Feathered Serpent Head


Not on view

Builders at the city of Teotihuacan created balustrades in form of descending serpents so that those entering a grand staircase would be greeted by the roaring heads of monumental, supernatural reptiles. Sculptors formed this snarling example of such a head from hard volcanic stone. The serpent’s head displays conventionalized features consistent with many of the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic forms in Teotihuacan sculpture and mural painting. The deep-set eyes are surrounded by feathers, and the nostrils also flare with feathered texture. The sculptor formed the mouth by carving out negative space from the prominent lips separated by an incised cleft. Three large fangs are present on each side of the mouth, demarcated by deep holes connecting to the main mouth cavity. The cheeks are lined with what could represent scales. Extending from the eyebrow and curling around into a circle behind the head is another line of feathers. The feathered eyebrow is a motif on serpents that has a deep antiquity in Mesoamerican art. Traces of red pigment are visible on the frontal fangs, suggesting that this would have once been brightly painted. The squared nature of this head suggests that it comes from the earlier phase of one of Teotihuacan’s other pyramids, which were often buried in the expansion of buildings over time.

Supernatural feathered serpents feature prominently in the art of Teotihuacan and were associated with cosmological narratives, rulership, and militarism. Architects recreated the sacred landscape of a pyramid as a primordial mountain with feathered serpents emerging from its rocky facades. The leaders ascending or descending the stairs flanked by such feathered serpent balustrades would have centered themselves in this otherworldly landscape for ritual performances. The Feathered Serpent Pyramid, one of the three largest buildings at Teotihuacan, has balustrades that feature such serpent heads emerging from floral motifs, their bodies undulating on the adjacent tiers of the façade.

Further reading

Berrin, Kathleen, and Esther Pasztory. Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1993.

Carballo, David M., Kenneth G. Hirth, and Barbara Arroyo. Teotihuacan: The World Beyond the City. Dumbarton Oaks, 2020.

Cabrera Castro, Rubén, Saburo Sugiyama, and George L. Cowgill. The Templo de Quetzalcoatl Project at Teotihuacan: A Preliminary Report. Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 77-92, 1991.

Cowgill, George L. State and Society at Teotihuacan. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26, pp. 129-161, 1997.

Headrick, Annabeth. The Teotihuacan Trinity: The Sociopolitical Structure of an Ancient Mesoamerican City. University of Texas Press, 2007.

López Luján, Leonardo, Laura Filloy Nadal, Barbara W. Fash, William L. Fash, and Pilar Hernández. The Destruction of Images in Teotihuacan: Anthropomorphic Sculpture, Elite Cults, and the End of a Civilization. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 49/50, pp. 12-39, Spring-Autumn, 2006.

Manzanilla, Linda R. Cooperation and tensions in multiethnic corporate societies using Teotihuacan, Central Mexico, as a case study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 112, no. 30, pp. 9210-9215, 2015.

Murakami, Tatsuya. Entangled Political Strategies: Rulership, Bureaucracy, and Intermediate Elites at Teotihuacan. In Sarah Kurnick and Joanne Baron, eds., Political Strategies in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, pp. 153-179. University Press of Colorado, 2016.

Pasztory, Esther. Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Robb, Matthew. Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.

Ruiz Gallut, María Elena, and Jesús Torres Peralta, eds. Arquitectura y urbanismo: pasado y presente de los espacios en Teotihuacan: Memoria de la Tercera Mesa Redonda de Teotihuacan. Mexico City, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2005.

Sarro, Patricia J., and Matthew H. Robb. Passing through the Center: The Architectural and Social Contexts of Teotihuacan Painting. In Cynthia Kristan-Graham and Laura M. Amrhein, eds., Memory Traces: Analyzing Sacred Space at Five Mesoamerican Sites, pp. 21-43. University Press of Colorado, 2015.

Sugiyama, Nawa, Gilberto Pérez, Bernardo Rodríguez, Fabiola Torres, and Raúl Valadez. Animals and the State: The Role of Animals in State-Level Rituals in Mesoamerica. In Benjamin S. Arbuckle and Sue Ann McCarty, eds., Animals and Inequality in the Ancient World, pp. 11-31. University Press of Colorado, 2015.

Sugiyama, Saburo. Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Taube, Karl A. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Cult of Sacred War at Teotihuacan. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 21, pp. 53-87, Spring, 1992.

White, Christine D., Michael W. Spence, Fred J. Longstaffe, Hilary Stuart-Williams, and Kimberly R. Law. Identities of the Sacrificial Victims from the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan: Implications for the Nature of State Power. Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 217-236, 2002.

Feathered Serpent Head, Stone, pigment, Teotihuacan

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