Quetzalcoatl

One of the most prominent gods in Mexican culture is the Aztec Feathered Serpent God, Quetzalcoatl (Keh-tzal-coh-atl). Although he is one of more than 200 Aztec gods and goddesses, his importance in the Aztec culture can't be denied. He's also known to other ancient Mexican civilizations.

Quetzalcoatl is the god of learning, wisdom, and self-awareness. He is also the patron of priests and merchants and provides a positive counter to his brother, Tezcatlipoca , the god of cold and death. Together, they created the world during the First and Second Sun of the Aztec calendar.

Relief of Quetzalcoatl at Xochicalco

© Rafael Saldaña - Relief of Quetzalcoatl at Xochicalco

The Origins of Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl is the son of Lord Ometeotl. Before he was worshiped as the creator of Earth and its people, he was worshiped as a god of wind or rain. In ancient art and literature, he is often depicted surrounded by raindrops and thunderclouds, and his depiction in the Aztec calendar is by the symbol for the day sign 9 Wind.

There are many stories surrounding Quetzalcoatl and his adventures through ancient Mexico, many of which pre-date Aztec civilization by thousands of years. Historians believe he was borrowed from the Toltecs after they declined and the Aztecs became the dominant culture; many Aztec gods and goddesses are adopted from the religions of people they conquered.

The Aztec Empire was the dominant civilization in Mexico from about 1325 AD, but Quetzalcoatl makes his first appearance in Meso-American art and literature around the year 1400 BCE. He was know to the Mayans as Kukulcan or Votan and as Ehecatl to the Huastec tribes of Mexico's Gulf Coast.

Carving of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan

© Greg Schechter - Carving of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan

Quetzalcoatl Myths and Legends

One of the first stories we hear about the Aztec Serpent God is how he and one of his brothers created the world. After 600 years, their aging father, Ometecuhtli, ordered the pair to create the Earth and everything on it. There are two legends about this creation.

The first tells how they divided the heavens to create the sky and earth, the seas, and trees. Some stories claim that the two brothers made trees as a way to hold up the sky and keep it separated from the earth below.

In the second legend of creation, the duties were split between the four children of Lord Ometecuhtli and Lady Omecihuatl, the other two being Huitzilopochtli and Xipe Totec; together, they are the East, West, North, and South.

The heaven and earth were made when Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl turned themselves into snakes to fight the serpent monster, Tlaltcuhtli (sometimes called Cipactli). They defeated her, ripping her body in half, which became the sky and earth. Her hair and skin became flowers, trees, and plants; her nostrils and eyes formed caves and spring; and the mountains came from her mouth. Human sacrifice is said to be necessary to appease her for her violent end by giving her blood and hearts.

The Gods of the First Four Suns

Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Borbonicus

Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Borbonicus

Another legend explains how the two brothers came to be the kings of the first four suns, or eras, of the Aztec Age. Tezcatlipoca was the god of the first era. When Quetzalcoatl saw how beautiful his brother's creations like the night sky and stars were, he struck him down and transformed him into a jaguar before taking his place as the king of the second and third suns.

This era ended when Tezcatlipoca destroyed his brother and reclaimed the throne. The fourth sun ended when Quetzalcoatl again destroyed his brother and created the human race during the fifth and final era, which is the one we're living in now.

In other legends, the four children of Lord Ometeotl each ruled an age and sacrificed themselves by jumping into a fire at the end of it so a new Sun could begin. The first four ages were represented by each of the elements associated with that god and their colors, which are black, white, blue, and red.

The first, lasting 676 years and called 4 Tiger, was ruled by Tezcatlipoca, the second 676-year cycle, called 4 Wind, was ruled by Quetzalcoatl; the third, a 364-year cycle called 4 Rain, was ruled by Tlaloc, and the final 676-year sun before the present age was ruled by their sister and wife of Tlaloc, Chalchiuthlicue.

It was called the 4 Water Sun and ended in a great flood that destroyed humanity. Chalchiuthlicue saved their souls by transforming them into fishes. They were returned to humans during the fifth sun.

A version of the Aztec creation myth is recorded on the Aztec Sun Stone, which you can see at the National Museum of Anthropology (INAH), located in Mexico City.

Creator of the Human Race

According to Aztec belief, the current and fifth sun is the present era, which began when Quetzalcoatl defeated his brother for the final time. In other Aztec legends, it is called the 4 Movement Sun and is ruled by Tonatiuh, the Sun God. This is why the Aztecs called themselves The People of the Sun.

Whoever it is decided ruled the current era, humans were created at the beginning of it by Quetzalcoatl. As the story goes, he traveled with his dog to Mictlan, the underworld, to gather the bones of the dead. After many trials and battles, he was able to bring the bones to the earth's surface, where he ground them to dust and mixed them with his own blood to create modern man.

Another version of the creation legend also tells how Quetzalcoatl earned his symbol, the conch shell. He arrived to gather the bones of the dead. The god and goddess of the underworld, Mictlanteuctli and Mictlancihuatl, agreed to let him take them only if he could blow on a conch shell that had no holes in it. He convinced worms to bore holes in the shell, and then filled it full of bees to imitate the sound.

When Mictlanteuctli learned of this trick, he made a pit to trap Quetzalcoatl as he ran away with the bones. He fell into the pit, and the bones became so mixed up that he couldn't tell the males from females. So, he ground them all together and had the witch, Cihuacóatl, form them into people through a ritual using corn and his blood.

Depiction of Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Depiction of Quetzalcoatl

The Morning Star

One form of Quetzalcoatl is The Morning Star. He earned this name by creating the planet, Venus. The legend states that he headed East after being defeated by his brother in another of their epic battles, although in some accounts this exile happened after his brother got him drunk and tricked him into committing incest with their sister. He was so depressed that he threw himself into a fire he built halfway through the journey.

From the flames of the funeral pyre, he was reborn as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. The planet Venus also rose from the flames and settled in the sky, where it can still be seen traveling east with the Sun in the morning.

How Quetzacoatl Created the Flowers

In another of Quetzalcoatl's creation stories, he made the flowers of the Earth. Legend has it that he threw his semen against a rock, where it transformed into a fruit bat. The bat flew to Xochiquetzal, the Aztec fertility goddess, and bit her between the legs. Beautiful flowers sprang from the wound, which were gathered up by Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Underworld. He washed them in the subterranean springs to give them their fragrance.

Hernan Cortes as Quetzalcoatl

When the Spanish conquistadors first landed in Mexico, they were thought to be Aztec gods in human form. One of the most notable examples of this legend is about the explorer Hernan Cortes. The conqueror and his people defeated the Aztecs in 1591 after taking Montezuma hostage and pillaging the city of Tenochtitlan.

However, when they first arrived, the Aztecs believed that Cortes was really the warrior-god Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, who swore to return to the city when his long exile ended.

Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Magliabechiano

Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Magliabechiano

Quetzalcoatl in Popular Culture

Worship of the Serpent God in this form was widespread throughout Mexico, beginning in about 900 - 1200 AD. There are temples dedicated to him in the cities of Tenochtitlan, Cholula, and the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, where the temple is dedicated to him as the form Kukulcan.

Influential Aztec leaders were required to make a pilgrimage to the Aztec temple in Cholula at least once after coming to power. Other important worship sites are the Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin and the platform temple at Xochicalco.

Even people who are not from Mexico might recognize his images in Mexican art works. One of the earliest known depictions is from the year 3 AD. It's of a snake with a bird's beak and feathered chest that is flanked by two pheasants (quetzal birds). In fact, his name is a combination of "quetzal" and "coatl", which means snake.

There are similar images located near a six-level tiered pyramid in the city of Teotihuacan that was built in his honor during the first century. There are also various images of serpent gods alone or with wind and rain on art and pottery from that city and Cacaxtla.

Warriors sometimes had the tattoo of a conch shell on the upper-left portion of their chest, They would often wear a necklace made from shells with a turquoise stone in the center or carry shields with a conch shell on the front.

Quetzalcoatl Carving

© Kurt Bauschardt - Quetzalcoatl Carving

The Iconography of Quetzalcoatl

Religious icons and statues featuring Quetzalcoatl show all of his faces and forms. Some statues identified as Quetzalcoatl are in the shape of feathered rattlesnakes with a flint knife coming out of the tongue or rattle and carrying a small spear or sickle. His shield is either decorated with a conch shell or feathers.

After the year 1200, we see him represented as human, and any feathered serpent or bird-headed images take the form of masks and capes rather than his actual head and body. The most common is of the god with a feathered serpent covering and the head or mask of a bird. He is also pictured wearing small conch shell earrings or plugs and a gold necklace decorated with shells. On his chest, he sometimes wears an Ehecailacozcatl, which is a wind jewel made from the cross section of a conch shell.

When he is represented as the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, he wears a red mask with a fanged duck's bill and shell jewelry. In the form of Quetzalcoatl-Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, he wears a feathered headdress with an ax or darts in the band to represent the rays of the Morning Star. Other headdresses are a cone-shaped cap made from a jaguar's skin with small jewel icon on top or a curved weapon of bone used for sacrifice poking through the top. A black stripe running down the center of his face identifies him as a fertility god.

Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl

Representation of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl

Fun facts about Quetzalcoatl

  • Another name for Quetzalcoatl is Xolotl, which is also sometimes the name of his dog companion.
  • He's called The Morning Star because Aztecs believe he created the planet Venus.
  • He may have been based on a real person, the warrior Ce Acatl Topiltzán Quetzalcoatl, who was a hero to the Mayan and Toltec people.
  • He's associated with the East because that is the direction Ce Acatl Topiltzán Quetzalcoatl went when he left Tula.
  • His battles with his brother, Tezcatlipoca, are legendary.
  • He has many faces and names, and he appears throughout the history of Ancient Mexico in different forms.
  • Many Mormons believe he was Jesus.