The Mother Goddess

One of the oldest and most important goddesses of Mesoamerica, the Mother is the Gulf of Mexico's most venerated deity because of the prosperity her worshipers believed she could bestow. Originating in the Gulf Coast, the Mother Goddess would eventually receive worship from Mexico's Pacific coast to the Yucatan peninsula, but she was best known for her Aztec version Tlahzolteotl, a powerful goddess of fertility and childbirth. She continues to be worshiped after the Spanish introduced Christianity, a memento of the goddess's imprint upon the Mexican spirit.

The goddess's earliest renditions in the Gulf of Mexico portrayed her with full hips and breasts, the body of a healthy mother. As a mother, she gave light to society's next generation. As the earth, she gave birth to ample crop. (Indeed, in many Mesoamerican myths the earth was literally a great mother, whose caves were the wombs from which primal ancestors emerged.) In all these accounts, the Mother Goddess embodied the highest aims of native religion: health for the next generation and the next crop.

While the Mother Goddess would keep her originally highlighted hips and bosom in later renditions, she took on new ornaments that also centered on her fertility. One of the most curious and important of them was the black chapopote tar applied around her mouth, deeming her a maiden eligible for marriage. Another noteworthy feature was her crescent moon nose piece, which aligned the menstrual cycle with the lunar phases. (In fact, one ancient Mexican painting shows the crescent moon with a bony outline, comparing the lunar shape to a woman's hips!) Finally, the goddess was often decorated with cotton, a metaphor for childbirth: the fetus was a ball of raw cotton in the womb, "spun" into its proper shape upon birth and tethered to the mother with a string. Cotton spindles were often her hairpieces, and ribbons of knitted cotton could adorn her ears, brow, or blouse. Occasionally the spider, nature's excellent weaver, could represent the Mother Goddess in sacred paintings.

The Huaxtec peoples were a Mayan offshoot who remained on the Gulf Coast while the other Maya ancestors migrated southeast, toward Yucatan and Guatemala. They spoke a precursor to the "Huasteco" or Teenek language, still spoken along the corridor between east San Luis Potosi and north Veracruz. They called the Mother Goddess Téém and detailed her with a cone cap, a vestment shared among Huaxtec gods and priests. They worshiped her so that she could bless their Gulf Coast lowlands with fertile soils and prolific mothers.


The Aztecs were so impressed with the abundance of the Huaxtec lands that they adopted the Mother Goddess into their own pantheon! If they could worship the Mother as the Huaxtec did, then perhaps she could also endow the Aztecs with her sacred lot. Thus the Aztecs would venerate her as the goddess Tlahzolteotl. They were so obsessed with authenticity that her sacred festivals included phallic dancers costumed like Huaxtec priests!

A maelstrom of energies coursed through the Aztec world, and gods and humans alike could generate their own. The energies of sexuality and desire originated from Tlahzolteotl and related goddesses, so they were sacred rather than sinful to the Aztecs--until they became excess. Desire toward a legitimate partner was acceptable because it fulfilled the will of sacred creativity. Spent on a lover, on the other hand, lustful energies became "filthy," and the man who returned home after an affair risked contaminating his family, especially his children, with the harmful energies he'd amassed within his self. This made them vulnerable to "filth" illness, a supernatural dis-ease brought on by the tryst's heavy cloud.

Just as Tlahzolteotl could provoke such dirty mien, she could also take it back from the sincere penitent, whoever wished to make amends for their marital betrayal and its ill effects on the family. Once the proper rites were met, the goddess would draw out the harmful energies and literally devour them. Thus her name meant 'Trash Spirit.' (She consumed refuse with a jaguar's ravenous appetite, which made her the goddess for the zodiac day of Jaguar in the Aztec calendar.) Through her, digested rubbish was recycled into productive energies: natural decay yielded new growth.

After the Conquest the Spanish Church zealously aimed to replaced the native Mesoamerican religions with the Christian one, but with varying success. The Shaman's Cross centers on the essentially indigenous spirituality at the heart of the rites still performed among the Aztec and Otomí of Veracruz, even when it actively borrows Christian symbols and divinities. After all, for centuries the Aztecs had been bringing powerful foreign gods into their pantheon, and Catholic virgins and saints also proved quite potent. (The question whether the Virgin of Guadalupe was likewise adapted from previous worship of the Mother as Tonantzin is too contentious and long for this article.) The Aztecs would worship these new gods alongside the old ones, often in the same rites. Seventeenth-century accounts reveal that the Aztecs continued praying to Tlahzolteotl, notably to cool off emotions overheated through tension--sexual or otherwise.


With deep roots and prodigious energies the Mother enriches the earth, such that she remains one of today's most widely revered goddesses from Mexico's old religions. Today the Huichol of West Mexico worship her as Takïtsi Nakawé ('Our Great-Grandmother Growth'), one of their most prominent gods. Among the northern Gulf Coast lands of The Shaman's Cross, Aztec and Otomí villagers have discovered Huaxtec sculptures of Mother Téém and in a few cases built rustic chapels to house them!

Creator and devourer, earth and moon, temptress and redeemer, maiden and grandmother: the Mother Goddess presides over all of life's stages and all of the levels from earth to sky. She is a goddess of myriad nations, from humble villages to great empires, all of which shared a common desire: the capacity to carry society's new generation. She may spark the heat to produce new life, but she could withdraw it from the penitent trying to repair their stricken family. Robust hips and full breasts have ever recognized the Mother; her later ornaments of moon, cotton, and tar were simply scaffolds from the sacred power to bear new life--and the drive to enact it. These first principles have inspired her worship for centuries, especially along the Gulf Coast where her cult was originally founded and is still sustained. The Mother Goddess is the soul of the coast, which she has blessed with the natural wealth of precious stones and succulent crops. The repute of her power among the Huaxtec spread her cult to the Aztecs, Maya, and other peoples across Mexico: the many nations giving homage to a common mother, the Mother Goddess of the Gulf of Mexico.