Coatlicue (Aztec)

The Great Goddess Coatlicue, mother of all the Aztec deities, had many great temples built in her honor and was revered at altars of volcanic glass. She was the Lady of the Serpent Skirt, living on a high mountain peak over the lost homeland of Aztlan, while her snakes dwelt below in sacred caves. It was Coatlicue who gave all in life and reclaimed all in death. Her necklace of skulls reminded the Aztecs that each must return to her in their time. Someday, all must melt into her lava pools, watching their future lives revealed in mirrors of cool obsidian.

This goddess of the double snake head had 400 sons whom she set in the sky as stars known as the Centzonhuitznahua, and one daughter, the goddess Coyolxanliqui (little bells).

When Coatlicue was sweeping one day, a tuft of feathers fell on her. Hesitating to interrupt her ritual, she tucked the tuft into her waistband and kept sweeping. However, when in her leisure she tried to examine the feathers, she found that they had vanished, leaving her pregnant. “What have you done?” Coyolxanliqui demanded, indignant at her mother’s apparent sexual transgression. “Affairs at your age? Have you no shame for the family honor, for your adult children! Who is this lover?”

But Coatlicue had no answer.

Infuriated, Coyolxanliqui sought out her 400 brothers, and incited them to matricide. “Her new children will supplant us, her behavior will shame us,” she warned. “This new child will be set above us in the sky. Killing her is our only option.”

Her brothers were persuaded, all except the youngest. He hid away, and

As the other children plotted, he went to warn his mother. For, he reasoned, if the newest had to perish, the second youngest might be threatened as well, as the older siblings claimed all the inheritance.

The children attacked just as their divine mother was giving birth, when she might be at her weakest. However, forewarned, Coatlicue birthed the divine Huitzilopochtli (“He-who-was-born-on-the-shield”), who emerged fully armed and armored “holding a spear and a blue rod, his face painted, his left leg slender and feathered, his arms and thighs painted blue.”1 Only seconds old, he slaughtered all of his brothers who had plotted to kill his divine mother. Stabbing one after the other with his obsidian knife, he finally reached Coy-olxanliqui, and decapitated her.

When Coatlicue witnessed the death of her cherished daughter, she of the golden bells, she was inconsolable. After weeping for many days, she took the shining head of her daughter and set it in the sky, in a place of honor, where it became the moon.2

Here the daughter is attempting destruction of the mother for usurping her position (“I’m supposed to be the fertile one! Why are you sleeping around, bearing children? At your age!”). Coatlicue slays her — not with direct combat, but by the woman’s life-giving power of birthing the hero. Forced to battle her own children, she represents the conflict of the devouring mother.

To complicate the legend even more, for the glorious sun god Huit-zilopochtli to be born, his mother must die. In some legends Coatlicue perishes, while in far more she and her daughter are represented as two sides of the same entity. Destroying her daughter, she divides herself. Here is the truth of the struggle: These two warring goddesses are the same person.

As the patriarchy rejected the Mother Goddess, everything changed. The goddess of all things was demonized, split into sainted virgin and vilified sinner or even death crone. Both lost power, as one was lauded for its weakened state, the other defiled. The Virgin Mary was divine, Mary Magdalene a sinner. Eve was the passive victim, Lilith the vicious child-killer. The Egyptian cat-goddess Bast represented love and fertility, while her lioness counterpart Sekhmet was wrath personified. Persephone was sweet flower maiden, Hecate cackling death-crone. Kali split off from the kindlier Indian goddesses Durga or Parvati as the personification of their wrath. And Coatlicue’s daughter rebelled against her sensual, powerful mother.

The virgin goddesses were thrust up into the heavens, and the death goddesses, down to the underworld. The goddess’s darker aspects became the demonic: Baba Yaga, the Morrigan, Hel, Hecate, Kali, the Furies, Nemesis, Troma, Mara, Morgan le Fay. She became the wicked witch, mistress of dark spells, lurking in shadow. Thus the cycle of life-death-life was shattered, as the patriarchy believed in clinging to light and life rather than succumbing to death. The dark goddess was only seen as bloodthirsty, engulfing all to fuel her hunger.

It was the Dark Moon Crone Goddess who took life back into her womb, but the ancients also understood that a New Moon Virgin Goddess would birth life back out again. The Crone was the death-giver as the Virgin was the birth-bringer. Reincarnation was represented by the refertilization of the Crone who became Virgin. The continual interaction of destruction becoming creation is the eternal dance that maintains the cosmos.3

However, her cycle shattered, leaving only the wicked witch who brought permanent destruction in her wake, the monstrous villainess who must be punished at the story’s end. This schism caused a great fear of death, which was no longer accompanied by resurrection and rebirth.

In this way, the goddess Cihuacoatl personified the Aztec collective hunger for human sacrifice; scholars call her “not so much a woman as the representation of the negative side of the female psyche.”4

Cihuacoatl was depicted with her lower face made only of bone and her jaws wide open waiting for victims. Her hair was long and stringy and a pair of knives formed a diadem on her forehead. She was related to evil omens, was savage, and brought misery to men; for it was she who gave men the digging stick and the tump line. She was a night walker, screaming and weeping copiously, but she was also a warrior; on her back she carried the knife of sacrifice swaddled like a child.5

Cihuacoatl was demonized, rejected, as the powerfully cruel side of woman, frightening to men, and thus undesired in a patriarchal society.

Women experience the shadow sister as Ereshkigal, depression personified; as Medusa, sublimated rage; as Kali in her frenzied dance; as Cam the fairytale Black Bride; as Medea “who destroys relationships, kills her children and says, ‘Let the whole house crash!’”6 Here we see women’s strength, fury, misery, and destructiveness, split off from the anima like Ereshkigal howling in the darkness.

The most powerful and thus frightening aspects of female divinity were relegated to the caves, to the dark corners of the world as chthonic goddesses, contrasted with those ruling from Olympus. “The crucial psychological fact is that all of us, female as well as male, fear the will of woman… the earliest and profoundest prototype of absolute power.”7 This power is too great for adults to struggle against. “To contain it, to keep it under control and harness it to chosen purposes, is a vital need.”8

However, it is an even greater need to seek it to discover it, to learn its vital lessons. Those who suppress their dark side are vulnerable to its impulses and desires, yet unable to accept them. It is the people who do not know enough about their own shadow and their own dark side who are most likely to fall victim to evil influences.9

The woman who fights against her father still has the possibility of leading an instinctive, feminine existence, because she rejects only what is alien to her. But when she fights against the mother she may, at the risk of injury to her instincts, attain to greater consciousness, because in repudiating the mother she repudiates all that is obscure, instinctive, ambiguous, and unconscious in her own nature.10

Thus the young questor descends into darkness, like Inanna, to meet Ereshki-gal and learn her secrets.

The shadow archetype, described by Jung’s philosophy, is the characteristics of ourself we most detest, projected onto another person of the same gender, as “the shadow cast by the conscious mind of the individual contains the hidden, repressed, and unfavorable (or nefarious) aspects of the personality.”11 However, more than simply the inverse of the heroine, this shadow has hidden positive qualities as well, often strong and assertive where the heroine is silent and passive. And as the dark mother or witch-queen is the heroine’s shadow, the daughter also represents the shadow for the mother — her flaws and unfulfilled desires made manifest. In her battle to achieve a higher consciousness, the heroine pits herself against this shadow, and must integrate it into the self.

To Jungian scholars, though the shadow has been buried in the underworld, it has much to offer the questor.

Envy, lust, sensuality, deceit, and all known vices are the negative, “dark” aspect of the unconscious, which can manifest itself in two ways. In the positive sense, it appears as a “spirit of nature,” creatively animating Man, things, and the world…. In the negative sense, the unconscious (that same spirit) manifests itself as a spirit of evil, as a drive to destroy.12

The shadow usually contains values that are needed by consciousness, but that exist in a form that makes it difficult to integrate them into one’s life.”13 These are parts of the self that one has been unwilling to look at too closely, made manifest. Today we have crimes and horrors in the news, in fiction, in movies, which give us a place to invest our dark emotions and act out our fantasies outside ourselves. Other, less healthy, relationships involve projecting these dark emotions onto another person: spouse, parent, or child. Others scapegoat a community or person, heaping on them all the world’s sins. These buried aspects sometimes surface at inopportune times, a slip of the tongue or a moment’s rage which is quickly suppressed and once again buried. But the hero’s deepest quest is to stop projecting onto others and triumph over these buried aspects within the self, valuing the rage and fury that can drive one to the greatest heights.


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