Quetzalcoatl, the path to liberation

At the first light of the dawn reveals a small ravine in the white land of the Mezquital Valley, out near Tula, the territory of the ancient Toltecs. Violet profiles of magueys and thistles abound. The strident song of a cicada breaks the silence.

Quetzalcóatl the path to liberation
Quetzalcóatl the path to liberation

A man with a sparse beard and a restless gaze is on his knees in the middle of the white desert. His body is lacerated with maguey thorn wounds. From very far way, a group of men and women come looking for him. They are praising him like a god, crying out his name throughout the desert: Our LORD QUETZALCOATL!

His historical name was Ce Acatl Topiltzin. Tradition called him Quetzalcoatl, like the great Mesoamerican god. Was he a historic personage, a man-god, or a god turned into a man? With time, myth and history have become irremediably fused, and it is hard to distinguish one from the other.

What is a fact is that the saga of Quetzalcoatl has its roots deep in the most remote times of Mesoamerican civilization. On the other hand, it is also a fact that sometime around the 10th Century A.D., a dynasty of various Ce Acatl, whose lives have fused into one in human memory, reigned in the city of Tula, in the central region of what is today Mexico.


The exemplary life of this mythical Ce Acatl known as Quetzalcoatl is the climactic moment of a great cycle that runs through the Mesoamerican spaces and times. And, although that cycle apparently came to a close with the Spanish conquest, its influence silently persists, underground, until our days.

The sun is about to rise on the desert's horizon, and Ce Acatl resumes his journey. He walks toward the eastern sun, the place of black and red, the site of wisdom. Far away his disciples follow.

Ce Acatl's flight is the story of a mythical journey, the man's difficult passage toward his divinization. Therefore the desert (a place of penitence) is Quetzalcoatl's privileged place at this moment in his life.
The thorn wounds in his skin are a burning pain. His throat is dry with thirst. It is difficult to walk among the stones. Quetzalcoatl the man breaks away from the invisible powers of the night, of the sorcerers of the bellicose god Tezcatlipoca, who tricked him in order to vanquish him, and now reign over the ruins of the great Tula.

The plumed serpent at the Quetzalcoatl Temple in Teotihuacan
The feathered serpent at the Quetzalcoatl Temple in Teotihuacan

It was in the ancient and majestic city of Teotihuacan, where (centuries before) the idea of a feathered serpent, that unheard-of effort of the reptile to turn into a bird, was born.

It is in the paintings of this great metropolis where for the first time the snake, in a desire for human verticality, finds the bird that aspires to reach the earth: a communion of opposites.

In the same manner, since the time of Teotihuacan, Quetzalcoatl was intimately linked with the planet Venus. Venus: light submerged in the eastern sea, which, like him, struggles for its liberation. Quetzalcoatl's astral vocation begins with the founding myth of the Aztec world, when the small god Nanauatzin (Quetzalcoatl's double, timid and deformed) throws himself into the bonfire of the gods (beating the arrogant Tecuciztécatl), turning into the sun and thus creating our world. So began the era of Quetzalcoatl. This myth summarizes the doctrine of Quetzalcoatl: the sacrifice of one's self; voluntary death as a generator of eternal life.

Plumed Serpents Temple, Xochicalco, Morelos
Feathered Serpents Temple, Xochicalco, Morelos

But the gods present in Teotihuacan saw that the new sun in the sky didn't move, so they all decided to die so the heavenly body could have movement. If the sacrifice of the gods made the universe move, the sacrifice of human blood revived the myth of the creation of the universe, ensuring the continuity of life. But Quetzalcoatl, who sacrificed his own blood, never saw the spilling of the blood of others.

On his long walk, Ce Acatl came to a place that was called "beside the tree". There he asked his disciples for a mirror. He looked at himself and saw that he was old. Saddened by what he saw, Ce Acatl scarred the tree with stones. Removing himself from his companions, he huddled down to meditate.

The disciples of the king of Tula (the midgets and the buffoons, monstrous and deformed), which were his most faithful companions, silently remained at a distance to protect and take care of him while he wept. Only when Ce Acatl remembered his childhood in Xochicalco did he calm down.

Serpents in Prehispanic art, British Museum
Serpents in Prehispanic art, British Museum

When Teotihuacan fell, in the 7th Century A.D, the great civilization of Xochicalco developed in the south of the Valley of Mexico. That civilization continued until the 9m Century. This is where the philosophy and religion of Quetzalcoatl was forged as a union, through the figure of Venus, of all the Mesoamerican cultures.

According to legend, Quetzalcoatl was born in the year ce-acatl or one-sugar cane of the Aztec calendar. His mother was Chimalman, whom tradition says became pregnant when she swallowed a precious stone. Ce Acatl came to Xochicalco as an adolescent, where he was educated in the Quetzalcoatl religion and was made a priest of the new god.

In the year 5-house, the Toltecs went to Xochicalco seeking Quetzalcoatl, to ask him to be king of Tula, their city. In Tula the new king built his fasting house, his house of penitence. According to Aztec tradition, there the prince Ce Acatl built gold, turquoise, and emerald, silver and mother of pearl palaces. His vassals were fine artisans in every craft. It is also said that the men of Tula were very wealthy. There was never a shortage of corn or zucchini, which grew enormously.

Tezcatlipoca and Quezalcoatl
Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl

They planted cotton, which grew in many colors. There were cacao trees, and they bred birds of precious feathers near fountains of plentiful water. But Quetzalcoatl (the one who discovered corn, who invented writing and the arts, astronomy and the calendar, philosophy, and divination) lived nevertheless in the silence of his palaces of shadow and penitence. There he hid, removed from everyone. He was never seen in public nor did he allow anyone to come near.

Many times the sorcerers (counseled by his rival Tezcatlipoca or Smoking Mirror, god of the night) tried to trick him into practicing human sacrifice. But he never succumbed. His offerings were always birds and serpents, the symbols of his own divine nature. This angered the sorcerers so much that they began to mock him, and tried to humiliate him in order to drive him away from there, as actually ended up happening.

The city of Tula (which flourished toward the 11th Century of our era), the same as Xochicalco inherited the culture of Teotihuacan, which by then had vanished. It was a link between two worlds, the passage between the Classic and Post Classic eras of our ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

Quezalcoatl doing penitence with his own blood
Quetzalcoatl doing penitence with his own blood

The whole saga of Quetzalcoatl in Tula summarizes this rivalry between two traditions; the deaf battle between the supporters of the old culture (based on the ancient farmers' values) on the one hand, and on the other the followers of a new order (more violent and impetuous). It was a struggle between the Toltecs, the cultured men of the central plateau which had profound roots in Olmec lands, and the Chichimecas, barbarians on the move, the tribes that came down from the north invading the central valleys of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl (the priest, the pacifist, the lover of art and agriculture) struggled against Tezcatlipoca (the sorcerer, the bellicose, the lord of night and war). It was the shining east against the dark north.

In his pilgrimage, Ce Acatl has come to the abyss of the low coastal lands, bathed by the sea and covered with fog. He stops before the greatness of the landscape and prays to his enemy: "Oh you, Tezcatlipoca, invisible and impalpable like the night and the wind, a nameless sorcerer who has vanquished me, to you I confess because it is you who should forgive my errors. You brought your smoking mirror to my fasting house. I let you in: I was expecting your arrival. With your mirror, you showed me my ugly and repulsive body and I hated my body. And you offered me the inebriating water. I tasted it, and I wanted it. Five times I drank from the cup, and thus I became inebriated. I sent for Quetzalpétatl, my sister, so she could drink with me. And throughout the night desired her. Today I had to leave my city, my people, my kingdom. You vanquished me by trickery, and I lost because I fell into the inferno of the senses. You must forgive me, Oh, Tezcatlipoca, smoking mirror!"

Xólotl-Quezalcoatl Mexica Culture
Xólotl-Quezalcoatl Mexica Culture

When he came to the coast, Ce Acatl disappeared for four days. Quetzalcoatl vanished into the earth's breast, like a momentary return to the original matter. Just like his fall into the earthly pleasures, his descent to hell was necessary in order to be reborn into another life. But Quetzalcoatl descended now with the appearance of yet another double: the dog Xólotl. Xólotl: the Precious Twin, which is the other meaning of the words quetzal-coati.

Xólotl-Quetzalcoatl returned victorious from the underworld. It was then that the god turned into Venus, the Lord of the Aurora. Xólotl was the one who could bring together the heavens with the earth and the underworld, and his abysmal fall meant the union of matter with spirit: the Feathered (Plumed) Serpent. At sunset on the fifth day, Quetzalcoatl reappeared near a pyre on the beach and set himself on fire. His ashes rose very high and then all kinds of precious birds appeared, ascending toward the sky with him. Up to the heights, they say, rose his heart, which turned into Venus or Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the Morning Star.

Plumed serpent with the Ce Acatl glyph (one reed), Quetzalcoatl's birth date and name. Mexica Culture
Feathered serpent with the Ce Acatl glyph (one reed), Quetzalcoatl's birth date and name. Mexica Culture

Other versions say that Ce Acatl vanished in the ocean on a raft made out of snakes and that before he left he announced his future return in the year one-sugar cane. Be it by fire or upon a serpent raft, Ce-Acatl's disappearance in this place is proof of his belonging to the east, to the element water, to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The strange thing is that at the moment of his disappearance, the cult of Quetzalcoatl reappeared, with a different meaning, in the Mayan area. According to the chronicles, a man-god came to Yucatan who was called Kukulcan, which in Mayan means serpent with feathers. First, the Itzaes and later the Toltecs then conquered the old Mayan city of Chichen. They turned Chichón into a monumental double of Tula, placing the image of Kukulcan or the effigy of the planet Venus on every building. From then on the buildings dedicated to the supreme god (whether they were observatories or not) would be round, because the new Quetzalcoatl-Venus was also Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, God of Wind.

At the end of his long pilgrimage, Quetzalcoatl resurfaced in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan as the necessary counterpart to the warrior spirit of the god Huitzilopochtli. Once at the pinnacle of their power, the Aztecs, the last Chichimeca tribe to emigrate to the south, felt the need to erase their barbaric past. Thus they burned all their records and rewrote their history, suddenly becoming the direct descendants of the prestigious Toltecs and of their refined world.

Plumed serpent with the Ce Acatl glyph (one reed), Quetzalcoatl's birth date and name. Mexica Culture
Kukulkán-Quetzalcóatl descending the Pyramid of Chichen Itza, Yucatan Peninsula

The Quetzalcoatl from Tenochtitlan became the synthesis of all his past manifestations. He is the Feathered Serpent and he is Venus. He is Xolotl and he is Ehecatl, the Cosmic Wind. Quetzalcoatl's last Pre-Hispanic episode is the Aztec belief in his reappearance as Hernando Cortez, the conquistador of these lands. Although it is possible that this was a later invention of some chroniclers, it is significant that it was Quetzalcoatl who was chosen to be the protagonist. It is not by chance that Fray Servando Teresa de Mier identified the figure of Quetzalcoatl with Saint Thomas in order to legitimatize the Creole movement for independence.

What is important in this continuous flow of religious beliefs is the permanence of a faith in an eternal and sacred figure that allows a man transcend his condition, to come into contact with the soul of the Universe, to re-encounter his lost unity. It is not by chance that through the centuries of the Colonial era new man-gods appeared, new Ce Acatl.

It is not by chance that Mexican artists, especially some modern sculptors, continue to revive the theme of the feathered serpent, now with contemporary lines. It is not by chance that throughout the world the emblem of the feathered serpent is synonymous with Mexico.

Author: D. Dufetel

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 March 2020 23:22