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Quetzalcoatl

Image of Feathered Serpent from the 16th century Codex Telleriano-Ramensis.

Quetzalcoatl is a Mesoamerican deity whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and has the meaning of "feathered-serpent".[1]

The worship of a feathered serpent deity is first documented in Teotihuacan in the Late Preclassic through the Early Classic period (400 BCE–600 CE) of Mesoamerican chronology—"Teotihuacan arose as a new religious center in the Mexican Highland, around the time of Christ..."[2]—whereafter it appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic (600–900 CE).[3] In the Postclassic period (900 – 1519 CE) the worship of the feathered serpent deity was based in the primary Mexican religious center of Cholula. It is in this period that the deity is known to have been named "Feathered Serpent" by his Nahua followers. In the Maya area he was approximately equivalent to Kukulcan and Gukumatz, names that also roughly 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 "Feathered Serpent" and relates him to a ruler of the mythico-historic city of Tollan called by the names "Ce Acatl", "Topiltzin", "Nacxitl" or "Feathered Serpent". 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 Feathered Serpent describe actual historical events.[4] Furthermore early Spanish sources written by clerics tend to identify the god-ruler "Feathered Serpent" 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 "Feathered Serpent".[5]

Among the Aztecs, whose beliefs are the best-documented in the historical sources, Feathered Serpent 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.[6] Feathered Serpent was one of several important gods in the Aztec pantheon along with the gods Tlaloc, Smoke-and-mirrors and Huitzilopochtli.

Feathered Serpent deity in Mesoamerica

A feathered serpent deity has been worshipped by many different ethno-political groups in Mesoamerican history. The existence of such worship can be seen through studies of iconography of different mesoamerican cultures, in which serpent motifs are frequent. On the basis of the different symbolic systems used in portrayals of the feathered serpent deity in different cultures and periods scholars have interpreted the religious and symbolic meaning of the feathered serpent deity in Mesoamerican cultures.

History of iconographic depictions

The earliest iconographic depiction of the deity is believed to be found on Stela 19at 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 BCE, 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.

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 "Feathered Serpent 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 itself, and a vision serpent is a shamanic helper presenting Maya kings with visions of the underworld.

The archaeological record shows that after the fall of Teotihuacan that marked the beginning of the epi-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology around 600 CE, the cult of the feathered serpent spread to the new religious and political centers in central Mexico, centers such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla and Cholula.[3] Feathered serpent iconography is prominent at all of these sites. Cholula is known to have remained the most important center of worship to Feathered Serpent, the Aztec/Nahua version of the feathered serpent deity, in the postclassic period.

During 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.[3]

In the postclassic Nahua civilization of central Mexico (Aztec) the worship of Feathered Serpent was ubiquitous. The most important center was Cholula where the world's largest pyramid was dedicated to his worship. In Aztec culture depictions of Feathered Serpent were fully anthropomorphic. Feathered Serpent was associated with the windgod Ehecatl and is often depicted with his insignia: a beak like mask.

Interpretations

On the basis of the Teotihuacan iconographical depictions of the feathered serpent, archaeologist Karl Taube has argued that the feathered serpent was a symbol of fertility and internal political structures contrasting with the War Serpent symbolizing the outwards military expansion of the Teotihuacan empire.[7] Historian Enrique Florescano also analysing Teotihuacan iconography shows that 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 planet Venus because of this planet'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.[8]

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 Feathered Serpent in other Mesoamerican cultures.

On the basis of the iconography of the feathered serpent deity at sites such as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Chichén Itzá, Tula and Tenochtitlan combined with certain ethnohistorical sources, historian David Carrasco [9] has argued that the preeminent function of the feathered serpent deity throughout Mesoamerican history was as the patron deity of the Urban center, a god of culture and civilization.

In Aztec culture

To the Aztecs Feathered Serpent was, as his name indicates, a feathered serpent, a flying reptile (much like a dragon), who was a boundary maker (and transgressor) between earth and sky. He was also a creator deity having contributed essentially to the creation of Mankind. He also had anthropomorphic forms, for example in his aspects as Ehecatl the wind god. Among the Aztecs the name Feathered Serpent was also a priestly title, as the most two important priests of the Aztec Templo Mayor were called "Feathered Serpent Tlamacazqui". In the Aztec ritual calendar, different deities were associated with the cycle of year names: Feathered Serpent was tied to the year Ce Acatl (One Reed), which correlates to the year 1519.[10]

Myths

Attributes

The exact significance and attributes of Feathered Serpent varied somewhat between civilizations and through history. Feathered Serpent 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. Feathered Serpent 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. Feathered Serpent 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.

His birth, along with his twin Xolotl, was unusual; it was a virgin birth, to the goddess Snake-skirt. Alternatively, he was a son of Xochiquetzal and Mixcoatl.

One Aztec story claims that Feathered Serpent was seduced by Smoke-and-mirrors into becoming drunk and sleeping with a celibate priestess (in some accounts, his sister Quetzalpetlatl) and then burned himself to death out of remorse. His heart became the morning star (see Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli).

Belief in Cortés as Feathered Serpent and the fall of Tenochtitlan

Since the sixteenth century it has been widely held that the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II initially believed the landing of Hernán Cortés in 1519 to be Feathered Serpent's return. This has been questioned by ethno-historian Matthew Restall (and a great majority of others) who argues that the Feathered Serpent-Cortés connection is not found in any document that was created independently of post-Conquest Spanish influence, and that there is little proof of a pre-Hispanic belief in Feathered Serpent's return. Most documents expounding this theory are of entirely Spanish origin, such as Cortés's letters to Charles V of Spain, in which Cortés goes to great pains to present the naïve gullibility of the Aztecs in general as a great aid in his conquest of Mexico.

Much of the idea of Cortés being seen as a deity can be traced back to the Florentine Codex written down some 50 years after the conquest. In the codex's description of the first meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés, the Aztec ruler is described as giving a prepared speech in classical oratorial Nahuatl, a speech which, as described in the codex written by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún and his Tlatelolcan informants, included such prostrate declarations of divine or near-divine admiration as,

"You have graciously come on earth, you have graciously approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you,"
and,

"You have graciously arrived, you have known pain, you have known weariness, now come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; may our lords come on earth."
Subtleties in, and an imperfect scholarly understanding of, high Nahuatl rhetorical style make the exact intent of these comments tricky to ascertain, but Restall argues that Moctezuma politely offering his throne to Cortés (if indeed he did ever give the speech as reported) may well have been meant as the exact opposite of what it was taken to mean: politeness in Aztec culture was a way to assert dominance and show superiority. This speech, which has been widely referred to, has been a factor in the widespread belief that Moctezuma was addressing Cortés as the returning god Feathered Serpent.

Other parties have also propagated the idea that the Mesoamericans believed the conquistadors, and in particular Cortés, to be awaited gods: Most notably the historians of the Franciscan order such as Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta.[11] Some Franciscans at this time held millennarian beliefs [12] and some of them believed that Cortés' coming to the New World ushered in the final era of evangelization before the coming of the millennium. Franciscans such as Toribio de Benavente "Motolinia" saw elements of Christianity in the precolumbian religions and therefore believed that Mesoamerica had been evangelized before, possibly by St. Thomas whom legend had it had "gone to preach beyond the Ganges". Franciscans then equated the original Feathered Serpent with St. Thomas and imagined that the Indians had long awaited his return to take part once again in Gods kingdom. Historian Matthew Restall concludes that:

"The legend of the returning lords, originated during the Spanish-Mexica war in Cortés' reworking of Moctezuma's welcome speech, had by the 1550's merged with the Cortés-as-Feathered Serpent legend that the Franciscans had started spreading in the 1530's." (Restall 2001:114 )

Some scholarship still maintains the view that the Aztec Empire's fall may be attributed in part to the belief in Cortés as the returning Feathered Serpent, notably in works by David Carrasco (1982) and H. B. Nicholson (2001 (1957)). However, a majority of modern Mesoamericanist scholars such as Matthew Restall (2003), James Lockhart (1994), Susan D. Gillespie (1989), Camilla Townsend (2003a, 2003b), Louise Burkhart, Michel Graulich and Michael E. Smith (2001) among others, consider the "Feathered Serpent/Cortés myth" as one of many myths about the Spanish conquest which have risen in the early post-conquest period.

Alternative Interpretations

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Some Mormon scholars believe that Feathered Serpent, as a white, bearded god who came from the sky and promised to return, was actually Jesus. According to the Book of Mormon, Jesus visited the American natives after his resurrection.[13] Latter-day Saint President John Taylor wrote:

"The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Feathered Serpent, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Feathered Serpent and Christ are the same being. But the history of the former has been handed down to us through an impure Lamanitish source. "[14]

This idea was adapted by science fiction author and Mormon Orson Scott Card in his story America.

Roman Catholic

In the 2004 book The Bearded White God of Ancient America: The Legend of Quetzalcoatl, authors Donald and W. David Hemingway examine a theory among Conquistador-era analysts that Feathered Serpent may have been a New Testament-era Apostle of Jesus Christ, such as Saint Thomas. Donald Hemingway has previously taught religious studies classes at Brigham Young University [1]. The aforementioned theory expressed by John Taylor in the Latter-Day Saint Movement is also discussed within his book in an appendix.

New Age

Various theories about Feathered Serpent are popular in the New Age movement, especially since the publication of Tony Shearer's 1971 book "Lord of the dawn: Feathered Serpent and the Tree of Life" republished also under the title "Lord of the dawn: Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent of Mexico."

See also

References

  1. The Nahuatl nouns compounded into the proper name "Feathered Serpent" are: quetzalli, signifying principally "plumage", but also used to refer to the bird—Resplendent Quetzal—renowned for its colourful feathers, and cohuātl "snake". Some scholars have interpreted the name as having also a metaphorical meaning of "precious twin" since the word for plumage was also used metaphorically about precious things and cohuātl has an additional meaning of "twin"
  2. "Teotihuacan: Introduction". Project Temple of Feathered Serpent, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico/ ASU. 2001-08-20. http://archaeology.asu.edu/teo/intro/intrteo.htm. Retrieved 2009-05-17. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Ringle et al. 1998
  4. Nicholson 2001, Carrasco 1992, Gillespie 1989, Florescano 2002
  5. Lafaye 1987, Townsend 2003, Martínez 1980, Phelan 1970
  6. Smith 2001:213
  7. Florescano 2002:8
  8. Florescano 2002:8-21
  9. Carrasco 1982
  10. Townsend 2003:668
  11. Martinez 1980
  12. Phelan 1956
  13. Wirth 2002
  14. Taylor 1892:201, see original source

Bibliography

  • Boone, Elizabeth Hill (1989). Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 79 part 2. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0-87169-792-0. 
  • Burkhart, Louise M. (1996). Holy Wednesday: A Nahua Drama from Early Colonial Mexico. New cultural studies series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-1576-1. 
  • Carrasco, David (1982). Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths and Prophecies in the Aztec Tradition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-09487-1. 
  • Florescano, Enrique (1999). The Myth of Quetzalcoatl. Lysa Hochroth (trans.), Raúl Velázquez (illus.) (translation of El mito de Quetzalcóatl original Spanish-language ed.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-7101-8. 
  • Gardner, Brant (1986). "The Christianization of Quetzalcoatl". Sunstone 10 (11). https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/055-06-10.pdf. 
  • Gillespie, Susan D (1989). The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1095-4. 
  • Harvey, Doug (2012) "How a Feathered God Presided Over a Golden Age of Mexican Art". Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Vol. 33 (5) pp. 34-39.
  • Hodges, Blair (29 September 2008). "Method and Skepticism (and Quetzalcoatl...)". Life on Gold Plates. http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/2008/09/method-and-skepticism-and-quetzalcoatl.html. 
  • James, Susan E (Winter 2000). "Some Aspects of the Aztec Religion in the Hopi Kachina Cult". Journal of the Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press) 42 (4): 897–926. 
  • Knight, Alan (2002). Mexico: From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest. Mexico, vol. 1 of 3-volume series (pbk ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-89195-7. 
  • Lafaye, Jacques (1987). Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe: The Formation of Mexican National Consciousness, 1531–1813. Benjamin Keen (trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-46788-0. 
  • Lawrence, D.H. (1925). The Plumed Serpent. 
  • Locke,Raymond Friday (2001). The Book of the Navajo. Hollaway House. 
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  • Martínez, Jose Luis (1980). "Gerónimo de Mendieta (1980)". Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 14. 
  • Nicholson, H.B. (2001). Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: the once and future lord of the Toltecs. University Press of Colorado. ISBN 0-87081-547-4. 
  • Nicholson, H.B. (2001). The "Return of Quetzalcoatl": did it play a role in the conquest of Mexico?. Lancaster, CA: Labyrinthos. 
  • Phelan, John Leddy (1970) [1956]. The Millennial Kingdom of the Franciscans in the New World. University of California Press. 
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  • Wirth, Diane E (2002). "Quetzalcoatl, the Maya maize god and Jesus Christ". Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute) 11 (1): 4–15. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=11&num=1&id=298. 

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