Nine Facts About Quetzalcoatl

The Plumed Serpent god of the Toltecs and Aztecs

Quetzalcoatl, or “Feathered Serpent,” was an important god to the ancient people of Mesoamerica. The worship of Quetzalcoatl became widespread with the rise of the Toltec civilization around 900 A.D. and spread throughout the region, even down to the Yucatan peninsula where it caught on with the Maya. What are the facts associated with this mysterious god?

La Venta Monument 19. Sculptor Unknown

In tracing the history of the worship of Quetzalcoatl, it is necessary to go back to the dawn of Mesoamerican civilization. The ancient Olmec civilization lasted roughly from 1200 to 400 B.C. and they were greatly influential on all subsequent ones. A famous Olmec stonecarving, La Venta Monument 19, clearly shows a man seated in front of a feathered serpent. Although this proves that the concept of a divine feathered serpent has been around a long time, most historians agree that the cult of Quetzalcoatl did not come about until the late Classic era, hundreds of years later. More »

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Quetzalcoatl may be based on a historical person

Quetzalcoatl. Illustration from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

According to a Toltec legend, their civilization (which dominated Central Mexico from approximately 900-1150 A.D.) was founded by a great hero, Ce Acatl Topiltzín Quetzalcoatl. According to Toltec and Maya accounts, Ce Acatl Topiltzín Quetzalcoatl lived in Tula for a while before a dispute with the warrior class over human sacrifice led to his departure. He headed east, eventually settling in Chichen Itza. The God Quetzalcoatl definitely has a link of some sort to this hero. It may be that the historical Ce Acatl Topiltzín Quetzalcoatl was deified into Quetzalcoatl the god, or he may have assumed the mantle of an already existing divine entity.

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Quetzalcoatl fought with his brother…

Quetzalcoatl. Illustration from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Quetzalcoatl was considered important in the pantheon of Aztec gods. In their mythology, the world was periodically destroyed and rebuilt by the gods. Each age of the world was given a new sun, and the world was on its Fifth Sun, having been destroyed four times previously. Quetzalcoatl’s quarrels with his brother Tezcatlipoca sometimes brought about these destructions of the world. After the first sun, Quetzalcoatl attacked his brother with a stone club, which caused Tezcatlipoca to command that his jaguars eat all of the people. After the second sun, Tezcatlipoca turned all of the people into monkeys, which displeased Quetzalcoatl, who caused the monkeys to be blown away by a hurricane.

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…and committed incest with his sister

Quetzalcoatl. Photograph by Christopher Minster

In another legend, still told in Mexico, Quetzalcoatl was feeling ill. His brother Tezcatlipoca, who wanted to be rid of Quetzalcoatl, came up with a clever plan. Drunkenness was forbidden, so Tezcatlipoca disguised himself as a medicine man and offered Quetzalcoatl alcohol disguised as a medicinal potion. Quetzalcoatl drank it, became intoxicated and committed incest with his sister, Quetzalpétatl. Ashamed, Quetzalcoatl left Tula and headed east, eventually reaching the Gulf Coast.

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The Cult of Quetzalcoatl was widespread

Pyramid of the Niches. Photo by Christopher Minster

In the Mesoamerican Epiclassic Period (900-1200 A.D.), worship of Quetzalcoatl took off. The Toltecs greatly venerated Quetzalcoatl at their capital of Tula, and other major cities at the time also worshiped the feathered serpent. The famous Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin is believed by many to be dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, and the many ball courts there also suggest that his cult was important. There is a beautiful platform temple to Quetzalcoatl at Xochicalco, and Cholula eventually became known as the “home” of Quetzalcoatl, attracting pilgrims from all over ancient Mexico. The cult even spread down into the Maya lands: Chichen Itza is famous for its Temple of Kukulcán, which was their name for Quetzalcoatl.

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Quetzalcoatl was many gods in one

Ehecatl. Illustration from the Borgia Codex

Quetzalcoatl had “aspects” in which he functioned as other gods. Quetzalcoatl by himself was god of many things to the Toltecs and Aztecs; for example, the Aztecs revered him as the god of the priesthood, knowledge and trade. In some versions of the ancient Mesoamerican histories, Quetzalcoatl was reborn as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli after being burned on a funeral pyre. In his aspect as Quetzalcoatl –Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, he was fearsome god of Venus and the morning star. In his aspect as Quetzalcoatl – Ehécatl he was the benign god of wind, who brought rains for crops and who brought back the bones of humankind from the underworld, allowing for the resurrection of the species.

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Quetzalcoatl had many different appearances

Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. Illustration from the Borgia Codex

Quetzalcoatl appears in many ancient Mesoamerican codices, sculptures and reliefs. His appearance can change drastically, however, depending on the region, era and context. In sculptures adorning temples throughout ancient Mexico, he generally appeared as a plumed serpent, although sometimes he had human features as well. In the codices he was generally more human-like. In his aspect of Quetzalcoatl-Ehécatl he wore a duckbill mask with fangs and shell jewelry. As Quetzalcoatl – Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli he had a more intimidating appearance including a black mask or face paint, elaborate headdress and a weapon, such as an axe or lethal darts representing the rays of the morning star.

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His association with the conquistadors was likely made up

Hernán Cortés. Public Domain Image

In 1519, Hernán Cortés and his ruthless band of audacious conquistadors conquered the Aztec Empire, taking Emperor Montezuma captive and sacking the grand city of Tenochtitlán. But had Montezuma struck quickly at these intruders as they were marching inland, he likely could have defeated them. Montezuma's failure to act has been attributed to his belief that Cortes was none other than Quetzalcoatl, who had once gone away to the east, promising to return. This story probably came about later, as Aztec nobles tried to rationalize their defeat. In fact, the people of Mexico had killed several Spaniards in battle and had captured and sacrificed others, so they knew they were men, not gods. It’s more likely that Montezuma saw the Spanish not as enemies but as possible allies in his ongoing campaign to enlarge his empire.

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The Mormons believe he was Jesus

Atalantes of Tula. Photo by Christopher Minster

Well, not ALL of them, but some do. The Church of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, teach that Jesus Christ walked the Earth after his resurrection, spreading the word of Christianity to all corners of the globe. Some Mormons believe that Quetzalcoatl, who was associated with the east, (which in turn was represented by the color white to the Aztecs), was white-skinned. Quetzalcoatl stands out from the Mesoamerican pantheon as being relatively less bloodthirsty than others like Huitzilopochtli or Tezcatlipoca, making him as good a candidate as any for Jesus visiting the New World.


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