Quetzalcoatl evokes one of the great tales of Middle American (Mesoamerican) mythology. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs of Mexico, the name Quetzalcoatl can be translated as “feathered serpent.” There is in fact a quetzal bird, prized for its plumage and highly priced on the international bird market.

However the figure of Quetzalcoatl is not just confined to Mexico, where the Spanish under Hernán Cortés overwhelmed the Aztecs in 1521. The Maya of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula know Quetzalcoatl as Kukulcán, and their cousins the Quiché Maya of Guatemala know Quetzalcoatl as Gugumatz.

There are three main interpretations to this profound myth. They are that Quetzalcoatl appears as the creator god, a civilizer coming from the east, and the last king of the Toltecs, the greatest warrior race in Mexico, before the advent of the Aztecs in Mexico in about 1100.

The Codex Vaticano, one of the few surviving Aztec documents (most were destroyed by zealous Spanish priests and friars), remarks that the supreme god Tonacatecutli created Quetzalcoatl.

The description of Quetzalcoatl is remarkably similar to that of the story of Christ in the New Testament, and one cannot discount that fact the friars or priests may have added to the Codex Vaticano their own interpretation in order to make Christianity more palatable to the Aztec people.

Quetzalcoatl depicted as feathered serpent
Quetzalcoatl depicted as feathered serpent

The Codex Vaticano notes that Quetzalcoatl was “sent as an ambassador and announced this to a [virgin, much like the visit of the archangel Gabriel to Mary, announcing she would give birth to Jesus] in Tula. He said that he was sent to save the world with penance [for the people] since his father had created the world but all humanity had fallen into sin. And that Tonacatecutli (known also by the name of Citinatonali) had sent his son to save the world.”

The idea of god-kings was as common among the Aztecs and Mayas as it had been earlier with the Egyptians and their pharaohs. Therefore the people of Middle America very easily accepted the idea that Quetzalcoatl could become king of Tula, a Toltec city. The Aztec emperors presided over the massive human sacrifices of their empire as the direct representative of the people with their gods.

Mayan god-kings would shed their own blood by passing thorny twigs through their tongues in order to connect their people to the earth and the gods in the heavens by the sacrifice of their own blood. In Yucatán the pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulcán, at the sacred site of Chichen Itza dominates the landscape.

The most intriguing part of the legend of Quetzalcoatl is its ending. The people and priests turned against their god-king because of his attempts at reformation. Most of all, Quetzalcoatl had forbidden the practice of human sacrifice. (In the legends, he appears as a tall, white man, much different from the Indians of Middle America.) In the end his own people force him into exile and he leaves across the ocean to the east on a raft of his serpents, promising to return.

When Hernán Cortés arrived at what is now Veracruz in Mexico in 1519, Moctezuma II’s scouts rapidly bore word of the appearance of this strange man—a white man—from the east. Moctezuma may have been reluctant to use force against the small band of Spanish adventurers because he thought that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl.