Human beings, by nature, seek to explain the world around them and attribute human qualities to natural phenomenon. This is not unique to any particular culture in any time or place in the world. The Aztecs Empire was no exception to this rule. The Aztecs like many non-western cultures in the sixteenth century had a pantheon of Gods to which they attributed the creation and workings of the natural world. One of their principle gods, Quetzalcoatl, had many manifestations, each an important part of the Aztec myths of creation and the workings of the natural world. The roles of the Quetzalcoatl are fascinating to say the least. However, the legends that surround this Aztec deity offer a tantalizing legacy to western historians. Historians have explored possible pre-columbian contact between the Old and New Worlds. They have even suggested that the legends that surround Quetzalcoatl aided the demise of the Aztec Empire by making the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez appear to be the returning god. The manifestations of Quetzalcoatl, the origins of the legends that surround him, and their impact on the Aztec Empire are the focus of this paper.
The translation of Quetzalcoatl means literally Plumed Serpent. A more understandable translation would be feathered serpent. This point is interesting in that he very rarely appears in this form. He is more often depicted in many of his other roles, specifically as Topiltzin the high priest (Brundage 102-03). The significance of this will appear later in the paper, but suffice it to say the name is in itself misleading when referring to this complex deity of the Aztecs.
Many of the roles designated to Quetzalcoatl are unrelated to say the least, however the Aztecs seemed to be able to accept the various roles without question. The Aztecs, like many Native Americans, had a vivid creation story and not surprisingly a major player in this story is Quetzalcoatl. He along with his brother Huitzilopochtli were charged with the creation of life, including gods, humanity, environments and all living substances (Berdan 120). The task of creating humanity fell specifically to Quetzalcoatl. He accomplished this task by splashing his blood on the bones and ashes of previous human beings that had existed in a previous age. Out of this auto-sacrifice of blood sprang a male and then a female child, the forbearers of all modern people (Berdan 121). Thus Quetzalcoatl is not only a god to be worshiped out of reverence for his powers over nature but as a father figure as well. The Aztecs saw him as a god who was benevolent and the reason for their existence (Brundage 106). At this point the reader is probably wondering where did Quetzalcoatl find bones and ashes of humans if he is creating them for the first time? The answer to this question lies in the Aztec belief the ages of the world. The Aztecs thought that the world went through several ages called Suns. Each Sun lasted a specific time and at the end of the period the world was destroyed in a cataclysmic event. The ashes of the people from the previous age were obtained from the God of the underworld, Mictlanteculti. As a result Quetzalcoatl created a new race of people from the remains of the inhabitants of the previous age (Berdan 120).
Another manifestation of Quetzalcoatl is that of the wind. The wind that blows before the storm is traditionally associated with this complex deity. The wind is a powerful force of nature; it can be playful or be one of nature's most destructive forces. Quetzalcoatl as the wind is called nine wind. In this guise he is associated often with the air in general not so much as a helpful or harmful force. The Aztec name for a tornado or thunderstorm wind was ehecacoatl or roughly translated "wind snake" (Brundage 106). It is easy to see how a society could attribute the characteristics of a snake to the wind. The wind swirls and moves with effortless grace, just as a snake glides along the ground. Brundage goes on to say that this "shows the ease with which the Aztec mind accepted the reptilian nature of the wind" (Brundage 106-07).
Another of Quetzalcoatl's associate forms is the Morning star. In this legend he takes the name Ce Actal. In this form he battles the stars that overwhelm the sun at night and as the last star visible before the sun rises he has defeated the stars that seek to destroy the sun (Brundage 110). Ce Actal is also in competition with the sun who eventually overwhelms and destroys him to resume his place in the daytime sky. This is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp in relation to Quetzalcoatl and I have only brought it up here to illustrate the complex nature of the god and his relations to Aztec mythology. Brundage suggests that this form of Quetzalcoatl is a left over remnant or an incorporation of other Mesoamerican mythologies into the Aztec pantheon. This is the only suggestion he can offer as to why Quetzalcoatl is associated with the morning star. Especially since the morning star is related to sacrifice and Quetzalcoatl is usually not associated readily with sacrifice (Bundage 111-13).
All the previous versions of Quetzalcoatl are major ways the Aztecs expressed the powers that related to this deity, however the most famous, and for the purposes of this paper the most relevant expression is that of the high priest Topiltzin. This form is the only one in which he is truly human and it is from this form that he is said to have transformed into all the other manifestations that were previously discussed. The Aztecs saw Topiltzin as man-god, almost in the manner of a Hercules, not quite a god but much more than a man. He is often depicted wearing a copal bag, a conical headdress and at the front of his garments were in the shape of seashells. He is also depicted as being fair skinned and having a beard, supposedly to enhance his appearance of wisdom and age (Berdan 129).
This legend has the most twists and turn and the most variations on themes. The most common account presents Quetzalcoatl in human form and as a holy priest who comes down from his heavenly abode to give the Aztec people a new religion. He tries to make the Aztecs rituals more of a personal spiritual event. Before his arrival the legend says that the Aztecs sacrificed hundreds of humans to the various gods. In the form of the high priest Quetzalcoatl's goal is to make Aztec ritual more simplistic and auto-sacrificial. He stresses auto-sacrifice and the sacrifice of snakes, butterflies, birds, etc. (Brundage 116). He is more concerned with the sanctity of human life. It is his opinion that if human blood is to be sacrificed it should be give directly by the person making the sacrifice. This legend ties in nicely with the creator myth. In his role as creator of the human race he sacrificed his own blood, now he is telling the people that by sacrificing their own blood it is a more precious offering that killing another person. He is seen as a divinity that is concerned for the lives of his people.
Most of the accounts that survive to the modern day agree on the first part of the story. However the ending occurs in many forms. One story tells how once Quetzalcoatl had become a famous priest, renowned for his holiness, skills in craftwork, and his views that the gods abhorred human sacrifice, he became the target of the old order priests who insisted that human sacrifice was the only way to appease the gods. The people began to treat this high priest Quetzalcoatl as a god. The main city in which he set forth his ideas was Tula. The High Priest Topiltzin was eventually made ruler of the city and during his reign as the priest/king of Tula the city prospered. The priests seeking to reinstate human sacrifice conspired against Topiltzin and toppled him from power. As a result the city went into decline. Brundage says, "the flowering trees in the environs of the city withered and turned to harsh Misquite, and the birds that had sung in the branches flew away to the east" (Brundage 115). (Keep the idea of the birds flying away to the east in mind it will help the reader understand connections that will be made later in the paper.) The story goes on to tell how Topiltzin was hounded by his pressures all the way to what is today the Gulf of Mexico. Here the story connects to the idea of Quetzalcoatl as the morning star. Fearing he would be captured Topiltzin threw himself into a burning pyre and his heart ascended back to heaven as the morning star (Brundage 116). Thus this legend connects two of the three other manifestation of the god; Quetzalcoatl as the Morning Star and in directly Quetzalcoatl as the wind, the air like quality of the smoke rising form the pyre. Thus indirectly or directly the Aztecs found ways to interweave the other aspects of Quetzoacoatl in to this legend.
The Second interpretation of the ending to the High Priest Topiltzin legend follows the same pattern as the first. Topiltzin is welcomed into the city of Tula, a golden age follows, he is driven out and the city goes into decline. The major difference is that once he reaches the coast, Brundage says, "the man god said farewell to his followers, prophesying that he would return on a year named as that one was, Ce Acatl, to reclaim his rule. He stepped onto a raft of serpents and floated away" (Brundage 116). The man-god Topiltzin floating away on the raft of snakes suggests a connection to the plumed serpent. The Aztecs are trying to integrate as many of the other forms of the god into this one story as possible.
The story ends with Topiltzin floating away to the east and promising one day to return. The promise to one day return and reclaim his rule is a foundation that many historians have used to justify their claims that Cortez was viewed by the Aztecs as the returning god and aided in his conquering of a vastly superior nation. This question will be examined later but more attention needs to be given to the origins of the Topiltzin aspect of the Quetzalcoatl legend.
Now that the reader has some of the background of the legends that surround Quetzalcoatl. The next task is to find out how such a tremendous legend evolved. Scholars have suggested that the myth of Quetzalcoatl the priest is based on pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the new. The early western explorers of Mexico tended to see parallels between the pious nature of the High priest Topiltzin and early Christianity. Many early chroniclers in Mexico, among these; Garcia, Becerra Tanco, and Siguenza y Gongora, believed that the Apostle St. Thomas was the original Topiltzin. These authors base their assumptions that the cross was in Mexico at the coming of the first Christian explorers (Braden 37). Also the very religion of the Aztecs had elements that were very Christian like. For example, a common memory of the flood, the creation of male and then female in the creation story and most significantly, the Aztecs said Quetzalcoatl was white, light hared and bearded. The legends also state that he wore a robe with red and black crosses, and he is always pictured wearing a kind of miter and carrying a staff in his hand (Braden 37). The third reason that Quetzalcoatl may have been inspired by a Christian missionary is that he promised to return one day from the east with other bearded white men (Braden 38). This in itself is a tantalizing aspect to the story.
Others have suggested that it was not St. Thomas but an Irish monk and missionary, St. Brendan, who was responsible for the legends of the High Priests features. St. Brendon reportedly sailed in a leather boat up and down the coast of North America and returned to tell his tale (Tirado). Detractors from these accounts would say that the legends of the flood, the presence of crosses in the New World were just coincidental. This may be true but it does not explain how the representation of the god could so closely match that of a European missionary around the beginning of the Common Era. Also, why would the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations represent a god as having facial hair when all Native populations do not have it? Why was the god white, when most all Native Americans were of a brown complication? These are questions that will have to remain mysteries in the Quetzalcoatl legend unless hard evidence can be unearthed to decide the question either way.
The Physical appearance of Quetzalcoatl may be just an unbelievable coincidence, however the first explorers took advantage of the myth of the Aztecs especially their king Montezuma. The arrival of Cortez was seen by the Aztecs as the god Quetzalcoatl returning to fulfill his promise to return. The Aztecs saw Cortez as "the Supreme Lord of the Things of Earth and of heaven" (Gruzinski 29). The Indians had never before seen horses, muskets, armor, or cannons; to them they must have seemed the weapons of the gods. The envoys that Montezuma sent to Cortez's expedition reported what they had seen. They said that "the animals they rode looked like deer and were high as roof tops. They Cover their bodies completely except for their faces and they are very white" (Anderson 17). As far as what the Europeans ate, the natives described it as "similar to what we eat during times of fasting" (Anderson 17).
The men of Cortez's expedition could not figure out why these people, who were obviously superior in number were acting so cordially to them. Upon their arrival in what they called Mexico the Aztecs dressed Cortez in "a Turquoise mosaic snake mask with the head fan of quetzal feathers and with the jadeite snake-head earplugs suspended from it; the painted jadeite neckband with the golden disk resting in its midst . . ." (Anderson 14). The description of the array of ornamentation that the Aztec envoys lavished on Cortez goes on but suffice it to say they dressed him in the traditional garb of the returning Quetzalcoatl. The story goes that after being give these traditional robes of the god and having received the other gifts offered held the messengers in irons, only to release them later to go back to tell the king Montezuma of their encounter (Anderson 16). A first hand account by one of Cortez's men, a man named Bernal Diaz del Castillo, says that the first meetings were cordial. There is talk of the "Cortez thanking the envoys of Montezuma" (Castillo 53). He even goes so far as to say that Cortez makes a speech in which he declared, "the object of his visit was to see and trade with the people of those countries; that no one should sustain any injury by him, and he hoped that they would have cause to be satisfied with his arrival there" (Castillo 54). Cortez had no idea what his arrival meant to the Aztec people. All he knew was that he had an advantage that he could exploit, and did so to the best of his ability.
In the mean time Montezuma's reaction to the arrival of these strange being from the east was horror. When his men told him of the strange dress, weaponry, and animals of the conquistadors he is reported "to have been terror struck and fainted" (Anderson 17). As a result of their mission, the emissaries that Montezuma had sent to talk to Cortez were taken to the sacrificial house of snakes. There two captives were sacrificed and the blood from their beating hearts were sprinkled over the men who had risked their lives in such a manner (Anderson 16). The longer Cortez stayed, the more nervous Moctezuma became. Moctezuma even went so far as to send his wise men to try to divert Cortez from coming to see Moctezuma face to face. When this did not work he tried to hide but realized that if Cortez really was the returned god Quetzalcoatl it was futile to try to hide. In Montezuma's own words "one cannot escape what must happen" (Gruzinski 30). Cortez could not have known how his appearance would affect the Aztec people. However this did not stop him from exploiting his advantage and ultimately conquering and subduing the Aztec Empire.
The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is unique among the religious traditions of the ancient Mesoamerican world. He was the god of the wind, the sky god, the morning star, and the high priest. He was the feathered serpent, the white bearded priest, the whirlwind and Venus. He is present in almost all aspects of Aztec spiritual life. Quetzalcoatl is a deity that will intrigue many historians, theologians and people who are interested in ancient mythology for centuries to come. Quetzalcoatl represents a basic need of all cultures. That need is to understand the world around us, or at least to explain it. For the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl fulfilled that need.
Anderson, Arthur J.O. and Charles E. Dibble. The War of Conquest: How it was Waged Here in Mexico. University of Utah Press. Salt Lake City: 1978.
Braden, Frances F. ed. Spidel, George and Lousie. The Aztecs of Central Mexico. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. New York: 1982.
Braden, Charles S. Religious Aspects of the Conquest of Mexico. Duke University Press. Duhram, NC: 1930.
Brundage, Burr Cartwright. The Fifth Sun. University of Texas Press. Austin TX: 1979.
Del Castillo, Bernal Diaz. The True History of the Conquest of Mexico. March Of America Facsimile Series, number 7. University Microfilms, Inc. Ann Arbor, MI: 1966.
Gruzinski, Serge. Man-Gods in the Mexican Highlands. Stanford University Press. Standord, CA: 1989.
Tirado, Thomas. Professor of History, Millersville University. Class notes from October 14, 1997.