Quetzalcoatl: Man Or Myth?

This essay has a total of 7242 words and 26 pages.

Quetzalcoatl: Man Or Myth?

Heather Howdeshell
HIST 3323
Dr. Whigham
The Legend of Quetzalcoatl: Man or Myth?
From the beginning of the Toltec reign in Central Mexico, the deity Quetzalcoatl has been
a central figure in the religion and culture of Mexico. This is undisputed. What can be
disputed, however, is Quetzalcoatl's legitimacy as an historical figure. The deity
Quetzalcoatl, or the "plumed serpent" is inseparable from the man Ce Acatl Topitlzin
Quetzalcoatl, known to be a famous leader in pre-historical Mexican myth. The dissection
becomes more difficult still as the Spanish friars introduced Christianity and in an
attempt to assimilate the Indians, created a parallel between Indian deity Quetzalcoatl
and the Catholic figure St. Thomas. In doing so, the priests hoped to incorporate Indian
culture and religion into Christianity. In the process, however, they changed and damaged
the pre-Christian notions of the god. What information we have now of Quetzalcoatl must be
recognized as flawed over the centuries, and we must take this into account when trying to
examine the historical origins of one of the three figures. However, with cautious
examination, we can separate these three figures and determine each one's traits
independent of the others'.

To understand the mythical figure Quetzalcoatl, the first of the trinity to emerge, one
must look further in to the religious belief of the pre-Columbian peoples. In the
Classical period, Quetzalcoatl represented a sort of binary opposition between earth and
heaven, visible in his name, quetzalli, or "precious green feather", and coatl, the
"serpent." "Precious green feather," according to Enrique Florescano, referred to a bird,
which in the Classical period symbolized the heavens. Coatl, the serpent, symbolized
earth, and so the mythical creature Quetzalcoatl was a link between the two, present
before the Toltec civilization began, and gave birth to the image of twins, one of life,
fertility and order (the bird) and the other representing the fatality of death (the
serpent) . Yet the link between the immortal and the mortal was further construed by the
Classical Period Indians than even the symbolism of the bird and serpent. The binary
oppositions within day and night, also the Morning Star and the Evening Star became
entangled within the earliest surviving myths of Quetzalcoatl.

There is a fine line between the religious and the mythological in Pre-Columbian Mexico.
While Quetzalcoatl began as a symbolic interpretation to link life and death, or the gods
and humans, his purpose soon extended to an intercessor between the two, symbolic in the
ball court game which he is attributed with founding . The game was played by the young,
able-bodied men, and while the year of the game's origins can only be speculated,
MacLachlan and Rodriguez speculate the game came only a few generations after the
establishment of agriculture by the Olmecs, since it was at this point that the Indians
would rely on the deities for ample rain and fertility to survive. However, Florescano
disagrees, stating the first use of the ball court as designed by the Mayans that the
loser might be decapitated, his spurting blood to "water the netherworld" with precious
human blood to bring fertility in crops . While this tradition of human sacrifice did not
begin until many years after Quetzalcoatl had been recognized as a deity, it will become
relevant later on to the Aztecs must choose whether their worship of Quetzalcoatl will be
violent, as Huitztelapochtli requests, or peaceful as Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl
requested of his followers.

While Quetzalcoatl the deity's roots can be traced with ease to the ideology of the
Toltecs, whose high priest and ruler Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a follower of the
mythological god, the ideological origins of Quetzalcoatl are ambiguous. We know that he
did not exist around 1200 B.C., when the Olmecs are conjectured to have become an
independent civilization. However, it seems apparent that he had emerged by the year 100
A.D. when Teotihuacan began its reign as the most powerful city in MesoAmerica . According
to Laurette Sejourne, Quetzalcoatl the man emerged approximately the time of Christ,
nearly 100 years before the establishment of Teotihuacan . According to David Carrasco,
Quetzalcoatl the man was even responsible for the establishment of Teotihuacan . This
makes it difficult to know whether Carrasco was referring to Quetzalcoatl the man or the
god, since it would have been possible for either to have been adapted and misconstrued
over the past 2,000 years. While these numbers conflict in their establishment of a
chronological order to the birth of Quetzalcoatl, they do convey importance in that when
considering the rise of Quetzalcoatl as a deity, we must take into account that the
historical figure Quetzalcoatl was also influencing the legends associated with his deity
.

According to most sources, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is born in the religiously
significant year of 1 Acatl, the beginning of a new cycle of the Meso-American calendar
passed down from the Olmecs. To understand the calendar, we must backtrack just a few
years to the Olmecs' amazing ability to trace the solar and lunar calendars. The solar
calendar, of 365 days per year, had a symbol or animal with specific characteristics
assigned to it for each day. The lunar calendar, only 260 days, had the same sort of
principle, with an animal or symbol assigned to each day. Each day would be recorded by
both its solar and lunar symbols, and when the calendars each reached the final day of
their year simultaneously, the solar-lunar cycle would begin again. For all Mexican
cultures, this had a profound impact on the way they believed the universe worked.
According to Adela Fernandez, the Toltecs and later peoples believed that the gods, like
the rest of the universe they could observe, was cyclical . Day and night, the seasons,
and life itself was cyclical. The gods, who had little care for humans, would determine
whether or not the cycle would begin again, and if it did, then the cycle of life would
not be interrupted for another 52 years. Therefore, it is significant that Ce Acatl
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was born at the beginning of a new 52-year cycle because if there
were to be any changes to Mexican religion and culture, it would most likely correspond
with this date.

It was also believed by some followers of the cult of the Plumed Serpent that Ce Acatl
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was the incarnate of the god himself. As Sejourne says, "the
historical reality [of Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl] seems to be established without a doubt,
since his qualities as a leader are many times mentioned." While some aspects of his
biography are not credible as historical data (such as his mother being a member of the
immaculate conception) and his father being the god Mixcoatl (Serpent of the Clouds), we
can use this biography to imply how Ce Acatl was revered by his followers. According to
Nigel Davies, Mixcoatl is similar to Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, cine he too was most likely a
human figure as well as a god. Davies claims that Mixcoatl may have been a victim of
divination after his death, and this would explain the contradiction of Quetzalcoatl being
born from an immaculate conception. What information we have of Quetzalcoatl is most
likely that passed on through oral tradition, with some gleaned from hieroglyphics, and
the archaeological excavation of Tula. Yet most of this information must have been passed
down by the followers of Quetzalcoatl, who it is likely believed that Chimalman
(Quetzalcoatl's mother) conceived immaculately. This is not so much of a stretch for a
people who see Quetzalcoatl as a champion of the people and great religious leader.

According to almost all sources, Quetzalcoatl was a leader of the Cult of Quetzalcoatl,
and also a cultural innovator with which few could compare. He established the city of
Tula for himself and his followers, and made himself King and high priest, and through his
excellent leadership made Tula "a place of peace and without hunger". A champion of the
people, he made Tula a cultural center for North-Central Mexico for nearly thirty years
before warring peoples and political unrest ended Ce Acatl's peaceful reign.

There are several versions of Ce Acatl's exile from Tula, one of the most accurate by
Carrasco's standards coming from the merging of the Codex Florentine and the Vaticanus A
copy . Each source has some flaws and missing details of the exile, but merging the two of
them together, that warring factions of Tula became blood-thirsty and demanded that the
followers of Quetzalcoatl also begin serving Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl's nemesis, who
demanded human sacrifice as well as vioelnt wars. After the emergence of this
counterculture, Tula was plagued with famine and perhaps some sort of plague, and in fear
of revolt, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl led a small group of followers from the city of
Tula to the East, towards either the Gulf of Mexico or the Yucatan Peninsula. Ce Acatl
vows one day to return and avenge those who did not follow him, then vanishes.

On the most basic level, this is the story of Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, but what is more
interesting than surmising what facts we know to be true about Quetzalcoatl is trying to
discern which events actually happened to Ce Acatl, how the myth became entangled in the
truth, and what caused the myth to change over the years. Quetzalcoatl the deity has
become entangled in legend with 9 Ehecatl (9 Wind) even more than it has become
intertwined with the human being of the same name. 9 Ehecatl is a god of approximately the
same age as Quetzalcoatl yet of Eastern Mexico rather than Olmec origin. What is truly
ironic about the melding of these two gods is that in personality and characteristics,
they have little in common with the other. However, between 900 and 1000 A.D., they begin
to mesh together, also taking on the characteristics of Venus, believed by many Indians to
be the Morning Star and Evening Star.

It seems that most of the mixture between the lives of Ce Acatl and Quetzalcoatl the deity
occurred after the death of Ce Acatl, and the large majority of this myth deals with Ce
Acatl's promise to return in the year 1 Ce Acatl (a Reed year) to bring revenge on those
who caused him to abdicate the throne of Tulla. Statements such as this may have given the
Indians reason to believe that Ce Acatl was a god, if he could promise to return nearly 52
years from that day. Also, him threatening of such power seems to be something only a god
would do-mortals would have no way to back up this claim. If we knew that Ce Acatl
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl actually made a statement like this, it would make sense to say
that Ce Acatl considered himself a god and unified with the deity Quetzalcoatl. What seems
more likely, however, is that this prophecy was only part truth fabricated by Ce Acatl's
followers. It may be that after his exile, they began to see him as a god-like figure and
made up his claim to return. Yet another option is that Ce Acatl did promise to return,
yet had no intentions of returning so far in the future.

It is impossible for us to know exactly what Ce Acatl prophesied that day, because all
accounts we receive more than 1,000 years later have been exposed to the same
contamination as the myth we already have. What is clear is that Quetzalcoatl's promise to
return in the year 1 Reed had a profound impact on the Indians in the Classical and
Post-Classical period. According to myth, we know that Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was
a man of light skin and a beard. This, too would have a uge effect on the Aztecs and
Moctezuma II later in Mexican history, when Hernando Cortes is seen by the Aztecs as the
returning Quetzalcoatl, avenging his throne . While this will be discussed in much greater
detail later on, it is an excellent example of how powerful the words of Quetzalcoatl were
to the Indians. Perhaps they were not worshipping him when Cortes came to conquer Mexico,
but words such as these, true or not were important enough to have been passed down for
more than 500 years of Mexican history, speaking of their importance to the Indians.

To understand the character of Quetzalcoatl seen by the Indians, it is important to
examine myths not dealing directly with the incarnation of Quetzalcoatl as Ce Acatl. By
examining these myths, many of which date to the period before period before Ce Acatl, we
can distinguish which qualities were associated with the deity before he was associated
with a human being. According to Florescano,

In the creation of the cosmos, four creative powers intervene: earth, wind, fire, an
water. These primordial elements and their interrelations imply a history of creation.
Therefore, the primoridal gods participate directly in the formation of the cosmos.

The gods who then begin to patronize the creation of the sun and humanity are moe
connected to the destiny of human beings, the most prominent being Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl.
According to Nahuatl tradition, in addition to creating powers of the cosmological cycle
and one of the four supports holding up the sky, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl directly
participates in the creation of the fifth sun an in the generation of new humanity.


To explain what this means in terms of mythological qualities of Quetzalcoatl, it is
necessary to understand the Nahuatl creation story (similar to the Five Suns myth of the
Aztecs in most aspects). The Nahuatl tradition inherently believed by the Toltecs and
Aztecs after them tells of four previous creations of life before the current cycle of
life in Mexico. As a creation god, we do not know if Quetzalcoatl was attributed with all
of the previous four creations, but it is apparent that as a creator god, he had
sufficient power to destroy the world also as he and the other gods of creation saw fit.
According to Florescano's passage, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl did not create the world
surrounding the Indians, but even more significant, the Indians themselves. As the sole
creator of humanity, humans should worship Quetzalcoatl for his mercy and generosity in
their creation. Therefore, we know that he was considered to be a kind yet all-powerful
god. Kind because he created humanity as the Indians knew it, but all-powerful because, if
I understand this correctly, he had created four other cosmos that he, with the other
gods, had destroyed. This myth appears to date back to before the time of Ce Acatl
Quetzalcoatl, for if he was the leader of a cult to worship Quetzalcoatl, his supremacy
must have already been well established.

To go back to the tales of Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl's reign in Tula, however, this
conflicts slightly. In Ancient Mexico, Jaqueline Cantrell claims that "the young
Priest-King Quetzalcoatl believed in only one god-the ancient Feathered Serpent Deity,
Quetzalcoatl." However, this means that Ce Acatl is rejecting what we assume to be common
belief of socialization in Toltecs peoples: the story of creation. While at first site
this is puzzling, it can be resolved by looking closely at Ce Acatl's actions in moving
from the city of Culhuacan to Tula. It seems that in doing so, he is establishing his
people as a cult not necessarily agreeing with a large portion of religious myths told
before his rise to power. If he had agreed completely with the socialization of the time,
it seems that he would not have taken the initiative to move the Toltec capital. It seems
Ce Acatl's move, while cited by Cantrell as "for reasons unknown to us," has some
significance with Ce Acatl's decision to become High Priest of the Cult of Quetzalcoatl,
since he could then help reshape the notions of creation in Tulteca Mexico to include only
the creation deity of Quetzalcoatl.

The monotheistic belief of Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl of the Toltecs somehow became lost within
the period 978 A.D. (when several sources claim that Ce Acatl abdicated from Tula) and the
Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries when the Aztec empire began to rise in Central Mexico. By
the time the Aztec myths are scribed, the names and qualities of the god Quetzalcoatl and
his nemesis Tezcatlipoca have changed drastically. Whereas Quetzalcoatl's father among
Toltecs myths is Mixtec, the Serpent of the Clouds, in Aztec mythology the deity Ometeotl
("God of Duality") fathers both Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, and as twins they have many
of the binary oppositions spoken of earlier. According to Taube:

Sometimes allies and sometimes adversaries, [Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca] create the
heavens and the earth. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, is widely identified with water,
fertility and, by extension, life itself… Whereas Quetzalcoatl is portrayed as a
benevolent culture hero and identified with balance, harmony and life, Tezcatlipoca
represents conflict and change.


It is this conflict between the brothers that in the Five Suns Myth leads to the creation
of humanity. The myth claims that the multiple creations of the earth are the actions of
Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, and their constant warring and attempts to outwit and outdo
each other. Along with two other brothers, they make ire, the heavens, earth, sea and
underworld, the first human couple, and the sacred calendar. Each brother rules one world,
with Quetzalcoatl ruling over the second creation, that of the Sun of Wind. It is
destroyed by Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl and his people are carried off by fierce winds. As
the myth continues, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca (who in some versions is divided into
two brothers Red Tezcatlipoca and Black Tezcatlipoca) war with their other brother
Huitzlapochtli through the creations of the first four destroyed civilizations, but then
ally themselves to make the fifth and currently reigning creation. However, as they have
done before, it is possible for the brothers to become angry at each other at any time and
sabotage the current creation, making life something not to be taken for granted. It is
this myth of the Four previous suns that leads Aztec peoples to believe in impending doom
for humanity, especially important when Cortes lands in Mexico with intents to conquer it.

The Five Suns Myth also gives us insight into the character Quetzalcoatl as he is seen
through the eyes of the Aztecs. Whereas he was offered butterflies and serpents by the
Toltecs and is essentially a god of kindness, mercy, and peace, he is much more violent in
Aztec myth. In the story of Quetzalcoatl's fall from power in Tula, he does not try to
avenge his honor against Tezcatlipoca, nor does he call all of his followers to arms to
help him stay in power after he commits incestuous acts with his sister and breaks the
moral codes of his cult. Rather, he chooses to leave peacefully with a promise to return,
but even this promise seems to be made without excessive anger and more calmly than one
might expect from one who has just had to give up all power and leave his people. However,
in Aztec myth, Quetzalcoatl fights violently with his brothers, and seems to have little
difference from their conniving ways. Perhaps the change is just an evolution of a myth
already several hundred years old, but it seems likely that the myth's violence coincides
with the ideology of the Aztec people.

Within Aztec religion, all four of the brothers/ deities were worshipped, because the
Aztec people believed that any or all of the four gods could bring forth the destruction
of the world. It is this belief, as well as many other complex ideologies of the sanctity
and value of human life, that lead to the great of irony of human sacrifice to the deity
of passivity and life. However, human sacrifice took place in Aztec society for more than
600 years. According to Nigel Davies, priests of Quetzalcoatl took full part in human
sacrifice ceremonies, disregarding any previous beliefs against the relevance of human
bloodshed. Davies claims that it is only after the conquest of Mexico by Spain that there
were attempts to "whitewash the god, and to portray him as squeamishly averse to
bloodshed," then goes on to say that these attempts to portray Quetzalcoatl as once-again
passive "have been given more credit than they deserve." What we do know about the Aztecs
is that they often used territorial expansion and conquest as a means of practicing their
religion, namely to gain prisoners for later human sacrifice, yet on a larger scale than
the conquest and spread of religion by the Olmecs.

Aztec religion embodies a complex ideology of both the value and importance of life to the
Aztec Indians (and humans in general) and the "cheapness" of life to the gods. To quickly
summarize the logic behind human sacrifice, life itself is the most valuable thing humans
have, and because the gods have the ability to destroy humanity at any time, it is only
logical that to appease them (and hopefully to prolong the time before humanity was
destroyed) the Aztecs must offer to the gods their most valuable possession. To
Quetzalcoatl, the god of life itself, the Aztecs reasoned that this would be a compliment
and display of gratitude for his creation. Therefore, human sacrifices were an integral
part of Aztec life. While many countries today try to separate their government from
religion, the Aztecs incorporated religion into every aspect of life, including
government, day to chores, art, and the socialization of their children.

To complicate matters further, refer back to the banishment myth of Quetzalcoatl, when he
threatened that he would return in a year I Reed to avenge his enemies for not being
willing to serve him. As Aztec legend of the Five Suns myth is merged with the
Quetzalcoatl banishment, it becomes apparent why the Aztecs believed that if Quetzalcoatl
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