Quetzalcoatl

Ahhhhhh….. We have finally arrived at Q. This should be an interesting couple of weeks for everyone involved in the project.

Lucky for me the first Q post (but not the second) is easy, because for some time now I have held a fascination with the god Quetzalcoatl.

Quetzalcoatl is Aztec and Mesoamerican in origin and in modern studies of him he is seen in a trinity of sorts; the historic figure, the deity, and the literary subject. He is viewed in this trinity because he was both a real person and a god. Of course much literature surrounds his real life and his deity status. But something to keep in mind when studying the histories of the Mesoamerican cultures, almost everything in the early historical record is written by the Spanish. Many of the great cultures like the Aztec, the Inca, and the Maya actually kept detailed written records, but most of these did not survive either the test of time or the Spanish conquistador onslaught.

The human Quetzalcoatl was born in AD 947 to the ruler of the Toltecs, the people who in time would blend with other native cultures around them to become the Aztecs. Quetzalcoatl was originally named Ce Acatl Topitein. But before he was born his father was murdered and his mother fled. She then died in childbirth, but before she died she said that her baby was divinely conceived because she swallowed a piece of blue-green jade.

Ce Acatl Topitein is raised by his grandparents and sent to religious school. It is here that he receives the name Quetzalcoatl, which means “plumed serpent”. It is also a name reserved for those the priests identify as being exalted.

After religious school Quetzalcoatl returns to his father’s kingdom and becomes the ruler. He is a good, progressive ruler, which of course causes people to plot his demise. Long story short, Quetzalcoatl is tricked into believing that he had sex with a woman which is a major break in his priestly vows. He is so shattered by this that he goes into self-exile and wanders around for twenty years, during which time he picks up some disciples.

Eventually Quetzalcoatl sails to the Yucatan where he becomes adored by the Maya who call him Kulkulcan. He lives with the Maya until he dies, which amounts to about 30 years.

The story of Quetzalcoatl the god is of course a little different than that of the mortal. And in my limited research I have been unable to discover the connection between the two. They both come into existence, for lack of a better term, around the same time making it difficult to see how one becomes the other.

Quetzalcoatl was first worshiped by the Nahua Indians as early as 750 AD as a feathered serpent. He was revered for his gift of science and arts, and he plays a major role in the creation history of the Nahua people. His role of creator carries strongly into the Aztec culture as it develops, and the Aztec also see him as the god of the wind. He allegedly created humans from his own blood, and in one myth brings food to the people by disguising himself as an ant in order to steal a kernel of corn the ants had hidden in a mountain.

The Aztec people identified the world as suns, and they lived in the fifth sun. When the fourth sun was destroyed it was Quetzalcoatl with Tezcatlipoca, god of the sun, who were responsible for bringing the fifth sun into existence. They did this by passing through the body of the earth monster Tlaltecuhtli, splitting it in two to become heaven and earth.

Quetzalcoatl then journeys into the underworld Mictlan to rebuild mankind. He does this by retrieving the bones and ashes of humanity. It is said that he dropped the bones and ashes on the way back, causing the bones to break. It is these broken bones that account for the differing statures of humans.

One more interesting tidbit- Quetzalcoatl plays a legendary role in Montezuma II first encounter with Cortez. The story goes that Quetzalcoatl was supposed to return to earth during the fifth sun. When Montezuma II first saw Cortez he thought him to be Quetzalcoatl. Imagine Cortez all decked out in metal armor glinting in the sun astride a horse, an animal the Aztecs had never seen. It would be a dazzling and unbelievable sight. But remember, much Mesoamerican history, particularly that of the Aztecs, was written by the Spanish. So this tale of Montezuma II and the mistaken identity of Cortez could be greatly overblown.

The Aztecs were a fierce and strong people, but they were also a people that loved art, music, and dance. Their religion was based on the need to keep the fifth sun alive because the death of the sun meant their death. And they believed that the gods demanded human blood in order to keep the sun alive, that’s where the human sacrifice comes in, something the Aztecs are forever associated with.

But I’m going to resist discussing Aztec culture further at the moment. In my world dance class I teach a unit on Aztec dance, so these are a people I could go on about for awhile. I love that culture and find it endlessly fascinating.

I was lucky enough to get to visit the pyramids in Puebla, Mexico, which were built as temples to Quetzalcoatl and are the largest ancient structures in the new world. It just so happened that we were there during the spring equinox and got to attend the equinox performance at the pyramid. Talk about a magical experience. The air was supercharged and it was electrifying to be at such an ancient place witnessing a traditional dance ceremony. The spirits were everywhere.

Interesting side story- After the performance which was very Aztec, we noticed what seemed to be a huge celebration a few blocks down from the pyramid. We wandered over to it and discovered it was a huge Catholic cathedral having a festival for a saint. The next thing we knew we were in line to kiss the hem of the dress of the saint. Thankfully my friend was a Catholic Hispanic so she knew the drill and spoke excellent Spanish. And that church was mind blowingly beautiful. The back wall was covered floor to ceiling in lilies which smelled incredible. It was night and the cathedral was entirely lit up in gold and white. The whole evening was so amazing to me, and it was really crazy to go from this very pagan, earthy ritual performance to a full glitz Catholic festival. I definitely saw many faces of the divine that night and the images are forever seared in my mind.

So why do I love this Mesoamerican god? And why is he one of only a very few gods (rather than goddesses) in my Parthenon? Quetzalcoatl teaches me about strength, power, and sacrifice, but he still has some compassion. While some Aztec gods are asking for human blood Quetzalcoatl is pleased with flowers, snakes, and small birds. Of course I do not condone the practice of sacrificing small birds and snakes, but at least Quetzalcoatl is not asking for people. I see him ultimately as a fierce warrior and leader who is also a people person. He has a lot to show me about how to have power and strength without letting it overwhelm me.

And I personally love that he is so masculine. He’s the kind of manly man that can really sweep a girl off her feet. And I have to admit, I love those Mexican paintings where bare chested, ripped-out Quetzalcoatl is holding the freshly rescued maiden lying limp in his arms. I know, so much for women’s lib, but it is fun to entertain the fantasy of being carried off by the hunky god every now and then.

My original intention for this post was for it to be a short little blurb about Quetzalcoatl. Oopps. Once again I was carried away by my extreme interest in the Aztec culture as well as my love of Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs are fascinating, and they are a culture who’s history was greatly twisted when recorded by the Spanish, who ordered all Aztec records and libraries burned when they were conquered. But the Aztecs and Quetzalcoatl were fierce and strong, and they have a lot to teach us about embracing those qualities in our lives.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Buddhagan
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 01:35:22

    Great post!

    Reply

  2. Trackback: Q Assortment « Storming the Castle
  3. Trackback: What’s in a name? | Box full of chocolate

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