Why Did Aztec Goddesses Lose Their Heads?

Decapitation was a punishment for gender nonconformity, according to Ellie Reder (Class of 2025). 

This essay was written for  Professor R. Tripp Evans’s Art and Ritual of the Ancient Americas, Fall 2021.

Aztec creation myths often begin with execution. Tlaltecuhtli, the “Earth Monster,” is torn in half in a cosmic battle.  Her upper body becomes the land and her lower, the sky (1). In the story of the Aztec migration, Coyolxauhqui, the “Moon Goddess,” along with her four hundred brothers, behead their own mother, Coatlicue, and cause the birth of their enemy Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Aztecs (3). These deities meet horrible ends; for Coyolxauhqui and Tlaltecuhtli most notably at the hands of masculine gods. All three lose their heads in their sculptural representations: Coyolxauhqui in her Coyolxauhqui Monolith (1475-1510 C.E.) [Fig. 1], Coatlicue in the Colossal Coatlicue (1475-1510 C.E.) [Fig. 2], and Tlaltecuhtli in the Coatlicue del Metro (1475-1510 C.E.) [Fig. 3]. The manner of their deaths is directly connected to their gender identities in Aztec society. 

Gender roles in Tenochtitlan were a game of parallelism (4). Male and female spheres did not often overlap but shared similar cultural values. War and childbirth, for example, were viewed as comparable battles, as seen in the traditions of the Cihuateteo: “brave warriors that live in the western region of the universe after dying in childbirth” (5). However, any mention of femininity in the male sphere of war was considered a mark of “cowardice,” implying that the battlefield was not a place where men and women should interact (6). Those who disrespected these gender roles were punished by law upon pain of death for threatening the Aztec patriarchy (7). Coyolxauhqui, Coatlicue, and Tlaltecuhtli therefore challenge the idea that Aztec women must be “weak and timid, inclined to retreat from physical conflict” (8). Each female deity fought as soldiers, but their agency granted them swift beheadings, not glory.  Depicting them all as decapitated served as a symbolic punishment for their gender nonconformity under Aztec patriarchy.

Coyolxauhqui: The Warrior

Coyolxauhqui is a prime example of what Cecelia Klein calls the “Enemy Woman” of the Aztecs (9). She represents the captured people of the empire and was a warning to those who deviated from their social roles (10). A depiction of her splayed dead body in the Coyolxauhqui Monolith [Fig. 1], stood at the base of the main temple in Tenochtitlan, el Templo Mayor, where sacrificial victims’ bodies would land in a mimicry of her death (11). In the stone, she is dressed as a warrior with anklets, bracelets, and a headdress of feathers. (12). Her breasts are clearly visible, and she wears small snails that adorn her anklets, “emblems of dead warriors, associated with sacrifice and fiery deities like the sun/Huitzilopochtli” (13). Even her earrings are spear throwers, another representation of her soldier status. 

Figure 1. Coyolxauhqui Monolith (1475-1510 C.E.), high relief stone, 3.25 meters in diameter, Museo del Templo Mayor.

In myth, Coyolxauhqui’s main role was as the adversary of her brother. She and her entire army are killed by the sun and war god Huitzilopochtli, leaving her beheaded and dismembered (14). Within the Aztec Empire, decapitation was viewed as a feminine method of ritual sacrifice, represented in the story of Coyolxauhqui’s own death. Despite her position as a warrior, she was not given the same treatment as her brothers, who suffered a death deemed more honorable and thus suited for men. Because Coyolxauhqui is not “weak and timid,” but rather capable of violence against her mother Coatlicue, she poses a genuine threat to the Aztec Empire and the solar deities (15). Her death not only symbolizes the victory of the Aztecs over the people of the South but also the victory of the patriarchy against women who do not fit traditional molds of femininity. 

In a pointed sign of humiliation, Huitzilopochtli’s mark is imprinted on Coyolxauhqui in the Coyolxauhqui Monolith [Fig. 1]. At el Templo Mayor, her death would be replayed over and over again with sacrificial victims, using a stone on which she is depicted with the double-headed snake. This “fearsome maquizcoatl,” according to Lourdes Cué, is another name for Huitzilopochtli, referenced in La Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas (16). Even the swathes of blue that would have adorned the Coyolxauhqui Monolith [Fig. 1] area reference her executor: “the grand touch of blue, the color of the sky, the principal sphere of Huitzilopochtli’s power” (17). The continuous representations of Coyolxauhqui’s death are an effective way of making her as an example for other rebellious women. Klein suggests that her myth is a political metaphor demonstrating an underlying concern that the success of the Aztec state would be undermined by women (19). Her decapitation was never simply about her power struggle against Huitzilopochtli, but rather about the “inferiority” of female sexuality in respect to Aztec culture (20).

Coyolxauhqui is a warrior in a culture where she should not be.  The sight of women in battle was seen by the Aztecs, for example,  as a “sign of desperation and a joke,” but Coyolxauhqui’s story shows none of the desperate need for a woman to fight because she leads the conetzonhuitznahuas to battle herself (21). She is a leader, a woman in control of men, and so it is unacceptable for her to win.  Instead, her army met a terrible end and she became the symbol of ultimate defeat because her “aggressiveness” is “brazen and unfeminine.”  No man was beheaded in sacrifice as Coyolxauhqui was; they had their hearts removed.  No matter how far Coyolxauhqui went to embody masculine Aztec roles, she could never earn the respect male warriors received, even in death. 

Coatlicue: The Mother

In some versions of this Aztec myth, Coatlicue lost the battle of childbirth against her son, Huitzilopochtli.  In others, she lost her life in a battle against Coyolxauhqui. In every version of her death, she is murdered by her own child, much like how women who died in childbirth were thought to turn into the spirits Cihuateteo, equivalent to Aztec warriors (24). In this way, childbirth was compared to battle and women who died from it were fallen soldiers, killed by their own children.  Like Coyolxauhqui, Coatlicue is a woman who crosses over into the masculine sphere of war. In the Colossal Coatlicue [Fig. 2], she is portrayed without a head. The wound that allowed for Huitzilopochtli’s birth spouts another maquizcoatl, a double-headed serpent, possibly a reference to his birth. The snakes represent the flow of blood in Aztec art, but the snakes on the lower half of her body give Coatlicue her name, meaning “Snake Skirt” (25).  It is no surprise that she bears both male and female signs; as her death is the feminine version of warfare. 

Figure 2. Colossal Coatlicue (1475-1510 C.E.), carved andesite, 2.52 meters tall, Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

Another snake falls between her legs like a phallus, while the triangular indent in her chest signifies breasts.  She has the same claws that the feared Tzitzimime bear (26), “demonic females” (27) who “threatened to descend from the heavens to devour humankind” (28). Coatlicue is “also a Tzitzimitl, or enemy” who will one day destroy the world (29). 

It is ironic that in one version of the myth, Coatlicue’s daughter, Coyolxauhqui, cuts off her head, and Huitzilopochtli then returns the favor. For Coatlicue, her decapitation represents her death in childbirth, while Coyolxauhqui’s decapitation sets the basis for women’s punishments across the Aztec Empire. Mother killed by daughter; daughter killed by brother—this cycle of violence against women continues under the guise of vengeance. Mother and daughter share the same marks of male violence, even in versions of the story where Coyolxauhqui is her mother’s murderer. Coatlicue’s death transcends the feminine realm and allows her to enter the realm of men after death. Like the Cihuateto and Coyolxauhqui, she undergoes a sort of “masculinization” after her death, as evidenced by the depiction of snake phallus (31).  This process represents her important role in instigating the war between the sun and the moon, Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui. Her unavoidable involvement in their battle results in her brutal death, demonstrating just how impossible it is to separate her gender identity from the battlefield.

Coatlicue the Priestess is not pictured in the Colossal Coatlicue; it is Coatlicue the Tzitzimime. The most noticeable thing about the statue is the snake-blood protruding from her scalloped neck: the sign of decapitation. Coatlicue is not presented as the ideal woman; rather, her decapitation serves as a reminder of the cost of subverting the expectations of male and female roles and responsibilities.

Tlaltecuhtli: The Other

Unlike Coyolxauhqui or Coatlicue, Tlaltecuhtli is more difficult to classify as a goddess. Her name literally means “Earth Lord,” but can also be translated as “Earth Monster” in reference to her central creation myth, where she is dismembered by the other gods to create the world (33). Nahuatl has “no grammatical gender” (34), but in the modern, postcolonial world, Tlaltecuhtli’s name has been translated as “Goddess of the Earth,” ignoring the subtleties of her different aspects (35). Despite—or perhaps because of that—she can be, and often is, identified as feminine (36). In the Coatlicue del Metro, her crouch is that of women in labor; she is beheaded, and the necklace of hands around her neck relates her to Coatlicue; all aspects associated with the feminine [Fig. 3]. Zairong Xiang asserts that this idea of her exclusive femininity is like the “castration” of Tlaltecuhtli, removing all the elements that make her masculine and, as a result, that make her a unique deity (37).

Tlaltecuhtli’s androgyny allows for more fluctuation between the Aztec spheres of gender, but in her creation myth, she represents a more feminine version of self (38). This idea of her feminization, according to Xiang, represents the “masculine control of the feminine/ monstrous (m)other through violent killing and appropriation of the female body” (39). Her “otherness” does not save her from punishment for falling outside the gender binary in Aztec society, but rather provides the basis for her decapitation. In the Coatlicue del Metro which is mistakenly named for Coatlicue although it depicts Tlaltecuhtli, Tlaltecuhtli’s head is thrown back impossibly far, flat against the top of the sculpture. Her clawed hands are made visible, and her face reveals a fearsome expression. 

Figure 3. Coatlicue del Metro (1475-1510 C.E.), carved basalt sculpture, 550 x 930 x 380 centimeters, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Like Coyolxauhqui and Coatlicue, Tlaltecuhtli’s myth revolves around a battle against two other “masculine” deities, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca (40). Tlaltecuhtli fights against powerful gods who “transform into giant serpents” and go down “into primordial water and slaughter the earth monster Tlaltecuhtli who is eating human bones” (41). This masculine versus feminine dynamic relates itself to Coyolxauhqui’s myth as well, where we see the masculine sun murder the feminine moon, much like how the masculine sky gods dismember the feminine earth deity. Both feminine deities in these stories fight ferociously but ultimately lose to their masculine counterparts.

Tlaltecuhtli’s death, in particular, serves to “feminize the ‘monster’” through symbolic castration while simultaneously demonizing the feminine (42). Tlaltecuhtli is often shown alongside goddesses like Coatlicue and Cihuacoatl, who both break from traditional gender norms and happen to be Tzitzimime (43). Cihuacoatl, in particular, is often depicted in the birthing pose of Tlaltecuhtli (44). This idea of Tlaltecuhtli’s partition pose continues to feminize her but also connects her to mother goddesses like Coatlicue, who also happens to die in order to create something important. In Tlaltecuhtli’s case, this is the earth, while Coatlicue dies to create Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Aztecs. In the Coatlicue del Metro she even shares the similar necklace of hands that Coatlicue has in the Colossal Coatlicue, further connecting them [Fig. 3].

Through her relationships to other goddesses, “demonic” ones in particular, Tlaltecuhtli is perceived in the same way as Coatlicue as.  She is a warrior just as demonic women are, killed in the process of creation, and thus punished and humiliated for her “otherness.” While Tlaltecuhtli shares the same ideological characteristics as these women, she also shares the same punishment. According to the myth, Tlaltecuhtli was torn “in half” by her rival gods, yet it was never quite specified exactly how (45). If we imagine the head to be the beginning of the body and anything lower than that to be the rest, Tlaltecuhtli’s death fulfills the requirements of decapitation. Fittingly, then, Tlaltecuhtli follows the tradition of feminine deities that are beheaded in sculpture. 

Her status as a warrior and an “Earth Lord” dooms her in the same ways war doomed Coyolxauhqui and Coatlicue.  However, her claims to masculinity are much closer than theirs.  But her proximity to masculinity only manages to emphasize the ways in which she is not a man. To cement this, the artist of the Coatlicue del Metro beheads her in the same manner as other artists treated Coatlicue and Coyolxauhqui.  This object was possibly used as an execution block, since it has grooves along the top that would correlate with beheadings.  Thus, her death could be recreated,  much like the Coyolxauhqui Monolith. Tlaltecuhtli’s battle with masculinity fails; she is left dead.  What remains of her is then used to create the world. Again, decapitation strips Tlaltecuhtli of her masculinity and leaves only her feminine aspect, still in her warrior form as punishment. Coyolxauhqui, Coatlicue, and Tlaltecuhtli suffer because of gender nonconformity in ancient Aztec society.  Another common theme among these three deities is their participation in some form of warfare that results in their decapitation. Were it not for Coyolxauhqui, the motif of their deaths would not be as significant, as decapitation becomes shorthand for the death of a female warrior who steps out of the box of predetermined gender roles. Representations of Tlaltecuhtli and Coatlicue deal with the consequences of Coyolxauhqui’s actions. Every female victim at el Templo Mayor subsequently deals with the consequences of decapitation since they are the reenactors and symbolic representations of Coyolxauhqui. All consecutive depictions of decapitated women or female deities reference Coyolxauhqui’s own political humiliation at the hands of Huitzilopochtli, and as a result, the Aztec Empire.

(1) Zairong Xiang, “The Strange Case of Tlaltecuhtli,” in Queer Ancient Ways: A Decolonial Exploration (Punctum Books, 2018), 161-162.

(2) Xiang, “The Strange Case,” 163.

(3) Mary Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2019), 251.

(4) Sandra Kellogg, “The Woman’s Room: Some Aspects of Gender Relations in Tenochtitlan in the Late Pre-Hispanic Period,” Ethnohistory 42, no. 4 (Autumn 1995): 564.

(5) Lourdes Cué, “Coyolxauhqui: La Muerte de la Diosa,” Artes de México, no. 96 (November 2009): 40. “[L]as Cihuateteo, las valientes guerreras que habitan la región poniente del universo tras morir en el parto.

(6) Cecelia F. Klein, “Fighting with Femininity: Gender and War in Aztec Mexico,” Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 24, no. 435 (1994): 222.

(7) Klein, “Fighting with Femininity,” 223.

(8) Klein, “Fighting,” 222.

(9) Klein, “Fighting,” 224.

(10) Klein, 227.

(11) Cué, “Coyolxauhqui,” 39.

(12) Cué, 41. “tobilleras, muñequeras y penacho de plumas.” All translations from Spanish are mine. 

(13) Cué, 40-41. “Coyolxauhqui está representada como estas guerreras: con el torso desnudo visto de frente… [los caracolillos… que adornan sus tobilleras] son emblemas de los guerreros muertos, asociados al sacrificio y a entidades ígneas como el sol/ Huitzilopochtli.”

(14) Susan Milbrath, “Decapitated Lunar Goddesses in Aztec Art, Myth, and Ritual,” Ancient Mesoamerica 8, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 185.

(15) Klein, “Fighting,” 222 and 227. 

(16) Cué, 41. “Las serpientes tienen dos cabezas: son las temibles maquizcoatl, culebras miticas asociadas a la muerte… Y es que, segun relata la Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas, a Huitzilopochtli tambien se le llamaba Maquizcoatl.”

(17) Cué, 41. “El gran tocado azul, el color del cielo diurno, principal ambito de accion de Huitzilopochtli.

(18) Klein, 227. 

(19) Klein, 225-226.

(20) Klein, 227.

(21) Klein, 243.

(22) Klein, 241.

(23) Klein, 235.

(24) Cué, 40. “[L]as Cihuateteo, las valientes guerreras que habitan la región poniente del universo tras morir en el parto.”

(25) Klein, 225.

(26) Elizabeth Boone, “The ‘Coatlicues’ at the Templo Mayor,” Ancient Mesoamerica 10, no. 2 (1999): 195, 197.

(27) Milbrath, “Decapitated Lunar Goddesses,” 197.

(28) Boone, “The ‘Coatlicues,’” 197.

(29) Klein, 223.

(30) Klein, 225-226.

(31) Klein, 235.

(32) Klein, 223.

(33) Xiang, “The Strange Case,” 162, 171.

(34) Xiang, 169.

(35) Xiang, 167.

(36) Xiang, 172.

(37) Xiang, 177. For the purpose of this paper, Tlaltecuhtli will be classified as a deity, but not solely as a goddess. Due to her feminine aspects, she will be included because she meets the requirements of the thesis due to her gender fluidity. 

(38) Xiang, 170.

(39) Xiang, 171. 

(40) Xiang, 170.

(41) Xiang, 170.

(42) Xiang, 173.

(43) Milbrath, 198.

(44) Milbrath, 195.

(45) Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 206, quoted in Zairong Xiang, “The Strange Case of Tlaltecuhtli,” in Queer Ancient Ways: A Decolonial Exploration (Punctum Books, 2018), 162.


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