Quetzalcóatl, known ultimately as the god of civilization and learning by the ancient Aztecs of Central Mexico, had dozens of associations which serve to perplex modern students of Mesoamerican culture.
At its most fundamental and symbolic, Quetzalcóatl is regarded as the image of a coiled and feathered serpent rising from a base carved with representations of the earth and Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain. In the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs therefore, Quetzalcóatl is the manifestation of a powerful thunderstorm with a huge wind raising dust before delivering rain and thus, sustenance.
The honorary title Quetzalcóatl was assumed by several historical rulers between Mexico and Guatemala in the two centuries before the Spanish conquest, and this fact further entwines events historical and mythological. One story of the exile of Quetzalcóatl probably refers in part to an actual event: King Topilitzin Quetzalcóatl was driven from the city of Tula in the 12th century, apparently because of sexual indiscretions. Over time this Quetzalcóatl became a minor deity and was identified with Venus as the Morning Star.
Aztec legend relates how the great king Quetzalcóatl came from heaven to earth, created a dominion among the people of Mexico, and lived as a celibate priest until a dispute among the gods led to his destruction.
This Quetzalcóatl is always depicted as a sexually potent creature whose energies were contained by a supreme act of will and godhood. It is consistently noted that he had an enormous penis, and he wore a special loin-cloth with a rounded end in which he apparently stored his magnificent organ.
While at a great ceremony, Quetzalcóatl was plied with strong drink laced with the magic mushroom. He was tempted by the
demonic goddess Tlazoteotl, who inhabited the mushroom, and he copulated with her. Upon awakening, he realized he had destroyed himself. In shame and contrition, he gave up all his earthly possessions and traveled eastward across Mexico until he came naked to the shores of the Caribbean. He sailed away towards the sunrise on a raft made from serpent skins until the heat of the sun ignited his raft and his heart rose, flying up to join the sun.
Quetzalcóatl—either the god or the man or perhaps both—promised to return one day to reclaim his kingdom, and it is the arrival of Hernan Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs, on the day One Reed, the calendar day of the god-king's birth, which fulfills in the Aztec mind that promise.
Another Quetzalcóatl—from whom perhaps the first Toltec ruler took his name—was worshipped as early as 300 AD in highland Mexico and perhaps much earlier on the Gulf Coast. Legend has it that this serpent king journeyed to the Underworld to collect the bones from which he fashioned the human race after he sprinkled them with his own blood. In this aspect Quetzalcóatl was the god of self-sacrifice, wisdom and science. It is easy to see how the Aztec concepts of blood sacrifice, sun worship, and resurrection might have grown from the convolutions of shadowy history and explicit myth.
Quetzalcóatl was also known, in yet another incarnation, as Ehecatl, the god of the wind. As god of the planet Venus, plumed serpent in its morning aspect, Xolotl, a dog-headed monster in its evening incarnation, Quetzalcóatl's dualistic nature made him the patron deity of twins. He was the god to whom barren women prayed for children.
In a painting in the Codex Laud in the Bodleian library, Oxford, Quetzalcóatl is depicted as a wind blowing in the waters. Sitting within the water, displaying her open vulva to him, is the younger moon goddess. It is implied that the breath of Quetzalcóatl is the fertilizing suspiration of life and that the goddess will be impregnated by it, thus giving birth to all mankind.
It is interesting to note how matters of faith, legend, and fact have intermingled over the centuries to produce, in their final majestic palimpsest, a concept that is both universal and absolutely intrinsic to an understanding of the ancient peoples of Mexico.
In all matters of life and beauty, Quetzalcóatl was thought to have breathed and brought life and inspiration
. As the progenitor
of creative achievements, he reigned supreme in the Aztec firmament
Feathered Serpent and Smoking Mirror—the Gods and Cultures of Ancient Mexico,C.A. Burland and Werner Forman,
G.E. Putnam's Sons,
Orbis Publishing Limited, London 1975
Aztec Thought and Culture,
A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind,
Miguel León-Portilla, translated from the Spanish by Jack Emory Davis, University of Oklahoma Press : Norman, 1963
Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico
Miguel León-Portilla, Translated from the Spanish by Grace Lobanov and the author, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman and London, 1969.
The Flayed God—The Mythology of Mesoamerica
Rebecca H. Markman & Peter T. Markman,
The Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula
, Nigel Davis, 1977
Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe
, trans by B. Keen (1976)
On Mexico and the Aztecs:
An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Below the Line