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Quetzalcoatl is a Mesoamerican deity whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and has the meaning of "feathered-serpent".
The worship of a feathered serpent deity is first documented in Teotihuacan in the Late Preclassic through the Early Classic period (400 BCE– 600CE) of Mesoamerican chronology - "Teotihuacan arose as a new religious center in the Mexican Highland, around the time of Christ..." -- whereafter it appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic (600 –- 900 CE) (Ringle et al.). In the Postclassic period (900 – 1519 CE) the worship of the feathered serpent deity was centered in the central Mexican religious center of Cholula. It is in this period that the deity is known to have been named "Quetzalcoatl" by his Nahua followers.
In the Maya area he was known as Kukulcan or Ququmatz, names that also translate as "feathered serpent" in different Mayan languages. In the era following the 16th-century Spanish Conquest a number of sources were written that describe the god "Quetzalcoatl" and relates him to a ruler of the mythico-historic city of Tollan called by the names "CeAcatl", "Topiltzin", "Nacxitl" or "Quetzalcoatl". It is a matter of much debate among historians to which degree, or whether at all, these narratives about this legendary Toltec ruler Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl describe actual historical events. Furthermore early Spanish sources written by clerics tend to identify the god-ruler "Quetzalcoatl" of these narratives with either Hernán Cortés or St. Thomas—an identification which is also a source of diversity of opinions about the nature of "Quetzalcoatl".
Among the Aztecs, whose beliefs are the best-documented in the historical sources, Quetzalcoatl was related to gods of the wind, of Venus, of the dawn, of merchants and of arts, crafts and knowledge. He was also the patron god of the Aztec priesthood, of learning and knowledge. Quetzalcoatl was one of several important gods in the Aztec pantheon along with the gods Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli.
The earliest iconographic depiction of the deity is believed to be found on Stela 19 at the Olmec site of La Venta, depicting a serpent rising up behind a person probably engaged in a shamanic ritual. This depiction is believed to have been made around 900 BC, although probably not exactly a depiction of the same feathered serpent deity worshipped in classic and post-classic periods it shows the continuity of symbolism of feathered snakes in Mesoamerica from the formative period and on, for example in comparison to the Mayan Vision Serpent shown below. Vision Serpent depicted on lintel 15 from Yaxchilan.
The first culture to use the symbol of a feathered serpent as an important religious and political symbol was Teotihuacan. At temples such as the aptly named "Quetzalcoatl temple" in the Ciudadela complex, feathered serpents figure prominently and alternate with a different kind of serpent head. The earliest depictions of the feathered serpent deity were fully zoomorphic, depicting the serpent as an actual snake, but already among the Classic Maya the deity began acquiring human features
In the iconography of the classic period Maya serpent imagery is also prevalent: a snake is often seen as the embodiment of the sky it self, and a vision serpent is a shamanic helper presenting Maya kings with visions of the underworld
after the fall of Teotihuacan that marked the beginning of the epi-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology around 600 AD, the cult of the feathered serpent spread to the new religious and political centers in central Mexico, centers such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla and Cholula. Feathered serpent iconography is prominent at all of these sites. Cholula is known to have remained the most important center of worship to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec/Nahua version of the feathered serpent deity, in the postclassic period. Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xochicalco, adorned with a fully zoomorphic feathered SerpentDuring the epi-classic period a dramatic spread of feathered serpent iconography is evidence throughout Mesoamerica, and during this period begins to figure prominently at cites such as Chichén Itzá, El Tajín, and throughout the Maya area. Colonial documentary sources from the Maya area frequently speak of the arrival of foreigners from the central Mexican plateau often led by a man whose name translates as "Feathered Serpent", it has been suggested that these stories recall the spread of the feathered serpent cult in the epiclassic and early postclassic periods.
In the postclassic Nahua civilization of central Mexico (Aztec) the worship of Quetzalcoatl was ubiquitous. The most important center was Cholula where the world's largest pyramid was dedicated to his worship. In Aztec culture depictions of Quetzalcoatl were fully anthropomorphic. Quetzalcoatl was associated with the windgod Ehecatl and is often depicted with his insignia: a beak like mask.
The Feathered Serpent was part of a triad of agricultural deities: the Goddess of the Cave symbolizing motherhood, reproduction and life, Tlaloc, god of rain, lightning and thunder and the feathered serpent, god of vegetational renewal. The feathered serpent was furthermore connected to the star venus because of this star's importance as a sign of the beginning of the rainy season. To both Teotihuacan and Mayan cultures Venus was in turn also symbolically connected with warfare.
While not usually feathered, classic Maya serpent iconography seems related to the belief in a sky, venus, creator, war and fertility related serpent deity. In the example from Yaxchilan the Vision Serpent has the human face of the young maize god, further suggesting a connection to fertility and vegetational renewal, the Mayan Young Maize god was also connected to Venus.
In Xochicalco depictions of the feathered serpent is accompanied by the image of a seated, armed ruler and the hieroglyph for the day sign 9 Wind. The date 9 wind is known to be associated with fertility, venus and war among the Maya and frequently occurs in relation to Quetzalcoatl in other Mesoamerican cultures.
When the Aztecs adopted the culture of the Toltecs, they made twin gods of Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, opposite and equal; Quetzalcoatl was also called White Tezcatlipoca, to contrast him to the black Tezcatlipoca. Together, they created the world; Tezcatlipoca lost his foot in that process.
Along with other gods, such as Tezcatlipoca and Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl was called "Ipalnemohuani", a title reserved for the gods directly involved in the creation, which means "by whom we live". Because the name Ipalnemohuani is singular, this led to speculations that the Aztec were becoming monotheistic and all the main gods were only one. While this interpretation cannot be ruled out, it is probably an oversimplification of the Aztec religion.
The exact significance and attributes of Quetzalcoatl varied somewhat between civilizations and through history. Quetzalcoatl is one of the four sons of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, he was often considered the god of the morning star, and his twin brother Xolotl was the evening star (Venus). As the morning star he was known by the title Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, meaning "lord of the star of the dawn." He was known as the inventor of books and the calendar, the giver of maize (corn) to mankind, and sometimes as a symbol of death and resurrection. Quetzalcoatl was also the patron of the priests and the title of the twin Aztec high priests.
Most Mesoamerican beliefs included cycles of suns. Usually, our current time was considered the fifth sun, the previous four having been destroyed by flood, fire and the like. Quetzalcoatl allegedly went to Mictlan, the underworld, and created fifth-world mankind from the bones of the previous races (with the help of Chihuacoatl), using his own blood, from a wound in his penis, to imbue the bones with new life.
The Aztec Empire's fall may be attributed in part to the belief in Cortés as the returning Quetzalcoatl.
The Quetzalcoatl legend with that of the myth of the Pahana held by the Hopis of northern Arizona. Scholars have described many similarities between the myths of the Aztecs and those of the American Southwest, and posit a common root. The Hopi describe the Pahana as the "Lost White Brother," and they expected his eventual return from the east during which he would destroy the wicked and begin a new era of peace and prosperity called either the "Fifth World" or the "Sixth World" depending on whether a given system considers our current world to be fourth or fifth, respectively. Hopi tradition maintains that they at first mistook the Spanish conquistadors as the Pahana when they arrived on the Hopi mesas in the 15th century.
The Legend of Quetzalcoatl:
One of the major deities of the Mesomaerican pantheon is the Quetzalcoatl. He is also called the Feathered Serpent and the Precious twin. He is depicted in two ways. As the Feathered Serpent, he is shown as a snake covered either in feathers or as a regular snake with wings. He can also take the form of a human warrior wearing a tall crown made of ocelot skin and a pendant made from jade.
Quetzalcoatl is the god of many things. He was a creator god, the god of twins, the morning star (his twin Xolotl is the god of the evening star), intelligence, inspiration, wind, fire, and thunder. He is responsible for giving humans agriculture, mining, books, the calendar, the zodiac, maize, and fine arts. He is sometimes a symbol of death & rebirth.
He created the world with Tezcatlipoca who is the god of the night sky, ancestral memory, and time. Tezcatlipoca used is foot as bait to catch the earthmonster Cipactli. When she bit his foot, Quetzalcoatl pulled her out of the sea & distorted her body to create the land. At first, there were no people on the land so Quetzalcoatl takes his blood & mixes it with the bones of previous races & forms the first humans.
Quetzalcoatl helps humans whenever he can. He is on a mountain one day, contemplating the earth when he sees a row of red ants carrying a kernel of corn out of the mountain. He picks up a seed that an ant dropped & eats it. He enjoys the taste and thinks if people plant this they can make more seeds to eat. Quetzalcoatl takes the form of a black ant and follows the red ants into the mountain. He finds a giant pile of seeds inside the mountain.
He decides to bring this seed to his people. He uses his powers over rain and lightning to create a storm. The storm is so powerful the thunder shakes the very earth and the lightning makes the sky as bright as the day. Quetzalcoatl takes the form of a lightning bolt and hurls himself at the crack in the mountain. The mountain trembles and rocks slide down its side.
When the storm passes, the people in a village below the mountain explore the opening that appeared. Quetzalcoatl tells the people that the seed they find in the opening can be planted and when grow it can be harvested for food. He tells them how to grind the seeds into powder to make flour. The people plant the seeds and care for them until they grow into tall stalks that give forth many fruit. They continue to grow the plant from that time forward.
The god Tezcatlipoca was jealous of Quetzalcoatl because the humans loved him. He plotted to ruin Quetzalcoatl in the eyes of his people. Tezcatlipoca disguised himself as an old man and came to the city of Tula. He went to the temple of Quetzalcoatl to request an audience with the god. When Tezcatlipoca was admitted, he offered Quetzalcoatl a healing tonic but he refused it. Tezcatlipoca came back many times in the disguise of the old man until Quetzalcoatl finally agrees to try a sip.
Quetzalcoatl enjoys how the tonic tastes and drinks the whole thing. Tezcatlipoca offered Quetzalcoatl more of the tonic, which he gladly accepted. After drinking the second bottle, he felt very odd. The healing tonic was soothing and warm with a medicinal taste. He notices his vision and balance have become altered. He asks the old man what the tonic is made of. Tezcatlipoca gives him a big smile and tells him it is a white wine made in the agave plant.
Quetzalcoatl weeps realizing he has been tricked into drinking alcohol. Intoxicating beverages are only for vision quests and sacred occasions. Drinking it frivolously was looked down upon. He is so overcome with remorse that he burns all of his things and then himself. After being burned, his heart becomes the morning star Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli).