This illustration shows (at right) a temple or pyramid surmounted by the images of two gods flanked by native Mexica. On the temple is an image of Huitzilopochtli on the right, and an image of Tlaloc holding a turquoise serpent is on the left.
The temple is surrounded by a wall of serpents swallowing one another’s heads. At right is a tzompantli (Aztec skull rack). Huitzilopochtli, whose name means “Blue hummingbird on the left,” was the Aztec god of the sun and war. The xiuhcoatl (turquoise or fire serpent) was his mystical weapon.
Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture, was of pre-Aztec, or Toltec, origin. A coatepantli (wall made of sculpted serpents) often surrounds Aztec temples. The tzompantli would hold the skulls of sacrificial victims. The great temple at Tenochtitlan was surmounted by two sanctuaries—the one on the left dedicated to Tlaloc, the one on the right to Huitzilopochtli, as illustrated in this reconstruction. Recent archeological work has confirmed the existence of a skull rack at the base of the temple, now a Unesco world heritage site.
In the Aztec religion, Huitzilopochtli was the God of war, associated with the sun, whose life required human sacrifice as food. He was the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan.
He was shown as a blue man fully armed with hummingbird feathers on his head. His mother Coatlicue is said to have become pregnant with him when a ball of feathers fell from the heaven and touched her.
Huitzilopochtli, holding a turquoise serpent or rattlesnake in one hand and a shield with the five directions of space and three arrows, wears a hummingbird mask or helmet with feathered quetzal crown which is identified with the two Moctezumas (or Montezumas).
In Aztec religion, Xiuhcoatl was a mythological serpent regarded as the spirit form of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec fire deity, and was also an atlatl wielded by Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli, whose name means “Blue hummingbird on the left,” was the Aztec god of the sun and war. The turquoise or fire serpent (xiuhcoatl) was his mystical weapon. Xiuhcoatl is a Classical Nahuatl word that literally translates as “turquoise serpent”; it also carries the symbolic and descriptive meaning, “fire serpent”.
Xiuhcoatl was a common subject of Aztec art, including illustrations in Aztec codices and its use as a back ornament on representations of both Xiuhtecuhtli and Huitzilopochtli.Xiuhcoatl is interpreted as the embodiment of the dry season and was the weapon of the sun. The royal diadem (or xiuhuitzolli, “pointed turquoise thing”) of the Aztec emperors apparently represented the tail of the Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.