Tlaltecuhtli (pronounced Tlal-teh-koo-tlee and sometimes spelled Tlaltecutli) is the name of the monstrous earth god among the Aztec. Tlaltecuhtli has both feminine and masculine attributes, although she is most often represented as a female deity. Her name means "The one who gives and devours life." She represents the earth and the sky, and was one of the gods in the Aztec pantheon most hungry for human sacrifice.
The Tlaltecuhtli Myth
According to Aztec mythology, at the origin of time (the "First Sun"), the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca began to create the world. But the monster Tlaltecuhtli destroyed everything they were creating. The gods turned themselves into giant serpents and wrapped their bodies around the goddess until they tore Tlaltecuhtli's body into two pieces.
One piece of Tlaltecuhtli's body became the earth, mountains, and rivers, her hair the trees and flowers, her eyes the caves and wells. The other piece became the vault of the sky, although, in this early time, no sun or stars were embedded in it yet. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca gave Tlatecuhtli the gift of providing humans with whatever they need from her body, but it was a gift that didn't make her happy.
Thus in Mexica mythology, Tlaltecuhtli represents the surface of the earth; however, she was said to be angry, and she was the first of the gods to demand the hearts and blood of humans for her unwilling sacrifice. Some versions of the myth say Tlaltecuhtli would not stop crying and bear fruit (plants and other growing things) unless she was moistened with the blood of men.
Tlaltecuhtli was also believed to devour the sun every night just to give it back every morning. However, the fear that this cycle could be interrupted for some reason, such as during eclipses, produced instability among the Aztec population and was often the cause of even more ritual human sacrifices.
Tlaltecuhtli is depicted in codices and stone monuments as a horrific monster, often in a squatting position and in the act of giving birth. She has several mouths over her body filled with sharp teeth, which were often spurting blood. Her elbows and knees are human skulls and in many images she is portrayed with a human being hanging between her legs. In some images she is portrayed as a caiman or alligator.
Her open mouth symbolizes the passage to the underworld inside of the earth, but in many images her lower jaw is missing, torn away by Tezcatlipoca to prevent her from sinking beneath the waters. She often wears a skirt of crossed bones and skulls with a great star sign border, symbol of her primordial sacrifice; she is often depicted with large teeth, goggle-eyes, and a flint-knife tongue.
It is interesting to note that in the Aztec culture, many sculptures, particularly in the case of representations of Tlaltecuhtli, were not meant to be seen by humans. These sculptures were carved and then set in a hidden place or carved on the underside of stone boxes and chacmool sculptures. These objects were made for the gods and not for humans, and, in Tlaltecuhtli's case, the images faced the earth they represent.
In 2006, a huge monolith representing the Earth Goddess Tlaltecuhtli was discovered in an excavation at the Templo Mayor of Mexico City. This sculpture measures about 4 x 3.6 meters (13.1 x 11.8 feet) and weighs about 12 tons. It is the largest Aztec monolith ever discovered, larger than the famous Aztec Calendar Stone (Piedra del Sol) or the Coyolxauhqui.
The sculpture, carved in a block of pink andesite, represents the goddess in the typical squatting position, and it is vividly painted in red ochre, white, black, and blue. After several years of excavation and restoration, the monolith can be seen on display at the the museum of the Templo Mayor.
This glossary entry is a part of the guide to Aztec religion and the dictionary of archaeology.
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