Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent
Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.

Serpents of Mesoamerican Mythology:

1. Lion serpents
2. Eagle serpents
3. Jaquar serpents
4. Winged serpents
5. Feathered serpents
6. Cloud serpents
7. Fire serpents
8. Wind serpents
9. Water serpents

Jade carving of one-half of the two-headed serpent

GOD CURSES THE SERPENT

In the Bible, the serpent is the animal possessed by Satan, the fallen angel. The serpent converses with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God told them not to eat of every tree in the garden. One tree, God said, was a forbidden tree that no one should eat from or touch under fear of death. The serpent who was the Devil told Eve that she would not die [as God had warned], but instead her eyes would be open to the world, and she would see good and evil, as do the gods.

Eve then picked the fruit from the forbidden tree and ate it and in turn persauded Adam to eat too. (Genesis 3:1-6).

"And the Lord God said to the woman, Why hast thou done this? And the women said, The serpent deceived me, and I ate. And the Lord God said to the serpent, Because thou hast done this thou art cursed above all cattle and all the brutes of the earth. On thy breast and belly thou shalt go, and thou shalt eat earth all the days of thy life." (Genesis 3:13-14)

Adam, Eve, the serpent, and all the fallen creation were sent out of the Garden of Delight. God stationed cherubim with fiery swords to keep them out of the garden and to prevent them from eating from the tree of life.

THE CLASH OF CULTURES:

When the Spanish conquistadors came to the Mayan cities and temples and saw the serpents carved into their buildings, skulls of their enemies, and their bloody rituals of sacrifice, they imagined them to be worshippers of Satan. All serpents represented Satan in the tales of St. George and numerous other saints. Thus the clash of cultures resulted in blood being shed on both sides. At first the Mexicans thought Hernan Cortes was Quetzalcoatl, as he was said to return one day, as predicted by their priests. Of course, Cortes was not a God but a mere mortal.

QUETZALCOATL:

Quetzalcoatl(Aztec name), the "Feathered Serpent" often wore the gorgeously long tail feathers of the Quetzal bird as his plumes upon his headdress. He loved the Quetzal's beauty thus his Aztec name. To the Mayans, he was Kulkulcan. Kulkulcan was a supreme being that was able to take the guise of thunder, wind, and fire. Both Quetzalcoatl and Kulkulcan were considered the creators of all life and civilization. As men, they were opposed to war and human sacrifice; and were kind and benevolent. They preached simplicity and virtue. Kulkulcan/Quetzalcoatl was associated with Venus, the Morning Star. This perhaps explains the fascination that all ancient Mexican cultures had with viewing the stars and why all ancient cities had observatories.

In human form Quetzalcoatl was a pale-skinned, bearded man who wore a conical hat. He often wore a long flowing robe decorated with crosses and feathers.

He was thought to have been a past ruler who introduced metallurgy, agriculture, government, and the arts to the people of Mexico. His reign was during the golden age of peace and abundance. He invented the Mayan and Aztec calendar, and gave this information to his priests. This legendary man lived a celibate life and did not drink. Drink was considered bad for all but old men, who used it to forget their pain.

Quetzalcoatl encouraged self-sacrifice by blood letting. He bled the calf of his leg to stain thorns with blood. The "Blood of Kings" was considered "jewel water." The rulers of ancient Mexico practiced blood letting as a sacrifice for the well-being of their people. As the blood was burned, along with the collecting parchment, their prayers would be taken to the heavens. Some think that Quetzalcoatl sailed across the Atlantic to his place of birth and vowed he would return again someday.

The great enemy of Quetzalcoatl was the black Tezcatlipoca, the sun god. In fact, Quetzalcoatl was one of the four manifestations of the sun gods. He was the second of the five world ages represented by the sun Ehecatl. The fifth sun is called Ollin. Warfare between these brothers brought about the creation and destruction of the four worlds or suns prior to our current sun. Being Quetzalcoatl's antagonistic twin, Tezcatlipoca (the black twin), promoted the cult of human sacrifice and he seemed to win power before Quetzalcoatl's departure. Men generally corrupt into the forces of evil, which is more with their nature. To be pure takes much more self-control.

Tezcatlipoca became the new leader after defeating the followers of Quetzalcoatl. He was the "evil twin" of Quetzalcoatl. Each of us has a good and bad side. Quetzalcoatl burned his houses, so that they could not be corrupted by the new regime. His loyal attendants were all turned into brightly colored birds, so they could watch his enemies and blend into the scenery. Then Quetzalcoatl sailed away on a serpent boat to spread his cult to other worlds. Hernando Cortes sailed from Cuba with eleven ships to the Yucatan Peninsula. Francisco de Montejo was his main captain and was later made the Governor of Merida, now the capital of the Yucatan peninsula.

Many believers of the "Legend of Quetzalcoatl" thought that Hernando Cortes (1485-1547) was the returning god. Montezuma II (1466-1520) knew he made a fatal mistake in trusting this newcomer, Cortes, from across the sea. Montezuma's belief in Cortes, as Quetzalcaotl, brought about the collapse of the Aztec Empire. The Spanish conquistadore, Cortes, used the native belief to his own benefit. He portrayed the returned leader for as long as he could be believed. He took Aztec gold, their treasures, and their culture. By the time the impostor was discovered, many were killed or died from European diseases. Montezuma II was in anguish for this event, and he lost his mind.

The Spanish noted that the native Aztecs and Mayans both had crosses and this was used as an advantage to bring new Christians to the fold. The story of Quetzalcoatl reminded Spanish Christians of the story of Thomas, the Apostle, who also went off to sea looking for converts.

Many think that Quetzalcoatl might have been Jesus Christ, our Christian savior. The story of Quetzalcoatl says that he was also the only son of a supreme diety. His father was known as Tonacatecutle, meaning "god of heaven." When assasins kill his father, Quetzalcoatl throws them off a mountain. In another version, of the story, he rubs hot chilis into their wounds, then he makes drinking cups of their skulls. Quetzalcoatl's mother was Chamalman (or Itztli). Chamalman was, like Mary, a virgin. She was celebrated at Tula's ceremonial center. Quetzalcoatl came to the city of Tula, the capital of the Toltecs, as a man. The Mayans of the Yucatan copied the civilization of Tula and named their ceremonial center, Chichen Itza (after Itztli). Other areas of the cult of Quetzalcoatl were: Teotihuacan, Cholula, Xochimilco, and Malinalco. Chimalman, Quetzalcoatl's mother, was impregnated by the god's breath, not by carnal sex. Another version says she swallowed a piece of jade. Quetzalcoatl was both god (serpent) and man. He was worshipped from 750 A.D.(or earlier) to 1500. Quetzalcoatl let himself be imprisoned to bring mercy and reason to the world. He was thought to have been crucified, but this might have been a Catholic priest's interpretation of the legend. Remember Catholic priests translated many Mayan and Aztec histories into Spanish. These documents are still housed in Spain and Mexico.

Quetzalcoatl and his evil twin Tezcatlipoca were both the creator and the destructor of our world. They had the responsibility of restoring everything in the aftermath and bringing forth the fifth world of Ollin. They were also thought to have passed through the body of the earth monster, Tlaltecuhti and split it to form heaven and earth. Later, Quetzalcoatl descended into the Underworld Mictlan to obtain from its rulers the bones and ashes of generations of mankind to create the humanity of the fifth sun. He was said to have dropped the bones and broken them, thus accounting for the different sizes and statures of men. Quetzalcoatl mixed his blood with these bones and brought forth new life.

The Nahua Indians revered Quetzalcoatl for his gifts of science and arts. He was worshipped at Teotihuacan from 750 A.D. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl was the six-tiered step pyramid at Teotihuacan and the huge pyramid of Cholula on the Puebla plain was also built for him. This pyramid is the largest ancient structure in the New World.

Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a historical figure born circa 935 A.D. He only took the god's name, since throughout the world kings often think of themselves as dieties.

Quetzalcoatl was thought to have connections to the lost planet of Atlantis. Many scholars have pointed out that there is a great similarity between the stories of Mesoamerica and of those of the Indian (from India) Nagas.

*****

SOURCES FOR ALL QUETZALCOATL ARTICLES:

Astrov, Margot (editor) The Winged Serpent: American Indian Prose and Poetry. Boston: Beacon Press, 192, 314, 329.

Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Eggleton, Bob (artist), with text by Nigel Suckling. . New York: The Overlook Press, 1998.

Jordon, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods New York: Facts on File, 1993, 214-215.

Kopper, Philip. The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians: Before the Coming of the Europeans. Washington D.C. : Smithsonian Books, 1986.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. New York: George Braziller, Inc in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1986.

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