Cross-dressing to Complement the King: Eco-iconography of the Aztec Cihuacoatl’s Costume

Author(s): Lois Martin

Year: 2015


Co-regents led the Aztec state: the principal Tlatoani, "supreme speaker," and his second, the Cihuacoatl, "Woman Snake," also the name of a fearsome goddess. The complementary rulers reflected Aztec notions of cosmic balance between opposites: while the male king directed external military campaigns during the dry season ("the day sun"), the Cihuacoatl managed internal affairs, especially agriculture, during the rainy season, or "night sun." A ruthless and visionary individual named Tlacaelel served as Cihuacoatl to a succession of Aztec kings, and cross-dressed in the goddess’s clothes during state ceremonies. Many accounts suggest that Tlacaelel himself designed the splendid regalia, monumental settings, and extravagant spectacles that promoted the legitimacy of the royal couple. My research deconstructs the Cihuacoatl’s outfit, and shows that its carefully crafted details serve to identify the Cihuacoatl as a perfect foil to the Aztec king—not simply his gendered opposite, but also his divine complement in ecological and technological arenas, including the maize cycle—a charter for rule in Mesoamerica since the time of the Olmecs. While the king’s turquoise crown referenced a maize sprout, the Cihuacoatl’s costume—in pattern, color, and style—referred to ripe corn seed, and the opposite end of the cycle.

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Cite this Record

Cross-dressing to Complement the King: Eco-iconography of the Aztec Cihuacoatl’s Costume. Lois Martin. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 396702)


Aztec Cihuacoatl Maize

Geographic Keywords

Spatial Coverage

min long: -107.271; min lat: 12.383 ; max long: -86.353; max lat: 23.08 ;