Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent

The Feathered Serpent was a prominent supernatural entity or deity, found in many Mesoamerican religions. It was called Quetzalcoatl among the Aztecs, Kukulkan among the Yucatec Maya, and Q’uq’umatz and Tohil among the K’iche’ Maya. The double symbolism used in its name is considered allegoric to the dual nature of the deity, where being feathered represents its divine nature or ability to fly to reach the skies and being a serpent represents its human nature or ability to creep on the ground among other animals of the Earth, a dualism very common in Mesoamerican deities.

The earliest representations of feathered serpents appear in the Olmec culture (circa 1400-400 BCE). Most surviving representations in Olmec art, such as Monument 19 at La Venta and a painting in the Juxtlahuaca cave (see below), show it as a crested rattlesnake, sometimes with feathers covering the body, and often in close proximity to humans. It is believed that Olmec supernatural entities such as the feathered serpent were the forerunners of many later Mesoamerican deities, although experts disagree on the feathered serpent’s importance to the Olmec. 

The pantheon of the people of Teotihuacan (200 BCE – 700 CE) also featured a feathered serpent, shown most prominently on the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (dated 150-200 CE). Several feathered serpent representations appear on the building, including full-body profiles and feathered serpent heads. 

Buildings in Tula, the capital of the later Toltecs (950-1150 CE), also featured profiles of feathered serpents.

The Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl is known from several Aztec codices such as the Florentine codex, as well as from the records of the Spanish conquistadors. Quetzalcoatl was a bringer of knowledge, the inventor of books, and associated with the planet Venus.

The corresponding Mayan god Kukulkan was rare in the Classic era Maya civilization. However, in the Popol Vuh, the K’iche’ feathered serpent god Tepeu Q’uq’umatz is the creator of the cosmos.

The name Quetzalcoatl means “Feathered Serpent.” It brings together the magnificent green-plumed quetzal bird, symbolizing the heavens and the wind, and the snake, symbolizing the earth and fertility. Quetzalcoatl’s name can also be translated as “precious twin,” and in some myths, he had a twin brother named Xolotl, who had a human body and the head of a dog or of an ocelot, a spotted wildcat.

Quetzalcohu?tl [ketsa??ko.a?t?]) is a Mesoamerican deity whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and has the meaning of “feathered-serpent”.

To the Toltecs, who flourished in the region from the 800s to the 1100s, Quetzalcoatl was the deity of the morning and evening stars and the wind. When the Aztecs rose to power in the 1400s, they brought Quetzalcoatl into their pantheon and made him a culture hero, a bringer not just of life but also of civilization. These old myths merged with legends about a priest-king named Quetzalcoatl, possibly a real historical figure. Later as groups from central Mexico migrated into southern Mexico and the Yucatán peninsula, blending with the local Maya population, the Feathered Serpent took his place in the Mayan pantheon under the name Kukulcan.

The God. Quetzalcoatl was portrayed in two ways. As the Feathered Serpent, he was a snake with wings or covered with feathers. He could also appear in human form as a warrior wearing a tall, cone-shaped crown or cap made of ocelot skin and a pendant fashioned of jade or a conch shell. The pendant, known as the “wind jewel,” symbolized one of Quetzalcoatl’s other roles, that of Ehecatl, god of wind and movement. Buildings dedicated to this god were circular or cylindrical in shape to minimize their resistance to the wind.

According to some accounts, Quetzalcoatl was the son of the sun and of the earth goddess Coatlicue. He and three brother gods created the sun, the heavens, and the earth. In the Aztec creation myth, Quetzalcoatl’s cosmic conflicts with the god Tezcatlipoca brought about the creation and destruction of a series of four suns and earths, leading to the fifth sun and today’s earth.

At first there were no people under the fifth sun. The inhabitants of the earlier worlds had died, and their bones littered Mictlan, the underworld. Quetzalcoatl and his twin, Xolotl, journeyed to Mictlan to find the bones, arousing the fury of the Death Lord. As he fled from the underworld, Quetzalcoatl dropped the bones, and they broke into pieces. He gathered up the pieces and took them to the earth goddess Cihuacoatl (Snake Woman), who ground them into flour. Quetzalcoatl moistened the flour with his own blood, which gave it life. Then he and Xolotl shaped the mixture into human forms and taught the new creatures how to reproduce themselves.

Quetzalcoatl’s departure from his people was the work of his old enemy, Tezcatlipoca, who wanted people to make bloodier sacrifices than the flowers, jade, and butterflies they offered to Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca tricked Quetzalcoatl by getting him drunk and then holding up a mirror that showed Tezcatlipoca’s cruel face. Believing that he was looking at his own imperfect image, Quetzalcoatl decided to leave the world and threw himself onto a funeral pyre. As his body burned, birds flew forth from the flames, and his heart went up into the heavens to become Venus, the morning and evening star. Another version of the myth says that Quetzalcoatl sailed east into the sea on a raft of serpents. Many Aztecs believed that he would come back to his people one day after a period of 52 years. In the early 1500s, the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés took advantage of this belief by encouraging the people of Mexico to view him as the return of the hero-god Quetzalcoatl. 

The worship of a feathered serpent deity is first documented in Teotihuacan in the Late Preclassic through the Early Classic period (400 BCE–600CE) of Mesoamerican chronology—”Teotihuacan arose as a new religious center in the Mexican Highland, around the time of Christ…”—where-after it appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic (600–900 CE). In the Postclassic period (900 – 1519 CE) the worship of the feathered serpent deity was based in the primary Mexican religious center of Cholula. It is in this period that the deity is known to have been named “Quetzalcoatl” by his Nahua followers. In the Maya area he was approximately equivalent to Kukulcan and Gukumatz, names that also roughly translate as “feathered serpent” in different Mayan languages. In the era following the 16th-century Spanish Conquest a number of sources were written that describe the god “Quetzalcoatl” and relates him to a ruler of the mythical-historic city of Tollan called by the names “Ce Acatl”, “Topiltzin”, “Nacxitl” or “Quetzalcoatl”. It is a matter of much debate among historians to which degree, or whether at all, these narratives about this legendary Toltec ruler Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl describe actual historical events. Furthermore early Spanish sources written by clerics tend to identify the god-ruler “Quetzalcoatl” of these narratives with either Hernán Cortés or St. Thomas—an identification which is also a source of diversity of opinions about the nature of “Quetzalcoatl”.

Among the Aztecs, whose beliefs are the best-documented in the historical sources, Quetzalcoatl was related to gods of the wind, of Venus, of the dawn, of merchants and of arts, crafts and knowledge. He was also the patron god of the Aztec priesthood, of learning and knowledge.[6] Quetzalcoatl was one of several important gods in the Aztec pantheon along with the gods Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. 

A feathered serpent deity has been worshipped by many different ethno-political groups in Mesoamerican history. The existence of such worship can be seen through studies of iconography of different mesoamerican cultures, in which serpent motifs are frequent. On the basis of the different symbolic systems used in portrayals of the feathered serpent deity in different cultures and periods scholars have interpreted the religious and symbolic meaning of the feathered serpent deity in Mesoamerican cultures.

History of iconographic depictions

Feathered Serpent head at the Ciudadela complex in TeotihuacanThe earliest iconographic depiction of the deity is believed to be found on Stela 19 at the Olmec site of La Venta, depicting a serpent rising up behind a person probably engaged in a shamanic ritual. This depiction is believed to have been made around 900 BC, although probably not exactly a depiction of the same feathered serpent deity worshipped in classic and post-classic periods it shows the continuity of symbolism of feathered snakes in Mesoamerica from the formative period and on, for example in comparison to the Mayan Vision Serpent shown below.

Vision Serpent depicted on lintel 15 from Yaxchilan.The first culture to use the symbol of a feathered serpent as an important religious and political symbol was Teotihuacan. At temples such as the aptly named “Quetzalcoatl temple” in the Ciudadela complex, feathered serpents figure prominently and alternate with a different kind of serpent head. The earliest depictions of the feathered serpent deity were fully zoomorphic, depicting the serpent as an actual snake, but already among the Classic Maya the deity began acquiring human features.

In the iconography of the classic period Maya serpent imagery is also prevalent: a snake is often seen as the embodiment of the sky itself, and a vision serpent is a shamanic helper presenting Maya kings with visions of the underworld.

The archaeological record shows that after the fall of Teotihuacan that marked the beginning of the epi-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology around 600 AD, the cult of the feathered serpent spread to the new religious and political centers in central Mexico, centers such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla and Cholula. Feathered serpent iconography is prominent at all of these sites. Cholula is known to have remained the most important center of worship to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec/Nahua version of the feathered serpent deity, in the post-classic period.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xochicalco, adorned with a fully zoomorphic feathered SerpentDuring the epi-classic period a dramatic spread of feathered serpent iconography is evidence throughout Mesoamerica, and during this period begins to figure prominently at cites such as Chichén Itzá, El Tajín, and throughout the Maya area. Colonial documentary sources from the Maya area frequently speak of the arrival of foreigners from the central Mexican plateau often led by a man whose name translates as “Feathered Serpent”, it has been suggested that these stories recall the spread of the feathered serpent cult in the epi-classic and early post-classic periods.

In the post-classic Nahua civilization of central Mexico (Aztec) the worship of Quetzalcoatl was ubiquitous. The most important center was Cholula where the world’s largest pyramid was dedicated to his worship. In Aztec culture depictions of Quetzalcoatl were fully anthropomorphic. Quetzalcoatl was associated with the windgod Ehecatl and is often depicted with his insignia: a beak like mask.

On the basis of the Teotihuacan iconographical depictions of the feathered serpent, archaeologist Karl Taube has argued that the feathered serpent was a symbol of fertility and internal political structures contrasting with the War Serpent symbolizing the outwards military expansion of the Teotihuacan empire. Historian Enrique Florescano also analyzing Teotihuacan iconography shows that the Feathered Serpent was part of a triad of agricultural deities: the Goddess of the Cave symbolizing motherhood, reproduction and life, Tlaloc, god of rain, lightning and thunder and the feathered serpent, god of vegetation renewal. The feathered serpent was furthermore connected to the planet venus because of this planet’s importance as a sign of the beginning of the rainy season. To both Teotihuacan and Mayan cultures Venus was in turn also symbolically connected with warfare. 

While not usually feathered, classic Maya serpent iconography seems related to the belief in a sky, venus, creator, war and fertility related serpent deity. In the example from Yaxchilan the Vision Serpent has the human face of the young maize god, further suggesting a connection to fertility and vegetation renewal, the Mayan Young Maize god was also connected to Venus.

In Xochicalco depictions of the feathered serpent is accompanied by the image of a seated, armed ruler and the hieroglyph for the day sign 9 Wind. The date 9 wind is known to be associated with fertility, venus and war among the Maya and frequently occurs in relation to Quetzalcoatl in other Mesoamerican cultures.

On the basis of the iconography of the feathered serpent deity at sites such as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Chichén Itzá, Tula and Tenochtitlan combined with certain ethno-historical sources, historian David Carrasco has argued that the preeminent function of the feathered serpent deity throughout Mesoamerican history was as the patron deity of the Urban center, a god of culture and civilization.

In Aztec culture

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus.To The Aztecs Quetzalcoatl was, as his name indicates, a feathered serpent, a flying reptile (much like a dragon), who was a boundary maker (and transgressor) between earth and sky. He was also a creator deity having contributed essentially to the creation of Mankind. He also had anthropomorphic forms, for example in his aspects as Ehecatl the wind god. Among the Aztecs the name Quetzalcoatl was also a priestly title, as the most two important priests of the Aztec Templo Mayor were called “Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqui”. In the Aztec ritual calendar, different deities were associated with the cycle of year names: Quetzalcoatl was tied to the year Ce Acatl (One Reed), which correlates to the year 1519.

Myths Attributes

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano.The exact significance and attributes of Quetzalcoatl varied somewhat between civilizations and through history. Quetzalcoatl is one of the four sons of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, he was often considered the god of the morning star, and his twin brother Xolotl was the evening star (Venus). As the morning star he was known by the title Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, meaning “lord of the star of the dawn.” He was known as the inventor of books and the calendar, the giver of maize (corn) to mankind, and sometimes as a symbol of death and resurrection. Quetzalcoatl was also the patron of the priests and the title of the twin Aztec high priests.

 Most Mesoamerican beliefs included cycles of suns. Usually, our current time was considered the fifth sun, the previous four having been destroyed by flood, fire and the like. Quetzalcoatl allegedly went to Mictlan, the underworld, and created fifth-world mankind from the bones of the previous races (with the help of Chihuacoatl), using his own blood, from a wound in his penis, to imbue the bones with new life. 

His birth, along with his twin Xolotl, was unusual; it was a virgin birth, to the goddess Coatlicue.[citation needed] Alternatively, he was a son of Xochiquetzal and Mixcoatl.

One Aztec story claims that Quetzalcoatl was seduced by Tezcatlipoca into becoming drunk and sleeping with a celibate priestess (in some accounts, his sister Quetzalpetlatl) and then burned himself to death out of remorse. His heart became the morning star (see Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli).

Belief in Cortés as Quetzalcoatl and the fall of Tenochtitlan

Quetzalcoatl in human form, using the symbols of Ehecatl, from the Codex Borgia. Since the sixteenth century it has been widely held that the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II initially believed the landing of Hernán Cortés in 1519 to be Quetzalcoatl’s return. This has been questioned by ethno-historian Matthew Restall (and a great majority of others) who argues that the Quetzalcoatl-Cortés connection is not found in any document that was created independently of post-Conquest Spanish influence, and that there is little proof of a pre-Hispanic belief in Quetzalcoatl’s return. Most documents expounding this theory are of entirely Spanish origin, such as Cortés’s letters to Charles V of Spain, in which Cortés goes to great pains to present the naïve gullibility of the Aztecs in general as a great aid in his conquest of Mexico.

Much of the idea of Cortés being seen as a deity can be traced back to the Florentine Codex written down some 50 years after the conquest. In the codex’s description of the first meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés, the Aztec ruler is described as giving a prepared speech in classical oratorical Nahuatl, a speech which, as described in the codex written by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún and his Tlatelolcan informants, included such prostrate declarations of divine or near-divine admiration as,

“You have graciously come on earth, you have graciously approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you,”

and,

“You have graciously arrived, you have known pain, you have known weariness, now come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; may our lords come on earth.”

Subtleties in, and an imperfect scholarly understanding of, high Nahuatl rhetorical style make the exact intent of these comments tricky to ascertain, but Restall argues that Moctezuma politely offering his throne to Cortés (if indeed he did ever give the speech as reported) may well have been meant as the exact opposite of what it was taken to mean: politeness in Aztec culture was a way to assert dominance and show superiority. This speech, which has been widely referred to, has been a factor in the widespread belief that Moctezuma was addressing Cortés as the returning god Quetzalcoatl.

Other parties have also propagated the idea that the Mesoamericans believed the conquistadors, and in particular Cortés, to be awaited gods: Most notably the historians of the Franciscan order such as Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta. Some Franciscans at this time held millenarian beliefs and some of them believed that Cortés’ coming to the New World ushered in the final era of evangelization before the coming of the millennium. Franciscans such as Toribio de Benavente “Motolinia” saw elements of Christianity in the pre-columbian religions and therefore believed that Mesoamerica had been evangelized before, possibly by St. Thomas whom legend had it had “gone to preach beyond the Ganges”. Franciscans then equated the original Quetzalcoatl with St. Thomas and imagined that the Indians had long awaited his return to take part once again in Gods kingdom. Historian Matthew Restall concludes that:

“The legend of the returning lords, originated during the Spanish-Mexica war in Cortés’ reworking of Montezuma’s welcome speech, had by the 1550′s merged with the Cortés-as-Quetzalcoatl legend that the Franciscans had started spreading in the 1530′s.” (Restall 2001:114 )

Some scholarship still maintains the view that the Aztec Empire’s fall may be attributed in part to the belief in Cortés as the returning Quetzalcoatl, notably in works by David Carrasco (1982) and H. B. Nicholson (2001 (1957)). However, a majority of modern Meso-american scholars such as Matthew Restall (2003), James Lockhart (1994), Susan D. Gillespie (1989), Camilla Townsend (2003a, 2003b), Louise Burkhart, Michel Graulich and Michael E. Smith (2001) among others, consider the “Quetzalcoatl/Cortés myth” as one of many myths about the Spanish conquest which have risen in the early post-conquest period

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