Quetzalcoatl, the “Feathered Serpent,” was one of the most important and widely worshiped deities in early pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mesoamerica. While Quetzalcoatl was his name in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), this god was also key to the Maya culture, where he was called Kukulkán or Gukumatz.
Importance of the Legend of Quetzalcoatl
He continues to be a central figure in modern Mexican legends and folklore – in fact, many place the blame for the fall of the Aztec civilization on his shoulders.
As one of the primary deities of Mesoamerica, Quetzalcoatl was multifaceted and was credited with many acts which were vital to humanity. For example, as the patron god of priests, learning, and knowledge, he was said to have invented books and the calendar.
As one of the gods of the wind, he figured prominently in creation myths. He is also credited with giving humanity corn, the basis of Mesoamerican cuisine and, to many, life.
The Feathered Serpent
Visual representations of the deity vary, but he is often depicted in one of two ways. As a god he is sometimes portrayed as a snake with wings or covered with green plumage, greatly resembling a dragon.
In human form Kukulcán is shown is a warrior with a tall ocelot skin crown and shell pendant, which represents his role as the god of wind.
The cult of a feathered serpent has been documented back to the first century BC, in Teotihuacán. While early depictions were more direct – showing the god as an actual snake – soon the god began to take on human features. In fact, in the early Maya period, snakes themselves were common as religious imagery, as they were seen at the representation of the sky.
The fall of Teotihuacan meant that the cult of the feathered serpent started to spread to other parts of Mexico. During later periods, the cult of Kukulkán continued to spread throughout the Mayan region, including such important sites as the Chichén Itzá pyramid and El Tajín.
Cholula, Puebla, was a significant site of worship; in fact, the world’s largest pyramid, built in Cholula, is dedicated to the legend of Quetzalcoatl (Kukulkán). The Great Pyramid of Cholula rises 180 feet above its surroundings, and when completed it was 1300 feet by 1300 feet. It is even larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza!
The Fall of the Aztecs
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the legend of Quetzalcoatl was the idea of a god that was to return, in human form, from the East.
Although there is controversy, many believe that when the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés landed on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in 1519, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma thought that he was the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl.
This belief is supported by the fact that the god was to return in a One Reed year (on the Aztec calendar), which fit the year 1519. It quickly became clear that Cortés, due to his less-than-benevolent behavior, was not the well-loved Quetzalcoatl, but the story remains.
The legend of Quetzalcoatl has even spread beyond the religions of Mesoamerica. For example, New Age practitioners place importance on the legend.
While Quetzalcoatl’s importance in the conquista of the Aztec people is still controversial, it’s clear that this is one of those Latin American myths and legends that continues to be of great cultural importance for the Mexican people.