The Feathered Serpent: A Mesoamerican Dragon

Serpiente Emplumada Xochicalco

Temple of the Feathered Serpent of Xochicalco, state of Morelos, Mexico.

 

Quetzalcóatl, the Plumed Serpent.

The serpent was the earth

devourer of life 

and giver of life.

Serpent–bird = winged matter.

Union of earth and sky.

Earth rising and sky descending.

(United at the pyramid‘s peak.)

Erect snake and sinking bird.

Matter ascending toward the light.

The struggle for light.

Quetzalcóatl (1988) – Ernesto Cardenal

 

The feathered serpent is one of the most widespread mythological figures in the pantheon of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica. Best known as Quetzalcoatl, the legends surrounding this creature were common among the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations, where it would also appear under the names of Ehecatl and Kukulcan. In Nahuatl, the predominant native language of Mexico, the term “quetzal” means “precious tail with shining, iridescent feathers”, and it is used to describe a winged bird with a beautiful plumage as well as the feathers of such an animal, while the word “coatl” means serpent or snake; therefore, Quetzalcoatl is translated as “quetzal serpent” or “feathered serpent”, and it is not really difficult to link this creature with the image of a dragon. Both the representations of the feathered serpent in the pre-Columbian Mexican iconography and the manifestation of its divine powers in their mythology resemble many of the attributes of the dragon, even more so if we take into consideration that the terms “dragon” and “serpent” were indistinctly used by the ancient civilizations to refer to a large snake with supernatural faculties.

Quetzal centroamericano

Resplendent quetzal

Signo_Cóatl

Coatl (serpent or snake) in the Tonalpohualli, an Aztec ritual calendar that features in the Codex Laud (MS. Laud Misc. 678), Bodleian Library, Oxford.    

The origins and identity or Quetzalcoatl are of a complex nature due to the intricate cultural blending that occurred before and even after the Spanish conquest. According to Mexican archaeologist Román Piña Chan (1977), the myth of Quetzalcoatl has its roots in the cult of the “rain-cloud serpent”, and ancient Mesoamerican water deity. The legends about the bond between snakes, water and the weather are still common today in the oral tradition of certain Mexican ethnic groups (Spero, 1987): the choles and tetzales tell that the “water snakes” are responsible of most deaths by drowning as they coil around their prey to submerge them deep into a river or lake; the zoques believe that the “lightning serpents” fill their bodies with water in the rivers and lakes so that they can ascend to the sky and turn into the lightning that lets the rain fall down, and in the beliefs of the Huichol people, the mother of the rain goddesses is “our serpent goddess”, who becomes a cloud deity after reaching the sky. This very relationship is also present in the Tonalpohualli, an Aztec ritual calendar that appears in the Codex Laud, in which the fifth day-sign is called “coatl” (snake), a sign that is associated with water (González Torres, 1991).

Román Piña Chan states that it is in Tlatilco, an area located northwest of Mexico City, where one the earliest representations of the serpent as a symbol of water can be found carved on an earthenware pot, a totemic creature that would eventually fuse with the image of the jaguar, which was associated with the earth in the Tlatilco culture, to give birth to a kind of “dragonlike serpent-jaguar”, who, in combining the elements of water and earth, embodied the fertility of the earth, agriculture, and life. With time, the image of this fantastic deity would spread to other regions that, just like Tlatilco, were influenced by the Olmecs, who would incorporate it in their own cosmogony.

Cajete con serpiente

Earthenware pot with a snake (1200-400 BC) found in Tlatilco, Mexico City – National Museum of Anthropology (photo by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico).

Botellón con perfil de animal fantástico

Black slipware flagon that represents the serpent-jaguar (1200-600 BC) found in Tlatilco, Mexico City – National Museum of Anthropology

Representaciones Serpiente dragon

Full representations of the two previous motifs (a, c) and jaguar paw (b), Piña Chan (1977)

Dragón olmeca vasija efigie

Effigy of the serpent-jaguar (1200-600 BC) from Tlapacoya, Mexico City – National Museum of Anthropology

Piña Chan explains that this serpent-jaguar would become in a feathered rattlesnake as a deity of the clouds, rain and fertility, which in Teotihuacan culture is an announcer of the rain god Tlaloc, one of the oldest divinities in Mesoamerica. This claim is based on the extant iconography of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan. Carvings and images of shellfish are common motifs on the walls and slopes of the temple, and when combined with the stone feathered serpent heads and the undulating bodies of the serpents below them they seem to associate the feathered serpent with both the rainwater that comes from the clouds as well as with the sea water. That is how the feathered serpent that resembles the rain that travels in the firmament in the form of clouds would finally turn into the figure of the god Quetzalcoatl as a deity of the sky, agriculture and life.

teo-serpent-temple-2

Temple of the Feathered Serpent of Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Details of the feathered serpent heads, headdresses of Cipactli, undulating snakes and shellfish at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent of Teotihuacan.

Nevertheless, archaeologists have found representations of the feathered serpent that might be as old as the effigies of the serpent-jaguar, such as the painting of the Feathered Serpent in the caves of Juxtlahuaca (1200-400 BC) and the Monument 19 of La Venta (600-400 BC), both belonging to the groups of people that were part of the Olmec culture. Furthermore, other studies have argued that the feathered serpent has a rather different symbolism, since the union between the winged bird and the slithering snake can actually represent the bond between earth and the underworld with the sky and the cosmos (Gillespie, 2008), a notion that would develop with the evolution of thought in Mesoamerican societies, and that is closer to the image and the nature of Quetzalcoatl as a divinity. Also, Piña Chan’s hypothesis on the origin of Quetzalcoatl presupposes that the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan was originally dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc, but later archaeological research contend that this temple was dedicated to the Feathered Serpent or Quetzalcoatl only (Sugiyama, 1989; López Austin, López Luján, y Sugiyama, 1991). In consequence, it is quite difficult to determine whether the mythical figure of Quetzalcoatl derived from the rain-cloud serpent or the original feathered serpent, and it stands to reason that this deity might have just assimilated the attributes of the other two in latter periods.

Serpiente emplumada caverna

Feathered Serpent painting at the Juxtlahuaca caves (1200-400 BC)

e94ce5422357e830263e58773a21cc6c--aztec

Monument 19 of La Venta (600-400 BC), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico.

Since the rise of the Teotihuacan civilization (between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD) the feathered serpent would no longer be a minor deity (as it had been for the Olmecs), but a major divinity with a more profound symbolism, and the Temple of Teotihuacan is proof of that. We have already mentioned that the rippling bodies of the snakes on its slopes and the representations of shellfish were related to water, but it is possible that they actually represent the passing of time (López Austin et al., 1991), more so if we take into account that each one of the serpent heads on its walls are placed next to the stone headdresses of a creature that has been identified with Cipactli (black lizard/alligator in Nahuatl), a female primordial water monster that, according to legend, at the beginning of time was split in two by the god Tezcatiploca (who is just another aspect of Quetzalcoatl) so that the gods could use her body to create the skies and the earth (History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings, 1530); and when the name of this monster joins the number “one”, it becomes the first day of the year in the ritual calendar Tonalpohualli, thus holding a strong sense of beginning. In this sense, Quetzalcoatl might be the carrier of time since he also bears the headdress of Cipactli, which would make this temple a sacred place that was dedicated to the cult of time, destiny and the moment in which Quetzalcoatl created humankind (López Austin et al., 1991).

The Legend of the Suns can also shed some light on the nature of Quetzalcoatl. There are many versions of this legend, but all of them tell of the Nahuatl beliefs regarding the creation of the Earth, the world eras and their final destinies. Most of the sources divide the age of the world in four or five eras, each with its own major deity who became the sun until the end of that era, when the inhabitants of the earth were destroyed and then brought back to life once again in the next era. The oldest source of this legend was carved in a monolithic disc known as the Aztec Sun Stone, but most of them come from documents that were written in the Colonial times, some of which were codices or copies of lost pre-Columbian documents (such as Codex Chimalpopoca and Codex Vatican A) and others were manuscripts containing the Spanish translation of Nahuatl oral traditions (such as the History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings by Friar Andrés de Olmos). Moreno de los Arcos (1967) offers an account of this legend based on an analysis of ten different sources, which I will try to summarize. When the gods were created by Ometeotl , god of duality, they decided to create the world and choose one of them to be the sun; however, this would start a conflict among them that would last for ages. The god Tezcatiploca rose as the Earth Sun, the first sun, to shine light for the giants, the first inhabitants of the world; their era ended when Quetzalcoatl hit him with a mighty staff that took him down. Soon after, Tezcatiploca emerged from the waters in the shape on an ocelot, and then the giants were devoured by ocelots. Then, Quetzalcoatl took his place as the second sun for the humans, the Wind Sun, but Tezcatiploca, who was still in the shape of an ocelot, stroke him and made him fall; a strong wind blew, and it took the humans with it, yet there were some who managed to grab a tree and save their lives, and they turn into monkeys. Tezcatiploca then appointed Tlalocatecuhtli as the Fire Sun for the third era, but it reached its end when Quetzalcoatl summoned a rain of fire from the skies, and the humans were turned into birds. Next, Quetzalcoatl placed the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue as the Water Sun, but due to the actions of Tezcatiploca caused a deluge that drowned the humans, and those who survived were turned into fish. Finally, Quetzalcoatl became the sun of the fifth era, the Movement Sun, which is our current era, and it will end when Tezcatiploca steals the sun.

Piedra del Sol

Aztec Sun Stone (1250-1521 BC), National Museum of Anthropology and History, Mexico City.

Among the deities that appear in the Legend of the Suns, we find Ometeotl, god of duality, an ancient being that is composed by two divinities: Ometecuhtli, the male essence of creation, and his wife, Omecíhuatli, the female essence. Duality is a fundamental notion in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and Quetzalcoatl is no exception: his dual character is complemented with the image of Tezcatiploca, god of the night sky, the stars and primordial magic, two opposite aspects of the same deity (Martí, 1960), a duality that was already demonstrated in the symbolism behind the original feathered serpent (earth and sky) and the serpent-jaguar (earth and water). As mentioned before, Tezcatiploca was the one who slayed the sea monster Cipactli after sacrificing his foot to lure her out of her dwelling before the world was created (History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings, 1530), meaning there was an additional connection between the headdresses of Cipactli at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan with Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatiploca.

Another point of particular interest is that in some legends, Quetzalcoatl must descend to the realm of the dead after the destruction of humans in the fourth era to gather the bones of man and woman and spill his own blood on them so as to bring humanity back to life, and then he gave them maize to sustain themselves (Codex Chimalpopoca). Quetzalcoatl was associated with Venus in Measoamerican culture, and his descent to the underworld before reappearing in the sky as the morning star might have served to explain such relationship (Wirth, 2002).

As a product of the pre-Columbian cultural blend, Quetzalcoatl embodies the attributes of important Aztec, Maya and Olmec deities. In Nahuatl, he occasionally appears under the name of Ehecatl (the wind) among the Aztecs, who blows the winds from the four sides of the world and clears the way for the gods of water (Florescano, 2003), which highlights his aspect as a wind deity that carries the water in the shape of clouds, thus becoming a benefactor for humanity.  Moreover, as the deity who delivered maize to the humans of the fourth era, Quetzalcoatl seems to personify the Mayan god of maize, Hun-Hunahpú (Kerr, 2002). Yet Quetzalcoatl has not only been associated with supernatural figures. Historical records tell us of an Olmec priest-ruler of the tenth century named Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl who was chosen king of the city of Tula, a wise man that shared his knowledge on sciences and arts with his people, and who supposedly replaced human sacrifice with snakes and butterflies (Codex Chimalpopoca). The accounts of this ruler and the deep meaning of the symbolism behind the Feathered Serpent might explain why this deity was adopted by the ruling elites of Mesoamerica as a symbol of power, some of which held the name or title of Quetzalcoatl when they rose as leaders or high priests in order to strengthen their right to rule (Lucero and Panganiban, 2015).

Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl

Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl (Codex Laud)

The large body of myths and legends surrounding Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, lets us make a comparison between him and the myth of the dragon in other cultures. As a dual entity of creation and destruction under the aspects of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatiploca in the Legend of the Suns, it resembles the conflict between the storm god and the sea serpent or dragon in the cosmogony of the Ancient Near East civilizations.  In his aspect of Quetzalcoatl alone, he shares some similarities with the dragons of Eastern Asia, such as the Dragon Kings of Chinese Mythology, since they do not generally share the evil nature of their western counterparts, but are actually associated with wisdom and the weather (mainly the elements of water and air), two of the main attributes of Quetzalcoatl. Furthermore, the legends of the first rulers of the nations that rose in these regions of Asia usually link them with dragons: the first emperor of Japan was considered a descendant of Ryūjin, the dragon god of the sea, and the legendary Chinese emperor Huang Di was said to have turned into a dragon to ascend to the sky before he died, something that can be compared with the adoption of the feathered serpent as an emblem of the rulers of Teotihuacan culture. Due to these similarities, it has even been theorized that the dragon myth may have reached the early settlements of pre-Columbian America in the form of oral traditions with the arrival of sea travelers and explorers that have the Pacific from Southeast Asia, and so the inhabitants of the American Continent could have incorporated the dragon as an additional supernatural element in their beliefs (Elliot Smith, 1919), but in a manner that suited their own interpretation of reality and the nature of their society.  If a dragon ever soared the skies of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican imagination, it was Quetzalcoatl.

Quetzalcoatl's Rage

Quetzalcoatl’s Rage by Carlos Ortega Elizalde (http://carlosortega3d.com/)

References:

-Elliot Smith, Grafton (1919), The Evolution of the Dragon, published in Manchester for the John Rylands Library at The University Press, Longmans, Green and Company, pp. 84-88.

-Florescano, Enrique (2003), Quetzalcóatl Mexica, retrieved at  http://enp4.unam.mx/amc/libro_munioz_cota/libro/cap1/lec02_quetzalcoatlmexica.pdf

-Gillespie, Susan D. (2008), “Pájaro-Serpiente” y la Gobernatura en Mesoamérica, en “Ideología política y sociedad en el periodo Formativo”, edited by Ann Cyphers and Kenneth G. Hirth, pp. 371-392, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad de México.

-González Torres, Yolotl (1991), Diccionario de mitología y religión de Mesoamérica, México: Ediciones Larousse, ISBN 970-607-039-7.

-History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings (1530), by fray Andrés de Olmos, Anales del Museo Nacional de México, 1882: Primera época (1877-1903), Tomo II, pp. 85-91.

-Kerr, J. (2002), The Myth of the Popol Vuh as an Instrument of Power. In Elin C. Danien and Robert J. Sharer, New Theories on the Ancient Maya, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

-López Austin, A., López Luján, L., Sugiyama, S. (1991), El Templo de Quetzalcóatl en Teotihuacán: su posible significado ideológico, Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Volumen XVI, número 62, pp. 36-46, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

-Lucero, Lisa J., Panganiban, Jed (2015), The Ideology of the Absent: The Feathered Serpentand Classic Maya Rulership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Anthropology.

-Martí, Samuel (1960), Simbolismo de los colores, deidades, números y rumbos, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 2, pp. 99-102, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

-Moreno de los Arcos, Roberto (1967), Los Cinco Soles Cosmogónicos, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 7, pp. 202, 209, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

-Piña Chan, Román (1977), Quetzalcóatl: Serpiente Emplumada,  Fondo de Cultura Económica, Sección de Obras de Antropología, México, D.F.

-Spero, Joanne M. (1987), Lightning Men and Water Serpents: A Comparison of Mayan and Mixe-Zoquean Beliefs, Master’s Thesis, University of Texas at Austin.

-Sugiyama, Saburo (1989), Iconographic Interpretation of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, Mexicon, v. 10, n.4, pp. 68-74.

-Wirth, Diane E. (2002), Quetzalcoatl, the Maya Maize God, and Jesus Christ, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

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