Mythic Monday: Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent

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Quetzalcoatl, whose name may be translated as feathered (or plumed) serpent or precious twin, was a great Mesoamerican god. He was also a culture hero, a legendary figure who represents the ideals of a cultural group. As a god, Quetzalcoatl «keht SAHL koh AH tuhl» was worshiped by early peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico and Central America, including the Toltec and the Aztec who succeeded them in central Mexico. Quetzalcoatl was a creator god and a wind god. He also was associated with learning, with the Aztec zodiac, and with fertility, water, and vegetation. As a culture hero, Quetzalcoatl taught humankind how to make arts and crafts and measure time. He was also a Toltec priest-king called Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl—an embodiment of the god.

There are various stories and versions of stories about Quetzalcoatl, both the god and the semidivine ruler. Many of these tales place Quetzalcoatl in conflict with his brother Tezcatlipoca «tehs KOT lee POH kuh». For example, one myth describes how Quetzalcoatl and his three brothers, including Tezcatlipoca, were given the task of creating the world. At first, they cooperated, making fire, the heavens, the waters, a great fish whose flesh became Earth, and half a sun. The half-sun did not give enough light, so Tezcatlipoca decided to transform himself into a sun. A long struggle followed, with the brothers knocking each other out of the sky and placing different deities there as the sun. After causing great destruction with fire, floods, rampaging giants, and a tornado—and collapsing the heavens themselves—the brothers finally reconciled, repaired the damage, and created a new sun by sacrificing Quetzalcoatl’s son.

Other stories about Quetzalcoatl tell how Tezcatlipoca corrupted him by giving him an intoxicating drink. In some accounts, a disoriented Quetzalcoatl coupled with his sister Quetzalpetatl «keht SAHL pa TAH tuhl». Out of remorse, Quetzalcoatl set himself on fire. After he had burned up, Quetzalcoatl’s heart rose into the sky to become the planet Venus, called the “morning star” when seen before sunrise. For this reason, Quetzalcoatl sometimes is referred to as “lord of the dawn.” Xolotl «SHOH loht», the Aztec god of the evening star (Venus after sunset), is sometimes referred to as Quetzalcoatl’s twin brother. Some stories tell that Quetzalcoatl descended to the land of the dead, where he obtained bones from which he created human beings. In some versions of the tale, Quetzalcoatl sailed away to the east on a raft and was prophesied to return one day.

When a Spanish expedition led by Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma II might have associated Cortés with Quetzalcoatl, returned from the east. Montezuma allowed Cortés to enter the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan <<tay nohch TEE tlahn>> (now Mexico City). The Spaniards eventually took Montezuma prisoner and tried to rule the empire through him. The Aztec people rebelled in 1520. However, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spaniards in 1521, and Spain soon controlled the entire Aztec empire.

The Maya people of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula also worshiped a form of Quetzalcoatl called Kukulkan. The famous step pyramid in the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá is dedicated to the plumed serpent god.

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Image: The great Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl. Credit: WORLD BOOK illustration by George Suyeok

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