The Aztec stone proving that the national coat of arms did not originally have a snake


The emblem of Tenochtitlan shows an eagle standing on a prickly pear holding the atl-tlachinolli, an Aztec symbol that represents the war, where did the snake present in the national coat of arms come from?

The national emblem of Mexico is recognized worldwide for its beauty and originality. 

Unlike other shields with astronomical references (such as stars, moons or suns), religious (with crosses of different kinds or bibles) or iconic animals of a region, the national emblem of Mexico tells the story of the founding of Tenochtitlan by the Mexicas.

According to the Boturini Codex and others after the Conquest, the founding myth of México-Tenochtitlan assures that the Mexica people emigrated from the north, in search of the divine sign of Huitzilopochtli to found their new city: an eagle standing on a prickly pear cactus devouring a snake.

Codex Mendoza, with the eagle standing on a cactus. Photo: Wikimedia

The Mexica settled on an islet in the center of Lake Texcoco, where, according to legend, they found the desired sign and since then, this powerful figure has become a symbol of the city that developed in the Valley of Mexico.

However, when trying to historically trace the oldest representation of this emblem that later became the national emblem, both the eagle and the prickly pear cactus have been present since pre-Hispanic times, but the snake did not appear until after the Conquest.

Atl-tlachinolli: the symbol of war that became a snake

The oldest representation of this emblem that is recorded is the Teocalli of the Sacred War, a Mexican monolith that represents a temple to scale and that was created between 1200 and 1521, that is, prior to the Conquest.

According to Leonardo López Luján, director of the Templo Mayor Project of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), this stone sculpture that is currently in the Museum of Anthropology, “brings together the symbols of political power, religion and cosmology to express the links between the rulers, the divinities and the forces of nature ”.

In addition to showing the presence of different divinities such as Tláloc, Tlahuizcalpantecuthli, Xiuhtecuhtli and Xochipilli on the lateral facades, the back face of this stone shows the possible inspiration for the national coat of arms, with a variant: an eagle in profile standing on a prickly pear cactus, which in instead of devouring a snake, it holds in its beak a pre-Hispanic pictorial symbol known as atl-tlachinolli .

“The rear facade is occupied by the emblem of Tenochtitlan, in which the eagle perches on a prickly pear cactus holding the symbol of war with its beak,” explains López Luján.

national coat of arms Mexico
Photo: Wikimedia

The atl-tlachinolli, which can be translated as “water-fire” was an icon of vital importance for the Mexica worldview, which expressed a divine conception of war highlighting its sacred aspect. 

This symbol is present in different codices and sculptures and is graphically expressed as two streams (one of water and the other of fire) that unite, maintaining the balance and duality of the cosmos; however, it is very likely that after the Conquest the atl-tlachinolli was intentionally omitted from the national coat of arms.

During the Colony, the emblem of Tenochtitlan underwent a substantial modification visible from the coat of arms of the City Council of Mexico City in 1534, a change that would last until Independent Mexico and remain to this day in the national coat of arms that we all know: the atl-tlachinolli disappeared and in its place, the beak of the eagle holds a snake, identified as a rattlesnake and sometimes, as a water snake.

Although the reason for this modification is not entirely clear, historical analysis suggests that the Spanish’s ignorance of the meaning of the atl-tlachinoll i, in addition to the firm intention of displacing pre-Hispanic culture and symbols, caused the icon to be relieved by a snake, a reptile that in Christian iconography is related to the devil and sin.


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