Quetzalcoatl, or Feathered Serpent, one of the principal gods of the Aztec, was a god of creation, linked to fertility and resurrection (his heart became Venus, the morning star), and rain in his manifestation as Ehecatl or wind god. He was often identified with Topiltzin, a legendary and possibly historic priest-king of Tula in the Toltec era and was described as light skinned and bearded.
When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, the Aztec emperor was convinced that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl. The design of his cape, hat, and loincloth represent the wings of a butterfly, symbol of fallen soldiers. This story has gained wide acceptance, and is often invoked to explain why Montezuma took such a cautious approach to his encounters with the Spaniards.
The story of Quetzalcoatl that has come down to us is explored by Albert Reville:
… Quetzalcoatl, that is to say “the feathered serpent,” or “the serpent-bird;” and it is specially noteworthy, in connection with the elevated rank which he occupied in the Mexican pantheon, that he was not an Aztec deity, but one of the ancient gods of the invaded country. He was in fact a Toltec deity, and we recognize in his name, as well as in the special notes in the legend concerning him, that god of the wind whom we know already in Central America under the varying names of Cuculcan, Hurakan, Gucumatz, Votan and so forth. He is almost always a serpent, and a serpent with feathers. His temple at Mexico departed altogether from the pyramidal type that we have described. It was dome-shaped and covered. The entrance was formed by a great serpent-mouth, wide open and showing its fangs, so that the Spaniards thought it represented a gate of hell. Quetzalcoatl’s priests were clothed in white, whereas the ordinary garb of the Mexican priests was black. There was something mysterious and occult about the priesthood of this deity, as though it were possessed of divine secrets or promises, the importance of which it would be dangerous to undervalue. A special aversion to human sacrifice, and especially to the frightful abuse of the practice amongst the Aztecs, was attributed to this god and his priests, in passive protest, as it were, against the sanguinary rites to which the Aztecs attributed the prosperity of their empire.
The legend of Quetzalcoatl, as the Aztecs transmitted it to the Spaniards, is a motley concatenation of euphemerized myths. Its historical basis is the continuous retreat of the Toltecs before the northern invaders, with their god Tezcatlipoca. This latter deity becomes a magician, cunning and malicious enough to get the better of the gentle Quetzalcoatl on every occasion. I regret that time will not allow me to tell in detail of the combat between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. The latter was a sovereign who lived long ago at Tulla, the northern focus of Toltec civilization. Under his sceptre men lived in great happiness and enjoyed abundance of everything. He had taught them agriculture, the use of the metals, the art of cutting stone, the means of fixing the calendar; and being opposed to the sacrifice of human victims—note this—he had advised their replacement by the drawing of blood from the tongue, the lips, the chest, the legs, &c. Tezcatlipoca succeeded by his enchantments in destroying this rule of peace and prosperity, and forced Quetzalcoatl to quit Tulla, which thereupon fell in ruins. He then pursued him into Cholula, the ancient sacred city of the Toltecs, in which he had sought refuge, and in which he had again made happiness and abundance reign. Finally, he forced him to quit the continent altogether, and embark in a mysterious vessel not far from Vera Cruz, near to the very spot where Cortes disembarked. Since then Quetzalcoatl had disappeared; “But wait!” said his priests, “for he will return.” This expectation of Quetzalcoatl’s return furnishes a kind of parallel to the Messianic hope, or more closely yet to the early Christian expectation of the parousia or “second coming” of the Christ. For when he returned, it would be to punish his enemies, to chastise the wicked, the oppressors and the tyrants. And that is why the Aztecs dreaded his return, and why they had not dared to proscribe his cultus, but, on the contrary, recognized it and carried it on. And if you would know the real secret of the success of Fernando Cortes in his wild enterprise — for, after all, the Mexican sovereign could easily have crushed him and his handful of men, by making a hecatomb of them before they had had time to entrench themselves and make allies — you will find it in the fact that Montezuma, whose conscience was oppressed with more crimes than one, had a very lively dread of Quetzalcoatl’s return; and when he was informed that at the very point where the dreaded god had embarked, to disappear in the unknown East, strange and terrible beings had been seen to disembark, bearing with them fragments of thunderbolts, in tubes that they could discharge whenever they would — some of them having two heads and six legs, swifter of foot than the fleetest men — Montezuma could not doubt that — it was Quetzalcoatl returning, and instead of sending his troops against Cortes, he preferred to negotiate with him, to allow him to approach, and to receive him in his own palace. And although doubts soon asserted themselves in his mind, yet he long retained, perhaps even to the last, a superstitious dread of Cortes, that enabled the latter to secure a complete ascendancy over him. This, I repeat, was the secret of the bold Spaniard’s success; nor can we ever understand the matter rightly unless we take into consideration the significance of this worship of Quetzalcoatl that the Aztecs had continued to respect, though all the while flattering themselves that their own god, Tezcatlipoca, would be able once more to protect them against his ancient adversary. Years after the conquest, Father Sahagun had still to answer the question of the natives, who asked him what he knew of the country of Quetzalcoatl.
What, then, was the fundamental significance of this feathered Serpent that so pre-occupied the religious consciousness of the Aztecs?
He was not the Sun. The Sun does not disappear in the East. He was a god of the wind, as Father Sahagun perfectly well understood, but of that wind in particular that brings over the parched land of Mexico the tepid and fertilizing exhalations of the Atlantic. And this is why Tezcatlipoca, the god of the cold and dry season, rather than Uitzilopochtli, is his personal enemy. It is towards the end of the dry season that the fertilizing showers begin to fall on the eastern shores, and little by little to reach the higher lands of the interior. The flying Serpent, then, the wind that comes like a huge bird upon the air, bringing life and abundance with it, is a benevolent deity who spreads prosperity wherever he goes. But he does not always breathe over the land, and does not carry his blessed moisture everywhere. Tezcatlipoca appears. The lofty plateaux of Tulla, of Mexico and of Cholula, are the first victims of his desolating force. Quetzalcoatl withdraws ever further and further to the East, and at last disappears in the great ocean.
Such is the natural basis of the myth of Quetzalcoatl, and the justification of my remark that we find in him the pendant of those deities, serpents and birds in one, who were adored in Central America, and who answered, like Quetzalcoatl, to the idea of the Atlantic wind. He was, in truth, the ancient deity that the Nahuas or Mayas of the civilized immigrations brought with them when they settled in Anahuac and still further North. Like all the other gods of these regions, Quetzalcoatl had assumed the human shape more and more completely. We still possess, especially in the Trocadero Museum at Paris, great blocks of stone on which he is represented as a serpent covered with feathers, coiled up and sleeping till the time comes for him to wake. But there are also statues of him in human form, save that his body is surmounted by a bird’s head, with the tongue projected. Now in the Mexican hieroglyph this bird’s head, with the tongue put out, is no other than the symbol of the wind. Hence, too, his names of Tohil “the hummer” or “the whisperer,” Ehecatl “the breeze,” Nauihehecatl “the lord of the four winds,” &c. The naturalistic meaning of Quetzalcoatl, then, cannot admit of the smallest doubt.
It is probably to the more gentle and humane religious tendency which was kept alive by the priesthood of this deity, that we must attribute the attempted reform of the king of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl (the fasting coyote), who has been called the Mexican Solomon. He was a poet and philosopher as well as king, and had no love either of idolatry or of sanguinary sacrifices. He had a great pyramidal teocalli of nine stages erected in his capital for the worship of the god of heaven, to whom he brought no offerings except flowers and perfumes. He died in 1472, and, as far as we can see, his reformation made no progress. The ever-increasing preponderance of the Aztecs was as unfavourable as possible to this humane and spiritual tendency in religion. Yet one loves to dwell upon the fact, that even in the midst of a religion steeped in blood, a protest was inspired by the sentiment of humanity, linked, as it should always be, with the progress of religious thought.
Albert Reville, The Hibbert Lectures (1884), Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Native Religions of Mexico and Peru
The Spanish chronicles attest to Nezahualcoyotl in Texcoco as head priest of the Quetzalcoatl cult preferring individual sacrifice, as opposed to literal human sacrifice, as the favoured devotion. This personal sacrifice could involve such flagellation, mutilation of some unessential part of the body, or the emission of a certain quantity of blood, a practice well documented with the Maya. This last practice, in particular, might be regarded as an act of individual devotion, a gift made to the gods by the worshipper himself out of his own very substance. The priesthood of Quetzalcoatl, who had little taste for human sacrifices, seem to have introduced this method of propitiating the gods by giving them one’s own blood; and the practice of drawing it from the tongue, the lips, the nose, the ears or the bosom, came to be the chief form of expression of individual piety and penitence. The priests in particular owed it to their special character to draw their blood for the benefit of the God, in elaborate rituals where they would pass strings or splinters through their lips or ears and so draw a little blood. But then a fresh string or a fresh splinter must be added every day, and so it might go on indefinitely, for the more there were, the more meritorious was the act, a practice not unfamiliar to certain Christian monastic traditions that still exist today.
Quetzalcoatl was also associated with Mexican asceticism, characterized by the long fasts which the faithful, and more particularly the priests, endured. Fasting is mandatory in many religions today, representing as it does the concentrated obedience of the body by the mind in reverence to God. Fasting is shown by experience to promote dreams, hallucinations, ecstasies and so forth, which have always been considered as so many forms of communication with the deity. Mexican asceticism also included the existence of solitaries or hermits, too, who sought to enter into closer communion with the gods by living in the desert under conditions of the severest want. The more popular vision is to see in the Feathered Serpent the snake in the Garden of Eden, bringer of knowledge of good and evil, which in Christian tradition associated the reptilian with the fallen Angel, the rebel.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.