Coyolxāuhqui, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City. Photo by Frank Nowikowski/Alamy.
Nuestra tarea is to envision Coyolxauhqui, not dead and decapitated, but with eyes wide open. Our task is to light up the darkness.
Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro
Iquiza-Tonatiuh / Sunrise to Noon
Under waxing moonlight on February 21, 1978, two electrical workers, Mario Alberto Espejel Pérez and Jorge Valverde Ledezma, were digging a hole for an electrical transformer seven feet underground when their shovel hit a hard stone. They wiped mud from its surface and its carved feathers compelled them to tell their boss, who called Raúl Martín Arana Álvarez, an archaeologist. Raúl could meet the stone only at night. Its location: the corner of Guatemala and Argentina Streets near Mexico City’s main zócalo, Plaza de la Constitución, right next to the Catedral Metropolitana. Cars buzzed above the stone, covered by boards, during the day; Mario and Jorge continued unearthing the stone at night.
On February 23, under a glowing full moon and in deep silence, Raúl encountered the stone’s feathers, a plume. He said he immediately realized “the majesty of what was in front of me.” Goose bumps electrified his skin. Emotions knotted themselves in his throat. Raúl disappeared into “an emptiness inside of himself” and after fifteen minutes came to and immediately fetched his boss, Dr. Ángel García Cook. Upon glimpsing the feathers, Ángel commanded the electrical workers to “never touch the stone again.” The archaeologists took over.
Over the next seven weeks, the archaeologists exhumed the stone’s body: a monolith with a diameter of ten feet, seven inches, almost a foot thick and weighing nineteen thousand pounds. The carvings into pink andesite, a type of volcanic rock, were over five hundred years old.
The stone depicts a feathered headdress that adorns a head severed from a woman’s body. Her torso lies in the center of the stone, wreathed by her torn limbs. Femur and humerus bones peek out from her flesh. Her palms lay open. The ocher in the stone’s pores indicates that the background would have been painted red like a pool of blood. She’s been stripped of clothing, her enemy’s effort to humiliate her before death. Hanging full breasts—one slightly larger than the other—and belly rolls tell us this woman was a mother. But she is not completely naked. Knotted serpents circle her calves. Her limb’s sandals, bracelets, and earrings communicate wealth. Monsters cup her elbows and knees, linking her to female deities associated with trouble and chaos. A serpent-and-skull belt signals that she herself is a deity of Earth and of night’s darkness. But it is the bells on her cheeks that confirm her identity. She’s the moon—Coyolxauhqui, la Luna—and her eyes are open.
José López Portillo, Mexico’s president at the time, requested a meeting with the “goddess of the moon.” Upon seeing the slaughtered woman, he immediately ordered that “the colonial buildings in the area collapse” so excavation could continue. Mexico City was once the great city of Tenochtitlan, ruled by one of the groups of Nahua people known as the ancient Mexihcah, often called Aztecs. The electrical workers not only encountered the Coyolxauhqui Stone but also revealed the lost ruins of Hueyi Teocalli, now called El Templo Mayor, the great temple at the heart of the Mexihcah universe.
On August 13, 1521, after a ninety-three-day siege, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish, led by the colonizer Hernán Cortés. Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world at the time and, before Columbus, the largest city in the Americas. The conquistadores destroyed the Hueyi Teocalli temple, dismembered its body, as well as the other temples and palaces in the sacred precinct, and used the stones to build their cathedral and other colonial buildings. The Mexihcah’s profound loss included not just their lives, culture, land, and sacred temple but also the site of the temple. Workers found bits of the sacred precinct earlier in the twentieth century during a demolition, but politics and the power of the wealthy who lived in that upper-class residential area wouldn’t permit further excavation. But now, the ruins of the greatest temple in Tenochtitlan had reemerged from Earth’s dark soil, from colonial plunder, into the light.
Dr. Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, shared the same last name with the final ruler of Tenochtitlan. The archaeologist described the Coyolxauhqui Stone to a reporter: “I think it is the most important Aztec sculpture we have ever found, even more than the so-called Aztec calendar or Sun Stone. . . . It shows great artistic freedom. . . . You can feel the movement of the body. Even the hands have fingerprints carved on them.” Carved between 1502 and 1521, the Sun Stone encapsulated the complex Mexihcah calendar. While installing drains, sidewalks, and sewers in Plaza de la Constitución in 1790, workers discovered the Sun Stone. At the time, the lost Coyolxauhqui Stone was buried close by.
You can now meet the Coyolxauhqui Stone face-to-face at the Templo Mayor Museum. You’ll notice that her face, round and gray like the moon, is fractured. At the base of the temple, sprinkled around Coyolxauhqui, archaeologists also found human skulls.
Seven years ago, I found myself in a place where my Mexican ancestors’ careful calendars wouldn’t have worked: Antarctica, or “the Ice,” as the people who live there call her. When I first learned that an ordinary, nonscientist like me could work on the Ice, I asked my friend Mandy, an artist who had worked there as a janitor, what it was like. She paused, pursed her lips, and said: “Like the moon.”
On the Ice, I experienced time the same way people everywhere do at the most basic level: through the cycles, the circles, of celestial bodies—including my own. But Antarctica queered my relationship with planets and stars and moons.
I imagined feeling awe as I wandered through pale lunar snowscapes, but instead, Antarctica’s summer sun, her cold medicine, threw me. Midnight—bright and pale blue—looks exactly like noon. When I lifted my bare face to receive the warmth of the sun’s ancient light, I felt only coldness. I grew tired of endless daylight and longed to retreat into night.
In Antarctica, time is syrupy, slow. Day and night and twilight and noon all stretch—or disappear—altogether. At the South Pole, the very bottom of the planet, each year contains only one day and one night. But where I lived—at a research station almost eight hundred miles from the pole—there are 132 days in a year. Summer’s longest day there—when the sun swirls above us in a lopsided ellipse—is really 119 days long, an endless noon. Likewise, the polar night, the complete absence of the sun, lasts 116 days. During the other 130 days, the sun rises and sets every day.
For Western countries, like the United States, that conceptualize time as a straight line, the day begins and ends at midnight. For some ancient Mesoamericans, the day began at sunrise. For the Mexihcah, it was noon.
Nepantla-Tonatiuh / Noon to Sunset
To the Mexihcah, time moved in cycles, guided by the rhythms of round celestial bodies: the moon, the stars, and Venus—the morning star. But their sense of time centered on the sun’s movements, itself a sphere and moving in circles. How could time be anything but round?
Like other ancient Mesoamerican people, the Mexihcah created a multidimensional calendar system that measured time and space. The Mexihcah organized the universe into four horizontal quadrants, each linked to a cardinal direction—east, north, west, south. Each quadrant had its own associated energies, beings, meanings, rituals, ofrendas, fiestas, and ceremonies.
They also divided the world into three vertical levels. Topan, the upperworld, with thirteen levels, is where the sun and moon dwelled. Humans lived in Tlalticpac, Earth, the single-plane middleworld. Mictlan, the underworld, had nine levels.
Twointertwining calendars comprised the Mexihcah’s calendar system. The first calendar, Xiuhpohualli, was 365 days long and marked one of Earth’s rotations around the sun. Its eighteen different twenty-day periods, called cempoalilhuitl, each came under the influence of one of the four directions. The cempoalilhuitl totaled 360 days. The other five days of the year—the liminal and unlucky nemontemi, or “nameless” days, during which activity ceases as much as possible—ended the solar year.
The second calendar, Tonalpohualli, was a 260-day-long ritual calendar. It consists of thirteen distinct twenty-day cycles. Each day is associated with a direction and a name. Ehecatl—Wind. Miquiztli—Death. Xochitl—Flower. Similarly, each of the twenty-day cycles is associated with one of thirteen deities: Mayahuel, a goddess associated with agave. Xochiquetzal, a goddess associated with fertility, beauty, and love. But Coyolxauhqui wasn’t one of the thirteen deities.
In the green world—the world outside of Antarctica—the sun had always spoken to me in shadow, but I never paid attention. I started to listen, attuning to time by glancing at shadows falling from buildings or watching the migration of light across rooms. My world became a sundial. For the first time, I understood, deep in my bones, why my ancestors held the sun in such reverence.
Antarctica is a unique desert—a thirty-four-million-year-old winter—holding most of the world’s ice and snow and 90 percent of Earth’s freshwater. In some places, the ice is three miles thick and buries entire mountain ranges as high as the Rockies. Antarctica’s glaciers—themselves older than humanity—are so heavy they crush the land beneath them deeper into Earth’s mantle. Yet it hardly snows here, which is why it is technically a desert.
Antarctica holds time, ancestors, in her layered body. Penguin and seal mummies, leathered and yellowed, dot the ground in nearby snow-free valleys. Millennia-old, miles-thick ice holds tiny pockets of ancient air, the atmosphere frozen in time. Entombed deep inside glaciers are astounding liquid lakes, home to living bacteria. We recently learned to reach these subglacial lakes by drilling through ice. The surface of Lake Vostok, the deepest known one, lies over two miles beneath our surface. Even that far down, though, the lake feels the moon’s pull and has tides, like ovaries. Below its ice floor: fossils from the supercontinent Gondwana’s ancient forest mix with bones—not dinosaur bones but the bones of dinosaurs’ ancestors.
Antarctica is the easiest place in the world to find meteorites. Glaciers cradle cosmic debris and move like conveyor belts. When glaciers meet the Transantarctics—a line of mountains crossing the continent like a spine—meteorites churn upward, emerge, and rest on the surface. Teams of scientists crisscross the snow on Ski-doos, collecting meteorites that reveal answers to deep cosmic time. It’s almost as if, by handing us meteorites so easily, Antarctica speaks.
In Mexihcah myth, there are a few stories about how the sun and the moon came to be.
In one, Coatlicue, who is Mother Earth, sweeps the temple on Coatepec, Serpent Mountain. A ball of feathers falls into her lap, impregnating her with Huitzilopochtli, the sun and god of war, often depicted as a blue hummingbird. In response, Coatlicue’s daughter, Coyolxauhqui, and all of Coatlicue’s four hundred star-sons decide to murder her. As the stars decapitate their mother, Huitzilopochtli emerges from Coatlicue’s womb fully armed. He decapitates his sister, Coyolxauhqui, and throws her broken body down Coatepec. When he tosses her head into the sky, it becomes the moon. He then slaughters each of his four hundred brothers.
To the Mexihcah, this story is reenacted every day at dawn. Huitzilopochtli disappears into the underworld at night and is reborn to the upperworld, emerging from Earth’s horizon, defeating the moon and stars.
In 2017, when I was already in Antarctica, I decided to stay for the winter. Living there for a full cycle around the sun meant I would not glimpse the sun’s yolk for over four months.
The last time I saw the sun was in April, the end of Antarctic autumn. A slight glow skimmed the sea then morphed into a calming orange curve in an otherwise blue world. A week later, as dozens of us gathered, performing the Antarctic ritual of watching the last sunset, clouds flooded the sky, smothering the sun. Panic seeped into my chest. We wouldn’t see the sun again until August. I feared what the sun’s absence, sunlight’s absence, would do to me. What if I broke?
The official sunset came and went. The sun abandoned us. I lingered, stunned, staring at the place where the sun should have appeared and for the first time I could understand, deep in my bones, how my ancesters could have worshipped the sun as a god. The long polar night—all 116 days of it—had begun. As the sun embarked on its journey into the underworld, so did I. But to the northwest, a white slice of the waning moon lingered over the horizon, hiding behind clouds. Sometimes, ancestors are not what you expect them to be.
Oaqui-Tonatiuh / Sunset to Midnight
Huitzilopochtli led the Mexihcah from Aztlan, their mythical homeland, to a new home. Through a dream, Huitzilopochtli told a priest he would know the place when he saw an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its beak, which turned out to be an uninhabited swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The image is now emblazoned on the heart of the Mexican flag. The island became the city of Tenochtitlan, and eventually Mexico City.
Hueyi Teocalli was a dual shrine to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, a god of earthly fertility and water. The Mexihcah meant for the temple’s height and bulk to mimic Coatepec, where Huitzilopochtli was born and butchered Coyolxauhqui. It was also meant to symbolize the universe: the four-sided pyramid had thirteen layers like the upperworld.
The Mexihcah rebuilt Hueyi Teocalli six times. But instead of demolishing the temple and rebuilding it, they wrapped another layer of stone around the existing temple. As the archaeologists dug through the temple’s layers—through time—they found images of Coyolxauhqui at the base of each version of the temple in the same location: at the base of the stairs, as Huitzilopochtli had thrown her down Serpent Mountain.
The winter solstice—celebrated with dances, music, and food—took place during Panquetzaliztli, the fifteenth month of the solar calendar dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. As part of the solstice, the Mexihcah reenacted the myth of Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui at the Hueyi Teocalli temple in a ritual called the Raising of the Banner. Archaeologists and historians believe that captured enemy warriors were marched across the Coyolxauhqui Stone on their way to the top of Hueyi Teocalli. The Mexihcah painted their captives’ skin blue, like Huitzilopochtli’s, and after sacrificing them to the sun, they threw their decapitated and dismembered bodies down the temple’s stairs, aiming for the Coyolxauhqui Stone.
After the sun abandoned us in April, its glow didn’t disappear right away. Twilight lingered until the darkness of outer space consumed our sky, and the world seemed to end at the rim of the station’s floodlights. Noon was crow-black. In summer, time stretched and contracted. But in winter, it stopped. My life before Antarctica, especially before winter, felt distant, unreal. The possibility of exiting the darkness through a sunrise seemed absurd.
I craved the sun. My eyes felt physically empty. But the deeper I went into winter, the more I entrusted myself to its dark womb, I found light. The flow of green auroras fed my eyes, my heart, my belly. The freckled Milky Way, too. But amid the nourishing darkness, moonlight fed my whole body.
During the thickest dark of winter, as midwinter—the solstice—approached, I met Coyolxauhqui, June’s full moon.
Yohualneplantla / Midnight to Sunrise
Where did all this ice, this water—Antarctica’s watery body, the ocean’s body, our bodies—come from?
When scientists investigated the rocks that astronauts retrieved from the moon, they were surprised to learn that Earth and the moon were made of some of the same substances. They then confirmed Antarctica had given us not only a harvest of meteorites but also chunks of the moon and Mars. Through their flesh, now in our hands, the moon and Mars spoke of deep time. Humans came up with a theory, the giant-impact hypothesis.
At one time, Earth was a protoplanet, an embryo. Its interior melted, forming a core—a heart. A different protoplanet, Theia, an ice-crusted ball the size of Mars, orbited the sun. Nearly 4.5 billion years ago, Theia and Earth collided, exploding both embryonic worlds. Their layers melted and vaporized in a collision that released one hundred million times more energy than the Chicxulub asteroid that slammed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and supposedly killed the dinosaurs. The force flung red-hot molten debris, like blood, from Earth’s and Theia’s broken bodies. The ejecta orbited around them in the upperworld of outer space, held by gravity. A sphere formed, an ocean of magma, and eventually coagulated into the moon. Earth and Theia fused. Most of the water on Earth—most of Antarctica’s body, most of our bodies—was originally icy Theia.
I slept in a hut atop a glacier with some friends. That night, the wind stayed still and clouds were elsewhere. When we arrived, the moon not only radiated, but a crown of light haloed the moon’s body—a moon dog. We photographed ourselves holding the moon as moonlight held us. The glow of the snow was so bright we didn’t need flashlights. Afterward, we went into the hut and ate, drank, and laughed until we crawled into bed.
My bladder woke me around three in the morning and refused to let me sleep. I pulled on my parka and boots and went outside—alone—to the outhouse. The atmosphere swelled with silence. The ambient temperature: at least negative twenty degrees Celsius, if not colder. Everyone inside still slept. If I slipped and fell and couldn’t get up, I could die.
I paused, my attention drawn upward by the moon. I was probably the only human outside on the entire continent. I gazed at the moon and the moon gazed back. I was not alone. Coyolxauhqui reflected her brother’s light to me. I wasn’t abandoned after all.
Through gravity, Coatlicue still holds the moon close. The moon steadies Earth’s wobble on its axis, giving us the four seasons—and life. We were born from shattered worlds, and we are alive because of a wound, a scar—our own gray Coyolxauhqui—circling the sky.
Like the moon, our bodies are made of Earth and Theia. We are Coyolxauhqui’s siblings. My connection to her is deep. When my sister tugs on me, my inner tide follows. When Coyolxauhqui is full and luminous, my ovary releases a little orb of its own, an egg, a potential embryo, a possible world of its own.
Every fifty-two years, the Mexihcah’s 365-day solar calendar and 26-day ritual calendar sync on Xiuhmolpilli, the new year. But we don’t know exactly when they sync. When colonists stole Hueyi Teocalli’s former location, they also robbed us of the Mexihcah calendar’s exact dates. Scholars have a few theories. One believes the new year happens on February 22. Another proposes it’s on the spring equinox, March 20. But we do know the next fifty-two-year cycle begins in 2026.
On the night the two calendars aligned, the Mexihcah held the New Fire Ceremony, Xiuhmolpilli, the “binding of the years.” They stitched cycles of time together to stave off apocalyptic catastrophe. They believed the sun might not return, might abandon them, and that the world might be destroyed. As part of the ritual, they purified themselves and their homes, extinguishing all fires. They even threw out their hearthstones so they wouldn’t be associated with the old time cycle. A new fire was lit on a sacrificed man’s chest. Once the fire caught, his heart was removed and used to feed the fire. Its sparks seeded a bonfire, which relit all fires, from temples to homes. A new cycle began and the heart-on-fire ensured the return of the sun.
Light sweetened the sky, swelling midday. The black of noon eventually softened into blue—twilight. The rhythm of time had returned. I was torn. I was unready for the sun, who was just below the horizon. I wanted to keep sheltering in the black silk of winter. My heart felt unready for civilization and summer’s dizzying energy, but my body craved warmth, light, and greenery.
In August, as Huitzilopochtli emerged from the underworld—when we both did—Antarctica swallowed us in a gray ten-day-long storm that rattled buildings. When the storm’s ferocity broke, I climbed Observation Hill, a large pyramid-shaped lava dome topped by a life-sized cross on the edge of the station. The iced and steep scree-covered hill was my best chance to see the sun for the first time since April. It was just after noon. Coyolxauhqui—the waning moon—looked on as I climbed, as her brother, fire in the sky, emerged from behind clouds. The three of us met face to face; no one was thrown from the mountain. I stared and stared at the sun until my eyes were full of light.
Note: Macrons (lines over some vowels) appear in the original print version. We have removed those markers due to constraints on our website.
Stephanie Krzywonos (kriz – won – us) (she/her/hers) is a Mexican-American nonfiction writer who returned to Antartica six times and is currently crafting her first book, Ice Folx: An Antarctic Memoir, forthcoming from Harper in 2025. Read more of her writing at stephaniekrzywonos.com. Photo by Jenn Annibal.
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