Ancient Aztec Markings & Meanings

Quetzalcoatl was sometimes depicted as a priest-king.
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Although the Spanish conquistadors engaged in a period of iconoclasm after defeating the Aztec Empire in 1521, many of the Aztecs' artistic and architectural achievements survived. These include a number of stone religious artifacts, including the Aztec "Sun Stone" calendar and several documents that recorded Aztec history and mythology in detailed hieroglyphics.

1 The Sun Stone

The Sun Stone, also known as the Cuauhxicalli Eagle Bowl, incorporates the Aztecs' temporal, celestial and religious concerns in an artistic manner. The center depicts the sun god Tonatiu, his tongue represented by a sacrificial blade and his hands clenching the hearts of the sacrificed. Surrounding the god's head are four squares, indicating previous creation cycles destroyed by jaguars, wind, rain and water. Images of different deities that correspond to the 20 months of the sacred year are also shown. Two snakes that meet on the edge of the calendar may indicate the 52-year mark in which the 260-day religious calendar and 365-day agricultural calendar aligned. This period was marked by panic, as Aztecs feared the gods might destroy the world for a fifth time.

2 The Eagle and the Hummingbird

Huitzilopochtli translates as "hummingbird of the south," but the delicate name of this god is misleading. As the god of the sun, he demanded the regular sacrifice of human life to maintain daylight; as the god of war, he ensured sacrifices would be frequent. Aztec priests created an insignia of a hummingbird to carry as the Aztecs migrated from their mythic home of Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico. Huitzilopochtli designated their eventual place of settlement by taking on the animal disguise of an eagle and devouring a snake atop a cactus. This symbol features on the Mexican flag. Huitzilopochtli is also often depicted as a warrior garbed in hummingbird feathers holding a turquoise snake -- his weapon of choice -- indicating his association with war.

3 The Dismembered Goddess of the Moon

The earth goddess Coatlicue became pregnant with Huitzilopochtli after grasping hummingbird feathers. Her only daughter, the moon goddess Coyolxuahqui, plotted with her brothers, the stars, to kill the unborn child. Instead, when Coyolxuahqui attacked, her brother emerged, fully formed, and immediately dismembered her body. In addition to showing the dismembered goddess, the Moon Stone -- found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan -- gives some insight into the mythology behind the moon cycle. Coyolxuahqui is also shown with bell earrings -- her name translates as "face adorned with bells.

4 The Serpent's Head

As the mythic creator of human beings, Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, held a special place in the Aztec pantheon. As such, Aztec painters, sculptors and architects regularly paid tribute to the benevolent god by depicting his different manifestations, including serpent heads wearing collars of quetzal feathers, human-serpent hybrids and as an Aztec priest-king garbed in feathers and scales. Though the war god Huitzilopochtli eventually overtook Quetzalcoatl as the primary god, Quetzalcoatl remained popular, symbolizing a more serene era of worship.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.