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Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture - Vol. 2

By Michael S. Werner | Go to book overview



Quetzalcoatl is a Nahuatl (Mexica/Aztec) word that means plumage of the Quetzal bird (Quetzalli) snake (coatl). Quetzalcoatl usually is translated as feathered serpent and, given the high value placed on the feathers of the Quetzal bird, can mean precious serpent. In Mexica legends, myth, and artifacts, Quetzalcoatl appears most frequently as the wind god Ehecatl (wind serpent) who brings the rain clouds. Images of Quetzalcoatl abound in codices, carvings, and paintings. He wears his distinctive jewels cut from conch shell, and in his guise as Ehecatl he also wears a conical hat and a projecting mask through which he blows the wind. His temples are round and are associated with the whirlwind.

Images of serpents decked with feathers are ancient in Mesoamerica, the lands of high civilizations stretching from the north of Mexico into Central America. These images appear in the art of the Olmec before 800 B.C., and by A.D. 300 they are ubiquitous at Teotihuacan in the Basin of Mexico. There the serpent of sky water is paired with Tlaloc, the deity of earth and mountain water. Whether all these images refer to the deity known as Quetzalcoatl by the Mexica is difficult to prove.

The cult of Quetzalcoatl emerged at Xochicalco, Morelos, in approximately A.D. 800, and from there it was carried to Toltec Tula in approximately A.D. 900, perhaps by his priest-king and namesake, Quetzalcoatl Topiltzin. With the expansion of the Toltec Empire, the cult of the feathered serpent spread to the south and east of highland Mexico and into the highlands of Guatemala. Representations of Kukulcan, Yucatec Maya for Quetzalcoatl, are abundant in the northern Yucatán Peninsula, particularly at Chichen Itza.

During this militant phase Quetzalcoatl became known as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Lord of the Place of the House of the Dawn), closely associated with warfare and Venus as the morning star. Xolotl, who is associated with Venus as the evening star, served as his animal counterpart, or nahual. Quetzalcoatl and the dog-like Xolotl sometimes are considered twins.

By the Late Postclassic period ( 1350-1521) the god and the priests of the plumed serpent's cult were conflated, a situation that created confusion following the Conquest. In the myths recorded by the Europeans and later written by the survivors of the Conquest, Quetzalcoatl is both the patron of the Toltec priest-king Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl Topiltzin (One Reed Our Honorable Lord Quetzalcoatl) and a powerful creator-god combining aspects of the sky-dwelling bird with the earth-dwelling snake. He is the hombre-díos (man-god) of the Mexica world, tutelary saint of cities and founder of dynasties.


In early sources Quetzalcoatl as deity appears as one of the four sons born to the original creator couple. He and his "brother" Tezcatlipoca raise the sky to separate the heavens from the earth. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca then play major roles in the four creations and destructions of the living world. Each of these eras was referred to as a "sun."

After the fourth sun was destroyed by floods, and before the fifth sun dawned, the gods met in council to discuss the repopulation of the earth. They agreed that Quetzalcoatl should go to Mictlan, the land of the dead, and bring back the bones of deceased humankind. Although the lord of the underworld tried to stop him, Quetzalcoatl gathered the bones and ran with them to the earth's surface. Having escaped, he took the bones to the earth goddess who ground them in a metate (the traditional stone for grinding corn into meal). He then brought them back to life by offering his own blood.

Once humans had been reborn, the spirits had to determine what they would eat. Quetzalcoatl then changed himself into an ant and brought the gods kernels of maize out of the Mountain of Sustenance. The spirits found that corn was good, and the Mountain was split, providing all kinds of food for their new creations.

Finally, the gods gathered at the ancient capital of Teotihuacan to create the fifth sun by throwing themselves into a gigantic bonfire. In the version of the five suns creation myth recorded the missionary Bernardino de Sahagún shortly after the Conquest, even after the gods sacrificed themselves and the sun rose, it wobbled about and would not move. Then it was Ehecatl, the mighty wind, who put the sun in motion.

The universal appeal of the myth of Quetzalcoatl probably lies in its promise of rebirth and reincarnation. He is responsible for the resurrection of humankind, is associated with the cycle of maize, and is identified with the cyclical risings and settings of Venus.

Quetzalcoatl Topiltzin

At Tula Quetzalcoatl manifested himself as a priest-king born on the day "ce acatl" who took the god's name as his own. He came to symbolize the legitimization of urban power and authority in a world often threatened by the


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