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Quetzalcoatl

The Myth The Legend The Man Chronological Chart


Quetzalcoatl the Myth

God

Quetzalcoatl is the god of human sustenance, penitent, self-sacrifice, re-birth and butterflies. He is patron of the city Cholula and of the trecena to 1 Ocelotl. In his iconography, his body is painted black in accordance with the priesthood he established.

However, Quetzalcoatl originated as a water god. The first myth he appears in, he is called "Precious Serpent" and was "the spirit of the waters which flowed along the winding bends of rivers" (Fernandez, 68, 1984) . Sometime afterwards, the idea of a snake representing both the Terrestrial and Celestial comes about; and later developments allow for Quetzalcoatl to emerge. This is first evidenced at Teotihuacan circa 3rd century AD; however, there always remains the possibility that Monument 19 at La Venta refers to him.

-- Ehectal:

Depending on who you read, Quetzalcoatl either picks up Ehectal early on in his development or during the Late Postclassic. As a separate deity, Ehectal is the wind god and is commonly associated with Tlaloc. He is the one that sweeps the path for his arrival. He is patron of the second trecena, 1 Jaguar. In his amalgamated form, Ehectal-Quetzalcoatl, he is often found in the myths relating to Creation and the deeds that would label him a cultural hero. His temples were circular with conical roofs and often had serpent maws acting as a doorway.

Also Known As:

Regalia

The Son of ...

  1. Ometeotl (or Tonacatecuhtli), when he breathed upon the Earth. [Hence the connection of breath meaning wind].
  2. Tonacateuhli and Tonacihuatl, as one of the four Tezcatlipocas.
  3. Mixcoatl and Chimalman.

Cultural Hero

-- Myth has it that Quetzalcoatl did the following for humanity:

Creation of the Fifth Sun

Version 1.0: Four roads were created in the center of the Earth by four creatures. The Four Tezcatlipoca with the help of the four who created the roads then raise the remnants of the previous sky. Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl transform into two trees to give added support to the four skybearers.

Version 2.0: Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca enter the body of the earth monster Tlaltecuhtli, meeting at Tlaltecuhtli's heart. There with the help from the other gods they raise the heavens. [It is assumed, then, that the Earth and the Heavens resided in the body of Tlaltecihtli].

Version 3.0: Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca wrap themselves around Tlaltecuhtli and split her in half; one half creating the Earth, the other the Heavens. Angered by their deeds the gods try to comfort Tlaltecuhtli, but she wants a greater tribute, the sacrifice of human blood and hearts.

First Light

Two versions of this tale exist. One comes from the Florentine Codex. The other from the Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas.

Book 7, chapter 2 of the Florentine Codex:

At Teotihuacan, the gods convened to discuss the next sun; all was is in darkness and the dawn had yet to break. They asked for volunteers, Teuciztecatl stepped forward but they wanted an additional god; however, the rest were afraid. Spotting Nanauatzin,they asked him to volunteer and he accepted. The two did penance for the four days and nights, the physical remains of their remnants became the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. When it came to be thrown onto the bonfire, Tecuciztecatl was first but hesitated (four times). Nanauatzin was next and without hesitation plunged into the fire (becoming the sun). Afterwards, Tecuciztecatl does the same; however, Tecuciztecatl shone as brightly as the sun so the gods decided to correct this.

But the light shone all around and the gods were perplexed as to which direction the sun would come from. A small group of them, which included Quetzalcoatl and Red Tezcatlipoca, postulated that the sun should come from the East. The gods took a rabbit and hit him with it, dimming his brilliance. The sun, meanwhile, had not moved and the gods decided to kill themselves in order to make him move. But it wasn't enough, and Quetzalcoatl gathered all of his strength and blew such a fierce wind that the sun was blown on the right course.

Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas

The story is basically the same except that it is Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc's sons that play the roles of Nanauatzin and Tecuciztecatl.

Birth of the Human race

Despite the fact that each Mesoamerican culture had its own lore about the creation of humanity, there exists a common element in all of them -- Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl is either directly involved in the actual process or acts as humanity's protector. Though we do not wish to make the other myths less significant, only the Aztec and Quiche Maya myths will be discussed here for the sake of efficiency.

Quiche Maya:

In the Popul Vuh ( a religious doctrine that traces the creation of the Earth, humanity, and gives a genealogy list of the important royal lineage's), Quetzalcoatl as Tohil, is humanity's savior. After the creation of Earth and the legendary accounts of the Hero Twins, the gods make a fifth attempt at creating man. It is Tohil that gives fire and proper instruction in the worship of the gods (i.e. human sacrifice). [Note that Brundage interprets Tohil as Quetzalcoatl; while Miller and Taube see Gukumatz as Quetzalcoatl and Tohil as Tlaloc or the Schellan God K.

Aztec:

After the destruction of the Fourth Sun, Quetzalcoatl descends into the underworld (and in one version is accompanied by Xolotl). After enduring certain trails inflicted on him by the god of death, he retrieves the bones and ashes of the previous humanity that are needed to make the new one. The remaining element needed is the blood of the gods; however, in one version Quetzalcoatl is the only one to perform autosacrifice which turns out to be all that was needed.

His place among the gods

Tlaloc: The two share a close relationship in his guise as Ehectal. In this manner, Quetzalcoatl can be seen as subordinate to Tlaloc. After all, it is Ehectal that announces the coming of the rains. It is then a great irony consisdering that in some myths Quetzalcoatl is older than Tlaloc and, furthermore, is said to have created Tlaloc (along with other gods).

Tezcatlipoca: Out of all the gods, he is the one that Quetzalcoatl is most intimately associated with. In one account, Quetzalcoatl is no more than an aspect of Tezcatlipoca; the White Tezcatlipoca. However, typically it is far more complicated than that. For whatever reasons they may havefelt, the people decided long ago tha these two would be confined to a yin-yang existence. The two gods would forever act out their polarity on the cosmic stage On the one hand, they work together in creating the Earth and the Heavens; while on the other hand, they are constantly hostile to each other. They seem to forever trying to destroy one another and they usually succeed, though Tezcatlipoca is usually more victorious. The clearest example of their relationship is seen with the Legend of Quetzalcoatl the Man. It can hardly be coincidence that it is Tezcatlipoca's followers who initiate the religious strife in Tula that leads to the banishment of Topiltzin.

One explanation of their enduring conflict is in the nature of their being. As mentioned earlier, Tezcatlipoca is a sorcerer par excellence. As a result he is unpredictable, which is dangerous combination in light of the fact that Tezcatlipoca is also considered omniscient and omnipotent. Quetzalcoalt in comparison is humanity's savior. He is not as powerful, but he need not be. His deeds are what matter. They are in the end more powerful, due to their importance to the people, than any of the spells and illusions Tezcatlipoca can cast. In the end, it could have been a matter of who the people held closest to their hearts. For no matter all the strength and power Tezcatlipoca had, people feared him where as they felt indebted to Quetzalcoatl.

Miscellanaous but Important

The four winds:

The Four Tezcatlipocas:

The four of them in some instances are seen as aspects of one god, Tezcatlipoca. According to lore, either Ometeotl or Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl gave birth to the four Tezcatlipocas. After they are born, they do nothing productive for six hundred years. It is after this time has passed that Quetzalcoatl and Huitzalopochtli create a half sun, fire and the first human couple (Oxomoco and Cipactonal). After this they go about creating the Heavens and water. In doing so they use the cipuctli (the ancient crocodile monster)to create Tlaloc, Chalchiuhtliue. Cipuctli is also used to make the Earth. In order of their birth:

  1. Red = Xipe or Mixcoatl
  2. Black = Tezcatlipoca
  3. White = Quetzalcoatl
  4. Blue = Huitzilopochtli (the Sun god and most important god in the Aztec pantheon)

Footnotes

1. The Hero Twins of Maya lore tell the tale of two sets of twin brothers. The first set is summoned to the Underworld by the Lords of Death to play a match of the ball game. They lose due to the trickery of the gods; however, one brother manages to impregnate a daughter belonging to one of the Lords. The second set of brothers is safely born and grow to maturity. But like their father and uncle, they are challenged by the gods to a round of the ball game. They succeed, however, in avoiding the traps given to them. In the end they manage to trick the gods into sacrificing themselves.

2. The Schellan gods are named after Paul Schellan, who was the first person to decipher the identities of the Mayan gods in the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid codicies. He labeled the gods using the Latin alphabet, and go from A to P with the exclusion of J.

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The Legend

As told by a Daughter of Mesoamerica:

Quetzalcoatl, Our Prince, had brought religious reform to Tula. He believed that human sacrifice had to be stopped and so it was done. But others were not pleased, those who had followed Tezcatlipoca were angry. Their god had demanded the nectar of human blood as his tribute. Thus those who followed Tezcatlipoca had plotted to do away with Our Prince. Death, unfortunately, was not to be. For in death, they believed that Quetzalcoatl would gain more followers and then his teachings could not be silenced. No, they sought to destroy him in such a manner as to discredit his message, which would be more painful than death.

Hence they set out to trick Our Prince. They held before him, one day, a mirror and to his astonishment Quetzalcoatl had seen how old he was. Falling into despair, he wondered what to do. His enemies then said to him that they could make him young again, and produced for him a cure. Believing this was his salvation, Quetzalcoatl had taken this offering. But this cure was pulque, which his lips had never touched before. The pulque racing in his blood caused Quetzalcoatl to act not like himself. He had relations with a woman that he would have never committed before.

And when word spread about Tula, the people were shocked and ashamed. Seeing his people's faces and hearts, Our Prince decided to flee. Across the land, he and some of his loyal followers went. Until they reached Tlillan Tlapallan where Our Prince was then no more.

And so greatly did (the Toltecs) believe
in their priest Quetzalcoatl,
and so greatly obedient
and given to the things of their god were they.
and so fearful of god
all believed in Quetzalcoatl
when he left Tula...
And so much did they trust Quetzalcoatl,
that they went with him, they entrusted upon him
their wives, their children, their sick ones.
They stood up, they set off,
the old men, the old women,
no one ceased to obey,
all set off.
Suddenly he went towards the center of the sea,
toward the land of red,
and there he disappeared,
he, our prince Quetzalcoatl...

Taken from a translation of the Chimalpopoca Codex

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The Man

"The Flight from Tula" is a legend related to both the man Quetzalcoatl and the god Quetzalcoatl. Due to this circumstance, establishing who the legend should properly be associated with is rather difficult. It is in all likelihood that the god Quetzalcoatl did have a such a myth in his repoitre; especially if one considers his relationship with Tezcatlipoca. Unfortunately it is also quite possible that "The Flight from Tula" occurred first and was later intertwined with the god.

Just the Facts

According to the Chimalpopoca Codex, which is a genealogy of Toltec rule, Quetzalcoatl the man entered the world in the following manner:

His father, Mixcoatl, conquered Teotihuacan and the surrounding area,established Culhuacan as the new capital. During his campaign, he entered the land now called Morelos and encountered Chimalman; and produced a child with her, Ce Actal Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. However, Quetzalcoatl never knew his father, who was assassinated.

Safely taken away, Topiltzin was reared in the way of the god of his namesake, Quetzalcoatl. When he reached adulthood, the remaining followers of his father persuade him to return to Tula to take the throne. Though Nicholson claims that Topiltzin acts on his own accord; claiming the throne by avenging his father's death. Either way, he does enact religious reform. Blood sacrifice is to stop while butterflies,birds and serpents (all connected to the god Quetzalcoatl) are decreed to be the only things sacrificed. Brundage agrees with Nicholson on the point that Topiltzin was trying to establish reform, but also suggests that he tried to instill a new religion with Quetzalcoatl as the god.

And as in the legend, backlash mounted against Topiltzin with the followers of Tezcatlipoca being at the forefront. Other cults opposed the reform, because like Tezcatlipoca their gods relied on a steady stream of blood; however, Tezcatlipoca's cult was the most blood thirsty of them all. Continuing to parallel the legend, Tezcatlipoca's followers got Topiltzin drunk, whereupon he commited unsavory acts with a woman (and according to Brundage the woman is his sister).

The Road Less Traveled

Following his disgrace, Topiltzin and a group of followers either voluntarily leave Tula or are banished from it. Brundage says that the route, which is consistent throughout all the different versions of this myth, is as follows:

The Great Basin onto Tzapotlan then Morelos followed by Cholula and Cuachquechollan continuing until the Coast whereupon crossing the water arrives at Acallan with the final destination being Tlillan Tlapallan.

Demetrio Sodi postulates that Tlillan Tlapallan, which is a legendary land (the name meaning "the land of black and red, of wisdom"; Sodi, 1982:62), is in actuality none other than the Yucatan. He points to the fact that this part of Maya territory has already been exposed to Nahutal influences due to the Toltecs at Chichen Itza. (Note: Nicholson claims that Chien Itza was founded by Topiltzin) Upon his arrival in this land, Ce Actal Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is now known as Kukulcan (the direct Maya translation of Quetzalcoatl). He is later credited as establishing the royal dynasties in Guatemala (Quiche Maya territory). But he is not only the progenitor of legitimate royal rule in Guatemala, in Mixteca territory where Quetzalcoatl is known as 9 Wind, he is also said to have done the same.

Multiple Quetzalcoatls

Nicholson raises an interesting point when referring to the historical persona. Since Quetzalcoatl is known to be used as a title of rulership (in addition to denoting the priesthood), there lies the possibility that there may have existed more than one Quetzalcoatl the man. He claims that "there may have been other rulers who earlier bore this same title and played a similar role, whose lives and deed may have fused with the [my italics] Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tollan, i.e., the protagonist of the basic tale current at Contact - perhaps even at Teotihuacan"; an event that is highly probable when considering the fact that Mesoamericans did enjoy acting out mythical tales, as seen with Mixcoatl. (Nicholson, 1976:39) If one also considers that myth and history often merge within the surviving texts on Ancient Mesoamerica, the possibility cannot be easily denied.

Death?

However the demise of Topiltzin, unlike his life, is not so easily known. There exists more than one version. One says that upon arriving in Tlillan Tlapallan he disappears. Another (Mexica in origin) claims that he built a raft of serpents and birds and sailed away toward the East, while leaving a prophecy behind-- he or one of his sons would return from the East and re-claim the throne. It is this version that explains why when Cortez arrived, Montecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (a.k.a. Montezuma) had received Cortez as Quetzalcoatl and resigned his throne to him so easily. Still other accounts sway toward the mythical. Topiltzin upon reaching the Gulf, builds a bonfire and throws himself on top of it. After which he is transformed into either the Morning Star (Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli) or the Evening Star (Xolotl).

Historical Footnote

Interestingly enough, the Maya do make reference to the arrival of Kukulcan on their shores (possibly the Campeche shore); however, it is nothing like the Mexica perspective. (Coe, 1993: 142) Apparently, when Kukulcan did arrive he was not alone as most stories say. Those who followed him, though were not , peaceful religious men. As seen in a relief at Chichen Itza's Sacred Cenote and Temple of Warriors, the coming of Kukulcan is the onset of Toltec domination.

The scene first depicts the Maya on their rafts coming out to engage the Toltec who are in war canoes. The Maya lose the battle due to their inferior technology. Next is the scene of a pivotal land skirmish; again the Maya lose. The scene's final act is of the Maya leaders' hearts being sacrificed to Quetzalcoatl.

Afterwards, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl establishes Chichen Itza. In doing so though, he attempts to recreate the glory of Tula. Consequently, the city is a mixture of both Maya and Toltec as best seen in the architecture. A prime example is the Castillo, which is dedicated to Kukulcan.

All of this is reported to have happened in the year Katun 4 Ahua, which in one calculation is equivalent to the year 987 AD. But Michael D. Coe, in following Ralph Roys' perspective, says that "... the accounts of this great event are seriously confused with the history of a later people called Itza, who moved into the peninsula during the next Katun 4 Ahua, in the thirteenth century, and gave their name to the formerly Toltec site of Chichen" (142,1993).

In the end, however, the Maya did not end up resenting the arrival of Kukulcan. However, this interpretation could just easily be a result of the Toltec conquest. It was undoubtable the Totlec who decorated the Sacred Cenote and the Temple of Warriors. They wanted a permanent record of their victory as well as reinforce the Maya and what better way than with a mural depicting the glorious victory. Over time as those who remember the war have died off the next generation sees it as nothing more than a piece of history to which they have no connection to. Having grown up under what religious and administrative doctrines Kuklcan established, they have accepted their way of life. Inevitably, Kukulcan is not portrayed as a ruthless conqueror, but an enlightened religious man.

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Chronological Chart

The History of Tula According to the Chimalpopoca Codex
Year Possible Corresponding Western Year(s) Event
1 Tochtli 726 778 830 The Toltecs begin to count their years.
1 Tecaptl 752 804 856 Mixcoamazatzin begins the Toltec Kingdom.
1 Calli 817 869 921 Mixcoamazatzin dies and Huetzin is enthroned.
1 Acatl 870 922 974 Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is born.
12 Acatl 870 922 974 Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl comes to Tollanzinco.
3 Acatl 873 925 977 Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is King of Tula.
1 Acatl 895 947 999 Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is expelled from Tula and Matlacxochiti is enthroned.
10 Tochtli 930 982 1084 Matlacxochitl dies and Nauhyotzin is enthroned.
12 Calli 946 998 1050 Nauhyotzin dies and Matlaccoatzin is enthroned.
1 Calli 973 1025 1077 Matlaccoatzin dies and Tlicohuatzin is enthroned.
9 Tochtli 994 1046 1098 Tlicohuatzin dies and Huemac is enthroned.
6 Calli 1018 1070 1122 Human sacrifice begins. Seven years of hunger.
13 Acatl 1063 1115 1167 War begins.
1 Tecpatl 1064 1116 1168 The Toltecs are disbanded.
7 Tochtli 1070 1122 1174 Huemac commits suicide in Chapultepec.

A Matter of Perspective

However as mentioned in the Mixcoatl discussion, Davies argues that this historical event occurred at the Fall of Tula, not its rise. Using genealogies from a number of sources, he has managed to cross reference them all to arrive at an accurate chronological account.

Footnote

Ce Actal = 1 Cane, Topiltzin = Our Nobel or Precious Prince, and Quetzalcoatl = Plumed or Feathered Serpent. Thus his name in translation means Our Nobel/ Precious Prince 1 Cane Plumed/Feathered Serpent.

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