Quetzalcoatl (kĕt´sälkôät´əl) [Nahuatl,=feathered serpent], ancient deity and legendary ruler of the Toltec in Mexico. The name is also that of a Toltec ruler, who is credited with the discovery of corn, the arts, science, and the calendar. It is unclear whether the ruler took his name from the god or as a great ruler was revered and later deified.

Quetzalcoatl, god of civilization, was identified with the planet Venus and with the wind; he represented the forces of good and light pitted against those of evil and darkness, which were championed by Tezcatlipoca. According to one epic legend, Quetzalcoatl, deceived by Tezcatlipoca, was driven from Tula, the Toltec capital, and wandered for many years until he reached his homeland, the east coast of Mexico—where he was consumed by divine fire, his ashes turning into birds and his heart becoming the morning star. Another version has him sailing off to a mythical land, leaving behind the promise of his return. Adopting the name, the Aztec linked it with the worship of the war god Huitzilopotchtli and applied it to some of their ranking priests. Montezuma viewed the Spanish invaders as the returning hosts of Quetzalcoatl. There is a great pyramid in honor of the deity at Cholula, and the sky-serpent motif in the mosaics at Mitla probably represents Quetzalcoatl. The famous Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacán is now regarded by some authorities as having been consecrated to a different god.

The figure who gave rise to the legendary Quetzalcoatl may have been an ancestor of his Maya counterpart, Kulkulcán. The Toltec of Tula moved southward, settled in SW Campeche, and in the 10th cent. under the leadership of Kulkulcán, a historical figure, occupied Chichén Itzá. Although probably assimilated into the Maya culture by this time, the invaders still employed Mexican architectural motifs (especially the feathered serpent) extensively. After the death of Kulkulcán he became the patron deity of Chichén Itzá, and most of the temples were dedicated to him. The symbol for both Quetzalcoatl and Kulkulcán, the serpent with quetzal feathers, has an obvious connection with serpent worship.

See L. Séjourné, Burning Water (tr. 1957).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Quetzalcoatl: Selected full-text books and articles

Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs By David Carrasco; Lindsay Jones; Scott Sessions University Press of Colorado, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Teotihuacan as an Origin for Postclassic Feathered Serpent Symbolism"
Man-Gods in the Mexican Highlands: Indian Power and Colonial Society, 1520-1800 By Serge Gruzinski; Eileen Corrigan Stanford University, 1989
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "From Quetzalcoatl to Motecuhzoma and Back"
Mindsteps to the Cosmos By Gerald S. Hawkins Harper & Row, 1983
Librarian's tip: Chap. Four "The Morning Star"
Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol By Jeff Karl Kowalski Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: "The Ciudadela, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, and Rulership" begins on p. 88
Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero By David Adams Leeming Oxford University Press, 1998 (3rd edition)
Librarian's tip: "Chimalman and Quetzalcoatl" begins on p. 18
The Wisdom of the Serpent: The Myths of Death, Rebirth and Resurrection By Joseph L. Henderson; Maud Oakes George Braziller, 1963
Librarian's tip: "The Disappearance of Quetzalcoatl" begins on p. 162
The Millennial New World By Frank Graziano Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: "Quetzalcoatl and Saint Thomas" begins on p. 180
Mexico before Cortez: Art, History, Legend By Ignacio Bernal; Willis Barnstone Doubleday, 1963
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Quetzalcoatl begins on p. 57
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