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Feathered serpent ‘1-Reed’

Aztec feathered serpent sculpture with the date 1-Reed

Mexica stone sculpture, basalt, 21 x 44 cms., c. 1519, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

The sculpture workshops of Tenochtitlan were at their height turning out near-standard templates for symbolic, often mythological images - one of which is the feathered serpent, symbol of creator god Quetzalcóatl.

The ancient myths tell how Quetzalcóatl, also associated with the wind god Ehécatl, created the era known as 4-Wind. They also recount the self-sacrifice of the deity who used his blood to mix the paste for modelling human beings, and celebrate the ingenuity with which he turned himself into an ant, to discover where these insects had stored the precious seeds during the last floods. There are several near-identical examples of serpents coiled in a circle, with their tails (complete with rattles) wrapped around their bodies and their heads resting on top. Their open mouths reveal a series of menacing fangs and a large forked tongue covering part of the body.
The serpent’s body is carved with a layer of long quetzal feathers, endowing it with a certain grace and elegance. Some examples bear the relief image of Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess, on the base, but in this case the deity is identified in its animal manifestation by the calendar date 1 Reed, inscribed in a small panel at the back of the serpent’s neck. The serpent’s eyebrows bear an interwoven rectangle evoking the mats woven for ritual seats, suggesting a symbolic meaning. Quetzalcóatl was thus the deity who, together with the Mexica sun gods, endorsed the power of Moctezuma II.


From ‘Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler’, British Museum Catalogue, 2009, p. 165.

Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore