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Quetzalcoatl

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The plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl, at Teotihuacán, Mexico. To me, these plumes look like the flames from a rocket.

There’s a class of ancient stories about knowledge bringers. These were highly accomplished beings who came from the sky and taught the people the skills they needed to survive and thrive. Not surprisingly, many of these knowledge bringers are known as gods, usually creator gods. One of my favorite knowledge bringers is Quetzalcoatl. Lots of people have loved him through the ages, and love him still.

According to Graham Hancock in Fingerprints of the Gods, Quetzalcoatl was the main god of the ancient Mexicans. Hancock cites descriptions of Quetzalcoatl that sound much like Viracocha: “a fair and ruddy complexioned man with a long beard”, “a white man, a large man, broad browed, with huge eyes, long hair, and a great, rounded beard”, also:

…a mysterious person … a white man with strong formation of body, broad forehead, large eyes, and a flowing beard. He was dressed in a long, white robe reaching to his feet. He condemned sacrifices, except of fruits and flowers, and was known as the god of peace…. When addressed on the subject of war he is reported to have stopped up his ears with his fingers.

Another source cited by Hancock, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, by John Bierhorst, says that the “wise instructor” Quetzalcoatl:

… came from across the sea in a boat that moved by itself without paddles. He was a tall, bearded white man who taught people to use fire for cooking. He also built houses and showed couples that they could live together as husband and wife; and since people often quarreled in those days, he taught them to live in peace.

In Fair Gods and Stone Faces, by Constance H. Frick Irwin, Quetzalcoatl is described as arriving at Coatzecoalcos (Serpent Sanctuary) by sea in vessels “with sides that shone like the scales of serpents’ skins”.

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Quetzalcoatl in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, 16th century CE.

The legends say that Quetzalcoatl had come from very far away, across the Eastern Sea. They also say he left, with much sadness, supposedly from Coatzecoalcos (Serpent Sanctuary), sailing on a “raft of serpents,” saying he would be back someday [like Viracocha]. Hancock cites The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology: “[Quetzalcoatl] burned his houses, built of silver and shells, buried his treasure, and set sail on the Eastern Sea preceded by his attendants who had been changed into bright birds.”

Since the sixteenth century it has been widely held that the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II initially believed the landing of Hernán Cortés in 1519 to be Quetzalcoatl’s return. This has been questioned by ethno-historian Matthew Restall (and a great majority of others) who argues that the Quetzalcoatl-Cortés connection is not found in any document that was created independently of post-Conquest Spanish influence, and that there is little proof of a pre-Hispanic belief in Quetzalcoatl’s return. Most documents expounding this theory are of entirely Spanish origin, such as Cortés’s letters to Charles V of Spain, in which Cortés goes to great pains to present the naïve gullibility of the Aztecs in general as a great aid in his conquest of Mexico. (Read more.) —http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatl

Like Viracocha in South America, Quetzalcoatl went by different names in different parts of Mexico and Central America. He was Gucumatz to the Quiche Maya; he was Kukulkan to workshipers at Chichen Itza. All three of these names mean “Feathered Serpent”. Quetzalcoatl may also be at the core of the Mayan gods Votan and Itzamana. Quetzalcoatl was known to travel with assistants, so the numerous similar stories may reflect multiple “gods” spread across the New World.

Certain myths set out in the Ancient Mayan religious texts known as the Books of Chilam Balam, for instance, reported that “the first inhabitants of Yucatan were the “People of the Serpent”. They came from the east in boats across the water with their leader Itzamana, “Serpent of the East”, a healer who could cure by laying on hands, and who revived the dead.

“Kukulkan,” stated another tradition, “came with nineteen companions, two of whom were gods of fish, two others gods of agriculture, and a god of thunder…. They stayed ten years in Yucatan. Kukulkan made wise laws and then set sail and disappeared in the direction of the rising sun…. —Graham Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods

Quetzalcoatl and his kind were credited with introducing writing, mathematics, the calendar, masonry, architecture, metallurgy, astronomy, agriculture, medicine, herbalism, law, and arts and crafts. He also forbade human sacrifice, although it reappeared after he left.

Quetzalcoatl was defeated by an evil god called Tezcatilpoca (Smoking Mirror) at Tollan, modern-day Tula (in Hidalgo, central Mexico). Supposedly, Tezcatilpoca had a magic mirror, called Tezcat, in which he could see things from far away, and from which other mirrors were made for wizards.

Graham Hancock has noted that idols in the Tula ruins are holding weapons similar to those held by Viracocha-related idols in the Kalasasaya Temple at Tiahuanaco —weapons unidentifiable as anything known. He suggests they may be the legendary xiuhcoatl,fire serpents— weapons of the gods. He references An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, by Mary Ellen Miller and Karl Taube, that these fire serpents “apparently emitted burning rays capable of piercing and dismembering human bodies.”

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The Mayan Fire Serpent Xiuhcoatl.

Most Mesoamerican beliefs included cycles of suns. Usually, our current time was considered the fifth sun, the previous four having been destroyed by flood, fire and the like. Quetzalcoatl allegedly went to Mictlan, the underworld, and created fifth-world mankind [us] from the bones of the previous races (with the help of Chihuacoatl), using his own blood, from a wound in his penis, to imbue the bones with new life.

His birth, along with his twin Xolotl, was unusual; it was a virgin birth, to the goddess Coatlicue.[citation needed] Alternatively, he was a son of Xochiquetzal and Mixcoatl. One Aztec story claims that Quetzalcoatl was seduced by Tezcatlipoca into becoming drunk and sleeping with a celibate priestess (in some accounts, his sister Quetzalpetlatl) and then burned himself to death out of remorse. His heart became the morning star (see Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli). — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatl

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Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano, 16th century CE.

Speaking of a relief found carved on granite at La Venta, an Olmec site near the port of Coatzecoalcos (Serpent Sanctuary) on the Gulf of Mexico, and now obliterated by petroleum interests, Graham Hancock says:

The relief…showed a man sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him as though he were reaching for pedals with his feet. He held a small, bucket-shaped object in his right hand. With his left he appeared to be raising or lowering a lever. The “head-dress” he wore was an odd and complicated garment. To my eye it seemed more functional than ceremonial, although I could not imagine what its function might have been. On it, or perhaps on a console above it, were two x-shaped crosses.

I turned my attention to the other principal element of the sculpture, the “feathered serpent”. On one level it did, indeed, depict exactly that: a plumed or feathered serpent, the age-old symbol of Quetzalcoatl, whom the Olmecs, therefore, must have worshipped (or at the very least recognized). Scholars do not dispute this interpretation. It is generally accepted that Quetzalcoatl’s cult was immensely ancient, originating in prehistoric times in Central America and thereafter receiving the devotion of many cultures during the historic period.

The feathered serpent in this particular sculpture, however, had certain characteristics that set it apart. It seemed to be more than just a religious symbol; indeed, there was something rigid and structured about it that made it look almost like a piece of machinery. —Graham Hancock, Fingerprints of the Gods

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Quetzalcoatl, left, and Tezcatlipo.
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Resplendent Quetzal (Male).
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'Quetzalcoatl, using the attributes of Ehecatl the wind god, thus representing the winds that bring the rain. Also known as the feathered serpent.'
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Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, 16th century CE.
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'Man in Serpent', Olmec stele from La Venta, in Mexico. Click to enlarge.
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Quetzalcoatl
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The Authentic Experience of Ancient Gods

Ahura Mazda is the highest god in Zoroastrianism, creating and upholding truth.
Ahura Mazda is the highest god in Zoroastrianism, creating and upholding truth.
Religion has been part of all societies,1 but why? A lot of intellectual discourse has tackled the subject, much of it reaching the conclusion that people just need to have gods and so they make them up. But even a quick scan of ancient religious history will show that authentic experience of something awesome—perhaps not “God” or “gods,” perhaps beings with technology so advanced it seems like magic—inspired the creation and growth of religions around the world.

It was easy for religion to take root, both because authentic experience makes for enthusiastic converts and proselytizers, and because religion indeed fills some human needs. Ancient people expected to deal with the normal troubles of life on their own, but, as Rodney Stark writes in Discovering God, they hoped that the gods would help them with the forces beyond human control:

[P]rimitive peoples … call upon the supernatural for rain, for help in finding game, and for safe voyages. In doing so, they acknowledge the fundamental principle that the supernatural is the only plausible source of many things that human beings greatly desire. Therein lies one key to the universality of religion—its capacity to overcome the generic limitations of human power by invoking entities or forces that transcend nature. Whether it is a Bantu priest in Nigeria chanting that Awwaw grant a good harvest, or a Baptist congregation in Georgia singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,” religion offers an alternative means to achieve greatly desired ends, when direct methods fail or do not exist.

The earliest religions—lost in prehistory and based, perhaps, on real experiences—were more sophisticated than most of the religions they later spawned, and they were more morality-based than later versions. Most stories about gods show them as wrapped up in their own lives, giving little or no thought to the welfare of humanity or individual humans, or to humans' morality or lack of it. Exceptions are the “bringers of civilization,” divine teachers, deities or demigods whose role is to help, such as Oannes.

The failure of humans to pay proper tribute to the gods—such as neglecting to make sacrifices—gets attention, but instead of striking deficient humans dead, the gods tend to destroy the whole city (much as a few annoying ants might encourage us to take out a whole anthill).

Gods and goddesses around the world have usually been thought of as a lot like humans, except with superpowers and immortality. They have humanlike needs and desires, and display the whole range of emotions and behaviors, for better and worse. Often, the gods are depicted as human or humanoid forms, with perhaps a pair of wings and eagle head and talons to show they can fly.

Since creation stories of many societies state that humans were made from divine matter—often the blood, spit, or semen of a god or gods — deities that look more or less like us are not necessarily reflecting a lack of imagination on the part of those depicting them; it would be reasonable for ancient gods to look a lot like humans, and in ancient stories, including Bible stories, they are able to pass as human when visiting Earth. Homer writes, “The gods, likening themselves to all kinds of strangers, go in various disguises from city to city, observing the wrongdoing and the righteousness of men.”

Kamadhenu is a Hindu bovine goddess, the source of all prosperity.
Kamadhenu is a Hindu bovine goddess, the source of all prosperity.
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But it's obvious when looking at depictions of gods that the ancients sometimes had a hard time figuring out what they were seeing, or hearing described. “It's a bird, it's a plane….” Of course, planes were beyond the understanding of ancient people, as were machines generally. If it moves, it's a human or other animal. If it flies, it has to be a bird, but, wait, it's long like a snake, and omigosh it's breathing fire! If it's operating a weapon, it must have hands. If it makes loud noise, it must have a mouth.

Descriptions of the gods are often at least partly descriptions of the vehicles in which the gods travel (see Divine Chariots) —leading to some odd-looking gods, and perhaps leading to the invention of gods with multiple aspects, avatars—magically transforming from fiery serpent to human form as they step out of or slide off of their fiery serpent, or thunderbird, or silver eagle, or flying elephant.

In another realm from most gods and goddesses is the high god, or creator god, a feature of many ancient religions. The high god creates the universe and/or Earth. In many cases, he or she or they afterwards withdraw into remotest heaven, leaving “down-to-Earth” gods to take on the day-to-day work of running the worldly creation.

Jupiter Ammon, shown on this terracotta slab from the first century CE, was one of the many versions of Jupiter, who was equated  with the Egyptian high god Amun after Rome conquered Egypt.
Jupiter Ammon, shown on this terracotta slab from the first century CE, was one of the many versions of Jupiter, who was equated with the Egyptian high god Amun after Rome conquered Egypt.
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Almost without exception, societies that emphasize high-god beliefs feature many gods, who are all subordinate to the high deity. Adherents seemed to find the lesser gods more real, more relevant and accessible compared to the abstract and omnipotent high gods. The monotheist religion of high god Yahweh required that the various gods who were originally in his pantheon be downgraded to divine beings, such as angels and demons, since there could only be one god (see Yahweh’s Roots in Polytheism).

Many scholars believe that the prevalence of high god beliefs is the result not of ancient people around the world making up similar stories, but of essentially the same, authentic, ancient revelations (encounters with “God” or “gods”) being experienced by many primitive cultures globally.

High gods usually are sky deities or sky fathers, ruling over the other gods from the heavens. But many, many other gods are also able to fly, and they put in a lot of time in the sky.



1. Rodney Stark, Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief (USA: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008), 38.

The Nile god pouring water over the soul of Osiris.
The Nile god pouring water over the soul of Osiris.
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Ravana is a king (or “demon king”) of ancient Lanka, whose main claim to fame is kidnapping Sita, Rama’s wife. Rama is an avatar of Vishnu and king of the Indian city of Ayodhya, and the story of how he gets Sita back is told in the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey).
Ravana is a king (or “demon king”) of ancient Lanka, whose main claim to fame is kidnapping Sita, Rama’s wife. Rama is an avatar of Vishnu and king of the Indian city of Ayodhya, and the story of how he gets Sita back is told in the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana (Rama’s Journey).
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The Hindu Lord Vishnu is portrayed here in his universal form, Vishnu Vishvarupa. Source
The Hindu Lord Vishnu is portrayed here in his universal form, Vishnu Vishvarupa.
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The Aztec god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl combines the deities Ehecatl, the wind god, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god. Ehecatl is usually considered an aspect (similar to a Hindu avatar) of Quetzalcoatl. This illustration is from the Codex Borgia, a graphics-filled pre-Columbian divinatory and ritual manuscript painted on animal skins, 35 feet long, folded into 39 sheets. Source
The Aztec god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl combines the deities Ehecatl, the wind god, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god. Ehecatl is usually considered an aspect (similar to a Hindu avatar) of Quetzalcoatl. This illustration is from the Codex Borgia, a graphics-filled pre-Columbian divinatory and ritual manuscript painted on animal skins, 35 feet long, folded into 39 sheets.
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Amun, the Egyptian creator god, later merged with the sun god Ra to become Amun-Ra.
Amun, the Egyptian creator god, later merged with the sun god Ra to become Amun-Ra.
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Possible representation of Quetzalcoatl wearing a conical cap with a skull in front and long earflaps, characteristic elements of the Huasteca culture, from Naranjo, Veracruz.
Possible representation of Quetzalcoatl wearing a conical cap with a skull in front and long earflaps, characteristic elements of the Huasteca culture, from Naranjo, Veracruz.
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