This lesson will explore the fascinating legend of the god Quetzalcoatl. This will include his role in various Mesoamerican civilizations and their mythology.
Who Is Quetzalcoatl?
Who is Quetzalcoatl? He is a connection between Earth and sky, the feathered serpent that was considered by some to be the creator of men and by others to be a contributing factor in the destruction of Aztec civilization. His story has been told by various Mesoamerican cultures since ancient times.
Quetzalcoatl in Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica is a term that refers to ‘middle’ America (meso means ‘middle’ in Greek). This region, stretching from Mexico to Panama, was home to numerous native groups prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Thanks to cultural diffusion, Pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica shared a number of characteristics, including religious practices and deities.
One deity that plays a particularly significant role throughout Mesoamerica is the god Quetzalcoatl. In the Central Mexican language Nahuatl, Quetzal is a brightly colored native bird, and Coatl means ‘snake.’ So Quetzalcoatl means ‘quetzal-snake,’ roughly translated to ‘feathered serpent’ or ‘plumed serpent.’
Quetzalcoatl in Early Mesoamerican Civilizations
The image of a plumed serpent first appears in one of Mesoamerica’s earliest civilizations, that of the Olmec. The Olmec civilization grew along the Gulf Coast of Southern Mexico from 1500 – 400 BCE. Around 900 BCE, a major trade and religious center grew at La Venta. It was from this location that Stela #19 was created, depicting a snake rising up behind a seated man, likely a shaman.
An Olmec painting in Juxtlahuaca shows a similar motif, depicting a rattlesnake with feathers. Although no mention is made of the name Quetzalcoatl, the Olmec’s role as a ‘mother culture’ may mean that they passed the idea of a feathered serpent to later civilizations.The earliest mention of Quetzalcoatl comes from the city of Teotihuacan in the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE. Records indicate that a temple dedicated to a plumed serpent played a prominent role in the city. Quetzalcoatl was considered the god of vegetation and fertility.
He was also connected to the planet Venus because of the planet’s relationship to the rainy season so necessary for the growth of crops.Feathered serpent motifs are found in other pre-Columbian centers as well, such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla and Cholula. Records show that in Cholula, the world’s largest pyramid was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. Due to his prominence in these urban centers, one historian argues that Quetzalcoatl also became the patron deity for major cities, a god of culture and civilization.
Role in Maya Civilization
The Maya civilization blossomed in Mesoamerica from approximately 2000 BCE until the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s. In the Maya pantheon, a version of Quetzalcoatl was known to the Quiche Maya as Gukumatz and to the Yucatec Maya as Kukulkan.
Despite the language variation, the role of the plumed serpent was of similar importance. In the Maya creation myth, the Popol Vuh, Gukumatz was the god of wind and rain. He joined together with another god, Tepeu, to create the world by simply thinking it into creation. The plumed serpent was seen as a mediator between the sky and the underworld, due to its features of both a bird and a snake.To the Maya, the Quetzal bird was a sacred animal, its blue-green tail feathers symbolizing the sky and vegetation and its bright scarlet-colored chests representing fire. A snake was considered a symbol of rebirth and regeneration since the shedding of their skin resulted in a layer of fresh skin underneath.
Images of feathered serpents are found in major Maya centers such as Chichen Itza and El Tajin.
Role in Aztec Civilization
It is from the records of the Aztecs that most is known about the role of Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs entered the valley of Mexico in the late 1200s CE and created an empire that was conquered by the Spanish in 1521.The Aztecs viewed Quetzalcoatl as the patron god of Aztec priests, learning and knowledge. Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazquias was the title for the priests of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Quetzalcoatl was also connected to the planet Venus and seen as a patron of the dawn, merchants, arts, and crafts. He was also related to gods of the wind and is sometimes shown in an anthropomorphic form as the wind god Ehecatl.
He was also known as the inventor of books and the calendar, the deity who gave maize (corn) to humanity, and sometimes as a symbol of death and resurrection.According to Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl was responsible for the creation of mankind. The Aztecs had a cyclical understanding of time, one cycle being created by the gods only to be destroyed to pave the way for the next cycle. After the fourth cycle was destroyed, the Aztecs believed that Quetzalcoatl went to Mictlan, the underworld, and created mankind from the bones of the previous worlds using his own blood from self-inflicted wounds.Another myth describes Quetzalcoatl as White Tezcatlipoca, presider over the West and god of light, mercy, and wind. His counterpart, Black Tezcatlipoca, presided over the North.
Black Tezcatlipoca was the god of darkness, the night, judgment, deceit, sorcery, and the earth. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca represented the Toltec idea of duality and often appeared in conflict. One story described Tezcatlipoca banishing Quetzalcoatl. In another story, Tezcatlipoca got Quetzalcoatl drunk and tricked him into sleeping with a priestess. Quetzalcoatl was so repentant that he lit his own funeral pyre and burnt himself. Other accounts say he sailed away on a raft of serpents.It was the self-banishment of Quetzalcoatl that caused some Aztecs to await his return in his human form, as a light-skinned, bearded man.
Coincidently, Quetzalcoatl was also connected with the calendar year Ce Acatl One Reed, which fell in the year 1519, the year the Spanish arrived in Mexico. Some accounts say that Montezuma, the Aztec emperor at the time, believed the Spanish leader, Hernan Cortes, to be the returning Quetzalcoatl and that he welcomed him into the city. This led to disastrous results for the Aztecs, as the Spanish eventually overtook the city and defeated them. Most historians discredit this claim, however.After the conquest, the role of Quetzalcoatl changed significantly. Catholic priests tried to associate Quetzalcoatl with St.
Thomas in their attempts to convert natives. Even some Mormon scholars claimed the white-skinned, bearded version of Quetzalcoatl was actually Jesus Christ, carrying out his conversion of the natives.
Although Quetzalcoatl took on a completely different role after the conquest, for hundreds of years he played a major part in the pantheon of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. A plumed serpent representing a sacred bridge between the heavens and Earth, giving life and knowledge, Quetzalcoatl provides a fascinating insight into the beliefs and culture of the Mesoamerican people.