According to the official story of Mexico, the coat of arms of Mexico was inspired by an Aztec legend regarding the founding of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs, then a nomadic tribe, were wandering throughout Mexico in search of a divine sign that would indicate the precise spot upon which they were to build their capital. Their god Huitzilopochtli had commanded them to find an eagle devouring a snake, perched atop a cactus that grew on a rock submerged in a lake. After two hundred years of wandering, they found the promised sign on a small island in the swampy Lake Texcoco. It was there they founded their new capital, Tenochtitlan.
original eagle, from the Mendoza codexA closer look at the original Aztec codices, paintings, and the post-Cortesian codices shows that there was no snake in the original legends. While, the Féjérvary-Meyer codex depicts an eagle attacking a snake, other Aztec illustrations, like the Codex Mendoza, show only an eagle, while in the text of the Ramírez Codex, Huitzilopochtli asked the Aztecs to look for an eagle devouring a precious bird perched on a cactus. In the text by Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, the eagle is devouring something, but it is not mentioned what it is. Still other versions show the eagle clutching the Aztec symbol of war, the Atl-Tlachinolli glyph, or "burning water".
The original meanings of the symbols were different in numerous aspects. The eagle was a representation of the sun god Huitzilopochtli, who was very important, as the Aztecs referred to themselves as the People of the Sun. The cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica), full of its fruits, called "tenochtli" in Nahuatl, represent the island of Tenochtitlan, upon which the Aztec civilization was founded. To the Aztec people, the snake represented wisdom, and it had strong connotations with the god Quetzalcoatl. To the Aztecs, this scene depicting an eagle overpowering a snake would be considered wrong.
The story of the snake was derived from an incorrect translation of the Crónica mexicáyotl by Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc. In the story, the Nahuatl text ihuan cohuatl izomocayan, "the snake hisses", was mistranslated as "the snake is torn". Based on this, Father Diego Durán reinterpreted the legend, so that the eagle represents all that is good and right, while the snake represents evil and sin. Despite its inaccuracy, the new legend was adopted because it conformed with European heraldic tradition. To the Europeans it would represent the struggle between good and evil. Although this interpretation does not conform to pre-Columbian traditions, it was an element that could be used by the first missionaries for the purposes of evangelism and the conversion of the native peoples.
This version of the story was used for the first time in 1581 by Father Diego Durán, who used it to illustrate his "Atlas de la Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme", and it was soon adopted by others. But it would not be used as a coat of arms until the War of Independence.
The bird featured on the Mexican coat of arms is the golden eagle. This bird is known in Spanish as águila real (literally, "royal eagle"). In 1960, the Mexican ornithologist Martín del Campo identified the eagle in the pre-Hispanic codex as the caracara or "quebrantahuesos", a species common in Mexico (although the name "eagle" is taxonomically incorrect, as the caracara is a type of falcon). Even so, the golden eagle is considered the Mexican eagle for official purposes, and for the same reason is considered the official bird of Mexico.
When Father Duran introduced the snake, it was originally an aquatic serpent. But in 1917, the serpent was portrayed as a rattlesnake, because it was more common than the aquatic varieties in pre-Hispanic illustrations. As a result of this, the design and color of the snake on the modern coat of arms do not correspond with those of any species of snake, and were inspired by the representations of Quetzalcoatl, a rattlesnake with quetzal feathers.
The Elements in this coat of arm are:
The eagle, in a combative stance
The snake, held by a claw and the beak of the eagle
The Nopal on which the eagle stands. The nopal bears some of it's fruits ( Tunas)
The pedestal on which the Nopal grows is inmersed on an Aztec symbol meaning Water
Oak leaves and Laurel leaves encircling the Eagle cluster; tied together with a ribbon with the Mexican Flag's Colors.
Pictographic interpetation of Aztec symbols
The coat of arms has at least two abstraction levels: One is the pictographic representation of the name of the Aztec's Capital City, Tenochtitlan, (Tenoch, is the cactus fruit, and titlan means "the place of".) In another level, it represents one of the most important cosmological beliefs of the Aztec culture.
The image shows the royal eagle devouring. The eagle is one the symbols for the sun, and it is a representation of a victorius Huitzilopochtli. In one of the legends, the eagle bows to the arriving aztecs. The snake is a symbol of the earth. In the prehispanic tradition, it is the representation of Quetzalcoatl, and in aztec (mexica) tradition it is the representation of Coatlicue, the mother earth, and mother of Huitzilopochtli. Thus the image of and eagle devouring a snake is in conflict with mesaomerican beliefs. In some codex, the eagle grips the glyph or symbol for war, and thus it represents the victorius side of Huitzilopochtli, the Atl tlachinolli (which literally means burning water) has certain resemblance with a snake, and probably that is the origin of this confusion.
With the Water element, the Moon, it recalls the mithology and rebirth of Huitzilopochtli, the god-Hero of the Aztecs.
The Nopal's Fruit, Tuna, represents the heart of Copil, Huitzilopochtli's nephew. The god ordered to "build the city in the place of Copil's heart" (Ramirez Codex) and the Cactus grew on his land and it is also a reminder of the Human sacrifice customs of the Aztecs.
Troughout the history of the Mexican coat of arms, many meanings have been atributed to it's elements, although the most prevalent interpretations are
That the Eagle represents the Mexican People, the combative stance meaning that they are ready to face the challenges that life and the world may bring upon them.
That the Snake represents Mexico's enemys, although not identified it would mean any foreign interests thay may harm the Mexican People. The snake being devoured by the eagle means that the Mexican people will prevail over their enemies.
That the Nopal, with it's Thorny nature, represents Mexico's challenges and troubles, The eagle defiantly standing on them, means that the Mexican people will overcome this challenges.
That the Earth and Water symbols represent Mexico's indigenous origins, melded together trough the colonization and racial mixing of Europeans and Native Americans
That the Laurel and Oak leaves encircling the Coat of arms represent Victory and the Martyrdom of those who have given their lives for Mexico.
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