Quetzalcoatl - Pan-Mesoamerican Feathered Serpent God

Did the Aztecs Really Think Cortes was the Returning Quetzalcoatl?

Mexico, Teotihuacan, Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Detail of carved head of plumed serpent.
Feathered Serpent Image at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Detail of carved head of plumed serpent. Religious Images/UIG / Getty Images

Quetzalcoatl (“The Feathered Serpent” and pronounced Keh-tzal-coh-WAH-tul), is the name of an important Mesoamerican deity whose origins can be traced back to the city of Teotihuacan. During the Postclassic period, several cultures--including the Maya, Toltecs, Aztecs and other polities in Central Mexico--all worshiped some version of the Quetzalcoatl cult. However, the majority of information about this god comes from Aztec/Mexica sources.

The Origins of Quetzalcoatl

Experts on Aztec religion believe that the figure of Quetzalcoatl (pronounced Keh-tzal-coh-WAH-tul) emerged from the combination of a pan-Mesoamerican god and a historical leader, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. The story goes that Quetzalcoatl was a hero, probably a king and/or a priest, who left the Toltec capital of Tula after an episode of treachery, and promised to return. Whether or not this legend describes real events is still under debate among scholars. This episode is also linked to the similar legend of the mythical city of Tollan, whose peaceful king Quetzalcoatl was ousted by his violent opponent, Tezcatlipoca, and forced into exile.

Whether or not this legend describes real events is still under debate among scholars. The figure of Quetzalcoatl, or at least a Feathered Serpent god, is well-attested in many Mesoamerican cultures. The earliest examples come from the city of Teotihuacan, where one of the main temples, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in the Ciudadela, is decorated with carvings of feathered serpents.

Among the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl was the name of two high-ranked priests who attended the shrines of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, as well as the actual deity. As an deity, Quetzalcoatl was a creative god, who–according to the Legend of the Suns–ruled over the second era of Aztec creation.

He was also the patron of arts and knowledge and, according to Aztec religion, he was the god who provided humans with their first maize to plant.

The Cortés Myth

Quetzalcoatl’s fame is also linked to the false but prevalent story about Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador credited with conquering the Aztec Empire. That story is that the last emperor Moctezuma mistook Cortés as the returning god, based on the supposed resemblance between the Spanish conquistador and the god. This story may have arisen from a misinterpreted welcoming speech pronounced by the Aztec king. In this speech, if it ever happened, Moctezuma used  a form of Aztec politeness that was mistaken by the Spanish for a form of submission.

However, many scholars now consider the idea that Cortes and Quetzalcoatl were confused by the Mexica was entirely created by Franciscan friars, and elaborated during the post-Conquest period.

Quetzalcoatl in other Mesoamerican Cultures

Among the Classic Maya, the figure of a feathered serpent is illustrated in many stone monuments and murals, and is often related to the worship of royal ancestors. During the Terminal Classic, or Epiclassic, period the cult of the Feathered Serpent spread dramatically in Mesoamerica.

In Central Mexico, other centers where the cult of the feathered serpent is widespread are Xochicalco, Cholula, and Cacaxtla.

The most famous example of this cult is the site of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula and its connections with the central Mexican site of Tula, capital of the Toltecs. According to local and colonial sources, Quetzalcoatl-Kukulcan (his Mayan name) arrived in the Yucatan bringing with him a new set of religious and political practices associated with militarism, and human sacrifices. These themes are easily recognizable in the architecture and sculptures of Maya sites such as Chichen Itza and Mayapan. During the Postclassic period, the Aztecs/Mexica revitalized the cult of Quetzalcoatl, which was also associated to the figure of Ehecatl, the wind god, and to the planet Venus.

Quetzalcoatl’s Images

The figure of Quetzalcoatl is represented in many different ways according to different epochs and Mesoamerican cultures. He is both represented in his non-human form, as a feathered serpent, with plumage along its body and around the head, as well as in his human form, especially among the Aztecs and in Colonial codices. In his human aspect, he is often depicted in dark color with a red beak, symbolizing Ehecatl, the wind god; and wearing a cut shell as a pendant, symbolizig Venus. In many images he is depicted wearing a plumed headdress and holding a plumed shield.

Quetzalcoatl Cult Centers

Temples dedicated at the cult of Quetzalcoatl have been identified in many Mesoamerican sites, such as Xochicalco, Teotihuacan, Cholula, Cempoala, Tula, Mayapan, Chichen Itza.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Aztec Gods, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Adams, Richard E.W., 1991, Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Third Edition. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.Carrasco David, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Session (eds.), 2002, Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Millar Mary, and Kart Taube, 1993, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London, Thames and HudsonSmith Michael, 2003, The Aztecs. Second Edition, Blackwell Publishing.

Van Tuerenhout Dirk R., 2005, The Aztecs. New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO Inc. Santa Barbara, CA; Denver, CO and Oxford, England.

Willey GR. 1976. Mesoamerican civilization and the idea of transcendence. Antiquity 50:205-215.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst