Suitcase and World: Quetzalcoatl.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Painting by Dan Staten

Quetzalcoatl (ket-sahl-koh-aht-l) was one of the major deities of Mesoamerican mythology.
The name Quetzalcoatl means "Feathered Serpent". The name is a concatenation of the words quetzal which is a magnificent green-plumed  bird, symbolizing the heavens and the wind, and coatl which is the snake, symbolizing the earth and fertility. Quetzalcoatl's name can also be translated as "precious twin," and in some myths, he had a twin brother named Xolotl, who had a human body and the head of a dog or of an ocelot, a spotted wildcat. No, they were not the most handsome of twins :-)

Carved image of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacán.
Although Quetzalcoatl occupied a central place in the pantheon of the Aztec people of central Mexico, but he dates back to a time long before the Aztecs. Images of the Feathered Serpent appear on a temple building in Teotihuacán.

To the Toltecs, who flourished in the region from the 800 AD to the 1100 AD, Quetzalcoatl was the deity of the morning and evening stars and the wind. When the Aztecs rose to power, they brought Quetzalcoatl into their pantheon and made him a culture hero, a bringer not just of life but also of civilization. Later, as groups from central Mexico migrated into southern Mexico and the Yucatán peninsula, blending with the local Maya population, the Feathered Serpent took his place in the Mayan pantheon under the name Kukulcan.

The God.   To the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl represented life, motion, laughter, health, sexuality, and the arts and crafts of civilization, such as farming, cooking, and music.

Quetzalcoatl was portrayed in two ways. As the Feathered Serpent, he was a snake covered with feathers.

Quetzalcóatl was also often represented as a warrior wearing a tall, cone-shaped crown or cap made of ocelot skin and a pendant fashioned of jade or a conch shell. The pendant, known as the "wind jewel," symbolized one of Quetzalcoatl's other roles, that of Ehecatl, god of wind and movement.

He could also appear in human form as a  Buildings dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, like the Observatory at Chichén Itzá, were circular or cylindrical in shape to fit the Quetzacoatl's personality as a wind god. Circular temples were believed to please Ehécatl because they offered no sharp obstacles to the wind. 

According to some accounts, Quetzalcoatl was the son of the virgin earth goddess, Coatlicue. He and three brother gods created the sun, the heavens, and the earth. In the Aztec creation myth, Quetzalcoatl's cosmic conflicts with the god Tezcatlipoca brought about the creation and destruction of a series of four suns and earths, leading to the fifth sun and today's earth.

Xolotl, Quetzalcoatl's twin, is the dog-like deity,
often depicted with ragged ears. He is identified with
sickness and physical deformity.
The Creator of Man. At first there were no people under the fifth sun. The inhabitants of the earlier worlds had died, and their bones littered Mictlan, the underworld. Quetzalcoatl and his twin, Xolotl, journeyed to Mictlan to find the bones, arousing the fury of the Death Lord. As he fled from the underworld, Quetzalcoatl dropped the bones, and they broke into pieces. He gathered up the pieces and took them to the earth goddess Cihuacoatl (Snake Woman), who ground them into flour. Quetzalcoatl moistened the flour with his own blood, which gave it life. Then he and Xolotl shaped the mixture into human forms and taught the new creatures how to reproduce themselves.

The Hero. Besides creating humans, Quetzalcoatl also protected and helped them. Some myths say that he introduced the cultivation of maize (corn), the staple food of Mexico by disguising himself as a black ant and stealing the precious grain from the red ants. He also taught people astronomy, calendar making, and various crafts and was the patron of merchants.

Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl.
Mexica/Mixtec, 15th–16th century AD.
The myth goes that Quetzalcoatl's departure from his people was the work of his old enemy, Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca tricked Quetzalcoatl by getting him drunk and tempting him with sensual pleasures.  Consumed with anguish at what had happened, Quetzalcoatl decided to leave the world. He burned his palace, buried his treasures, and, putting on his insignia of feathers as well as his green mask, he departed in great sorrow.  Reaching the sea, he threw himself onto a funeral pyre. As his body burned, birds flew forth from the flames, and his heart went up into the heavens to become Venus, the morning and evening star.

Another version of the myth says that Quetzalcoatl sailed east into the sea on a raft of serpents eventually arriving in Yucatán to be worshiped by the Mayans.

Many Aztecs believed that he would come back to his people one day after a period of 52 years.  Cortés took advantage of this belief by encouraging the people of Mexico to view him as the return of the hero-god Quetzalcoatl.

Quetzalcoatl.  What a god!  What a myth!