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Aztec mosaic double-headed serpent in the British Museum

Double-headed serpent

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Gerry B.: I have an important question about the Aztec two headed serpent that is well known and seen. Who does it represent and what is its Aztec name? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

A priest makes an offering to a pair of serpents entwined together (common in some species when mating): Codex Féjérváry-Mayer, folio 27.
A priest makes an offering to a pair of serpents entwined together (common in some species when mating): Codex Féjérváry-Mayer, folio 27. (Click on image to enlarge)

This is one of the most iconic and famous Mexica/Aztec objects in the world, and a highlight of the British Museum’s collections. It measures 43.3 cms in width, and is carved from a single piece of cedarwood, decorated with turquoise and shell mosaics.

Aztec stone fire serpent, British Museum Mexico Gallery
Aztec stone fire serpent, British Museum Mexico Gallery (Click on image to enlarge)

Double-headed serpents feature strongly in the myths and religion of ancient Mexico, and Mesoamerica in general: one of the region’s most important deities was of course Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent (read more on this in our feature on D H Lawrence and the Plumed Serpent, below). Snakes have always been associated with fertility and re-birth, because of their ability to shed and grow new skins. No-one (even at the BM!) is quite sure how or where this mosaic piece was worn: it might have been a ‘pectoral’, hanging over the chest from a cord tied round the neck, or it may have been an important emblem - much like a Roman army standard - displayed on a staff.

Illustration by unknown artist, from ‘México, América Central, Antillas’ by Doré Ogrizek
Illustration by unknown artist, from ‘México, América Central, Antillas’ by Doré Ogrizek (Click on image to enlarge)

In the language of the Aztecs, Náhuatl, cóatl can mean both snake and ‘twin’. By extension, it can mean, in Gordon Brotherston’s words, ‘cooperation, community, social counterpart (a notion alive today in the Mexican term cuate, friend or mate)’. Turquoise or fire serpents - xiuhcóatl in Náhuatl - could represent lightning, linking the two worlds of sky and earth: an impressive stone xiuhcóatl welcomes visitors to the Mexico Gallery of the British Museum, and two such creatures adorn the Sunstone, carrying the Sun across the sky on its daytime journey. In this vein, according to Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, double-headed intertwined serpents were icons in Mesoamerican art that represented the sky. At the same time, the jaws of the snakes are open, ‘symbolizing the caves of Mictlan, gateways to the underworld’.

However, double-headed serpents - maquizcóatl - tended to have negative associations, as bearers of bad omens. At an every-day level, twin snakes could represent ‘gossip’. Maquizcóatl was a name associated with the Mexica tribal god Huitzilopochtli, and it’s possible that this particular maquizcóatl could have been an insignia carried or worn by a Huitzilopochtli impersonator.

Overall, though, perhaps we should agree with Manuel Aguilar-Moreno’s suggestion of viewing the pectoral as ‘a work dedicated to life, which depends on death and the underworld in order to renew itself.’

More info available in Moctezuma Aztec Ruler Exhibition Catalogue, British Museum Press, 2009.
Quote from Gordon Brotherston: Feather Crown, BM Publications 2005.
Quote from Manuel Aguilar-Moreno: Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Facts on File, 2006

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: © Trustees of the British Museum
• Codex image: scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Stone fire serpent: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Illustration by unknown artist scanned from our own copy of México, América Central, Antillas by Doré Ogrizek, Ediciones Castilla, Madrid, 1958.

D H Lawrence and the Plumed Serpent

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: its provenance is unknown! We know it was purchased by the British Museum from a mysterious Italian collector in 1894, but basically that’s it...
Mexicolore replies: Whilst the double-headed serpent (above) is iconically Aztec, stories of hero twins (one of its associations) are found throughout the Americas, from the Mississippi to the Caribbean and beyond, and are part of what Robert and Peter Markman call ‘a worldwide pattern of the hero journey. As with many Native American versions of the hero journey, this myth presents us with twins... rather than a single hero.’ (The Flayed God p. 280).