The Mexican national coat of arms has been part of Mexico’s history for centuries. It depicts a scene from the legend of the foundation of Tenochtitlan.
The legend has it that the Mexicas traveled from Aztlán, present-day Nayarit, in search of a sign from the god Huitzilopochtli telling them where to settle and establish their empire. The sign they were looking for was an eagle devouring a serpent while perched on a flowering nopal cactus on a small island in the middle of a lake. After a long journey, they finally found it in the Valley of Mexico in 1325, where they built the city of Tenochtitlan.
For the ancient Mexicans, the eagle symbolized the cosmic force of the sun, while the earth’s force was embodied in the image of the serpent. The eagle devouring the snake represents the communion of these vital forces. The nopal cactus, in addition to being an important source of food in prehispanic times, is part of the Mexican landscape and puts us symbolically within national territory.
After the conquest, the inhabitants of the new city asked the Spanish crown for permission to continue using the same seal, with a new frame of cactus branches to symbolize the tlatoanis who were vanquished during the conquest. This shield, with its well-known prehispanic origin, was used during the viceroyship.
In 1811, during the war of independence, the Supreme Governing Junta of America established in Zitácuaro by Ignacio Rayón, José Sixto Verduzco and José María Liceaga used the Mexican eagle as the seal for their official documents. This symbol was adopted by José María Morelos y Pavón for his flag and correspondence. On July 3, 1815, a decree was issued in Puruarán adopting the first symbols of a nation that was still fighting for its independence.
Once the republic had triumphed over the empire of Agustín de Iturbide, the Constitutional Congress issued a decree on April 14, 1823 redesigning the symbol to reflect the original tradition: the eagle in profile perched on a cactus eating a serpent. The imperial crown was replaced by branches of oak and laurel, symbols of victory.
Coins imprinted with this national seal were minted during the government of the first president of Mexico, Guadalupe Victoria, but it wasn’t until the era of President Porfirio Díaz that the eagle appeared on the national flag, at that time as a full frontal image with outstretched wings. A decree dated September 10, 1916, issued during the presidency of Venustiano Carranza, marked a return to the original design, which can still be seen today on the national flag.
The law of the Mexican national seal and flag states:
“The national seal is an image of the left profile of a Mexican eagle, with the wings raised so that their highest point is slightly above the eagle’s head. The wings are held slightly open as if in combat, and the feathers on the lower part of the wings almost touch the tail, whose feathers form a fan. It stands on its left claw on a flowering nopal cactus that emerges from a lake. Its right claw and beak hold a curving snake as if to devour it, in such a way as to harmonize with the whole. The cactus extends to each side. Two branches, one of oak in front of the eagle and the other of laurel on the opposite side, form the lower half of a circle, joined in the middle by a ribbon divided into three bands which, when the national seal is shown in color, correspond to the colors of the national flag.”