Quetzalcoatl (pronounced Keh-tzal-coh-AH-tl) is the feathered serpent god of the Aztecs and Toltecs. He is a powerful and benevolent dragon-type entity associated with harvests, wild animals, the morning star (Venus), wind and rain.
He is also a god of learning, reading, and books.
Etymology and Archaeology
The name Quetzalcohuātl comes from the Nahuatl meaning “feathered serpent” from the words quetzalli “tail feather of the quetzal bird” and coatl “snake”.
The earliest image believed to represent this deity is an image of a snake rising up behind an individual possibly engaging in a shamanic ritual dating back to 900 BCE. This piece was found in the Olmec site at La Venta. His earliest incarnation was an Earth and Water deity associated with weather.
By the 5th century CE, worship of the feathered serpent was widespread throughout Mesoamerica and somewhere around the 10th century CE, his worship was centered in what is now Mexico in the Nahua/Aztec city Cholula where he was given the name he bears to this day: Quetzalcoatl.
Here, the world’s largest pyramid, Tlachihualtepetl (man-made mountain) was built in His honor.
The name Quetzalcoatl was also used as a title. The high priests of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) were called “Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqui”.
Mythology and Lore
Quetzalcoatl was a flying serpent who acted as a boundary keeper between Earth and the heavens and who participated in the creation of mankind.
He was closely associated with the wind God Ehecatl and some believe that Ehacatl is the anthropomorphic aspect of Quetzalcoatl, his humanoid form.
The Birth of Quetzalcoatl
According to most stories, Quetzalcoatl was born from the virgin Goddess Chimalma. In one story, he is born after the God Onteol appeared to her in a dream. In another, she is shot by an arrow from Mixcoatl which caused her to become pregnant with Quetzalcoatl and in another she swallowed and emerald which caused her to conceive.
According to another story, Quetzalcoatl was one of the many children of Coatlicue whose many children are the stars of the Milky Way.
Alternatively, he was one of the four Tezcatlipocas, the sons of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, who each presides over a cardinal direction. Presiding over the West, Quetzalcoatl is the White Tezcatlipoca, God of light, wind, justice, and mercy.
The Blue Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, the God of War presided over the South. The Red Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, an agricultural deity presided over the East.
And the guardian of the North was the Black Tezcatlipoca, Tezcatlipoca, God of darkness, judgment, sorcery and the Earth. (Really? We need to look into this more)
Quetzalcoatl’s companion, and perhaps twin brother was Xolotl.
Quetzalcoatl as Creator
Together, Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl created the current race of humans by descending into the underworld, Mictlan to gather the bones of the former race of humans, destroyed by disaster, and brought them to Cihuacoatl who ground them into flour.
The brothers then moistened the flour with their own blood and fashioned the resulting dough into human shapes, gave them life and taught them how to care for and reproduce themselves.
Spheres of Influence
To the Toltecs, Quetzalcoatl was a wind God and the morning and evening star (Venus).
To the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl was part of their living history. A God/king/priest/hero who figured in the making of their civilization. The once and future king, if you will. He is a symbol of death and resurrection and the patron of priests, arts and the seeking and gathering of knowledge.
Other Feathered Serpent Deities
In other areas, the feathered serpent has been given different names by different language groups.
These feathered serpents may also have different personalities and spheres of influence, but bear mentioning out of historical interest.
The Maya revered the feathered serpents Kukulkan and Q’uq’umatz.
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1. Stele #9(19?) Museum at La Venta by James Gaither at Flickr. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved