Coatepec - The Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs

Mythical Birthplace of the Aztec Sun God Huitzilopochtli

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Coatepec - The Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo, Jun. 20, 2016, thoughtco.com/coatepec-the-sacred-mountain-of-aztecs-169340. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2016, June 20). Coatepec - The Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/coatepec-the-sacred-mountain-of-aztecs-169340 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Coatepec - The Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/coatepec-the-sacred-mountain-of-aztecs-169340 (accessed October 17, 2017).
Colossal Head of Aztec Moon Goddess Coyolxauhqui, discovered at Tenochtitlan
Colossal Head of Aztec Moon Goddess Coyolxauhqui, discovered at Tenochtitlan. De Agostino / Archivo J. Lange / Getty Images

Coatepec, also known as Cerro Coatepec or Serpent Mountain and pronounced roughly "coe-WAH-teh-peck", was one of the most sacred places of Aztec mythology and religion. The name is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) words coatl, serpent, and tepetl, mountain. Coatepec was the site of the main Aztec origin myth, that of the violent birth of the Aztec/Mexica patron deity Huitzilopochtli, a myth bloody enough to be worthy of a Quentin Tarentino movie.

According to the version of the story told in the Florentine Codex, Huitzilopochtli's mother Coatlicue ("She of the Serpent Skirt") conceived the god miraculously when she was doing penance by sweeping out a temple. Her daughter Coyolxauhqui (goddess of the moon) and her 400 other siblings ("400" means "legion" in Aztec and the 400 siblings are sometimes referred to as an "army of stars") disapproved of the pregnancy and together conspired to kill Coatlicue at Coatepec. Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun) leapt from his mother's womb fully armed for battle, his face painted and his left leg adorned with feathers. He defeated the siblings and decapitated Coyolxauhqui: her body fell into pieces at the foot of the mountain.

Migrating from Aztlan

According to their mythology, it was Huitzilopochtli who sent an omen to the original Mexica/Aztecs, demanding that they leave their homeland at Aztlan, and settle in the basin of Mexico.

While on that journey they stopped at Cerro Coatepec. According to different codices and to historian Bernardino de Sahagun, the Aztecs stayed at Coatepec for almost 30 years, building a temple on top of the hill in honor of Huitzilopochtli.

In his Primeros Memoriales, Bernardino de Sahagun records that a group of the migrating Mexica wanted to split from the rest of the tribes and settle at Coatepec.

That angered Huitzilopochtli who descended from his temple and forced the Mexica to resume their journey.

A Replica of Cerro Coatepec

Once they reached the Valley of Mexico and founded their capital Tenochtitlan, the Mexica wanted to create a replica of the sacred mountain at the heart of their city. As many Aztec scholars have demonstrated, the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) of Tenochtitlan, in fact, represents a replica of Coatepec. Archaeological evidence of this correspondence was found in 1978, when a large stone sculpture of the decapitated and dismembered Coyolxauhqui was discovered at the base of the Huitzilopochtli side of the temple during some underground utility work in the heart of Mexico City.

This sculpture schows Coyolxauhqui with her arms and legs separated from her torso and decorated with snakes, skulls and earth monster imagery; the location of the sculpture at the base of the temple is also meaningful. Excavation of the sculpture by archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma revealed that the monumental sculpture (a disk measuring 3.25 meters or 10.5 feet wide) was in fact part of the temple platform which led up to the shrine of Huitzilopochtli.

Coatepec and Mesoamerican Mythology

Recent studies have demonstrated how the idea of a sacred Snake Mountain was already in place in Mesoamerican mythology well before the arrival of the Aztecs in Central Mexico.

Possible precursors to the snake mountain myth have been identified at the main temples such as the one at the Olmec site of La Venta and at early Maya sites such as Cerros and Uaxactun. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl, has also been proposed as antecedent to the Aztec mountain of Coatepec.

The real location of Coatepec is unknown, although there is a town called that in the basin of Mexico and another in Veracruz. Since the site is part of Aztec mythology/history, that isn't really too surprising. We don't know where the homeland of Aztlan is either. However, archaeologist Eduardo Yamil Gelo has made a strong argument for Hualtepec Hill, a site located northwest of Tula in Hidalgo state.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Mesoamerica, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Miller ME, and Taube K. 1993. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson

.Moctezuma EM. 1985. Archaeology & Symbolism in Aztec Mexico: The Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53(4):797-813.

Sandell DP. 2013. Mexican pilgrimage, migration, and discovery of the sacred. Journal of American Folklore 126(502):361-384.

Schele L, and Kappelman JG. 2001. What the Heck's Coatepec. In: Koontz R, Reese-Taylor K, and Headrick A, editors. Landscape and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. p 29-51.

Yamil Gelo E. 2014. El cerro Coatepec en la mitología azteca y Templo Mayor, una propuesta de ubicación. Arqueologia 47:246-270.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

Format
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Your Citation
Maestri, Nicoletta. "Coatepec - The Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo, Jun. 20, 2016, thoughtco.com/coatepec-the-sacred-mountain-of-aztecs-169340. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2016, June 20). Coatepec - The Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/coatepec-the-sacred-mountain-of-aztecs-169340 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Coatepec - The Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/coatepec-the-sacred-mountain-of-aztecs-169340 (accessed October 17, 2017).