The legend of Quetzalcoatl Short Summary

Topic Summary:

            The Mesoamerican legend of a deity viewed to possess several forms from feathered serpent to human priest-like form is the classic god known as Quetzalcoatl originating from Olmec civilization. In this paper, the legend is analyzed according to three essential components, namely: (1) symbols of Quetzalcoatl’s imagery, (2) contributions of the worship to the cultures involved, and (3) information imparted to the different cultures that formed part in the worship of the said god. Quetzalcoatl is initially characterized by a scaly rattlesnake figure with long green feathers from a Quetzal bird forming bird-like serpent figure. Teotihucan culture from the Ancient tribes of Aztec is the known origin of the god’s myth and legendary contexts.

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            Quetzalcoatl has been acknowledged as a symbolic figure influencing mainly the Latin American cultures most especially the Mexican Chicanos. According to scholarly analysis and Mexican ancient texts (e. g. Codex Telleriano-Remensi, Codex Magliabechiano, etc.), Quetzalcoatl implies several symbolic details ranging from light to human civilization to an earthly human enforced to be a deity. Generally, Quetzalcoatl is acknowledged as the Morning Star giving the identity a significant resemblance to Christian figure known as Lucifer, who also possesses the similar alias. On the other hand, the most concerning contribution of Quetzalcoatl worship to the Olmec tribes is the fact that the culture contributed to the Spanish colonialism brought by Herman Cortes around February 1519. Lastly, the cult of Quetzalcoatl has imparted unique perspectives of creation, heroism, imagery and worship. Currently, modern day worship of Quetzalcoatl has been cited most commonly in the Southern regions of America.


The Legend of Quetzalcoatl

I.              Introduction

            The introductory section states the primary aims o the paper in studying the different symbolisms involved in the legend of Quetzalcoatl. The ancient Aztec deity called Quetzalcoatl originating from the Teotihuacán tribe of the Olmec society is characterized by its long- green feathers derived from a Quetzalli bird and a scaly skinned body of a rattle snake. The deity is religiously worshipped by the Olmec tribe acknowledging the being as a hero destined to bring peace and liberation over their society. In the introductory section, a brief review of the deity’s scriptural account has been provided revealing a unique perspective of creation performed by Quetzalcoatl and acknowledged by the believers of the cult. In the following sections of the paper, the discussion is further subdivided into three subtopics consisting of (1) the imagery of Quetzalcoatl and the symbolisms involved, (2) historical and social implications of Quetzalcoatl, and (3) the contributions imparted by the legend of Quetzalcoatl to the cultures involved.

II.            Discussion

a.    Quetzalcoatl: The Image of god

            Quetzalcoatl is considered as the god of the Aztecs described as a Plumed Serpent god with varying illustrations per culture. The deity is likened to the ancient Mesoamerican figure known as the Celestial dragon with an exception of its feathery wings and snake-body rather than an overall reptilian figure. Being a hybrid of a bird and a reptile, Quetzalcoatl receives two symbolical representations concerning its identity. According to ancient manuscripts, Toltec tribe attaches the wings of a Quetzalli to connote the high and godly characteristics of the creature, while the reptilian body of a rattlesnake known also as a coatl signifies the earthly attributes of the deity. From 300 A.D., the cult of Quetzalcoatl expanded reaching to the southern and eastern areas of Mesoamerican civilization. This section provides different illustrations and symbolisms from across the cultural backgrounds penetrated by the Quetzalcoatl belief. In Mayan civilization, a dualistic opposition between Quetzalcoatl and its rival deity is the center of the legend, while in Xochicalco, the emphasis is on the human origins of Quetzalcoatl. Other versions of the legend suggest different areas portrayed and represented by the ancient Olmec deity, Quetzalcoatl.

b.    Implication of Images: Historical and Social Milieu

            History and social implications of the legend to the succeeding tribes influenced by the belief in Quetzalcoatl have led to several significant Mesoamerican events. Historically, the society governed by the priest-kings and ruler, Montezuma II, has always celebrated the return of the deity in a recurring festivity known as Ce Acatl (One Reed). Due to an absolute coincidence, the Spanish invader Herman Cortes together with his allies has landed at Veracruz in February 1519, which is a year after the Ce Acatl of Olmec tribes; hence, giving the natives the wrong notion that the Spaniard was their expected deity. Cortez has utilized the psychological advantage of incident to facilitate his entry in the lands of the Aztecs. Following the incident is the religious invasion brought by the Spanish friars. Upon learning the deity worshiped by the members of Quetzalcoatl cult, Spanish attached various Christian figures, such as St. Thomas and Jesus Christ, to the native’s Quetzalcoatl aiming to convince them about the resemblance of the two divine beings.  Following the religious clash is the chronic evolution of the different religious insights of Olmec society, which gradually altered their religious patterns. However, the evangelical aims of the Spaniards are not entirely successful in annihilating the cultural significance of Quetzalcoatl among the Aztec cultural sects. From and Colonial World to the Contemporary times, belief of the Olmec society to Quetzalcoatl has continued enabling significant contributions in the social milieu of Mesoamericans. The divine belief in the nature of Quetzalcoatl as the symbol of light, creation and culture has enabled distinct advancements in the society of Mesoamericans.

c.    Information Imparted to the Culture

            The culture of Mesoamerican has been dramatically influenced by the belief in their heroic deity, Quetzalcoatl. This last section of the paper discusses the contributions of the Quetzalcoatl belief in the Mexican society. From the pre-Columbian era to the modern Latin American civilization, Mexicans and other sub-sectors worshiping in the cult of Quetzalcoatl have maintained the cultural tradition and practices involved. Regardless of the different versions of the legend, Mesoamerican theology has attained unique perspectives on creation, civilized lifestyle, social advancement and divine practices.

III.           Conclusion

            The conclusion of the paper answers the different symbolisms implied by the varying illustrations of Quetzalcoatl, historical and social milieus influenced by the belief, and the contributions handed down by the believers of Quetzalcoatl.

IV.          Introduction

a.    Problem Statement

            One of the major deities of Aztec culture – Quetzalcoatl – acknowledged as the “feathered serpent” has influenced the historical and social evolution of Latin American culture as implied by various images depicting the Plumed Serpent god. Meanwhile, socio-historical analysis of Quetzalcoatl worship and culture reveals different symbolisms and ancient functions involved in the Aztecs’ practices towards the god.

b.    Overview: Quetzalcoatl

             Historically, the legend of Quetzalcoatl has originated from the Teotihuacán culture of Olmec society around 300 B.C. by the time of rigid theological perspectives between Christianity and Paganism[1]. According to Aztec legends, Quetzalcoatl was acknowledged as an earthly hero and acting ruler of the Toltecs for sometime. Stories narrate that Quetzalcoatl was tasked by the higher command of Toltec tribe to gather the remains of the ancient people of Aztecs after the end of the Fourth Sun or Aztec Era[2]. Eventually, the legend has ultimately spread throughout Mesoamerica covering the Latin and Middle American societies.  Meanwhile, other ancient texts acknowledge Quetzalcoatl as a fallen god of the Aztecs. Toltecs of Teotihuacán tribe has found moral preoccupations of time, nature, power and survival in the legend of Quetzalcoatl leading to dramatic influence in the beliefs of Olmec to the vast South American heritage.

V.           Discussion

a.    Quetzalcoatl: The Image of god

            Quetzalcoatl is commonly illustrated as a great feathered serpent in the art and architecture of various tribes (e.g., Teotihuacán, Chichimecs, etc.) and cultures (e.g., Olmec, Maya, etc.) involved in the worship of the deity. As far as symbolism is concerned, the image of Quetzalcoatl is likened to the classic Mesoamerican mythical creature known as the Celestial Dragon, which symbolizes the heritage and culture of both American Indian and Chicano especially during the 1970s[3]. The ancient feathered deity is characterized by the hybrid attributes of a bird and a reptile; although, the murals and images illustrating the characteristics of Quetzalcoatl vary according tribe and culture. Quetzalcoatl resembles to the figure of an ancient Aztec figure known as Nahuatl representing symbols of plumage of the Quetzal bird (Quetzalli; connotes the high value of the serpent) and a snake (coatl; symbolizes the negative nature of the being)[4]. Olmec culture (1150 to 500 B.C.) regards “serpents” as representations of agricultural and land resources, but the tribe of Teotihuacán (200 C.E.) illustrates their serpent (specifically rattlesnake) with attached long green feathers of Quetzal. Meanwhile, Maya Indians from Mexico and Central America regard Quetzalcoatl as a symbolical serpent that appears to have risen out of the sea to bring the crucifix[5].

            According to historical and social analysis, the imagery of Quetzalcoatl provides a different perspective of creation born from chaos and fear with the Pagan cliché of gods being the prime teachers of human civilization[6]. According to the latter adapting tribes (e.g., Chichimecs, Mayans, etc.) after the destruction of legend’s origin tribe – Teotihuacán, Quetzalcoatl has become the cultic representation of light in opposition to the Mesoamerican cosmological deity – Tezcatlipoca – who governs evil and darkness[7]. Further implications of the myth connote that vast humanly inventions in the fields of architecture, music, agriculture and other basic fields have all originated from their god, Quetzalcoatl. In the tribe of Xochicalco (700 to 900 C.E.), Quetzalcoatl has been illustrated in a human form possessing immortality and other god-like characteristics. For Mayan culture, Quetzalcoatl is regarded as an immortal god characterized by its snake identity, which represents a cyclical renewal of spiritual and material forces through its natural process of shedding[8]. Meanwhile, Aztec Images of Quetzalcoatl obtained from codices, carvings and paintings reveal the god’s distinctive jewels made from conch shell, conical hat resembling as an Ehecatl (wind serpent), and mask projecting towards the blow of the wind[9]. The representations of Quetzalcoatl in the Mesoamerican society reveal the dynamic evolution of their god figure from mythical creature derived from the age of pagan animism and mythology to human form.

            Meanwhile, in different versions of the legend, Quetzalcoatl have been given several humanly attributes leading to the downfall of the god’s rulership. In Chichimecan version, Quetzalcoatl has fallen into alcohol seduction plotted by Tezcatlipoca making the latter commit incest with his sister. On the other hand, some scholarly versions (e.g. Jorge Acosta’s, etc.) suggest that Quetzalcoatl forced himself to deity position leading him into disgrace. In an effort to resolve the god’s guilt, Quetzalcoatl sets himself into fire with his ashes ascending into the heavens as the Morning Star or Lord of the Dawn [10]. The latter name is relevant to the Christian figure – Lucifer – who has also received the similar aliases. According to the scholarly analysis of Fray Juan de Torquemada and various scholars (e.g. Las Casas, Acosta, etc.), Quetzalcoatl has been regarded as a demon worshiped by selected Indian tribes (e.g. Cholulans, etc.)[11]. Contrary to the latter statements, the pre-Toltec culture has been falsely exaggerated by earlier archeological investigations enforcing its practices cultic practices (e.g. human sacrifices, militaristic cults of war, etc.). According to the sculptural representations and ethnohistoric background of Quetzalcoatl cult, the god is regarded as the symbol of peace and light governing the aspects of learning, advancement and creation[12]. Regardless of the differences in representations of Quetzalcoatl, symbolisms and function of the god have great influenced the history and society of various Mesoamerican cultures.

b.    Implication of Images: Historical and Social Milieu

            Archeological evidences found in the Teotihuacán basin of Mexico suggest the existence of Quetzalcoatl worship even during the early Olmec before 800 B.C and by 300 A.D. The cult of Quetzalcoatl, however, has been born at Xochicalco, Morelos in approximately 800 A.D. and eventually carried to Toltec Tula by his priest-kings[13]. Eventually, the cult of Quetzalcoatl has expanded across the eastern and southern highlands of Mexico reaching to Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala. Pre-Toltec cultures and associated Mesoamerican tribes believe in the role of Quetzalcoatl in advancing their society. Influences of the cult have gained significant hold in the society of Ancient Olmec society expanding to the general Latin America. Eventually, the intense affinity of the ancient Aztecs to their Quetzalcoatl cult practices has led to the historical Spanish colonization. A political and religious Aztec priest known as Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl played an essential role in the maintenance of connection between Tula of Mayans, Teotihuacán and Xochicalco. Ancient compilations of Toltec history frequently reveal the role of the priest king in response to the founding of Toltec civilization[14]. Archeological evidences scrutinizing the actual identity of Topiltzin fail to conclude whether the person depicted by Ancient Mesoamerican texts and images is the god or actual Quetzalcoatl[15]. Historical accounts suggest that Topiltzin revolutionized Toltec society from nomadic to civilized civilization with acceptance of Toltec cultural and religious traditions.

            Unfortunately, according to historical evidences analyzed by several critiques[16], the natives’ belief to Quetzalcoatl’s return provided the Spaniards led by Herman Cortez the advantage to enter Veracruz. Legend of Quetzalcoatl included a promise of god’s return known as the year of Ce Acatl (One Reed), which recurred every fifty-two years. By an absolute coincidence, Cortez arrived in the date of Ce Acatl around February 1519 giving him the psychological advantage over the believers of Quetzalcoatl legend[17]. Upon Cortez’s arrival, Olmec society led by Montezuma II welcomed Cortez with his Spanish companions unaware of the foreigners’ true intent, while at the same time overshadowed by their expectations of the legend’s fulfillment[18]. Eventually, Toltec society unexpectedly participated in the goals and aims of Spanish friars of Christian preaching and enforcing their theology. In the pre-Columbian times, Spanish religious expansion was the primary aim. According to legends, Quetzalcoatl departed due to disgrace brought by the Spanish friars’ brigade and for having his cult struggles leading the god to the heavenly realms to become the planet Venus[19]. From the Colonial World to the Contemporary times, the legend of Quetzalcoatl had consistently retained its symbol of Mexican oppression and banishment. Quetzalcoatl’s concept of regeneration and immortality provided the idea of return and triumph among the Mesoamerican culture; thus, representing the hopes of Mesoamerican in the return of their Golden Age.

            With the Spanish invasion of the Mesoamerican societies, Neo-Mayas influenced by both pagan Quetzalcoatl cult and Christianity have formed their indigenous iconography wherein Quetzalcoatl is likened to “JesuChristo”[20]. Meanwhile, Spanish interpretations of Quetzalcoatl provided scholarly conflation between the mentioned god and St. Thomas revealing an example of syncretism between cosmological myths of Mesoamerican culture and Christianity. The idea is later adapted by Mexican societies most especially the Chicanos. Social implications of Quetzalcoatl’s illustration to Latin Americans and cult believers are symbolized using festive costumes and native patients. In social festivities, Quetzalcoatl’s identity of being a feathered serpent is rather expressed through the costumes of the priest-king. Quetzalcoatl is commonly represented by a prototypal priest characterized by a black body of a priest with face painted with black, red, and gold[21]. The legend of Quetzalcoatl has played an important role in tracing the social evolution of Mesoamerican civilizations from Toltec ancestors to Contemporary Neo-Mayans. According to archeological evidences, Mesoamerican ways of agriculture, calendar-making, writing, astronomy, astrology, medicine, trade and commerce, and arts have significant attachments to the legendary Toltec hero and mythical feathered bird, Quetzalcoatl[22]. Ancient manuscripts, such as Nahuatl texts, reveal social practices, religious perspectives and civilized transitions of lifestyles obtained by Toltec to Mayan societies from their distinct affinity towards their deity.

c.    Information Imparted to the Culture

            Scholars and archeological revelations acknowledge the role of Quetzalcoatl in revolutionizing the Mesoamerican society from 300 B.C. to the contemporary Latin America. The information imparted by the legend of Quetzalcoatl lies in the roles of the myth as religious innovators and Mesoamerican cultural symbol. The legend of Quetzalcoatl provides the Latin American culture a different perspective towards creation drastically apart from the traditional theistic belief. Unlike Christian, Muslim and other monotheistic religion, Olmec’s Quetzalcoatl is believed to be the symbol of education for the Mesoamerican culture[23]. Quetzalcoatl’s legend and its affinity towards the Mesoamerican civilization describe the characteristics of divinity prevailing during the ancient Toltec, Mayan, Olmec and other Aztec cultures. Cult of Quetzalcoatl has imparted a completely radical perspective of creation and outlook on material-spiritual forces among Latin Americans. According to modern socialist perspective, the legend of Quetzalcoatl has been greatly idealized by the modern Latin America most especially the cultural sector of Chicanos[24]. In the Ramirez Codex, Quetzalcoatl linked with the Christian figure of St. Thomas creates a sense of messianic identity for the Mesoamerican culture to expect[25]. Meanwhile, the god has also been attributed to the bringer of light (symbol of education, learning, advancement, etc.) necessary to the formation of civilization. Quetzalcoatl cult may have possessed several versions; however, the legend is able to maintain consistent impact in the religious traditions of contemporary and even modern Mexicans. The legend of Quetzalcoatl contributes to the idea of associated Mesoamerican cultures’ dualistic yet monotheistic divine perspectives. In the event of the myth’s progression and reign in the modern Mexican society, the image of Quetzalcoatl has significantly imparted the symbol of Mexican ancestry remembered even by the succeeding generations. As implied by the different symbols of Quetzalcoatl, culture, divinity and traditions have become the major contributions of the deity to the modern Mesoamerican culture.

VI.          Conclusion

            In conclusion, Quetzalcoatl is a serpent creature known to possess the valuable long green feathers of a Quetzalli. According to legends, the deity is initially an earthly human who became a hero after enforcing himself to the level of deities. Quetzalcoatl has attained several alternative names, such as Morning Star, Lord of the Dawn, symbolizing his role in the society and evolution of Mesoamerican cultures. Originating from the Toltec era, Quetzalcoatl has become the acknowledged symbol of culture, light of learning and education, peace, and civilization. Archeological studies of ancient texts record the role of Quetzalcoatl’s practices in the entry of Spanish invaders led by H. Cortez. By an ultimate coincidence, Cortez has penetrated Veracruz during the year of expected return of Quetzalcoatl celebrated by the Indians of Mesoamerican civilization. Eventually, the legend has been attributed to several Christian orthodox figures, such as St. Thomas, Jesus Christ, etc., linking the pagan deity to Catholicism. Throughout time, the historical and religious significance of Quetzalcoatl has been part of the Mexican society, especially the Chicanos, religiously acknowledging the contributions played by the deity in the evolution of Mesoamerican cultures.

VII.         Bibliography

Boone, Elizabeth Hill. Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. Texas, U.S.A.: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Castro, Rafaela G. Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices of Mexican Americans. New York, Oxford shire: Oxford University Press US, 2001.

Conrad, Geoffrey W. and Demarest, Arthur A. Religion and Empire the Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism. New York, London: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Contreras, Sheila Marie. Blood Lines: Myth, Indigenism and Chicana/o Literature. Texas, U.S.A: University of Texas Press, 2008.

Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America, Fourth Edition. California, U.S.A.: University of California Press, 1994.

Florescano, Enrique, Hochroth, Lysa and Velazquez, Raul. The Myth of Quetzalcoatl. London, New York: JHU Press, 2002.

Fuentes, Carlos. The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World. London, New York.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

Graziano, Frank. The Millennial New World. Oxfordshire, New York: Oxford University Press US, 1999.

Hall, Manly Palmer. Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. New York, U.S.A.:, 2005.

Hassig, Ross. Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico. Texas, U.S.A: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Lafaye, Jacques, Keen, Benjamin and Paz, Octavio. Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531-1813. Chicago, U.S.A.: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Lee, Jongsoo. The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic History, Religion, and Nahua Poetics. New York, London: UNM Press, 2008.

Spinden, Herbert Joseph. Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. New York, London: Simon Publications LLC, 2001.

Suchlicki, Jaime. Mexico: From Montezuma to the Fall of the PRI. New York, U.S.A.: Brassey’s Publishing, 2001.

Werner, Michael S. Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico. New York, U.S.A.: Taylor ; Francis, 2001.

Wright, Ronald. Stolen Continents: Five Hundered Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas. New York, U.S.A.: Mariner Books, 2005.

[1] John A. Crow, The Epic of Latin America, Fourth Edition (California, U.S.A.: University of California Press, 1992),  45
[2] Rafaela G. Castro, Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices of Mexican Americans (New York, Oxford shire: Oxford University Press US, 2001), 193
[3] Castro, 193- 194
[4] Michael S. Werner, Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico (New York, U.S.A.: Taylor ; Francis, 2001), 379
[5] Manly Palmer Hall, Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy (New York, U.S.A.:, 2005),  549
[6] Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (London, New York.: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999), 99
[7] Werner, 379
[8] Sheila Marie Contreras, Blood Lines: Myth, Indigenism and Chicana/o Literature (Texas, U.S.A: University of Texas Press, 2008), 87
[9] Werner, 379
[10] Werner, 380
[11] Jacques Lafaye, Benjamin Keen and Octavio Paz, Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531-1813 (Chicago, U.S.A.: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 174
[12] Geoffrey W Conrad and Arthur A Demarest, Religion and Empire the Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism (New York, London: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 18
[13] Werner, 659
[14] Herbert Joseph Spinden, Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America (New York, London: Simon Publications LLC, 2001), 173
[15] Jongsoo Lee, The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic History, Religion, and Nahua Poetics (New York, London: UNM Press, 2008), 63
[16] Castro, 193; Fuentes, 99; Werner, 379
[17] Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: Five Hundered Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas (New York, U.S.A.: Mariner Books, 2005), 19
[18] Jaime Suchlicki, Mexico: From Montezuma to the Fall of the PRI (New York, U.S.A.: Brassey’s Publishing, 2001), 15
[19] Ross Hassig, Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico (Texas, U.S.A: University of Texas Press, 2001), 58
[20] Contreras, 88
[21] Elizabeth Hill Boone, Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate (Texas, U.S.A.: University of Texas Press, 2007), 40
[22] Enrique Florescano, Lysa Hochroth and Raul Velazquez, The Myth of Quetzalcoatl (London, New York: JHU Press, 2002), 37
[23] Fuentes, 99
[24] Castro, 193
[25] Frank Graziano, The Millennial New World (Oxfordshire, New York: Oxford University Press US, 1999), 184

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