Chapultepec Park in Mexico City has several places eminently suited for communing with the dead. The National Museum of Anthropology is one of them.
On a day of low gray clouds, I wander the museum for hours, gorging with my eyes on pre-Columbian civilizations: Olmec, Toltec, Mixteca, Aztec… Yet in truth what I see are only the survivors of those great peoples who long ago vanished, leaving left behind a few statues, bits of pottery, masks, weapons and oddments of jewelry as a receding tide leaves shells upon the beach. Great feasts of civilization, I think to myself, have been swallowed by the earth. These are the bones and rinds.
The flow of tourists thins as I make my way deeper into the museum, until at last I am nearly alone in the room that holds the relics of Tenochtitlán. The Aztecs, it is said, built their capital on a site where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus and devouring a snake. From that auspicious beginning, the Aztec Empire spread throughout central and southern Mexico, dominating and subjugating all the peoples it encountered. By the early 16th century, when the Spanish arrived, its might was unparalleled.
What I have come to see above all else is a dark stone statue, more than two and a half meters tall, of the goddess Coatlicue, mother of Aztec gods. This terrifying figure has a skirt of snakes, the face of a fanged serpent with forked tongue, and is bedecked with skulls and human hands. To stand before her is to go beyond art appreciation into something like holy terror and awe.
A dapper man of late middle age, Ecuardo, is explaining Coatlicue to his American friend. He says that Coatlicue is a mother goddess. “A virgin mother?” I volunteer. “Virgin mother, that’s right exactly,” he says. We look again at the towering figure in dark stone, an impossible vision of power and horror. The Spaniards in whose hearts the Virgin Mary arrived in Mexico like a stowaway could not have known that this land already housed a virgin far more terrible.
Ecuardo asks how I know about Coatlicue. I have been dreaming of coming to this museum for years, I say. In Ecuardo, lover of history, I sense a peculiar lightness when discussing the artifacts, for living as he does at the vanguard of time past, as do we all, he is able to weigh more optimistically than could his distant ancestors the burden of the Old World’s equivocal blessing.
“Can you imagine using tools at that time to create this?” I ask him as we study the Stone of the Sun. “Even now, with all our technology, we’d find it difficult to accomplish.” “I believe it was accomplished by a team of sculptors,” Ecuardo says. “And yet we don’t know who created it. It’s not like the works of Michelangelo.”
No artist has left an identifying mark on any piece and, indeed, the namelessness of the sculptors forces us to confront the work alone. It is difficult now, at a remove of more than 500 years, to imagine what craftsmen dared give form to the goddess, the men at whose touch the dark stone blossomed so savagely. These almost superhuman sculptors have left no trace of themselves, are irretrievably beyond history. Yet the statue remains, immovable, inescapable, gawked-at, endlessly photographed, and still terrifying, after all these centuries still the heart of Mexico.
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