Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent,” played a dominant role as a god, model, myth, historical figure and symbol in ancient Mexican consciousness of Aztecs, Mayans and other cultures. He was an hombre-dios (“man-god”), who incarnated on earth, to bring spirit and matter into harmony. In his human form, according to legend, he founded the fabulous capital of the Toltecs, Tollan, where art and culture thrived. The myth of Quetzalcoatl also becomes intricately tied to the fortunes of a later empire, the Aztecs.
A Scaly Lizard-like Image of Quetzalcoatl from crystalinks.com
The history of the Aztec Empire begins with the Toltecs, since the Aztecs borrowed “Tollan” and “Quetzalcoatl” as symbols of authority and legitimation of their rule. These words became associated with different places and men, as symbols of connection to classical lineage of the Toltec rulers. Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, borrowed the legend of Quetzalcoatl to justify its pre-eminence in Mesoamerica along with linking the origins of the Aztecs to ancient Tollan, “the city of the Gods.” However, the legend of Quetzalcoatl also contained within it the seeds of destruction for their civilization under the Spanish.
The modern ruins of the fabled Tollan of the Toltecs
The Plumed Serpent has proved to be an illusive figure for scholars, so many interpretations have emerged about him. The three main schools of thoughts are the diffusionist, symbolic and historical. Diffusionist writers view Quetzalcoatl as originating outside ancient Mexico in a Judeo-Christian, Asian or other foreign culture. They claim that the bearded depictions of Topiltzin, the legendary ruler connected to the god Quetzalcoatl, are not characteristic of American Indians. Therefore, he must have come across a Transatlantic journey to teach the indigenous people a mystical, visionary religion that encouraged high moral standards of penance and self-sacrifice.
This school has been discredited among serious scholars due to unusual claims, including claims of Topiltzin’s extraterrestrial origins. Many writers in this school also exhibit ethnocentric biases, particularly with the assumption that original thought in Indian peoples must have an outside source.
The historical school wishes to uncover the actual Quetzalcoatl who inhabited Tollan. It takes an extremely rational and empiricist attitude to myth and legend of Quetzalcoatl. The problem with this approach lies in the lack of authentic Pre-Columbian sources. So their arguments cannot go beyond speculation.
The symbolic school because of its acceptance of myth as testament of Mesoamerica’s imagination offers the most depth. Quetzalcoatl as a symbol represents the Ancient Mexicans search for wholeness and integration. His name can be divided into Quetzal, a beautifully plumed bird, and Coatl, a snake or serpent.
|The Quetzal represented the aspiration of the spirit in its flight, and many tales were told of her ability to communicate with the gods in flight similar to the eagle in North American Indian stories.|
|The serpent, in contrast, represented an association with the earth, since it crawls upon the ground or borrows underneath. It represented the energies of the earth in fertility and cyclic renewal.|
Quetzalcoatl, called Kukulcan and Gugumatz among the Mayans, was not merely an historical figure to the Ancient Mexicans but he was a figure that united spirit and matter. The quetzal bird represented the spiritual urge to take flight and transcend the bounds of corporeal existence and the serpent represented being grounded in physical reality to the rhythms and cycles of nature.
Myths embody the the universal quest for meaning in life, and the desire to know the transcendent spiritual world. Quetzalcoatl as the legendary Topiltzin, tried to overcome the duality of spirit and matter, and reconciled them in a holistic vision as embodied in the Plumed Serpent. Topiltizin becomes the Redeemer of humankind through his reconciliation of opposites.
The ancient Mexicans were largely concerned with sublime mysticism and transcendence of the human spirit but the Aztecs degraded this spiritual vision as a cult of human sacrifice grew, even though the original Quetzalcoatl myth extolled the virtues of self-sacrifice over the killing of others.
During the creation of a new age or sun, according to mythic accounts, Quetzalcoatl through his own blood gave life to humans, formed from the bones and ashes of people from the previous age. When Quetzalcoatl appears in the form of Topiltzin, he teaches people to turn away from human sacrifice and instead to engage in self-sacrifice in service of others. Legends also attribute him with encouraging his followers to be creative through the arts.
Under Topiltzin, the human incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, Tollan prospered under his peaceful rule but priests wanting to reinstate human sacrifice conspired against him. He was forced to flee to the Yucatan, where afraid of being captured he sacrificed himself in a burning pyre and his heart rose to heaven as the morning star, Venus. The Aztec account varies. In their version, he says farewell to his followers with the prophecy to return one day from the East and reclaim his rule. He then floats away on a raft of snakes.
Quetzalcoatl’s brother, Huitzilopochtli, becomes the main god in the Aztec pantheon. He is the sun god and the god of war who requires human sacrifice. In Aztec cosmology, the sun required energy from human blood in order to continue. Without those sacrifices, the present age and their rule would come to an end. The Queztalcoatl tradition extolled virtues of self-sacrifice, which the Aztec rulers reduced to the massive sacrifice of others. In this way, the Aztec empire betrayed its spiritual inheritance to gain worldly power.
Fierce image of Huitzilopochtil from http://www.trikinggames.com
Painting by Susanne Iles, a painter and writer. Visit her site for detailed information on dragon mythology by clicking her name above.
The Aztecs legitimated their rule by claiming they were Topiltzin’s descendants and they would rule until the return of their god, Quetzalcoatl. When Montezuma met Cortez, he thought that Quetzalcoatl had returned. The myth that justified Aztec power also ironically became the cause of its demise, since the Aztec ruler was paralyzed to ask his warriors to attack a god. The Spanish conquerors took advantage of this weakness with the eventual domination of Spanish colonial rule and the suppression of indigenous cultures.
The study of Quetzalcoatl is complicated by the fact that he takes on many aspects, though underlying motif remains an attempt to reconnect body and spirit. The Plumed serpent becomes a perfect representation of wholeness, since it combines the spirit’s longing for spiritual transcendence, yet the body is the vehicle through which we can serve others. Sublime teachings such as these can be lost when worldly power guides rulers. The balance between the spiritual and physical then is broken.
Personally I developed a fascination with snakes during my childhood in Central India where I grew up in an undeveloped, forested area at that time. I was able to see different species of snakes or their old skin left behind after shedding it. I also heard mythic stories of snakes in Indian folklore. Later in my university life, the myth of Quetzalcoatl piqued my interest and imagination in another direction. Those experiences along with study of Quetzalcoatl, find expression in our novel.