Member of Mesoamerican religion
Quetzalcoatl, God of Wind and Wisdom
Other namesDeities:
Ehecatl, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Kukulkan (Maya)Nicknames:
"Feathered Serpent", "Precious Twin"[1]
Major cult centerTemple of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan
Ethnic groupAztec, Nahua
Personal information
ParentsMixcoatl and Xochiquetzal
Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

Quetzalcoatl (əl/; Spanish: [ket͡salˈkoatʊl] (About this soundlisten); Classical Nahuatl: Quetzalcohuātl [ket͡saɬ'kowaːt͡ɬ], in honorific form: Quetzalcohuātzin, About this sound modern Nahuatl pronunciation ) is a deity in Mesoamerican culture and literature whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and means "feathered serpent" or "Quetzal-feathered Serpent".[2] The earliest known documentation of the worship of a Feathered Serpent occurs in Teotihuacan in the first century BC or first century AD.[3] That period lies within the Late Preclassic to Early Classic period (400 BC – 600 AD) of Mesoamerican chronology; veneration of the figure appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic period (600–900 AD).[4]

In the Postclassic period (900–1519 AD), the worship of the feathered-serpent deity centred in the primary Mexican religious center of Cholula. In this period the deity is known to have been named "Quetzalcoatl" by his Nahua followers. In the Maya area he was approximately equivalent to Kukulkan and Gukumatz, names that also roughly translate as "feathered serpent" in different Mayan languages.

Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of wind, air, and learning, wears around his neck the "wind breastplate" ehecailacocozcatl, "the spirally voluted wind jewel" made of a conch shell. This talisman was a conch shell cut at the cross-section and was likely worn as a necklace by religious rulers, as such objects have been discovered in burials in archaeological sites throughout Mesoamerica,[5] and potentially symbolized patterns witnessed in hurricanes, dust devils, seashells, and whirlpools, which were elemental forces that had significance in Aztec mythology.[need quotation to verify] Codex drawings pictured both Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl wearing an ehecailacocozcatl around the neck.[citation needed] Additionally, at least one major cache of offerings includes knives and idols adorned with the symbols of more than one god, some of which were adorned with wind jewels.[6]

In the era following the 16th-century Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, a number of records conflated Quetzalcoatl with Ce Acatl Topiltzin, a ruler of the mythico-historic city of Tollan. Historians debate to what degree, or whether at all, these narratives about this legendary Toltec ruler describe historical events.[7] Furthermore, early Spanish sources written by clerics tend to identify the god-ruler Quetzalcoatl of these narratives with either Hernán Cortés or Thomas the Apostle— identifications which have also become sources of a diversity of opinions about the nature of Quetzalcoatl.[8]

Among the Aztecs, whose beliefs are the best-documented in the historical sources, Quetzalcoatl was related to gods of the wind, of the planet Venus, of the dawn, of merchants and of arts, crafts and knowledge. He was also the patron god of the Aztec priesthood, of learning and knowledge.[9] Quetzalcoatl was one of several important gods in the Aztec pantheon, along with the gods Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. Two other gods represented by the planet Venus are Quetzalcoatl's ally Tlaloc (the god of rain), and Quetzalcoatl's twin and psychopomp, Xolotl.

Animals thought to represent Quetzalcoatl include resplendent quetzals, rattlesnakes (coatl meaning "serpent" in Nahuatl), crows, and macaws. In his form as Ehecatl he is the wind, and is represented by spider monkeys, ducks, and the wind itself.[10] In his form as the morning star, Venus, he is also depicted as a harpy eagle.[11] In Mazatec legends the astrologer deity Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, who is also represented by Venus, bears a close relationship with Quetzalcoatl.[12]

Feathered serpent deity in Mesoamerica

Quetzalcoatl in feathered-serpent form as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

A feathered serpent deity has been worshiped by many different ethnopolitical groups in Mesoamerican history. The existence of such worship can be seen through studies of the iconography of different Mesoamerican cultures, in which serpent motifs are frequent. On the basis of the different symbolic systems used in portrayals of the feathered serpent deity in different cultures and periods, scholars have interpreted the religious and symbolic meaning of the feathered serpent deity in Mesoamerican cultures.

Iconographic depictions

A photo of La Venta Stela 19, the earliest known representation of the Feathered Serpent in Mesoamerica.
Feathered Serpent head at the Ciudadela complex in Teotihuacan

The earliest iconographic depiction of the deity is believed to be found on Stela 19 at the Olmec site of La Venta, depicting a serpent rising up behind a person probably engaged in a shamanic ritual. This depiction is believed to have been made around 900 BC. Although probably not exactly a depiction of the same feathered serpent deity worshipped in classic and post-classic periods, it shows the continuity of symbolism of feathered snakes in Mesoamerica from the formative period and on, for example in comparison to the Maya Vision Serpent shown below.

Vision Serpent depicted on lintel 15 from Yaxchilan.

The first culture to use the symbol of a feathered serpent as an important religious and political symbol was Teotihuacan. At temples such as the aptly named "Quetzalcoatl temple" in the Ciudadela complex, feathered serpents figure prominently and alternate with a different kind of serpent head. The earliest depictions of the feathered serpent deity were fully zoomorphic, depicting the serpent as an actual snake, but already among the Classic Maya, the deity began acquiring human features.

In the iconography of the classic period, Maya serpent imagery is also prevalent: a snake is often seen as the embodiment of the sky itself, and a vision serpent is a shamanic helper presenting Maya kings with visions of the underworld.

The archaeological record shows that after the fall of Teotihuacan that marked the beginning of the epi-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology around 600 AD, the cult of the feathered serpent spread to the new religious and political centers in central Mexico, centers such as Xochicalco, Cacaxtla and Cholula.[4] Feathered serpent iconography is prominent at all of these sites. Cholula is known to have remained the most important center of worship to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec/Nahua version of the feathered serpent deity, in the post-classic period.

During the epi-classic period, a dramatic spread of feathered serpent iconography is evidenced throughout Mesoamerica, and during this period begins to figure prominently at sites such as Chichén Itzá, El Tajín, and throughout the Maya area. Colonial documentary sources from the Maya area frequently speak of the arrival of foreigners from the central Mexican plateau, often led by a man whose name translates as "Feathered Serpent". It has been suggested that these stories recall the spread of the feathered serpent cult in the epi-classic and early post-classic periods.[4]

Represented as the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl was also manifest in the wind, one of the most powerful forces of nature, and this relationship was captured in a text in the Nahuatl language:

Quetzalcoatl; yn ehecatl ynteiacancauh yntlachpancauh in tlaloque, yn aoaque, yn qujqujiauhti. Auh yn jquac molhuja eheca, mjtoa: teuhtli quaqualaca, ycoioca, tetecujca, tlatlaiooa, tlatlapitza, tlatlatzinj, motlatlaueltia.

Quetzalcoatl—he was the wind, the guide and road sweeper of the rain gods, of the masters of the water, of those who brought rain. And when the wind rose, when the dust rumbled, and it crack and there was a great din, became it became dark and the wind blew in many directions, and it thundered; then it was said: "[Quetzalcoatl] is wrathful."[13]

Quetzalcoatl was also linked to rulership and priestly office; additionally, among the Toltec, it was used as a military title and emblem.[14]

In the post-classic Nahua civilization of central Mexico (Aztec), the worship of Quetzalcoatl was ubiquitous. Cult worship may have involved the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms (psilocybes), considered sacred.[15] The most important center was Cholula where the world's largest pyramid was dedicated to his worship. In Aztec culture, depictions of Quetzalcoatl were fully anthropomorphic. Quetzalcoatl was associated with the wind god Ehecatl and is often depicted with his insignia: a beak-like mask.


Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xochicalco, adorned with a fully zoomorphic feathered Serpent.

On the basis of the Teotihuacan iconographical depictions of the feathered serpent, archaeologist Karl Taube has argued that the feathered serpent was a symbol of fertility and internal political structures contrasting with the War Serpent symbolizing the outwards military expansion of the Teotihuacan empire.[16] Historian Enrique Florescano also analyzing Teotihuacan iconography argues that the Feathered Serpent was part of a triad of agricultural deities: the Goddess of the Cave symbolizing motherhood, reproduction and life, Tlaloc, god of rain, lightning and thunder and the feathered serpent, god of vegetational renewal. The feathered serpent was furthermore connected to the planet Venus because of this planet's importance as a sign of the beginning of the rainy season. To both Teotihuacan and Maya cultures, Venus was in turn also symbolically connected with warfare.[17]

While not usually feathered, classic Maya serpent iconography seems related to the belief in a sky-, Venus-, creator-, war- and fertility-related serpent deity. In the example from Yaxchilan, the Vision Serpent has the human face of the young maize god, further suggesting a connection to fertility and vegetational renewal; the Maya Young Maize god was also connected to Venus.

In Xochicalco, depictions of the feathered serpent are accompanied by the image of a seated, armed ruler and the hieroglyph for the day sign 9 Wind. The date 9 Wind is known to be associated with fertility, Venus and war among the Maya and frequently occurs in relation to Quetzalcoatl in other Mesoamerican cultures.

On the basis of the iconography of the feathered serpent deity at sites such as Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, Chichén Itzá, Tula and Tenochtitlan combined with certain ethnohistorical sources, historian David Carrasco has argued that the preeminent function of the feathered serpent deity throughout Mesoamerican history was the patron deity of the Urban center, a god of culture and civilization.[18]