This Double-headed serpent is a sculpture from Aztec Mexico, which was used in religious ceremonies. The mosaic is made of pieces of turquoise, oyster shell and conch shell applied to a wood base. The sculpture depicts an undulating serpent with a head on each side. By using over 2,000 small flat pieces of stone, the artists have created the impression of a curved surface. The heads of the serpents have holes for eyes, which initially would have held objects representing eyes. The vivid contrast of the red and white details on the head has been achieved through the use of oyster shells and conch shells.
In Aztec Mexico, the serpent was a symbol of rebirth because of its ability to shed its old skin and appear as a reborn snake. The snake features strongly in the gods that the people worshipped, gods who had serpentine characteristics. The provenance of this masterpiece is not clear, and it is not known how this sculpture left Mexico. It is possible that it was among the many gifts given to the conquistador Hernán Cortés or taken by him. The Cortés collection arrived in Europe in the 1520s. It caused great interest; unfortunately, many of the turquoise mosaics ended their days in jewelers’ shops where they were dismantled to make more contemporary objects.
Despite the gifts and the peaceful reception offered by Montezuma, the king of the Aztec Empire, he was taken prisoner by Cortés and his troops, who then captured Montezuma’s capital by 1521. The Aztecs were brutally and systematically enslaved, murdered, and fell victim to smallpox and other European diseases brought to Mexico by Cortés and his troops.
The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico from 1300 to 1521. The Aztec civilization was organized into city-states, some of which joined to form alliances, political confederations, or empires. The Aztec empire was a confederation of three city-states established in 1427. Although the term Aztecs is often restricted to the critical city of Mexica of Tenochtitlan, it is also broadly used to refer to Nahua peoples of central Mexico in the prehispanic era, as well as the Spanish colonial period (1521–1821).
The state religion of the empire was polytheistic, worshipping a diverse pantheon that included dozens of deities. Many had officially recognized cults large enough so that the deity was represented in the central temple precinct of the capital Tenochtitlan. The imperial cult, specifically, was that of Huitzilopochtli, the distinctive warlike patron god of the Mexica. Peoples in conquered provinces were allowed to keep and freely continue their own religious traditions, so long as they added the imperial god Huitzilopochtli to their local pantheons.
Aztec philosophy was a well-developed school of philosophy and in many ways, comparable to Ancient Greek philosophy. Aztec philosophers attempted to answer the main Aztec philosophical question of how to gain stability and balance in an ephemeral world.
Aztec philosophers focused on morality as establishing balance. Morality focused on finding the path to living a balanced life, which would provide stability in the shifting world. Aztec poetry was closely tied to philosophy and often used to express philosophic concepts. Below is an example:
“No one comes on this earth to stay
Our bodies are like rose trees –
They grow petals, then wither and die.
But our hearts are like grass in the springtime,
They live on and forever grow green again.”
– Aztec Poem
- How would you have reacted if alien invaders appeared on your doorstep?
- Was this artifact a gift from Montezuma to the Spanish conquistador from 1521?
- How much unique South American treasure and art were exported and melted down or disassembled by uninterested Europeans?
- Why is serpent imagery so prevalent across so many cultures in the world?
- Title: Double-Headed Serpent
- Date: 15th/16th century
- Culture: Aztec
- Place: Mexico
- Materials: Wood, turquoise, pine resin, and shell
- Dimensions: 20.5 by 43.3 cm
- Museum: The British Museum
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“I confide to your care, my beloved children,
the most precious jewels I can leave you.”
– Montezuma’s Last Words