Most recently, the tale of Quetzalcoatl was brought to my attention in a setting where I was not expecting. Far detached from the legends, Quetzalcoatl has fallen into a legacy of mismatched history. This is an unsettling trend that seems to be rampant in the history of Mesoamerica. From the destruction of Tenochtitlan by the construction of Mexico City, to the incorporation of sacred lands of Teotihuacan, Mesoamerica faces a grim future in the realm of history. The destruction of history, sadly, is not limited to just the physical manifestations, but also to the legends and the tales that stem from a culture long lost. In this take on Mesoamerica, we will be focusing on the chief deity of Nahua: The Winged Feathered Serpent Himself, Quetzalcoatl.
Quetzalcoatl's origin traces to the ancient city of Teotihuacan (Tay-oh-tee-wa-kahn) around the first century BCE. It is situated north-northeast of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan (Ten-o-chu-teet-lahn) - the modern day Mexico City. The modern geographic association with the city of Teotihuacan is approximately near San Juan, about half way between Meixco Highway 132 and 132D in the greater Mexico City metropolitan area.
Teotihuacan's ancient geography, however, was dominated by the presence of a dormant volcano situated at the rear of the town. There were a series of chief pyramids and temples that were constructed along a main-roadway that curved in multiple dimensions (X & Y). This road was called the Avenue of the Dead, and it was the central way of commerce through the main square of the city. Two chief pyramids were located on this highway, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon. The third temple, was the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, later to be known as Quetzalcoatl.
Place Among the Gods
The Feathered Serpent has no fewer than twenty different annotations and depictions across all of the Mesoamerican region and culture. This includes murals, sculptures, and scripture (to include codex, almanacs, and pottery). The Feathered Serpent varies in rank within the pantheon of Mesoamerican deities, depending on the era and culture that is being examined. In some instances, he is interchangeable between two other gods within the polytheistic pantheon. In other's - as Quetzalcoatl - he is the sole divine entity, above all other spirits in a monotheistic structure. In every case of the Feathered Serpent, or Quetzalcoatl's depiction, he has divine status that he often holds on his own.
The Feathered Serpent appears in several name definitions: Quetzalcoatl (as most associated with the Mexican (Meh-she-cah) Aztecs), Kukulkan, and Tohil.
The serpent was a legendary creature to the Nahua people. It was a manifestation of the ups and downs in life in all of it's forms: happiness and sadness; grief and triumph; nourishment and depravity; flourishing and depletion. As such, the serpent was seen as the life cycle of life, and the Feathered Serpent was the chief deity to guide souls along this path from birth to the grave and beyond.
A God's Nature
For the purposes of this topic, we will focus on Quetzalcoatl specifically. Depending on which legend is referenced, Quetzalcoatl was born between a union of the God of Hunting, and the Goddess of Fertility. He had at least one sibling, who was the God of Death - for this reason, Quetzalcoatl is often attributed as the God of Life. In the astrological study, Quetzalcoatl aligns with the Planet Venus. By nature, he is seen as an even tempered deity that commands the wind, and also provides knowledge.
The implications of Quetzalcoatl's status as the distributor of knowledge, suggests that he is the deity to appear to shaman's during ceremonies. Most often in these ceremonies, shaman would communicate with the souls of the dead or a liaison thereof that took the form of a feathered serpent.
Quetzalcoatl appears both as a feathered serpent, but also has a humanoid form. He is often seen with a large headdress, fully decked out in jade - a highly sought after rock found in the region. His full regalia would have closely resembled what tribal leaders would wear. He carries a spear, similar to an atlatl throwing device. In all zoomorphic depictions, Quetzalcoatl and his similar cousins all are depicted as feathered serpents that share a rainbow coloration. Most of these depictions retain the headdress on the serpent to establish legitimacy of Quetzalcoatl's status as a deity.
Methods of Worship
As with many Mesoamerican religions, the worship of Quetzalcoatl involved some physical attributes. This varied in ways from purpose to purpose and tribe to tribe. The most frequent form of worship was through the means of mutilation (sorry readers, but it was usually genital mutilation). Sacrifices were uncommon, but sometimes practice, largely varying on the ailment and tribe. Typical interactions utilized various herbs and beverages to push a shaman into a psychedelic state. The most common was smoke inhalation. Other methods included the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms.
In Aztec culture, Quetzalcoatl is the boundary between the Earth and the heavens. As such, he has direct control over anything that rides on the wind, including the position of the Sun, Moon, and stars; heat and cold; rain and drought. This coincides with the depiction of him serving as the God of Wind. However, in other depictions, Quetzalcoatl may direct rain, but it is up to another God or Goddess to provide whatever is on the wind. For example, in Mayan culture, the Moon Goddess (also referred to as Goddess O) was the one who brought rains.
In none of the depictions of Quetzalcoatl is he depicted as particularly vengeful or wrathful, excluding the militant depictions of him. However, it is still not confirmed if these depictions are of Quetzalcoatl or another feathered serpent deity, such as Xolotl.
This essay was not designed to make claims to the validity of Quetzalcoatl, but rather to put emphasis on the associated legend attached to Quetzalcoatl and the ancient expectation or association with him. Likewise, no two sources seem to agree on the true interpretation of the Feathered Serpent, just as no two tribes agreed on the significance of this entity. Quetzalcoatl remains chiefly an Aztec deity, despite his appearances elsewhere up through 1450 CE. Research continues into the nature and legacy of Quetzalcoatl - however, due to the destruction of Tenochtitlan, this legend is all but lost. The legend of the Feathered Serpent from the era predating the Mexican Aztecs, on the other hand, remains to be seen as to whether it will ever be solved, as the cities of Teotihuacan, Tikal, and others continue modernization.
Further Reading (Inconclusive)
Berdan, Frances. Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society. Second Edition. Cenegage Learning, New York. 2004.
Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson. 2012.
Coe, Michael D. The Maya. Ninth Edition. Thames & Hudson. 2015.
Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica. Fifth Edition. Thames & Hudson. 2012.
Schele, Linda; Miller, Mary Ellen; et al. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. George Braziller, Inc. 1992.
Tedlock, Dennis (ed.) Popol Vuh. Definitive Edition. Touchstone. 1996.