On August 13, 1790, a group of workers excavating in Mexico City’s Central Plaza discovered a statue the astronomer and anthropologist Antonio de León y Gama identified as Teoyaomiqui. It was, in fact, the goddess Coatlicue, also known as Dama de la Falda de Serpientes [The lady in the snake skirt]. The discovery took place during the construction of a water canal to supply the colonial city built over the former Aztec capital, the great Tenochtitlán. In 1520, when the Spanish hordes led by Hernán Cortez entered the capital, gradually subjugating and annihilating one of the most prosperous cities in all of Mesoamerica, one of the strategies they used to dismantle the Aztec empire was the elimination of its symbols and beliefs through concealment and the replacement of ancient images and traditions. Often, the Spaniards used the Aztec gods’ sculptures as the basis for cathedrals and colonial power institutions.
Coatlicue, in Aztec mythology, is the patroness of life and death, mother of Huitzilopochtli – the god of the earth –, and the goddess representing fertility. The sculpture is a double head monolith weighing 24 tons and 2.5 meters high. At its base, a bas-relief representing Tlāloc, the god of rain, was carved in direct contact with the earth; no human eyes could see it, only the earth deities.
Viceroy Revillagigedo ordered Coatlicue to be taken as a relic of the Mesoamerican past to The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico. But after long discussions, the Spanish authorities decided to bury her again, afraid that the lady in the snake skirt might spark a revolution. The fear of awakening the memory of the subjugated natives accompanied the dread of Coatlicue’s brutal beauty, which was outside the Western canons of harmony and decorum. They buried her under the university cloister until when a curious Alexander von Humboldt asked to see her during his trip to New Spain in 1804. According to the legend, the German explorer began to draw it without, however, completing the illustration because the university clergymen, perhaps fearing that Coatlicue’s power would become uncontrollable, hid it again underground. Hence, Humboldt had to let his imagination run wild to immortalize Coatlicue’s powerful aura in his sketches.