MEXICO CITY — The huge terra cotta-colored stone disk carved with the dismembered likeness of the goddess Coyolxauhqui seems to float in a polished field of coal-black basalt.
The contorted figure of the Aztec lunar deity is adorned with a headdress, serpent heads and belts, one of which fastens a human skull to her waist. Stylized scalloped edges and protuberances of bone indicate where limbs and neck are severed from the torso.
This is how Coyolxauhqui appears--two floors below--from the large third-story viewing well built inside the Great Temple Museum in downtown Mexico City. The museum, opened to the public Oct. 12, overlooks the excavation site--in the far southeastern corner of Mexico City's Zocalo Plaza--of the Aztec Great Temple.
Viewing ease, however, wasn't the only reason Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez designed an overhead perch from which to observe the slightly oblong bas relief, which measures about 11 feet in diameter.
The monolith, which was accidentally discovered at the foot of the Great Temple by workmen in February, 1978, is meant to be seen as it was nearly half a millennium ago by Aztec warriors, priests and victims about to be sacrificed at the temple's summit.
The institution of human sacrifice was widespread throughout Mesoamerica--an area which today extends from Central America to central Mexico--during pre-Columbian times. But David Carrasco and other scholars studying the temple excavation argue that the Aztec myth of Coyolxauhqui provided the justification for the geometric increase in human sacrifice which distinguished the Aztecs from their neighbors.
In the ancient myth, Coyolxauhqui learns that her mother has been magically impregnated by a tuft of feathers that falls from the sky. Enraged, she orders 400 warrior gods to climb Coatepec, or Serpent Hill, and kill her mother to avenge the dishonor. Huitzilopochtli, Coyolxauhqui's unborn brother and Aztec patron god of war, learns of the attack and emerges from the womb in time for battle.
He decapitates Coyolxauhqui when she reaches Coatepec's summit and kicks her corpse down the hill, causing her limbs to be severed before she comes to rest at the bottom. He then proceeds to kill and pursue the army of warrior gods.
The Great Temple, Carrasco said, was built as a model of Coatepec--a place where the Aztec military formula of exacting tribute from neighboring city states could be mythically consecrated.
A Glimpse of the Myth
Relative newcomers to the ancient urban civilizations of Central Mexico, the Aztecs sent out armies which terrorized their neighbors. From vanquished city states they demanded captives for sacrifice, massive amounts of precious stones and metals, cotton cloth and cacao beans--the pre-Columbian equivalent of money. At its peak, the Aztec empire embraced much of central, eastern and southwestern Mexico and parts of Central America.
Spanish chronicler Bernal Diaz del Castillo provided a glimpse of how the Coyolxauhqui myth may have been played out when he recounted the capture of Spanish soldiers by the Aztecs in 1520:
"...we all looked toward the lofty Pyramid...and saw that our comrades whom they had captured...were being carried by force up the steps and they were taking them to be sacrificed...and with things like fans in their hands they forced them to dance...and after they had danced they immediately placed them on their backs on some rather narrow stones which had been prepared as places for sacrifice, and with some knives they sawed open their chests and drew out their palpitating hearts and offered them to the idols that were there, and they kicked the bodies down the steps...."
Beyond its bloody legacy, Edwardo Matos Moctezuma, who headed the five-year excavation of the temple, said it has provided a rare opportunity to compare the written accounts of Spanish and Indian chroniclers with the archeological clues provided by the excavation.
In its glory, the temple--built in 13 successive stages after the founding of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1325--rose as high as 15 stories above a ceremonial compound containing 87 buildings and a city populated by as many as 200,000 residents--larger than any European city of the time. Its uppermost level supported two red shrines: one dedicated to Tlaloc, an ancient pre-Columbian rain deity; the other, to Huitzilopochtli. It's no wonder that the Spaniards who first entered the Aztec capital were awestruck.
Equally fascinating have been the artifacts exhumed from within the pyramid itself.
From 1978 to 1982, some 7,000 ritual objects were excavated from the temple, startling the public and scholars alike. As Carrasco writes in his recently released book, "The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan," "most of these treasures were obtained from offertory caches where effigies of deities, ritual masks, sacrificial knives, jade beads, human sacrifices, and minor sculptures were deposited with an enormous amount of real animal species."
Decorated Human Skulls