The Eagle as Mexico's National Emblem
"And the eagle, the animal itself, was portrayed on money ..."
What is the origin of the Mexican national seal? The eagle has been the Mexican symbol and part of its national seal since Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. An Aztec (also known as Mexicas) legend refers to a long pilgrimage made by their people and how the god Huitzilopochtli would provide a sign to reveal where the Aztecs should settle. They discovered the sign on a small island in the valley of Mexico's main lake (Texcoco) where they saw an eagle standing on a nopal cactus, devouring a snake, and there they founded Tenochtitlán, which became México City.
During the time of colonial rule, and despite official prohibition, the image of the eagle and the snake on a cactus was reproduced several times, especially in architecture. First, it became a symbol of Creole nationalism and then part of Mexico's national seal.
In 1823, the Constituent Congress established the Mexican Republic and defined the national seal's features:"Let the seal be the Mexican eagle standing on its left claw, on a nopal cactus growing out from a rock in the lake, and holding with its left claw a snake displaying a menacing attitude of devouring it with its beak; and surrounding this coat of arms two branches, one of laurel and the other of holm oak, according to the design used by the Government of the first supporters of Independence."
Although the order that established the features of the national seal was detailed, at the same time it was vague enough to encourage variations in design. The national seal appeared in a wide range of variations on Mexican coinage throughout the 19th century, some with an eagle seen from the side or facing forward, some with eagles bigger than others, and some with eagles with larger or smaller extended wings, among others.
In 1905 the Mexican monetary system underwent an important reform. The gold standard was adopted, bimetallism was abandoned, the peso was introduced as a monetary unit (equivalent to 75 centigrams of pure gold), and the legend surrounding the national seal changed to ESTADOS UNIDOS MEXICANOS (United Mexican States). During the 20th century new varieties of the national seal were created.
In 1966, the Mexican Congress consulted expert scholars to create new legislation defining the characteristics of the National Seal, influenced by its pre-Hispanic origin. Today the Mexican seal consists of heraldic figures of pre-conquest origin (the eagle, serpent, nopal cactus, rock), with other symbols created during the colonial period (water, laurel and oak branches), as well as contemporary Mexican legends.