The earth and death were very closely associated in the Aztec mind, not only because the earth is the place where the bodies of men are placed when they die, but also because it is the place where the stars hide; that is, the gods, when they fall in the West and descend to the world of the dead.
For the Mexican, the earth was a kind of monster, part shark and part alligator. Perhaps it was the so-called "alligator fish" from the rivers of the Gulf. It was also pictured as a fantastic frog whose mouth had great tusks and whose feet and hands were armed with claws. In the form of a frog it was called Tlaltecuhtli and was considered a male, while in all other forms it was always a goddess.
In noting the connection that existed between the gods of the earth and the gods of night and death, we see that Tlaltecuhtli wears his hair curled in the same fashion as the infernal deities who rule over the world of the dead, and who will be described later. Moreover, centipedes, scorpions, spiders, serpents, and other nocturnal and poisonous creatures which were constant companions of the gods of death generally are shown in the god's hair.
Three goddesses, who apparently arc only three different aspects of the same deity, portrayed the earth in its dual function of creator and destroyer: Coatlicue, Cihuacoatl, and Tlazolteotl. Their names mean, respectively, "the lady of the skirt of serpents," "the serpent woman," and "the goddess of filth." Coatlicue has a very important place in Aztec myths because she was the mother of the gods, that is, of the sun, the moon, and the stars. We have seen that she gave miraculous birth to Huitzilopochtli at the very moment when the stars, led by the moon, doubting the miracle of divine conception, attempted to kill her. We have also seen that the sun, Huitzilopochtli, sprang forth from her womb armed with a ray of light and killed the moon and the stars.
Aztec art, with all the barbaric originality of a young and energetic people, produced a masterpiece when it portrayed this goddess. The colossal statue of Coatlicue in the National Museum of Mexico surpasses in expressive force the more refined creations of peoples like the Mayas, whose concepts of life and the gods were expressed in more serene forms.
In accordance with her name, Coatlicue wears a skirt fashioned of braided serpents which is secured by another serpent in the form of a belt. A necklace of alternating human hands and hearts with a human skull or death's head as a pendant partially covers the goddess's breast. Her feet and hands are armed with claws, since she is the insatiable deity who feeds on the corpses of men. That is why she was also called "the devourer of filth." Her breasts hang flaccid, for she has nursed both the gods and mankind, since they are all her children. Hence she was known at Tonantzin, "our mother," Teteoinan, "the mother of the gods," and Toci, "our grandmother." Her head has been severed from her body, and from the neck flow two streams of blood which take the form of two serpents portrayed in profile, their touching heads forming a fantastic face. Down the back of the goddess hangs an ornament of strips of red leather tipped with small shells, the decoration characteristic of earth gods.
The whole figure is an admirable synthesis of the ideas of love and destruction which correspond to the earth. In this piece of sculpture the Indian artist achieved to a supreme degree what in our concept of indigenous art is its enduring characteristic: reality in detail and subjectivity of the whole. The figure does not represent a being but an idea, yet the parts show an amazing realism. The scales on the bodies of the serpents, the details of the macabre necklace, and the folds of the leather strips which form the back ornament have all been reproduced with a fidelity that can be found only in a people very close to nature. Cihuacoatl is another name for this goddess, and she was the patron of the dhuateteo, the women who had died in childbirth, who wailed and moaned in the night air. They descended to the earth on certain days which were dedicated to them in the calendar, to appear at crossroads, and they were fatal to children. Subsequently Cihuacoatl has been transformed into La Llorona, "the weeping woman," of our popular Mexican folk tale. She is said to carry a cradle or the body of a dead child in her arms and to weep at night at the crossings of city streets. In times gone by, people knew that she had passed that way when they found in the market the empty cradle with a sacrificial knife laid beside it.
Tlazolteotl, or Ixcuina, "the goddess of filthy things," was of more importance in the Aztec religion. It is thought that worship of her was brought from the Huastec region. Like Xipe, she is often portrayed as covered with the skin of a sacrificial victim. She can be easily identified by the band of raw cotton which she wears on her headdress and which is decorated with two spindles or bobbins. A black spot covers her nose and mouth. At times she carries a broom in her hand, "during the month that one sweeps," Ochpaniztli, when the principal ceremonies dedicated to her worship were celebrated. Her son is Centfotl, god of corn. Since she was the devourer of filth, she consumed the sins of men, thereby cleansing them of their impurities. Hence, the confessional rite that was practiced before the priests of Tlazolteotl.
The priesthood of this goddess was of special importance. Cihuacoatl was the patron of childbirth and newborn children. It was the duty of her representatives to read the horoscopes of the newborn babies. These readings were based on the complicated combinations of the ritual calendar, the tonalpohualli. Special priests called tonalpouque exercised this function and gave a name to the child according to the day of his birth. They recorded these matters in hieroglyphic script in special books called tonaldmatl, which were folded in the form of a screen, several of which have been preserved. Tlazolteotl's priests, also priests of the earth and of fertility, were very important in the Aztec cult and are frequently pictured in the indigenous manuscripts that have been handed down to us.