Quetzalcoatl, pronounced Quet-zal-co-at, is the Aztec feathered serpent.

He is the Aztec version of this god, even though many other cultures before the Aztecs worshipped him. He is also the patron of priesthood, and he is one of the four major creation deities.

This article will share all about Quetzalcoatl’s lurid history: the origin, the bloodshed, and his fateful end.

Who is Quetzalcoatl in Aztec Mythology?

Quetzalcoatl is one of the most important gods in the Aztec pantheon. He is also an important god in the pantheons of other religions in Central Mexico.

Among many other things, Quetzalcoatl is the god of wind and the provider of maize. But it’s difficult to compile a list of all the things that are under Quetzalcoatl’s domain. In each culture in which he was a part and over time, this god’s powers grew and changed. And his powers were many.

In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, his name can be broken into two parts: quetzal and coatl. Quetzal is an emerald-feathered bird in the region, and coatl means ‘serpent’. So, the English translation is pretty direct: ‘feathered serpent’ or even ‘Quetzal-feathered serpent’.

He was one of four brothers, who helped to create the world(s) in Aztec mythology. He was said to be the son of the god of duality, Ometeotl. Not only was Quetzalcoatl a creation god, but he was also the god of wind under the name Ehecatl. He was also the god of the planet Venus, the dawn, priesthood, learning, science, and opossums. Few gods could boast of so many powers and abilities!

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl or perhaps a feathered serpent was first seen as far back as the Olmecs. This civilization began around 1200 BC. But then the feathered serpent and images of Quetzalcoatl began to change over time. The god’s myth passed through various cultures.

He was worshipped in various forms by the Olmecs, the Toltecs, and the Mayans. Their stories were different, and he had varying aspects to his nature. But there was still a thread of commonality as the feathered serpent god.

The Aztecs were the ones that kept the best records. Or at least, we have the best records from the Aztecs about this particular god. Thus, we know the most about the Aztec’s relationship with and beliefs about this god.

Quetzalcoatl’s Story: Tales of the Feathered Serpent

Since Quetzalcoatl was a creator god, let’s start at the beginning. Even though the most well-known of his origins is being born of the god of duality, there are others. Some stories state that he was born of a virgin goddess named Chimalman. Quetzalcoatl was conceived when Chimalman swallowed an emerald.

Or she could have been impregnated by the god Mixcoatl, who shot an arrow into her belly. But he could also have been born of a young priestess named Coatlicue. This goddess also had his brother Huitzilopochtli from a virginal conception. The details aren’t clear about Quetzalcoatl’s conception from Coatlicue.

However, we’ll stick to the main myth of the snake god. In this legend of Quetzalcoatl, he was one of four brothers born of the god of duality. His other brothers were Xipe Totec, the Flayed God, Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tezcatlipoca, the god of night. The family waited 600 years before bringing about the creation of the first world.

Some myths state that each of the four worlds began with a battle between Quetzalcoatl and his brother Tezcatlipoca. But others say Quetzalcoatl and his brother worked together to build each world. Each of them was in charge of one of the worlds. But first, together, they had to destroy the crocodile-like monster Cipactli.

This female reptile was doing everything in her power to keep the world from growing. And so the four brothers worked together to destroy her. They tore her into four pieces. Those pieces became the four cardinal directions. However, other myths state that she was torn in two, and those parts became the earth and the sky.

The Aftermath

Either way, the earth was able to begin. Quetzalcoatl was in charge of the second sun. It was called the 4-Wind Sun. This sun lasted for 676 years. But it was eventually destroyed, and the third sun came into being. The destruction could have been because of the fights between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. As each one gained power, the other grew jealous and thus worked to destroy the other’s efforts.

But in the end, four worlds or suns had fallen into destruction. It was time to prepare a fifth. Quetzalcoatl went to Mictlan to gather bones long dead in other worlds to create new life. Mictlan is the Aztec underworld.

Quetzalcoatl & the Underworld: The Search for Bones

Once Quetzalcoatl arrived in Mictlan, he met with Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Dead. This god said that Quetzalcoatl could take whatever bones he needed. There was one condition. He needed to be able to walk around the underworld several times and blow upon a conch shell.

Mictlantecuhtli, however, tricked Quetzalcoatl and gave him a conch shell that didn’t sound. Quetzalcoatl was too clever, though. He used worms to bore holes through the shell, and bees inside to make a humming, trumpet-like sound. Therefore, Mictlantecuhtli gave Quetzalcoatl the bones. But he soon changed his mind and tricked the serpent god again.

Mictlantecuhtli bid his assistants dig a large hole at the entrance. That way, Quetzalcoatl would fall in. It worked, and the bones shattered beneath the god’s body. But once he regained consciousness, he was able to climb out, taking the broken bones with him.

To create mankind, he used some of his own blood as well as corn to create life. These humans would populate the fifth world: that’s us! The fifth world is considered our current world, having never been destroyed. The Aztecs also used this story to represent the reason why people are all different sizes.

The Feathered Serpent and Maize

Quetzalcoatl was also connected to maize, the lifeblood of the agrarian Aztec people. The stories state that at the beginning of the Aztec period, they only survived on wild meats and roots. They had heard of maize, but it was growing only on the other side of the mountain. Other gods had tried to move the mountains to get to the maize, but none of them were successful.

Quetzalcoatl, however, depending on the myth, transformed into an ant. That way, he followed the other ants over the mountain, and he brought back a kernel of corn to the Aztec people. As a creator god and a giver of maize, it’s no surprise that Quetzalcoatl holds such an important place.

The Evil Twin: Quetzalcoatl’s Brother Xolotl

Not only was Quetzalcoatl one of four brothers, but some myths claim that he had a twin brother. While Quetzalcoatl was light and power, his brother was a dog-headed deity of night. Xolotl was linked to death, disease, and deformity. Xolotl also would guide recently dead souls to the underworld.

Xolotl is seen as Quetzalcoatl’s dark aspect. Quetzalcoatl is the bright side of Venus, while Xolotl is the dark. He and Quetzalcoatl wear similar adornments in art. Not much is said about their relationship, but there was one story. The god of wind, Ehecatl, one of Quetzalcoatl’s facets, killed Xolotl to help bring about the fifth world. The fifth sun didn’t move when it first came into being. So the gods decided to sacrifice some of themselves to help it do so.

Xolotl refused, and so the gods went after him. He transformed into various things. It depends on the story, but some say he survived, while others say he succumbed to Ehecatl’s power.

The occurrence of twins was a bad omen in Aztec culture, and so Xolotl was viewed negatively. In some stories, Xolotl was the brother who accompanied Quetzalcoatl to the underworld. This makes more sense as he was a psychopomp god, one who delivers souls to the underworld.

Tales of Incest?: Quetzalcoatl’s Sister Quetzalpétatl

This is a little bit of a confusing story, depending on which record is examined. But in the Codex Chimalpopoca, there is a story of Tezcatlipoca’s jealousy of his brother. In the story, Tezcatlipoca wanted to get rid of Quetzalcoatl because of his success as a leader.

So, one night, he gave him pulque, which was a milky alcoholic drink made from agave popular with the Aztecs. Quetzalcoatl got so drunk that he slept with his sister Quetzalpétatl. She was a virgin priestess who had made a vow of celibacy. Their act was shameful and led Quetzalcoatl to leave the area and departing for the Gulf coast.

It’s unclear whether this was the god Quetzalcoatl or the real person with the same name: Ce Acatl Topiltzín Quetzalcoatl. This man was a great hero. He was the ruler of Tula and the founder of the Toltec civilization.

His rival Tezcatlipoca might have gotten him to get drunk to ruin him. There was some story of ruin, but it was either incest or a dispute over sacrifice. Either way, this person left Tula, and it may be this man who was deified into Quetzalcoatl.

Aztec Rituals and Worship of Quetzalcoatl

The worship of Quetzalcoatl involved animal sacrifices. There is some mention that both the god and man refused the practice of human sacrifice. Quetzalcoatl the god would require the sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Because his name was holy, priests would often give themselves Quetzalcoatl as part of their title. The two most important priests in the Templo Mayor were Quetzalcoatl Tlamacazqui.

There was a large temple in Teotihuacan called The Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This temple, when discovered, was believed to have been created between 150 and 200 AD. That is hundreds of years before the Aztecs, and so it’s clear this god was worshipped by many other cultures.

In the 1980s, archaeologists discovered hundreds of bodies buried under the temple. Most likely, these bodies were those of sacrificial victims. These burials match the approximate date of the temple’s building. The temple has six levels. The edges of the levels on the outside are decorated with alternating heads. One serpent head is meant to be Tlaloc, god of rain. This god has connections to Quetzalcoatl and may be one of his counterparts or aspects.

The other head is a feathered serpent dressed for war. These are Quetzalcoatl, although they had a different name for earlier cultures.

The Aztec Snake God’s Representation in Art

Quetzalcoatl’s appearance in art changed over time. Before he took on human form, he was depicted as a serpent, sometimes a beaded or feathered serpent. Water might also be in the image as well as the Quetzal bird. He is often represented as disagreeing with human sacrifice. But there is an image of him consuming a human in Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

He was often feathered, but once he took on human form, he wore jewelry made of shells as well as a conical hat. This hat was called a copilli. Like his twin brother, he is shown wearing a conch necklace. As the god of wind, this is considered the ‘wind jewel’. He might often be depicted as wearing a mask of red and black with long, dog-like teeth.

Not Just One Name: Other Links to Quetzalcoatl

It’s clear that Quetzalcoatl has a few different aspects, and that he’s been passed down from culture to culture. In other cultures and peoples, he went by different names:

  • Kukulkán to the Mayans
  • Gucumatz to the Quiché people of Guatemala
  • Ehecatl to the Huastec people of the Gulf Coast
  • He might have even been Tezcatlipoca, who is also his brother in some myths
  • Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, the famous ruler and hero
  • Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl

Quetzalcoatl’s Legacy and Second Coming

There is some debate about Quetzalcoatl related to the end of the Aztecs. According to legend, Moctezuma II believed the arrival of Cortes was Quetzalcoatl returning. Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl had always had a constant battle for power. Tezcatlipoca was the ruler of the fifth sun. If Quetzalcoatl were to return, it would mean a battle and the end of that world.

The stories state that the Spanish looked like gods with their weapons and conical hats. But this could be false. It could be historical rumors spread by the Spanish after the conquest. Many of our records about Aztec culture are written by Spanish men after all.

In the legend, Moctezuma sent gifts and food to Cortes to guess their intentions for coming to the Aztec city. The people soon realized by all that Cortes was not there for any noble or godly purpose. The rumors could have been spread for the Aztecs to justify their defeat against the Spanish. But it’s more likely that the Euro-centric Spanish added in this legend to add to their power.

Also, there’s a connection between Quetzalcoatl and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. In the early 1800s, one Mormon concluded that Quetzalcoatl was the representation of Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, his second coming was imminent. A Spanish friar Diego de Duran suggested that Quetzalcoatl might have been St. Thomas. People might have made these connections to Christianity to bridge the gap. They could connect the culture of the pagan Aztecs and the Christians who conquered them.

Conclusion

Here’s the summary of Quetzalcoalt’s tumultuous history:

  • Quetzalcoatl is the Aztec feathered serpent in Aztec mythology.
  • A version of him was worshipped long before the Aztecs. He appears in multiple cultures in various forms.
  • In Aztec mythology, he is mainly known as one of the four creation gods. He and his brothers helped to create the five worlds.
  • He controlled one of the worlds until it was destroyed.
  • When it was time to create the fifth world, he helped to create humans by gathering bones in Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.
  • Quetzalcoatl might also have had a twin brother Xolotl, and a sister Quetzalpétatl. In some stories, Quetzalcoatl kills Xolotl and sleeps with Quetzalpétatl.
  • In non-human form, he appears as a feathered serpent in art, either beaded or no, and with water.
  • In Quetzalcoatl’s human form, he wears a red and black mask, has long teeth, and wears a conical hat.
  • To the Mayans, their god Kukulkán and Quetzalcoatl are the same. Quetzalcoatl was also featured in the Olmec and Toltec pantheon.
  • Legend states that Moctezuma II believed that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl. The god had come to return to earth to destroy the fifth world. Some Mormons believed Quetzalcoatl to be the Aztec representation of Jesus Christ.

It is few who can stand the test of time and outlive one culture after another. Quetzalcoatl did just that, starting as a feathered serpent and growing and changing. He eventually took on human form as time went on. He took on many forms, contained many aspects, and had much power.

Even now in modern-day Mexico, he is remembered. Quetzalcoatl is a reminder of Mexican heritage. He is a symbol of indigenous pride and belief. He has also featured in various media and literary works. Quetzalcoatl lives on, and it’s no surprise, for he has lived a thousand lifetimes already.