Quetzalcoatl is a Mesoamerican deity whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and means "feathered serpent". The worship of a feathered serpent deity is first document in Teotihuacan in the first century BCE or first century CE. That period lies within the Late Preclassic to Early Classic period of Mesoamerican chronology, and veneration of the figure appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic.
In the Postclassic period, the worship of the feathered serpent deity was based in the primary Mexican religious center 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 Kukulcan and Gukumatz, names that also roughly translate as "feathered serpent" in different Mayan languages.
In the era following the 16th-century Spanish Conquest, 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 St. Thomas—an identification which is also 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 Venus, of the dawn, of merchants and of arts, crafts and knowledge. He was also 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.
Feathered Serpent deity in Mesoamerica
A feathered serpent deity has been worshiped by many 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.
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.
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 also 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 centers in central Mexico, centers 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 center 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 during 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 stories 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, the worship of Quetzalcoatl was ubiquitous. The most important center 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.
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 symbolizing the outwards military expansion of the Teotihuacan empire. Historian Enrique Florescano also analysing Teotihuacan iconography shows that the Feathered Serpent was part of a triad of agricultural deities: the Goddess of the Cave symbolizing 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 also 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 connection to fertility and vegetational renewal; the Mayan Young Maize god was also 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 other 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
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 also had anthropomorphic forms, for example in his aspects as Ehecatl the wind god. Among the Aztecs, the name Quetzalcoatl was also 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.
The exact significance and attributes of Quetzalcoatl varied somewhat between civilizations and through history. There are several stories 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 story narrates that Chimalman was hit in the womb by an arrow bolted by Mixcoatl and nine months later she gave birth to a child which was called Quetzalcoatl. A fourth story 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 other 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. 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 sometimes as a symbol of death and resurrection. Quetzalcoatl was also 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 practicing 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 also suggested that he was a son of Xochiquetzal and Mixcoatl.
One Aztec story claims that Quetzalcoatl was tricked by Tezcatlipoca into becoming drunk and sleeping with a celibate priestess (in some accounts, his sister Quetzalpetlatl) and then burned himself to death out of remorse. His heart became the morning star.
Belief in Cortés as Quetzalcoatl
Since the sixteenth century, it has been widely held that the Aztec Emperor Montezuma 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 connection is not found in any document that was created independently of post-Conquest Spanish influence, and that there is 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 naïve 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 some 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,
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) may 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 also 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 some 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 evangelized 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:
Some Mormons believe that Quetzalcoatl was actually Jesus Christ. According to the Book of Mormon, Jesus visited the American continent after his resurrection. Quetzalcoatl is not a religious symbol in the Mormon faith, and is not taught as such, nor is it in their doctrine. LDS Church President John Taylor wrote:
The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other 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 during the Spanish Conquest, the Native Americans and the Catholic priests who sympathized 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.
Various theories about Quetzalcoatl are popular in the New Age movement, especially since the publication of Tony Shearer's 1971 book Lord of the dawn: Quetzalcoatl and the Tree of Life republished also under the title Lord of the dawn: Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent of Mexico.