The name derives from “Quetzal”, and “Coatl”.
Quetzal is a beautiful bird with magnificent tail feathers of mostly greens and tinges of blue and different colors. Because the bird was so rare and lived in the remote rainforest around what is now Guatemala, the word “quetzal” also point to something precious. For example, a child could be affectionately called a quetzal plume.
As for “Coatl”, this was a reference to a serpent. Other times it would also mean a twin.
For reference: “quetzalli” are the long, glorious tail feathers of the quetzal bird.
Several different references of the name Quetzalcoatl were common, most notably that of the “Feathered Serpent”. The quetzal birds may indeed look like serpents when they take flight into the air, their sleek long tails swerving through the air like snakes.
Another common translation would be that of the “Precious Twin”. Legend has it that Quetzalcoatl had a twin called Xolotl, depicted in a canine form. Xolotl was said to have curated Venus when it became the Evening Star, and during whose time human sacrifices were thought to have happened.
Of course, the name could also be translated as “Precious Serpent”, which would be an obvious extension of the “Quetzal” significance.
Place in the Aztec Pantheon
In the most memorable interpretation, Quetzalcoatl was the god of the wind and Venus, the Morning Star. He was also the god of transition, since the serpents were seen as living on the frontier between the worlds of water and earth.
It thus followed that Quetzalcoatl would be connected to a wide range of phenomena. He was the god of twins, the god of lightning (because lightning appears in the sky in the form of a giant snake), the god of learning, and by extension of the priesthood, and more.
Because of how ancient this god was (according to some sources, the first known drawings of him dated back to the early Olmec civilization), he played an active part in Aztec history. For example:
- He was one of the four gods who created the world from the primordial chaos;
- He created the current generations of people. Following the prior populations of humans, he is said to have descended into the Underworld to bring up the shattered human bones, and then brought life into the bones using the blood from his penis. In a telling phrase by Friar Diego Duràn, he was the “father of the Toltecs and the Spaniards, inasmuch as he predicted the coming of the latter”;
- He had also harbored a destructive streak, helping his brother Black Smoking Mirror destroy some of the Suns, or historical eras;
- And other stories.
The Florentine Codex described him as “the guide, the road sweeper of the rain gods, of the masters of the water, of those who brought rain”. As such, he was deeply connected with the agriculture, and with summoning rainfalls.
It was said that Quetzalcoatl invented self-sacrifice by way of drawing one’s own blood as part of religious worshiping or meditation. Later on, that practice was extended and grotesquely distorted to include the actual killing of animals and people.
Because Quetzalcoatl was the god of learning and priesthood, a tightly controlled and secretive cult seem to have formed around him in the old Mexico. Not much was known about this cult, other than it may have been tasked with guarding the frontier between the world of the people and the world of the gods — the frontier between the earth, the heavens and the underworld.
The high priests would normally carry the name Quetzalcoatl as part of their full title, regardless of the actual deity they were dedicated to.
The place traditionally associated with Quetzalcoatl was Cholula, where many temples were built in his honor. Because he had mostly been the god of wind, his temples were usually rounded, so that the wind could whisk around them freely.
A God and a Man
A somewhat confusing connection existed between Quetzalcoatl the god and Quetzalcoatl the human called “Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl”.
The name of this person can be translated as “Lord One Reed Feathered Serpent”. He appears to have lived in Tollan about 1,100 years ago.
The way Ce Acatl Topiltzin was supposed to have been born had symbolic curiosity. His mother had become pregnant after receiving a jade bead from a fish, and she died while giving birth to him in a cave.
In this one episode, we have at least three ancient symbols common to many religious traditions:
- Fish. This is one of the oldest spiritual symbols known to man. It stands for the bounty of mother earth. The drawings of this symbol, which has survived to this day, consists of two overlapping lines in the shapes of new moons. It has traditionally been the symbol used to represent the life-giving genitals of mother earth in several civilizations.
- Cave. Those were critically important to Meso-American religious thought, as they were seen to connect our world with other worlds. In many religious traditions, caves symbolized home, safety, burial and resurrection. The ancestors of Aztecs were believed to have emerged from Seven Caves, and for Aztecs, caves also symbolized female fertility.
- Immaculate Conception. In some lore, the mother of Ce Acatl Topiltzin had been a virgin called Chimalman. There were however two versions to this legend, for it was not sure whether she was already a wife, or even a second wife, of the then local ruler.
The legends depict Ce Acatl Topiltzin as a thoughtful and just warrior, priest, and leader who wanted his people to return to the pure kind of worship of their gods. Just like Quetzalcoatl the god, he was known to have rejected human sacrifice, disapproved of alcohol and narcotic plants, and worked hard to promote learning. He also wanted priests to remain celibate and focused on serving the gods and educating the people.
It was thus not surprising that, according to legends, it was said that he was expelled from Tollan for getting drunk and sleeping with his own sister. It was thought that people couldn’t forgive him his clean life, nor his attempts to make them live cleanly.
The legends say that Lord One Reed went to the east coast, into the Mayan lands, where he continued to build his visionary communities, spreading the his own influence and ideas as well as those from his motherland, including poetry, songs, and architecture.
It’s worth mentioning that other accounts said that he hadn’t been expelled at all, but that he had led a military invasion from Tollan into the Mayan lands.
According to some interpretations, he had gone east across the seas before his death, promising to return. According to other accounts, he had died on the coast. And yet other stories said that he had burned in a “fire from within”, his mind and body transcending from this world to the world beyond in the moment of his own choosing.
Political and Christian Influences
Sadly, most native accounts of Quetzalcoatl were destroyed in the fire of the conquest by the vigilante priests. They had wanted to eradicate what they saw as the influences of the Devil; or, said more simply, trying to eradicate the history of the ancient people they had vanquished.
It appears that some ten or twenty years following the conquest, an idea took hold that the Mexica thought that the invading Spaniards were none other than the returning disciples of Quetzalcoatl. Some had even quoted Aztec’s firm conviction that Hernán Cortés was none other than Quetzalcoatl himself, and that the conquistadors were “gods”.
Such beliefs fed comfortable and tantalizing theories popularized by Western historians. William H. Prescott, for example, thought that naive, backward natives were awed by the superior technology and knowledge of the “godly” Europeans. And when Europeans committed some atrocities, it would be because of some among them who were medieval Catholics — and not enlightened Protestants.
Those kinds of theories don’t seem to have found traction however among contemporary historians. Cortés had never talked of himself as being a god, and recorded opinions by natives soon after the fall of the Mexica Empire did not refer to him in those terms either.
The myth of Returning Quetzalcoatl was most likely created by the native nobles after the conquest to justify the apparent inaction of Montezuma. The Spanish priests endorsed those views as proof of the inevitability of the Christian victory.
Another interesting interpretation is found in the Book of Mormon, where an opinion was put forward that Christ had visited the pre-conquest America and had taught the same truths there that he had done in the Old World. Some scholars linked Quetzalcoatl to either such a Christ figure, or to Saint Thomas.
This idea seems to trace back to the writings of the early Spanish priests who had come to Mexico during the conquest. They had suggested that the natives might have been one of the lost tribes of Israel whose true convictions had been horribly distorted by the Devil.
The native Mexicans continued to worship Quetzalcoatl even during the times of high activity by the Christian evangelizers. His images can be found inside many a Christian church around the Mexican capital, hidden among the vestiges of bountiful fruit and images of official saints.
A Quetzalcoatl relief inside a Catholic Church near Cholula
I’ve heard — but I’ve never seen it myself — that Quetzalcoatl is being revived across Mexico during the Christmas season, when he appears in the stores instead of Santa.