Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent, precious serpent, precious twin) In Toltec mythology, wind god. Another Quetzalcoatl was a culture hero. In his purely mythical form the god Quetzalcoatl was one of four brothers born in the 13th heaven. Of the four, one was called the black and one the red Tezcatlipoca, and the fourth was Huitzilopochtli. Tezcatlipoca (the black and red are combined) was the wisest. He knew all thoughts and could see into the future. At a certain time the four gathered together and consulted concerning creation. The work was left to Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli. First they made fire, then half a sun, the heavens, the waters, and a great fish called Cipactli; from Cipactli’s flesh they made the solid earth. The first people were Cipactonal, a man, and Oxomuco, a woman. They had a son, but there was no wife for him to marry, so the four gods made one out of the hair taken from the head of their divine mother, Zochiquetzal. The half sun created by Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli was a poor light for the world, and the four brothers came together to find a
means of adding another half to the sun. Not waiting for their decision, Tezcatlipoca transformed himself into a sun. The other brothers then filled the world with giants, who tore up the trees with their hands. After some time Quetzalcoatl took a stick and “with a blow of it knocked Tezcatlipoca from the sky into the waters.” He then made himself the sun. Tezcatlicopa transformed himself into a tiger and emerged from the waves, attacking and devouring the giants; then, passing to the nocturnal heavens, he became the constellation of the Great Bear. As the sun, Quetzalcoatl made the earth flourish, but Tezcatlipoca was merely biding his time. When the right moment came, Tezcatlipoca appeared in his tiger form and gave Quetzalcoatl such a blow with his paw that it hurled him from the skies. Quetzalcoatl then swept the earth with a violent tornado that destroyed all of the inhabitants except for a few “who were changed into monkeys.” Then, when Tezcatlipoca placed Tlaloc, the rain god, as the sun in the heavens, Quetzalcoatl “poured a flood of fire upon the earth, drove Tlaloc from the sky, and placed in his stead, as sun, the goddess Chalchiutlicue, the Emerald Skirted, wife of Tlaloc.” When she ruled as sun, the earth was flooded, and all humans were drowned again except for those who were changed into fishes. As a result, “the heavens themselves fell, and the sun and stars were alike quenched.” The two then realized that their struggle had to end, so they united “their efforts and raised again the sky, resting it on two mighty trees, the Tree of the Mirror (tezcaquahuitl) and the Beautiful Great Rose Tree (quetzalveixochitl) on which the concave heavens have ever since securely rested.” The earth still had no sun to light it, and the four brothers met again. They decided to make a sun, one that would “eat the hearts and drink the blood of victims, and there must be wars upon the earth, that these victims could be obtained for the sacrifice.” Quetzalcoatl then built a great fire and took his son, born of his own flesh without any mother, and cast him into the flames, “whence he rose into the sky as the sun which lights the world.” Tlaloc then threw his son into the flames, creating the moon. The Quetzalcoatl of that myth is a god. Another Quetzalcoatl is a culture hero, a high priest of the city of Tula. He was the teacher of arts, the wise lawgiver, the virtuous prince, the master builder, and the merciful judge. He lived a life of fasting and prayer.

The hero (not the god) Quetzalcoatl either came as a stranger to the Aztecs from an unknown land or was born in Tula, where he reigned as priest-king. For many years he ruled the city and at last began to build a very great temple. While it was being constructed Tezcatlipoca (who in other myths is a creatortrickster god but here is a Demonic force, or sorcerer) came to Quetzalcoatl one day and told him that toward Honduras, in a place called Tlapallan, a house was ready for him. He should leave Tula and go to live and die in the new home. Quetzalcoatl said that the heavens and the stars had already warned him that after four years he must leave, and he would therefore obey. He left with all of the inhabitants of Tula. Some he left in Cholula and others in Cempoal. At last he reached Tlapallan, and on the day he arrived he fell sick and died. There is another, better-known account in the Annals of Cuauhtitlan. When those opposed to Quetzalcoatl did not succeed in their designs to rid themselves of his presence, they summoned Tezcatlipoca. He said: “We will give him a drink to dull his reason, and we will show him his own face in a mirror, and surely he will be lost.” Then Tezcatlipoca brewed an intoxicating drink, the pulque, and taking a mirror he wrapped it in a rabbit skin and went to Quetzalcoatl’s house. “Go tell your master,” he said to the servants, “that I have come to show him his own flesh.” “What is this?” asked Quetzalcoatl when the message was delivered. “What does he call my own flesh? Go and ask him.” But Tezcatlipoca said he would speak only with Quetzalcoatl. He was then admitted into the presence of Quetzalcoatl. “Welcome, youth. You have troubled yourself much. Whence come you? What is this, my flesh, that you would show me?” “My lord and priest,” replied Tezcatlipoca, “I come from the mountainside of Nonoalco. Look now at your flesh; know yourself; see
yourself as you are seen by others.” And with that he handed him the mirror. As soon as Quetzalcoatl saw his face in the mirror, he said: “How is it possible my subjects can look on me without affright? Well might they flee from me. How can a man remain among them filled as I am with foul sores, his face wrinkled and his aspect loathsome? I shall be seen no more: I shall no longer frighten my people.” But Tezcatlipoca said he could conceal the defects on Quetzalcoatl’s face. He painted the ruler’s cheeks green and dyed his lips red. The forehead he colored yellow, and, taking the feathers of the quetzal bird, he made a beard. Quetzalcoatl looked at himself in the mirror and was pleased with the artifice. Then Tezcatlipoca took the strong pulque he had brewed and gave some to Quetzalcoatl, who became drunk. He called his attendants and asked that his sister Quetzalpetlatl come to him. She instantly obeyed and, drinking some of the pulque, also became drunk. It is not clear whether Quetzalcoatl slept with his sister in the myth, but the next morning he said, “I have sinned, the stain on my name can never be erased. I am not fit to rule this people. Let them build for me a habitation deep underground; let them bury my bright treasures in the earth; let them throw the gleaming gold and shining stone into the holy fountain where I take my daily bath.” He then journeyed eastward to a place where the sky, land, and water met. There his attendants built a funeral pyre, and he threw himself into the flames. As his body burned his heart rose to heaven, and after four days he became the planet Venus, the Morning Star. In a variant of the end of the legend, Quetzalcoatl departed on a raft toward the east, saying he would one day return. When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in the 16th century, the Aztecs believed that their hero had returned to them as he had promised, a belief that helped seal their doom. The conflict between the two cultures is told in W. H. Prescott’s The History of the Conquest of Mexico and in the novels The Fair God by Lew Wallace and Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger, which was made into a film.

Taken from the Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante

Quetzalcoatl

Lord of the Dawn

Quetzalcoatl means “the plumed or feathered serpent.”

Although often described as an Aztec deity, Quetzalcoatl predates the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico by centuries. A plumed water serpent spirit recognizable as Quetzalcoatl was venerated in the region from at least 1200 BCE.

Quetzalcoatl was a Toltec deity, the mysterious civilization who dominated the Valley of Mexico between approximately 1200 and 950 BCE. According to Toltec myth, Quetzalcoatl with his brother Tezcatlipoca—his sometime partner, rival, and alter ego—created this world. After the Fourth Age was destroyed by floods, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca helped Cihuacoatl create a brand-new Earth. They separated land and sky and repopulated Earth by stealing human bones from Mictlan, Realm of Death. Quetzalcoatl ground up those bones like corn, mixing the flour-like powder with his own blood to harvest a new crop of people.

Quetzalcoatl invented the calendar, metal-working, and agriculture. He gave people maize corn, their staff of life: it had previously been hidden away. Quetzalcoatl taught people science, architecture, and art and established government and spiritual rituals. He discouraged human sacrifice, recommending flower offerings instead. Unlike many other deities, Quetzalcoatl was consistently benevolent and caring toward people.

His people lived well. Quetzalcoatl became placid. Tezcatlipoca, force of chaos, arrived to shake things up. He showed Quetzalcoatl his reflection in an obsidian mirror. Quetzalcoatl was shocked at his appearance: truly he did not look well. Tezcatlipoca produced what he called medicine—the elixir of life, an alchemical longevity, vitality potion. Really it was just alcohol, something which the ascetic, celibate Quetzalcoatl had never tasted. One sip led to another; Tezcatlipoca got Quetzalcoatl very drunk. At some point, Quetzalcoatl’s sister Quetzalpetlatl or Xochiquetzal arrived. (Different versions feature different names. It’s possible that both names refer to the same spirit.) Depending on the version of the myth, this sister may be a celibate priestess. Quetzalcoatl gave her some of the medicine.

In the morning, they woke up together in bed. Different myths posit different versions of what happened.

• Maybe they really did commit incest.

• Alternatively, too drunk to actually engage in sex, they were also too drunk to recall their actions: Tezcatlipoca told them they had sex and they believed him.

• Yet another version says rival priests raped Quetzalpetlatl but blamed Quetzalcoatl.

Regardless, Quetzalcoatl was ashamed and devastated. He suffered a crisis of faith and felt he must leave. He traveled to the sea and sailed away to the east, maybe on a boat with sails, maybe on a raft of snakes. He vowed to return someday.

As their power waned, some Toltecs moved to the Yucatan where they exerted strong influence on Mayan culture. They brought spirits with them: Toltec Quetzalcoatl became Mayan Kukulcan. Quetzalcoatl and Kukulcan are generally considered two names for one deity.

Quetzalcoatl’s significance and place in the Aztec pantheon is now unclear. Some insist that he is the most important Aztec deity, others that he is comparatively marginal. However sixteenth-century Franciscan missionaries were very taken with him. Aspects of his myth were perceived as Christ-like. He became a tool for evangelists who identified his second-coming from the east with the arrival of the conquistadors. They may have encouraged the still-popular legend that Moctezuma mistook Cortes for Quetzalcoatl.

Manifestation: Quetzalcoatl is a pale, bearded man who wears a conical hat and a robe decorated with flowers and crosses.

Iconography: Quetzalcoatl is portrayed as a snake covered with quetzal plumes.

Attributes: Quetzalcoatl wears a cross-section (slice) of a conch shell as a pendant or chest ornament.

Element: Water

Bird: Quetzal (Pharomachus mocinno)

Creatures: Snakes, especially rattlesnakes; also now Quetzalcoatlus, the pterosaur named in his honor

Planet: Venus, the Morning Star

Sacred sites:

• His temple at Teotihuacán dates to the third century CE.

• Cholula was the center of his veneration and an important pilgrimage site.

Offerings: Flowers especially hyacinths, copal incense, seashells, chocolate

See also: Cihuacoatl; Kolowisi; Oiwa; Malinalxochitl; Mictlantecuhtli; Tezcatlipoca; Xochiquetzal; Xolotl

Judika Illes
From the Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.