Quetzalcoatl - Pan-Mesoamerican Feathered Serpent God

Did the Aztecs Really Think Cortes was the Returning Quetzalcoatl?

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

Quetzalcoatl pronounced Keh-tzal-coh-WAH-tul and roughly translated as the "Feathered Serpent", the "Plumed Serpent" or the "Quetzal-Feathered Serpent", is the name of an important Mesoamerican deity who was worshiped throughout the region in one form or another for 1,200 years.

During the Postclassic period [AD 900-1521], several cultures--including the Maya, Toltecs, Aztecs and other polities in Central Mexico--all practiced some version of the cult which had formed around the legends of Quetzalcoatl.

However, the majority of information about this god comes from Aztec/Mexica sources, including surviving Aztec codexes, as well as oral history told to the Spanish conquistadors.

The Pan-Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl

The earliest example of Quetzalcoatl, or at least a Feathered Serpent god, comes from the Classic period [AD 200-600] city of Teotihuacán, where one of the main temples, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in the Ciudadela, is decorated with carvings of feathered serpents.

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 [AD 650-1000] period, the cult of the Feathered Serpent spread dramatically throughout Mesoamerica, including the central Mexico centers of Xochicalco, Cholula, and Cacaxtla.

The most famous example of the Mayan Quetzalcoatl cult is reflected in the architectural aspects of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán Peninsula, where Maya Puuc styles are contrasted with those of the Quetzalcoatl-inspired Toltec.

According to local and colonial legends, the Toltec shaman/king Quetzalcoatl (known as Kukulcan in the Maya language) arrived in the Maya region after having been ousted by political rivals, bringing with him not just a new architectural style but a new set of religious and political practices associated with militarism and human sacrifice.

The Origins of Aztec Quetzalcoatl

Experts on Mesoamerican religion believe that the Aztec [AD 1325-1521] figure of Quetzalcoatl began with the legend of the pan-Mesoamerican god and blended in a historical Tollan leader, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl [who reportedly lived AD 843-895]. This man was a heroic figure, probably a king and/or a priest, who left his home in the Toltec capital of Tula chased out by traitorous priests, but promising to return.

The Aztecs considered the Tollan leader the ideal king; more details are found in the legend of the Toltecs. The story undeniably echoes the Mayan story, but whether or not this legend is based on real events is still under debate among scholars.

Quetzalcoatl as Aztec Deity

Quetzalcoatl the deity was one of four sons of the creator god Ometeotl in his male form Ometecuhtli (“Two-Lord”) and his female form, Omecihuatl (“Two-Lady”), and brother of Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, and Huitzilopochtli.

The Aztecs called their era the time of the 5th Sun--there had been four previous versions of the earth and its people, each ruled by different gods. According to the Aztec Legend of the Suns, Quetzalcoatl ruled over the second Sun of Aztec creation.

He was a creator god, associated with the wind god (Ehecatl) and the planet Venus. Quetzalcoatl was also the patron god of arts and knowledge. He was one of the most human-loving of the gods in the Aztec pantheon. He was the god who met with an ant to provide humans with their first maize to plant, and he was responsible for saving all humanity at the beginning of the Fifth Sun.

Quetzalcoatl and the Bones of the Ancestors

At the end of the fourth sun, so it is told, all humanity was drowned, and after the creation of the fifth sun, Quetzalcoatl descended into the underworld (Mictlan) to negotiate with the god of the underworld (Mictlantecuhtli) the return of humanity's bones so the earth could be repopulated. When Mictlantecuhtli proved unwilling to give them back, Quetzalcoatl stole the bones.

In his hasty retreat, he was startled by a quail and tripped and broke them (which is why humans come in a range of different sizes), but managed to carry the bones to the paradise of Tamoanchan, where the goddess Cihuacoatl ground them up and placed them in a jade bowl.

Then Quetzalcoatl and other gods performed the first auto-sacrifice when they shed their blood over the bones and endowed them with life, thus lumbering humanity with a debt that had to be repaid by abundant human sacrifices.

The Cortés Myth

Quetzalcoatl’s fame is also linked to a persistent story about Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador credited with conquering the Aztec Empire. The story is that the last emperor Motecuhzoma (sometimes spelled Montezuma or Moctezuma) mistook Cortés for the returning god, based on the supposed resemblance between the Spanish conquistador and the god. This story, detailed in Spanish records, is almost certainly false, but how it arose is a fascinating story itself.

One possible theory for the origin of this story is that the Spanish misinterpreted the welcoming speech pronounced by the Aztec king. In this speech, if it ever happened, Motecuhzoma used a form of Aztec politeness that was mistaken by the Spanish for a form of submission. Other scholars suggest that the idea that Cortés and Quetzalcoatl were confused by the Mexica was entirely created by Franciscan friars, and elaborated during the post-Conquest period.

Most interestingly, according to Smith (2013), some scholars attribute the origin of the Cortés myth to the Nahua nobility themselves, who invented it and told it to the Spanish to explain why Motecuhzoma hesitated to attack the conquering forces.

It was the nobility who created the prophecy, a series of omens and signs, and claimed that Motecuhzoma truly believed Cortes to have been Quetzalcoatl.

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 colors with a red beak, symbolizing Ehecatl, the wind god; and wearing a cut shell as a pendant, symbolizing Venus. In many images, he is depicted wearing a plumed headdress and carrying a plumed shield.

Quetzalcoatl Cult Centers

Numerous circular temples (at Texcoco, Calixtlahuaca, Tlatelolco, and in the Pino Suarez metro station in Mexico City) are dedicated to Quetzalcoatl in the guise of Ecahtl, constructed without corners so the wind could easily blow around them.

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

Sources

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

  • Adams REW. 1991. Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Berdan FF. 2014. Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carrasco D, Jones L, and Sessions S, editors. 2002. Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
  • Miller ME, and Taube K, editors. 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Smith ME. 2013. The Aztecs. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Von Tuerenhout DR. 2005. The Aztecs: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc.