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Quetzalcoatl

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.

It is likely that the figure who gave rise to the legendary Quetzalcoatl was 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 and founded the cities of Uxmal and Mayapán. 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).

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Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl

For thousands of years, Quetzalcoatl was one of the most important figures in the traditional mythologies of Mesoamerica. As deity, culture hero, or legendary ruler, Quetzalcoatl appeared in some of the region's most powerful and enduring stories. He represented life, motion, laughter, health, sexuality, and the arts and crafts of civilization, such as farming, cooking, and music.

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.


Mesoamerica cultural region consisting of southern Mexico and northern regions of Central America

deity god or goddess

culture hero mythical figure who gives people the tools of civilization, such as language and fire

pantheon all the gods of a particular culture

Historical Background. Quetzalcoatl occupied a central place in the pantheon of the Aztec people of central Mexico, but he dates back to a time long before the Aztecs. Images of the Feathered Serpent appear on a temple building in Teotihuacán, a Mexican archaeological site from the a.d. 200S. These images are found with images of rain and water, suggesting close ties between Quetzalcoatl and the god of rain and vegetation.

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.


cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe

underworld land of the dead

patron special guardian, protector, or supporter

The Hero. Besides creating humans, Quetzalcoatl also protected and helped them. Some myths say that he introduced the cultivation of maize, or corn, the staple food of Mexico. He did this by disguising himself as a black ant and stealing the precious grain from the red ants. He also taught people astronomy, calendar making, and various crafts and was the patron of merchants. Carlos Fuentes, one of modern Mexico's leading writers, compares Quetzalcoatl with the mythic figures Prometheus*, Odysseus*, and Moses. All three had to leave their cultures but obtained gifts or wisdom that renewed those cultures. Stories about a Toltec king named Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, famed as an enlightened and good ruler, may have contributed to the image of Quetzalcoatl as a culture hero.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

pyre pile of wood on which a dead body is burned in a funeral ceremony

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.

See also Aztec Mythology; Coatlicue; Huitzilopochtli; Mayan Mythology; Tezcatlipoca.

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Quetzalcóatl

Quetzalcóatl God of Central and South American mythology, a principal deity of the Toltecs, Maya, and Aztecs. Quetzalcóatl (the Aztec name for the god) took the form of a feathered serpent. Essentially a creator, who made the human race by fertilizing bones with his own blood, he was associated with agriculture and the arts. A legend, telling of his exile from his homeland, is probably based on a ruler who took his name. In 1519, Hernan Cortés landed in Mexico on the god's birthday, and since Quetzalcóatl was expected to return in man's form, the Aztecs associated Cortés with the god.

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Quetzalcóatl

Quetzalcóatl the plumed serpent god of the Toltec and Aztec civilizations. Traditionally the god of the morning and evening star, he later became known as the patron of priests, inventor of books and of the calendar, and as the symbol of death and resurrection. His worship involved human sacrifice. Legend said that he would return in another age, and when Montezuma, last king of the Aztecs, received news of the landing of Cortés and his men in 1519, he thought that Quetzalcóatl had returned.

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