Coatepec: Sacred Mountain of the Aztecs

Mythical Birthplace of the Mexica Sun God Huitzilopochtli

Colossal Head of Aztec Moon Goddess Coyolxauhqui, discovered at Tenochtitlan
Colossal Head of Aztec Moon Goddess Coyolxauhqui, discovered at Tenochtitlan and part of the Coatepec myth. 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 origin myth of the Aztec, that of the violent birth of the Aztec/Mexica patron deity Huitzilopochtli.

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 disapproved of the pregnancy and together conspired to kill Coatlicue at Coatepec. The number "400" means "legion" in the sense of "too many to count" in the Aztec language and Coyolxauhqui's 400 siblings are sometimes referred to as an "army of stars." 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 the myth, 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 Spanish colonial-era 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, Sahagun wrote 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 mythical 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 shows 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, representing Coyolxauhqui's fall to earth. 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 situ, an intentional 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 pan-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 an antecedent to the Aztec mountain of Coatepec.

The true location of the original Coatepec mountain 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 archaeological ruins of the Aztec homeland of Aztlan are either. However, archaeologist Eduardo Yamil Gelo has made a strong argument for Hualtepec Hill, a site located northwest of Tula in Hidalgo state.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

Sources

Coatepec Key Takeaways

  • Coatepec (Cerro Coatepec, or Serpent Mountain) was a mountain sacred to Aztec mythology and religion. 
  • The central myth of Coatepec involves the murder of the god Huitzilopochtli's mother by her 400 siblings: She was dismembered and thrown off the mountain.
  • The Templo Mayor (Great Temple) at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan is believed to have been a ceremonial replica of Cerro Coatepec.