A to Z: Quetzalcoatl

Published April 19, 2018 by Iphis of Scyros

Unsurprisingly, “Q” is a letter with few choices.  Possibly the fewest choices, in fact.  (Well, maybe “U” gets that distinction…but it’s close.)

Image copyright Atlus, but provided by the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

In most of the MegaTen games, Quetzalcoatl’s appearance is a riff on the art above.  Which is certainly fitting, given that his name means “feathered serpent” in Nahuatl.  Though in traditional depictions of the feathered serpent, the feathers don’t tend to take on the form of wings like that.  For example:

Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century). Wikimedia Commons

Feathered collars are also common in Mesoamerican depictions of feathered serpents.  Which, btw, date back at least as far as Teotihuacan, and are also common in Mayan art, though the two Mayan feathered serpent deities cannot simply be considered Quetzalcoatl by another name.  (As both of their names have the same meaning, and they all have a certain amount of overlap in social function, it seems at least possible — if not outright probable — that all three evolved either out of the Teotihuacan feathered serpent or from an earlier one that left  no trace in the archaeological record.)

However, MegaTen‘s Quetzalcoatl doesn’t always look like a feathered serpent.  Sometimes he looks like this:

Again, image copyright Atlus but downloaded from the MegaTen Wiki. Click for link.

And that, too, is not entirely wrong:

Another image of Quetzalcoatl from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century). Wikimedia Commons

So, art aside, who is Quetzalcoatl?  All four of the MegaTen games I’ve been consulting for this month’s A-to-Z posts have the same thing to say about him:

An Aztec creator deity known as the Feathered Serpent.

He is identified as the sun, and also known as the god of wind and giver of breath.  He created humans by sprinkling blood on the bones of people from a previously created world, and acts as guardian of their fertility and culture.  Venus is said to be Quetzalcoatl’s heart.

And yes, that’s pretty much accurate.  A bit bare bones, but accurate.

Of course, something to keep in mind about Quetzalcoatl — really, about any Aztec deity — is that the people we call “the Aztecs” were a confederation of three tribes, of whom the Mexica were dominant.  All three groups had the same roots (which the Mexica considered to be in Teotihuacan, a civilization gone at least five or six hundred years before they arrived in the area), but of course their individual journeys from those roots had varied.  So, much like with the Greek gods, there is no “one true version.”  For example, his Wikipedia page gives no fewer than six possible stories regarding Quetzalcoatl’s birth.  None of these are more right than any of the others.  (Um, except possibly the one that has no citation.  The lack of citation may mean someone made it up in modern times.)  And, of course, all the texts we have were written by Catholic priests and conquistadors, so their accuracy is often questionable.  There’s probably more we don’t know about Quetzalcoatl than there is that we do know.  (We don’t even know that we don’t know it!)

On top of that, from what little we know, much of Mesoamerican religion seems to have been ritual and spiritual in nature; myths like the Greek or Norse myths seem much more rare.  Though that may be due to their not having been recorded rather than their not having existed in the first place.  (In much the same way that we know far more Greek and Roman myths than Norse ones, because the Greeks and Romans were literate while they still believed in those gods, unlike the Norsemen, who didn’t become literate until after they were converted to Christianity.)  The Mexica actually were literate before the Spanish arrived, but the pre-Conquest codices were all destroyed, so in the context of the survival of myths, they might as well not have been literate.

One of the biggest myths we know about Quetzalcoatl is regarding his creation of mankind for the fifth world.  Belief in successive cycles of the world is not uncommon (several North American tribes believe that our world is the outer world of a series of worlds nested like Matryoshka dolls, Ragnarok was to be the destruction of one world and the creation of a new one, some versions of the Greek cosmogony had several failed attempts at creating intelligent life before the current race of man, in Hindu belief Shiva destroys and recreates the world, etc.) but in the Mesoamerican version, it’s the sun that dies and must be replaced, causing the destruction and rebirth of the world below it.  And the people who lived under the fifth sun were created by Quetzalcoatl ritually bleeding on the bones of the people who lived under the fourth sun.  (The places he pierced himself to bleed on the bones are many of the same places the Mayan elite would pierce themselves in bloodletting rituals.)

But let’s talk about a different kind of myth about Quetzalcoatl now.  One that didn’t come from the Mexica people, but from the Spaniards.

The myth that Motecuhzoma (better known as Moctezuma, or the really wrong but well known Montezuma) thought Hernan Cortes was actually Quetzelcoatl returning in human form.

It’s a particularly insidious myth, one that was purposefully invented.  Whether its original purpose was to justify the conquest or to make out the Mexica to be a foolhardy and gullible people is unclear, though probably both of those factored into it.  But the facts are simple.  Documents implying or outright stating that the natives mistook the Spaniards for divine figures started back in the 16th century…and they were always written by Spaniards.  (Similar claims were also made, I might add, by Pizarro and his men in Peru.)  No texts authored by natives from that time to this ever made any allusion either to such confusion or even to a belief that Quetzalcoatl had departed and would return in human form.  Ultimately, it’s what the Spaniards wanted to think the natives believed.

There was another similar myth, too, one that can be traced to the Franciscan missionaries in New Spain — now known as Mexico.  I don’t think I can summarize this better than what’s on the Wikipedia page, so I’m just going to quote it here:

Some Franciscans at this time held millennarian beliefs[35] 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.

As with the Cortes myth, this was never the view of any Mesoamerican natives, just of the Europeans who wanted to dominate them.  (Though at least the Franciscans felt themselves to be acting in the best interests of the people they were trying to convert.)

2 comments on “A to Z: Quetzalcoatl

  • I’m glad that you selected Quetzalcoatl as he was the god that interested me the most when I studied Mesoamerican culture, many decades ago. Lots of great information here – glad that you pointed out the way that the Spanish manipulated the folklore for their own ends, I have Chilean ancestors and the Spaniards did the same there – well, all over their empire, just as the Portuguese did. I smile when I see the revival of ancient beliefs behind Catholicism.


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