Quetzalcoatl: History and Mythology of the Aztec ‘Feathered Serpent’ God

QuetzalcoatlArtwork by GENZOMAN (DeviantArt)

A name that reverberates throughout the rich Mesoamerican culture, Quetzalcoatl is arguably (and rather uniquely) the most renowned of all mythical entities from the Aztec mythology, whose legacy has survived the rigors of time and foreign influence. Even during the peak period of the Aztecs during the 15th century, Quetzalcoatl was revered as one of the important deities in their pantheon and as the creator of mankind and earth. In essence, he was often venerated as an ancestor god who in the mythical narrative ‘carved out’ the lineage of various Mesoamerican groups.

Depictions of Quetzalcoatl –

Quetzalcoatl
‘Feathered Serpent’ head at the Ciudadela complex in Teotihuacan. Source: Sonoma.edu

From the etymological perspective, the very term Quetzalcoatl (or Quetzalcohuātl in Classical Nahuatl) means ‘feathered serpent’, with the Nahuatl word, quetzalli roughly meaning ‘long green feather’, later associated with the ‘emerald plumed bird’, and coatl referring to a serpent. Unsurprisingly, many depictions of Quetzalcoatl pertain to a serpent, with the probable earliest known representation of the god found at the Olmec site of La Venta. The stela, dating from some time between 1200 – 400 BC, portrays a serpent rearing its head behind a person (possibly a priest). More elaborate depictions of the ‘feathered’ serpent version are found at the six-tiered pyramid built in the god’s honor at Teotihuacan, dating from circa 3rd century AD.

However, given the diversity of cultures in Mesoamerica and ever-evolving nature of myths and lore, Quetzalcoatl was also portrayed in forms that went beyond the morphology of serpents. To that end, dating from circa 700 – 900 AD, there are a few representations of Quetzalcoatl, especially from the site of Xochicalco (a pre-Columbian site that was settled by Mayan traders) that are distinctly human in form.

Quite incredibly, the ‘human’ nature of Quetzalcoatl influenced the later Toltec rulers, so much so that they might have even venerated and equated Quetzalcoatl to a king. To that end, the feats of the 10th century Toltec king Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, who was said to have ruled over the mythico-historic city of Tollan, are almost inseparable from the legends of the god himself.

And as with various mythical figures, Quetzalcoatl was also worshipped in his different aspects. For example, it his aspect of Quetzalcoatl-Ehécatl, the god was depicted with a duckbill mask protruding with fangs and shell jewelry known as the ehecailacocozcatl (‘wind breastplate’). As for his aspect of Quetzalcoatl-Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the deity was portrayed with an ominous black facemask, complemented by an opulent headdress and darts representing the rays of the morning star.  

Origins and History of Quetzalcoatl –

Source: MexicoLore

As we fleetingly mentioned in the earlier entry (referring to the Olmec depiction of the serpent god), the cult of the serpent in Mesoamerica predates the Aztecs by almost 2,000-years. The worship of the ‘Feathered Serpent’ as a definite deity possibly started in Teotihuacan, the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, by circa 1st century AD. After the fall of Teotihuacan by circa early 7th century AD, the obeisance of the ‘Feathered Serpent’ didn’t stop but rather spread to other Mesoamerican urban centers, including Xochicalco, Cholula, and even Chichen Itza of the Maya people – as could be discerned from the iconography of the period.

Thus the ‘Feathered Serpent’ was also known as Kukulkán to the Maya of Yucatan (possibly having its origins in Waxaklahun Ubah Kan, the War Serpent or the even older Vision Serpent) and Gucumatz (or Qʼuqʼumatz) to the Quiché of Guatemala. And as we described before, the Toltec rulers continued the tradition of venerating Quetzalcoatl through their own mythico-historical association of rulers with the deity. For example, there might have been a Toltec warlord with the namesake Quetzalcoatl, possibly also known as Kukulkán, who invaded the Yucatan in the early Post-Classic Period (circa 900 AD). Similarly, another legendary Toltec ruler Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl was hailed as the son of Mixcoatl, a renowned Chichimeca warrior.

Interestingly enough, Mixcoatl was primarily perceived as the god of hunt in the later Aztec mythology. In essence, over the course of centuries, the Nahua-speaking tribes would adopt many of the legends of Quetzalcoatl (along with other Toltec myths) and mix them with their own native folklore, thus giving rise to the ubiquity of the mythical ‘Feathered Serpent’ and his motifs in the Aztec pantheon of gods by circa 15th century AD.

Lineage and Myths of Quetzalcoatl –

Artwork by Marmottegarou (DeviantArt)

Counted among the most important of Aztec gods (and Mesoamerican divine entities), Quetzalcoatl, regarded as the son of the primordial god Ometecuhtli (in some stories, Quetzalcoatl is regarded as the son of the virgin goddess Chimalman), was venerated as the creator of mankind and earth. In one version of the Aztec creation myth, the world was created and destroyed for four times (each age associated with the sun), with some of the tumultuous episodes being borne by the fighting between Quetzalcoatl and his brother Tezcatlipoca (‘Smoking Mirror’). Ultimately during the Fifth Sun, Quetzalcoatl was successfully able to retrieve the human bones from the underworld Mictlan (guarded by the realm’s ruler – Mictlantecuhtli)  that were infused with his own blood and corn to once again ‘regenerate’ mankind.

In another myth, the god along with his brother Tezcatlipoca fashions the earth out of Cipactli, a female serpent-like monster. Consequently, her hair and skin give way to trees and flowers, while her eyes and nose account for the caverns and springs. However, given the violent loss of her physical form, the monster (now embodying the earth) thirsts for blood and hearts – thus alluding to the grisly practice of human sacrifice. Quite interestingly, in some Aztec traditions, Quetzalcoatl opposes human sacrifice possibly for this very same reason – as the practice goes against the legacy of the gods defeating the bloodthirsty monster.

Talking of sacrifice, in yet another myth, Tezcatlipoca tricks Quetzalcoatl into getting drunk by on pulque (alcoholic drink fermented from the sap of maguey plant) by masking it as a medicinal drink. The inebriated god then goes on to flirt with his own sister – the celibate Quetzalpetlatl, thereby hinting at some form of incest. Waking up next morning, the remorseful Quetzalcoatl willingly sets himself on fire (thereby sacrificing himself), and consequently his ashes and heart rise up to the sky to transform into the radiant morning star (Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli or aspect of Venus).

Attributes –

The question can be raised – why was the deity particularly associated with a serpent. Well, according some scholars, the snake in its most basic form in Mesoamerican culture might have represented the earth and the vegetation. Archaeologist Karl Taube hypothesized, the feathered serpent, by virtue of its ‘evolved’ morphology, may have been associated with fertility as well as the intricate political classes of the region. In Aztec circles, Quetzalcoatl probably also symbolized one section of agricultural activities that pertained to the very renewal of vegetation, while also being linked to the morning star or Venus (sometimes referred to as the evening star, symbolized by his twin brother Xolotl).

Interestingly enough, the duality of Quetzalcoatl and his brother Tezcatlipoca mirrors the mythical narrative of light and darkness. In that regard, Quetzalcoatl was often venerated as the god of light, rain, justice, mercy, and wind (along with even knowledge, books, and poetry); while contrastingly, Tezcatlipoca was considered as the god of night, deceit, sorcery, and the Earth. Another legacy, possibly borrowed from the earlier Toltecs, made Quetzalcoatl the patron god of priests, thus alluding to the symbol of death and resurrection. Furthermore, both Quetzalcoatl and his brother Tezcatlipoca were honored as Ipalnemohuani, meaning ‘by whom we live’, with the title giving credence to their statuses as creator gods.

Hernán Cortés and Quetzalcoatl –

Quetzalcoatl
Hernán Cortés dressed as Quetzalcoatl. Illustration by Adam Hook for Osprey Publishing

Like we discussed before, Tezcatlipoca was associated with night and darkness, whereas his equal yet opposite Quetzalcoatl was associated with light and thus possibly referred to as the White Tezcatlipoca. In some myths, Quetzalcoatl grows a beard and goes on to wear a white mask, thereby hinting at his erroneous representation as a white-bearded god. And it is this latter characterization that has been debated in the academic circles.

According to a previously held conventional theory, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II regarded the arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés on Mexican shores (in circa 1519 AD) as the return of Quetzalcoatl, given his ‘white bearded’ face. However, this connection of Quetzalcoatl-Cortés is not really found in any native document that is devoid of the post-Conquest Spanish influence.

Furthermore, historians have found only scarce evidence of such a foretelling of Quetzalcoatl’s return in pre-Hispanic traditions. Simply put, the narrative of Cortés fulfilling his role as the mythical Quetzalcoatl in the conquest of the Aztec territories might just have been propaganda from the Spanish side (to provide a veneer of pretext for their conquests) or an excuse from the Aztec side (to hide their inability to stop the conquistadors).

Endurance of Quetzalcoatl’s Legacy –

Quetzalcoatl
Artwork by Manzanedo (DeviantArt)

Interestingly enough, from the historical perspective, even decades before the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztec Empire fought against a tenacious enemy in the form of a confederacy of Eastern Nahuas, Mixtecs, Zapotecs and other associated tribes under them. The confederacy was known for both coveting and maintaining a major pilgrimage center at Cholula – the city dedicated to the worship of Quetzalcoatl. In essence, Quetzalcoatl was regarded as the ‘unifier’ deity who was to be venerated across tribal lines, on the basis of common social and political grounds.

This confederacy went on to provide logistical support to the Spanish conquistadors in their time and even went on to take control of the symbolic Cholula from a pro-Aztec faction. Over the course of years, many of their leaders gained important commercial routes and forged crucial economic ties with the Dominican order of the Spanish Imperial provinces in Mesoamerica. In the twist of irony, such ties with the foreigners rather bolstered their autonomy as native powers, thereby allowing for the preservation of indigenous traditions related to Quetzalcoatl for centuries to come.

And lastly, complex legacies of Quetzalcoatl in religious circles were also unexpectedly preserved by fringe groups, like some members of The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). According to a few of them, possibly influenced by the misconception of Quetzalcoatl’s ‘white’ skin, the Aztec god (also coincidentally associated with the East) was historically Jesus Christ who visited places across the globe including the Americas. However, it should be noted that officially the Mormon Church doesn’t endorse such a perspective, with one noted Mormon author categorizing this peculiar association as folklore.

Online Sources: McGill University / LACMA / World Digital Library / MexicoLore

Featured Image: Artwork by GENZOMAN (DeviantArt)

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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