. Ghaz.

Ranked #13 in History

Good work my friend. another brilliant write, thanks.

Aztec is full of myth and mystery. Well done as usual.

Ranked #35 in History

I love your articles, you do such great works

you certainly got to grips with the names!!

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