Quetzalcoatl in feathered serpent form as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Quetzalcoatl (English pronunciation:/ˌkɛtsɑːlˈkɑːtəl/; Spanish pronunciation: [ketsalˈkoatɬ]) (Classical Nahuatl: Quetzalcohuātl[ket͡saɬˈkowaːt͡ɬ] forms part of Mesoamerican literature and is a deity whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and means "feathered serpent". The worship of a feathered serpent is first known documented in Teotihuacan in the first century BC or first century AD. That period lies within the Late Preclassic to Early Classic period (400 BC – 600 AD) of Mesoamerican chronology, and veneration of the figure appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic period (600–900 AD).

In the Postclassic period (900–1519 AD), the worship of the feathered serpent deity was based in the primary Mexican religious centre of Cholula. It is in this period that the deity is known to have been named "Quetzalcoatl" by his Nahua followers. In the Maya area he was approximately equivalent to Kukulkan and Gukumatz, names that additionally roughly translate as "feathered serpent" in different Mayan languages.

Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wind and learning, wears around his neck the "wind breastplate" ehecailacocozcatl, "the spirally voluted wind jewel" made of a conch shell. This talisman was a conch shell cut at the cross-section and was likely worn as a necklace by religious rulers, as they have been discovered in burials in archaeological sites throughout Mesoamerica, and potentially symbolised patterns witnessed in hurricanes, dust devils, seashells, and whirlpools, which were elemental forces that had meaning in the Aztec mythology. In codex drawings showing Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl, both are pictured wearing an ehecailacocozcatl around each of their necks. There has additionally been at least one major cache of offerings with knives and idols adorned with the symbols of more than one god, a few of which were adorned with wind jewels.

In the era following the 16th-century Spanish Conquest of Mexico, a number of sources were written that conflate Quetzalcoatl with Ce Acatl Topiltzin, a ruler of the mythico-historic city of Tollan. It is a matter of much debate among historians to which degree, or whether at all, these narratives about this legendary Toltec ruler describe historical events. Furthermore, early Spanish sources written by clerics tend to identify the god-ruler Quetzalcoatl of these narratives with either Hernán Cortés or Thomas the Apostle—an identification which is additionally a source of diversity of opinions about the nature of Quetzalcoatl.

Among the Aztecs, whose beliefs are the best-documented in the historical sources, Quetzalcoatl was related to gods of the wind, of the planet Venus, of the dawn, of merchants and of arts, crafts and knowledge. He was additionally the patron god of the Aztec priesthood, of learning and knowledge. Quetzalcoatl was one of several important gods in the Aztec pantheon, along with the gods Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. Two additional gods represented by the planet Venus are Quetzalcoatl's ally Tlaloc who's the god of rain, and Quetzalcoatl's twin and psychopomp, who's named Xolotl.

Animals thought to represent Quetzalcoatl include resplendent quetzals, rattlesnakes (coatl meaning serpent in Nahuatl), crows, and macaws. In his form as Ehecatl he's the wind, and is represented by spider monkeys, ducks, and the wind itself. In his form as the morning star, Venus, he's additionally depicted as a harpy eagle. In Mazatec legends, the astrologer deity Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, who's additionally represented by Venus, bears a close relationship with Quetzalcoatl.

Feathered serpent deity in Mesoamerica

A feathered serpent deity has been worshipped by a large number of different ethno-political groups in Mesoamerican history. The existence of such worship can be seen through studies of iconography of different Mesoamerican cultures, in which serpent motifs are frequent. On the basis of the different symbolic systems used in portrayals of the feathered serpent deity in different cultures and periods, scholars have interpreted the religious and symbolic meaning of the feathered serpent deity in Mesoamerican cultures.

Iconographic depictions

Feathered Serpent head at the Ciudadela complex in Teotihuacan

The earliest iconographic depiction of the deity is believed to be found on Stela 19 at the Olmec site of La Venta, depicting a serpent rising up behind a person probably engaged in a shamanic ritual. This depiction is believed to have been made around 900 BC. Although probably not exactly a depiction of the same feathered serpent deity worshipped in classic and post-classic periods, it shows the continuity of symbolism of feathered snakes in Mesoamerica from the formative period and on, for example in comparison to the Mayan Vision Serpent shown below.

Vision Serpent depicted on lintel 15 from Yaxchilan.

The first culture to use the symbol of a feathered serpent as an important religious and political symbol was Teotihuacan. At temples such as the aptly named "Quetzalcoatl temple" in the Ciudadela complex, feathered serpents figure prominently and alternate with a different kind of serpent head. The earliest depictions of the feathered serpent deity were fully zoomorphic, depicting the serpent as an actual snake, but already among the Classic Maya the deity began acquiring human features.

In the iconography of the classic period Maya serpent imagery is additionally prevalent: a snake is often seen as the embodiment of the sky itself, and a vision serpent is a shamanic helper presenting Maya kings with visions of the underworld.

The archaeological record shows that after the fall of Teotihuacan that marked the beginning of the epi-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology around 600 AD, the cult of the feathered serpent spread to the new religious and political centres in central Mexico, centres such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla and Cholula. Feathered serpent iconography is prominent at all of these sites. Cholula is known to have remained the most important centre of worship to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec/Nahua version of the feathered serpent deity, in the post-classic period.

During the epi-classic period, a dramatic spread of feathered serpent iconography is evidenced throughout Mesoamerica, and throughout this period begins to figure prominently at cites such as Chichén Itzá, El Tajín, and throughout the Maya area. Colonial documentary sources from the Maya area frequently speak of the arrival of foreigners from the central Mexican plateau, often led by a man whose name translates as "Feathered Serpent"; it has been suggested that these storeys recall the spread of the feathered serpent cult in the epi-classic and early post-classic periods.

In the post-classic Nahua civilization of central Mexico (Aztec), the worship of Quetzalcoatl was ubiquitous. The most important centre was Cholula where the world's largest pyramid was dedicated to his worship. In Aztec culture, depictions of Quetzalcoatl were fully anthropomorphic. Quetzalcoatl was associated with the windgod Ehecatl and is often depicted with his insignia: a beak-like mask.

Interpretations

Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xochicalco, adorned with a fully zoomorphic feathered Serpent.

On the basis of the Teotihuacan iconographical depictions of the feathered serpent, archaeologist Karl Taube has argued that the feathered serpent was a symbol of fertility and internal political structures contrasting with the War Serpent symbolising the outwards military expansion of the Teotihuacan empire. Historian Enrique Florescano additionally analysing Teotihuacan iconography argues that the Feathered Serpent was part of a triad of agricultural deities: the Goddess of the Cave symbolising motherhood, reproduction and life, Tlaloc, god of rain, lightning and thunder and the feathered serpent, god of vegetational renewal. The feathered serpent was furthermore connected to the planet Venus because of this planet's importance as a sign of the beginning of the rainy season. To both Teotihuacan and Mayan cultures, Venus was in turn additionally symbolically connected with warfare.

While not usually feathered, classic Maya serpent iconography seems related to the belief in a sky-, Venus-, creator-, war- and fertility-related serpent deity. In the example from Yaxchilan, the Vision Serpent has the human face of the young maize god, further suggesting a connexion to fertility and vegetational renewal; the Mayan Young Maize god was additionally connected to Venus.

In Xochicalco, depictions of the feathered serpent are accompanied by the image of a seated, armed ruler and the hieroglyph for the day sign 9 Wind. The date 9 Wind is known to be associated with fertility, Venus and war among the Maya and frequently occurs in relation to Quetzalcoatl in additional Mesoamerican cultures.

On the basis of the iconography of the feathered serpent deity at sites such as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Chichén Itzá, Tula and Tenochtitlan combined with certain ethnohistorical sources, historian David Carrasco has argued that the preeminent function of the feathered serpent deity throughout Mesoamerican history was as the patron deity of the Urban center, a god of culture and civilization.

In Aztec culture

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus.

To the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl was, as his name indicates, a feathered serpent, a flying reptile (much like a dragon), who was a boundary-maker (and transgressor) between earth and sky. He was a creator deity having contributed essentially to the creation of Mankind. He additionally had anthropomorphic forms, for example in his aspects as Ehecatl the wind god. Among the Aztecs, the name Quetzalcoatl was additionally a priestly title, as the two most important priests of the Aztec Templo Mayor were called "Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqui". In the Aztec ritual calendar, different deities were associated with the cycle-of-year names: Quetzalcoatl was tied to the year Ce Acatl (One Reed), which correlates to the year 1519.

Myths

Attributes

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano.

The exact significance and attributes of Quetzalcoatl varied somewhat between civilizations and through history. There are several storeys about the birth of Quetzalcoatl. In a version of the myth, Quetzalcoatl was born by a virgin named Chimalman, to whom the god Onteol appeared in a dream. In another story, the virgin Chimalman conceived Quetzalcoatl swallowing an emerald. A third storey narrates that Chimalman was hit in the womb by an arrow shot by Mixcoatl and nine months later she gave birth to a child which was called Quetzalcoatl. A fourth storey narrates that Quetzalcoatl was born from Coatlicue, who already had four hundred children who formed the stars of the Milky Way.

According to another version of the myth, Quetzalcoatl is one of the four sons of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, the four Tezcatlipocas, each of whom presides over one of the four cardinal directions. Over the West presides the White Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, the god of light, justice, mercy and wind. Over the South presides the Blue Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Over the East presides the Red Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, the god of gold, farming and Spring time. And over the North presides the Black Tezcatlipoca, known by no additional name than Tezcatlipoca, the god of judgment, night, deceit, sorcery and the Earth. Quetzalcoatl was often considered the god of the morning star, and his twin brother Xolotl was the evening star (Venus). As the morning star, he was known by the title Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, meaning "lord of the star of the dawn." He was known as the inventor of books and the calendar, the giver of maize (corn) to mankind, and at times as a symbol of death and resurrection. Quetzalcoatl was additionally the patron of the priests and the title of the twin Aztec high priests. Some legends describe him as opposed to human sacrifice while others describe him practising it.

Most Mesoamerican beliefs included cycles of suns. Usually our current time was considered the fifth sun, the previous four having been destroyed by flood, fire and the like. Quetzalcoatl went to Mictlan, the underworld, and created fifth-world mankind from the bones of the previous races (with the help of Cihuacoatl), using his own blood, from a wound he inflicted on his earlobes, calves, tongue, and penis, to imbue the bones with new life.

It is additionally suggested that he was a son of Xochiquetzal and Mixcoatl.

One Aztec storey claims that Quetzalcoatl was tricked by Tezcatlipoca into fitting drunk and sleeping with a celibate priestess (in a few accounts, his sister Quetzalpetlatl) and then burned himself to death out of remorse. His heart became the morning star (see Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli).

Belief in Cortés as Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl in human form, using the symbols of Ehecatl, from the Codex Borgia.

Since the sixteenth century, it has been widely held that the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II initially believed the landing of Hernán Cortés in 1519 to be Quetzalcoatl's return. This view has been questioned by ethno-historians who argue that the Quetzalcoatl-Cortés connexion isn't found in any document that was created independently of post-Conquest Spanish influence, and that there's little proof of a pre-Hispanic belief in Quetzalcoatl's return. Most documents expounding this theory are of entirely Spanish origin, such as Cortés's letters to Charles V of Spain, in which Cortés goes to great pains to present the naive gullibility of the Aztecs in general as a great aid in his conquest of Mexico.

Much of the idea of Cortés' being seen as a deity can be traced back to the Florentine Codex written down a few 50 years after the conquest. In the Codex's description of the first meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés, the Aztec ruler is described as giving a prepared speech in classical oratorial Nahuatl, a speech which, as described in the codex written by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún and his Tlatelolcan informants, included such prostrate declarations of divine or near-divine admiration as:

You have graciously come on earth, you have graciously approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you.

and:

You have graciously arrived, you have known pain, you have known weariness, now come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; might our lords come on earth.

Subtleties in, and an imperfect scholarly understanding of, high Nahuatl rhetorical style make the exact intent of these comments tricky to ascertain, but Restall argues that Moctezuma's politely offering his throne to Cortés (if indeed he did ever give the speech as reported) might well have been meant as the exact opposite of what it was taken to mean: politeness in Aztec culture was a way to assert dominance and show superiority. This speech, which has been widely referred to, has been a factor in the widespread belief that Moctezuma was addressing Cortés as the returning god Quetzalcoatl.

Other parties have additionally promulgated the idea that the Mesoamericans believed the conquistadors, and in particular Cortés, to be awaited gods: most notably the historians of the Franciscan order such as Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta. Some Franciscans at this time held millennarian beliefs and a few of them believed that Cortés' coming to the New World ushered in the final era of evangelization before the coming of the millennium. Franciscans such as Toribio de Benavente "Motolinia" saw elements of Christianity in the precolumbian religions and therefore believed that Mesoamerica had been evangelised before, possibly by St. Thomas whom legend had it had "gone to preach beyond the Ganges". Franciscans then equated the original Quetzalcoatl with St. Thomas and imagined that the Indians had long awaited his return to take part once again in God's kingdom. Historian Matthew Restall concludes that:

The legend of the returning lords, originated throughout the Spanish-Mexica war in Cortés' reworking of Moctezuma's welcome speech, had by the 1550's merged with the Cortés-as-Quetzalcoatl legend that the Franciscans had started spreading in the 1530s. (Restall 2001:114 )

Some scholarship maintains the view that the Aztec Empire's fall might be attributed in part to the belief in Cortés as the returning Quetzalcoatl, notably in works by David Carrasco (1982), H. B. Nicholson (2001 (1957)) and John Pohl (2016). Notwithstanding a majority of Mesoamericanist scholars such as Matthew Restall (2003), James Lockhart (1994), Susan D. Gillespie (1989), Camilla Townsend (2003a, 2003b), Louise Burkhart, Michel Graulich and Michael E. Smith (2001) among others, consider the "Quetzalcoatl/Cortés myth" as one of a large number of myths about the Spanish conquest which have risen in the early post-conquest period.

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the post-Conquest Tovar Codex.

There is no question that the legend of Quetzalcoatl played a significant role in the colonial period. However this legend likely has a foundation in events that took place immediately prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. A 2012 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art, "The Children of the Plumed Serpent: the Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico," demonstrated the existence of a powerful confederacy of Eastern Nahuas, Mixtecs and Zapotecs, along with the peoples they dominated throughout southern Mexico between 1200-1600 (Pohl, Fields, and Lyall 2012, Harvey 2012, Pohl 2003). They maintained a major pilgrimage and commercial centre at Cholula, Puebla which the Spaniards compared to both Rome and Mecca because the cult of the god united its constituents through a field of common social, political, and religious values without dominating them militarily. This confederacy engaged in almost 75 years of nearly continuous conflict with the Aztec Empire of the Triple Alliance until the arrival of Cortés. Members of this confederacy from Tlaxcala, Puebla, and Oaxaca provided the Spaniards with the army that first re-claimed the city of Cholula from its pro-Aztec ruling faction, and ultimately defeated the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). The Tlaxcalteca, along with additional city-states across the Plain of Puebla, then supplied the auxiliary and logistical support for the conquests of Guatemala and West Mexico while Mixtec and Zapotec caciques (Colonial indigenous rulers) gained monopolies in the overland transport of Manila galleon trade through Mexico, and formed highly lucrative relationships with the Dominican order in the new Spanish imperial world economic system that explains so much of the enduring legacy of indigenous life-ways that characterise southern Mexico and explain the popularity of the Quetzalcoatl legends that continued through the colonial period to the present day.

Contemporary use

Quetzalcoatl Mural in Acapulco by Diego Rivera

Mormonism

Some Mormons believe that Quetzalcoatl was historically Jesus Christ, but believe His name and the details of the event were gradually lost over time. According to the Book of Mormon, the resurrected Christ came down from the clouds and visited the people of the American continent, shortly after his resurrection. Quetzalcoatl isn't a religious symbol in the Mormon faith, and isn't taught as such, nor is it in their doctrine. LDS ChurchPresidentJohn Taylor wrote:

The storey of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no additional conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being. But the history of the former has been handed down to us through an impure Lamanitish source, which has sadly disfigured and perverted the original incidents and teachings of the Savior's life and ministry." (Mediation and Atonement, p. 194.)

Latter-day Saint scholar Brant Gardner, after investigating the link between Quetzalcoatl and Jesus, concluded that the association amounts to nothing more than folklore. In a 1986 paper for Sunstone, he noted that throughout the Spanish Conquest, the Native Americans and the Catholic priests who sympathised with them felt pressure to link Native American beliefs with Christianity, thus making the Native Americans seem more human and less savage. Over time, Quetzalcoatl's appearance, clothing, malevolent nature, and status among the gods were reshaped to fit a more Christian framework.

Films and video games

Quetzalcoatl was fictionalised in the 1982 film Q as a monster that terrorises New York City. The deity has been featured as a character in Beyblade and Final Fantasy VIII, and in the last of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel books. It was additionally portrayed as an enemy in the video game Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine.

New Age

Various theories about Quetzalcoatl are popular in the New Age movement, especially after the publication of Tony Shearer's 1971 book Lord of the dawn: Quetzalcoatl and the Tree of Life republished additionally under the title Lord of the dawn: Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent of Mexico. He is portrayed as a time traveller in the book A Vary Strange Trip by L. Ron Hubbard.