Who was Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcán)?
Quetzalcóatl (pronounced as Quet-zal-co-at) or goes with the Mayan name Kukulcán, is known as the Feathered Serpent, one of the major deities of the ancient Mexican pantheon. Representations of a feathered snake occur as early as the Teotihuacán civilization (3rd to 8th century CE) on the central plateau.
Quetzalcóatl was the son of the prehistoric androgynous god Ometeotl. In Aztec mythology, he was the brother of Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli and Xipe Totec. He is the 9th of the 13 Lords of the Day and is often associated with the rain god Tláloc. The god was particularly associated with the sacred site of Cholula, an important place of pilgrimage from 1200 AD and all-around buildings of the Aztec culture were dedicated to the deity.
Quite often, people try to compare modern storytelling to myths and stories of thousands of years old. It’s important for us to consider the way stories were told thousands of years ago and how they differ greatly from how stories are told today.
The most important thing when reading any kind of mythology is to keep an open mind, understanding these stories did change over time. So, I’m sure some of you may be wondering how this relates to Quetzalcóatl; well, Quetzalcóatl is a perfect example of what I can discuss in storytelling that changes depending on the region, period, and the needs of the people.
I’ve never really come across a deity that’s been depicted in so many ways, ranging from the god of the wind to the god of literally everything.
How to Pronounce Quetzalcoatl
The correct pronunciation of Quetzalcoatl is KET-sahl-KOH-ah-tul. The “ue” in Quetzalcoatl is pronounced as an “e” with a closed sound. It is preceded by the “Q” which is pronounced simply as a “K”.
With Mesoamerican mythology spanning across so many regions, I’ve seen numerous ways of pronouncing the name including Quetzalcóatl, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli and Kukulcán, if we are going with the Mayan interpretation.
The name is derived from two Nahuatl terms, Quetzal being the name of the bird (quetzal bird [Pharomachrus mocinno]) that its ‘tail feather’ resembled and Cóatl meaning ‘snake’ or ‘serpent’.
For those of you wondering, Nahuatl is the language that was spoken by most of the inhabitants of central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. It is still spoken today by more than a million Nahua people. It was the language of the powerful Aztecs, whose culture dominated the region for centuries.
As it was a language spoken by the Aztecs, and to them, Quetzalcóatl translated to mean ‘Feathered Serpent’.
The Worship of Quetzalcóatl
The worship of Quetzalcóatl took place on several occasions over a large period broken up into much smaller segments. The earliest of these periods was believed to have been from 400 BC to 600 AD, in the city of Teotihuacan, where there was an enormous pyramid built in honour of the feathered serpent. This serpent would later be identified as the Aztecs god Quetzalcóatl.
This worship in the region of Teotihuacan would then continue from 600 to 900 AD. From 900 AD to 1519 AD, the worship has spread to the region of Cholula, and it was during this period that the deity began to be widely referred to as Quetzalcóatl by his Aztec followers, and Kukulcán to those in the Mayan areas.
It is worth noting that the very first representations of feathered serpents that we have were carvings of beaks snakes being flanked by Quetzal birds, and these came from the Olmec civilization that existed from 1200 BC to 400 BC. This meant that they died at a similar time to when Quetzalcóatl began being worshipped in Teotihuacan.
Quetzalcóatl Role within the Mesoamerican Mythology
During the early period, Quetzalcóatl was seen as a deity associated with wind, rain, and vegetation, even at times been seen as a crater of the world and mankind. In later periods during his worship in Cholula around 1200 AD, he was seen as the patron god of priests and merchants.
Quetzalcóatl went from a good associated with the nature of fertility and creation to one that was associated with almost everything. Depending on the region you found yourself in, he was seen in drastic different ways, from the god of the wind to the crater of all, and even a serpentine monster. Quetzalcóatl was also seen as a very important god in regards to agriculture as he was believed to have been the founder of corn, a crop that the Mesoamerican people would be extremely thankful for.
When Quetzalcoatl and the other gods created a new race of people, they realized that there was no food for these people to eat. Not wanting mankind to perish, the gods scattered across the lands in search of food.
Quetzalcóatl came across a red ant that was carrying a grain of maize. From this, he instantly knew that corn would be the food of the Aztec people. The ant did eventually tell Quetzalcóatl that the grain came from inside the mountain of sustenance. When he eventually reached the mountain, he saw that he could he passed through a small hole.
Watching the road ants enter, Quetzalcóatl transformed himself into a small black ant and made his way into the mountain. Once inside, he saw the stacks of grain as high as a ceiling of the cave. He took several of these grains back to his fellow gods and explained that this would be how they would feed their people.
This story does somewhat explain why maize and the whole harvest and process became so sacred to the Aztec people. Quetzalcóatl will then go on to be associated with science and all forms of learning, from the creation of books to calendars, to even be identified with the planet Venus.
The Appearance of Quetzalcóatl
The appearance of Quetzalcóatl has led many to believe that he may have been a very early piece of Mesoamerican duality. His wings in the ability to fly meant that he would have been seen divinely, but the serpent body was very symbolic of the earth, and this does create a deity that people can easily relate to, and that is exactly what they did.
Quetzalcóatl was seen as a creator, but also a hero and protector, loved by many. He was often depicted as a serpent of plume feathers the colour of the rainbow, but he did however also have a human form. He would appear as a bearded man, wearing Jade jewellery with two tubes that he would blow into creating the wind.
There is even a species of dinosaur named after Quetzalcoatl, the Quetzalcoatlus who were the largest flying animals of all time.
It seems like, over the years, Quetzalcoatl was a great source of pride and inspiration for the people of Mesoamerica and modern-day central Mexico. With so many variations and interpretations of Quetzalcoatl, I’d certainly encourage you to share any that you may have come across with me.
Art Sources: Antonio J. Manzanedo, Eldar Zakirov, Carlos Ortega.