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by Karl Young


For most of us living at the end of the 20th Century, animals are unreal. If we speak of a jaguar or a lynx, we probably mean a car. A colt is a pistol. Anaconda is a copper company. A snake is something used to clear clogged drains. Dove is a brand of soap. A Colibri (Spanish for hummingbird) is a cigarette lighter. We alter the nature of most animals we keep as pets. If a dog starts acting like a dog, we send it to a trainer, have it mutilated, or get rid of it. We shape farm animals according to our own notions - God knows what a wild cow was like. In one segment of society, geneticists explore codes to make clones and artificial animals. Often cooperating with the geneticists, meat producers not only do whatever they can to remove their animals from any natural environment, they also fill them so full of chemicals that the animals internalize factories. At another place in the social order, Vegans seek to prohibit any use of animals for any human purpose whatsoever. Despite the conviction of some vegans, most have never seen a real cow or chicken - their conception of animals comes primarily from nature programs on television and from cartoons, bringing them closer to the geneticists artificial world than they'd like to think.

Animals tend to make us nervous. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why we alter them scientifically or venerate cartoons of them. Animals such as snakes and birds present alien life forms to us, and we prefer aliens that supposedly come from outer space but realy inhabit our tv screens, and usually appear as nothing more than humans with a bit of nutty putty on their faces. There are good reasons to fear snakes if you don't know how to handle them, and it's best for those who don't to stay away from them. But other factors complicate the nervousness. Despite our insistance on a barrage of sexual stimuli in virtually every phase and facet of our lives, we may feel uneasy about snakes because we are uneasy about our sexuality. We may feel uncomfortable with birds because we imagine that they carry more diseases than they actually do, they seem unclean by our standards, and the movies we demand tend to cast them as sinister if not fiendish beings, most often in a symbolic sense, but in some instances such as Alfred Hitchcock's classic, creatures that could attack us in ways that all our technology could not prevent. Perhaps the steps we take to distance ourselves from the natural environment also distance us from the animal cycles of reproduction, pleasure, and self preservation. We feel uneasy because we esentially see ourselves as alone in the artificial world we have made.

For the inhabitants of pre-conquest Mexico, animals were as real as anything else, and shared life fully with humans and gods. Theses people encountered some animals such as dogs, snakes, rabbits, and many species of birds daily, even in such metropolitan settings as Tenochtitlan. They encountered other animals, such as jaguars and quetzal birds, much less frequently, but felt their awesome or beautiful presences in an intense and pervasive way. As the peoples of meso- America found their gods, they often discovered them in the form of animals or anthropomorphic beings with animal characteristics and powers.

Most students of meso-American religion see the animal character of the gods as symbolic or heraldic. The natives of meso-America certainly did not. To understand their view of the world, we should realize that the animal characteristics of the gods were not abstractions, but were based in long standing familiarity and daily renewal. Every adult male who worshipped Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, had observed snakes and birds all his life, and was thoroughly familiar with the differences between many species and sub-species. He may have eaten live snakes and birds as part of religious ceremony and sat patiently waiting to receive omens and blessings from them as part of daily practice and in initiatory stages of revelation. When people with this background spoke of the wind as a snake, they were not indulging in metaphor - they meant what they said. When birds brought them messages, they took them seriously.

At the same time people with this sort of experience were able to extend their perceptions beyond simple literalism. This could bring experience to a more profound level or allow it to perform significant links with other types of experience. The poet Marianne Moore was once photographed with a number of animals at a zoo for Life magazine. Probably hoping for a surprising or comic picture, a photographer's assistant passed a huge snake through the unsuspecting lady's hands. When asked what the snake felt like, the poet replied, "rose petals." That's a very Aztec observation! This may have been the only time in Ms. Moore's life that she touched a snake. For some of the Aztecs who came in frequent contact with snakes, they probably felt simply like snakes, nothing the Aztec needed to contemplate at any great length. For the Aztec philosopher or poet, however, the snake's scales may have felt like feathers, and brought on epiphanies regarding the interrelations of the constantly shifting and reforming world. The hummingbird that represented the Mexica Aztecs and the eagle that represents the United States of America occupy two utterly different psychological worlds: the latter is merely a symbol; the former, a living presence.

My purpose in this paper is to examine the animal forms of Quetzalcoatl, showing these to be basic to his manifestations and functions in the world, and suggesting that his animal avatars form links between him and the other gods, acting as essential components in the cosmic grammar of the Aztec world. I will begin by briefly retelling Quetzalcoatl's most important myths.


The supreme gods commanded Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl to create the world. They first created the basic elements: wind, fire, water. A great crocodile-like monster floated in the water they created. The two gods, in the form of immense serpents, wrapped themselves around the monster and broke it into two pieces. Four of the two gods' avatars held one of the pieces, still full of water, above the other, creating the sky. Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl then created the mountains and rivers and animals in the lower half, which became the earth.

At the end of the fourth world age, the upper part of the primordial monster shattered and its water fell out, covering the world with a chaos of water and sky. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca dug into the earth, creating four roads that met in the middle, in the form of a cross. They lifted the sky and its waters above the earth and assigned four avatars to hold it up. In doing this, they created tunnels, similar to the crossroads of the underworld, through the sky. These celestial tunnels became the Milky Way of the night sky and the path of the sun in the daytime sky.

After the fourth cosmic age ended, the gods gathered in the chaotic darkness and asked themselves who should be sacrificed to create the fifth sun. Tecuciztecatl, the shell god, volunteered to throw himself into the enormous fire the gods had built, but his courage failed him, and he could not do it. Then Nanahuatl, an avatar of Xolotl, Quetzalcoatl's nahuali or alter ego, dove into the fire. Ashamed, Tecuciztecatl followed him. A reddening occurred all around the horizon but no dawn issued forth from a point in the glowing circle. Each of the four families of gods concerted its efforts to get the sun to rise in its own sacred direction, but Quetzalcoatl's faction proved strongest, and dawn broke in his direction, the east. Two suns appeared above the horizon: the first was Nanahuatl; the second, Tecuciztecatl. The gods were indignant that the cowardly Tecuciztecatl should be as bright as the more heroic sun, and one of them threw a giant rabbit into his face, dimming his light and leaving him permanently scarred. Thus he became the moon. The sun would not climb the sky but hovered just above the horizon. At this point, the gods knew that they would all have to be sacrificed. Quetzalcoatl acted as the sacrificing priest. After he had performed his office of sacrificing all 1,600 gods, the sun still shuddered and lunged above the horizon, but would not ascend. Quetzalcoatl exerted all his strength and created an enormous wind, and fell exhausted into the sun. This started the sun on its course. You can still see this reenacted today. Quetzalcoatl, the Morning Star, appears just before sunrise. The sun's light kills the light of all the stars except Quetzalcoatl as it rises into the sky. Soon, Quetzalcoatl falls into the sun and dies with the other stars.

Night begins just after noon. After the sun passes zenith, it becomes Cuahutemoc, Falling Eagle. As it nears the western horizon, it becomes Tlacitonatiuh, Earthbound Sun or Dying Sun. At this point it is joined by Xolotl, the dog god, Quetzalcoatl's twin, who drags it into the land of Death below the horizon, guiding it through its underground stations. In the underworld it becomes Yohualtonatiuh, Night Sun, and is sacrificed eight times in its journey to nadir, which it reaches at midnight. There it is sacrificed a ninth time, and thus purified, it begins the equally tortuous process of being reborn as the morning sun, gaining its strength by battling its way into the eastern sky.

There are many myths in which Quetzalcoatl creates things or acts as a primary agent of creation. Perhaps the most important of these is the invention of the ritual calendar, whose inexorable fate not only determines the lot of humans, but of the gods as well. As Morning and Evening Star, he guides the sun into the sky and back into the earth again As the digger of the path the sun follows, and hence the creator of time, he is in a particularly good position to create the calendar of fate. Two creation myths should be mentioned in relation to his role in creating the calendar:

The sacrifices of the gods themselves were not enough to keep the universe going: other beings had to be created for this purpose. The gods deputized Quetzalcoatl to create humanity. With Xolotl, he went to the Land of Death and asked its lord, Mictlantecuhtli, for the bones of the ancestors. Mictlantecuhtli told him that he would first have to play his shell trumpet, which was impossible because the shell had no holes. But Quetzalcoatl was thoroughly familiar with the paths of the inhabitants of the underworld. His friends the worms bored holes in the shell, and insects filled it with sound. Mictlantecuhtli agreed to let him have what he had come for, but after Quetzalcoatl left, Mictlantecuhtli sent his minions to dig a hole in the god's path. Quetzalcoatl fell in, and though he was able to get out before he was buried by the demons, the bones had been damaged, accounting for the shortcomings of the race he would create. The mother of the gods ground the bones into a paste. Quetzalcoatl, followed by a number of other gods, slit his penis and let the blood flow into the paste, creating the first humans.

On a closer scale, Quetzalcoatl takes part in the creation of each individual human. Ometecuhtli, the Two-Person Lord of Supreme Duality, gives Quetzalcoatl the mandate to create each child, and he then creates the child's "face" or soul. On a political level, Quetzalcoatl often takes an active sexual role in the founding of dynasties. Bernardino de Sahagun, the first European ethnologist of Meso-America, called him the Hercules of the Aztecs, thinking in part of the classical god's role in founding ruling dynasties in the Mediterranean world.

An ant told the Xolotl form of Quetzalcoatl that the seeds of a marvelous plant were hidden inside a mountain. Xolotl became an ant to investigate the hidden grain. With the help of Nanahuatl, he brought corn out of the mountain, and the world's present supply descended from these original seeds.

The last and best known of these myths is late. It is probably based on quasi- historical events, and comes down to us in a number of different forms. In this myth, Quetzalcoatl Topiltzin was the king or high priest of The Great City (Tollan or Tenotihuacan). He taught his people the major arts and sciences: agriculture, poetry, music, dance, the making of books, astronomy, architecture, metallurgy, etc. He directed a major religious reform, stressing austerity and introspection. He lived a life of piety. His kingdom flourished as an earthly paradise. This infuriated Tezcatlipoca, who contrived to topple him from his sanctimonious pedestal. Tezcatlipoca, whose name means Smoking Mirror, tricked him into taking intoxicants, and then gave him his magic mirror. Quetzalcoatl was at first delighted with what he saw, but then, as he looked, his handsome features became ugly and deformed, and suppurating pustules broke out all over his face. In the madness that engulfed him, he committed a sin - most often referred to as incest. He realized that he could no longer rule The Great City. He left, heading toward his home among the stars of the east, his sacred direction. His city was ravaged by civil war and his kingdom became a wasteland. In one version, he crossed the sea, vowing to return when the sacred calendar dictated. In another he immolated himself in a great fire, from which he emerged as the Morning Star. In another, he entered a mountain, where he waits for the calendar to bring about the time of his return.


The Aztecs were well aware of the dangers of the more venomous types of snakes, as a reading of the catalogue of serpents in Book 11 of The Florentine Codex attests. These people, however, knew the habits of such snakes and knew how to act in their presence. And they knew that snakes were benevolent parts of their world: they performed indispensable ecological functions and were, on numerous levels, responsible for the fertility of crops and animals, including humans, and were essential to their lives and well-being. If a person walked carefully, knew the habits of snakes, and treated them with respect, snakes were friends; if a person became careless, they brought pain and death. The same could be said of Quetzalcoatl or any of the other Aztec deities. A snake can strike like lightning, changing a day or a life in a fraction of a second. A god could act as quickly, changing from a serene and beautiful mound of jewels into a knife of retribution.

There are few parts of the earth inaccessible to snakes. They can cross the most difficult terrain, travel inside the earth, and climb trees. Many can swim. Quetzalcoatl has similar powers. As the planet Venus, he can climb the eastern or western skies and travel underground. As the wind, he can cover the whole earth, insinuating himself into the landscape's most difficult nooks and crannies. A basic part of Quetzalcoatl's snake nature is his understanding of the subterranean world. In the myths we have seen him create the main thoroughfare of the underworld, and move the sun, by a series of sacrifices, through it. We have seen him gather the bones of the Ancestors in Death's Kingdom, find the corn seed in the mountain, and, in the form of a snake, separate earth from sky, in effect creating the earth in the process. As the planet Venus, he appears in the eastern sky, disappears underground for a time, then reappears in the west.

Vertical sections cut into the earth reveal greenish strata of rock that suggested snakes to pre-Colombian meso-Americans. Our term for this kind of rock shows that we, too, have noticed its resemblance to snakes: we call it serpentine. Jade, the most precious stone to the Aztecs, is found in these strata, and was considered the hearts or essences of underground snakes. The blue-green of the rock suggests the fertile water stored in the earth and sky, whose distribution was regulated by Quetzalcoatl.

Pueblo Indians have believed for centuries that gigantic underground snakes create long mountain ranges and that volcanoes are their mouths. After volcanic eruptions, Pueblo farmers come, sometimes from great distances, to gather the volcanic ash to fertilize their fields. They attribute the fertility of the ash to its serpentine origins. Karl W. Luckert contends that the temple pyramids of meso- America evolved out of volcanoes that were believed to be serpents' mouths. In his view, Olmec pyramids were snake's mouths slightly elevated, and that the steep-stepped pyramids of the Mayans represented snakes with their heads raised above the jungles, while central Mexican pyramids were based on the forms of coiled serpents. In all these pyramids, the cella at the top was the snake's mouth, and what went on inside was a form of communion with the snake. In the present context, it should be pointed out that Quetzalcoatl's temples were usually conical, sometimes with stages coiling up and around to the top, following the contours of a coiled snake.

A lava stream flowing down a volcano's side tends to bifurcate, forming the split tongue of the snake from whose mouth it descends. Young corn plants also split into Y shapes after emerging from the ground, and the corn takes on more serpentine qualities as it grows: its green is the color of some snakes and of serpentine rock. The kernels of the corn are the snake's rattles. The husking and removal of the corn kernels is the shedding of the snake's skin. The serpents make the corn - the snake plant - grow. Snakes have been associated with sex and fertility in most societies, and this continues in our own culture. The snake resembles a penis liberated from a body, with a will of its own. Entering the ground, it inseminates the earth goddesses who are its close associates. The foreskin of the penis is the corn husk as well as the skin the snake sheds as it grows. Quetzalcoatl brought corn out of the mountain, and is the lord of fertility and growth. Corn was essentially a form of snake flesh, and the people who ate it knew that they became part of the snake by eating it. In their rituals, they fed the snakes in return.

The clouds that rise from volcanic snake's mouths merge with the clouds in the sky - in fact, according to several sources, the Aztecs believed that all clouds were thus created. These clouds of snakes' breath brought rain that made corn grow. The clouds themselves, gliding, coiling up, unfolding, rushing along fluidly, were in themselves snakes. The god Mixcoatl, Cloud Snake, was an avatar of Quetzalcoatl. At night the sky was filled with other snakes - the Mimixcoa, Lesser Cloud Snakes, who were the stars. These nocturnal snakes were seen as ancestors under the patronage of Quetzalcoatl, the supreme ancestor. The slash and burn agriculture practiced in meso-America duplicated and augmented the snakes' breath, as did the smoke of burning incense. Pipe and cigar smoking may have originated in the need to share incense, each participant inhaling incense snakes. This could produce visions as well as assert community. The smoke of sacrificial fires contributed to the snakes in the sky.

The immediately visible cloud snakes were not the only serpentine patterns discernible in the sky. Like the earth, the sky comes in layers. In modern terms, we say that these layers are formed by changes in velocity and temperature of moving air, and are determined by atmospheric conditions far away and by the terrain over which the air moves. When we chart these layers, serpentine lines fill the resultant drawings. Soaring birds, such as eagles, are familiar with these thermal layers. An eagle circling around a valley rides the thermals created, in part, by the form of the valley below, following a path created by the snakes that pushed up the mountains around the valley. The meso-Americans could discern the contours of the snake paths of the sky traced by the birds who followed them in their flight. The sun in the daytime sky is an eagle, whom Quetzalcoatl launches in the morning and pulls into the earth in the evening. Quetzalcoatl originally created the path along which the sun travels.

Quetzalcoatl is also the snake of the wind, whose long body of rushing air sweeps the pathway for the rains. The god speaks through the wind: at times in a whisper, like the sound of a snake moving over sand or through grass; at others, his voice resembles the sound of rattles; at its most violent, it roars. When he speaks softly, he brings good fortune, as do his smaller brothers in the cornfields. When he blows briskly, he acts as ambassador of the rain gods, sweeping the path clear before them. When the god roars, he is as deadly as an enraged serpent. In this state, he tends to become visible in such forms as the tornado, hurricane, or dustspout. In a rage, he begins undoing creation again, bringing back the chaos that ended the previous world age. Yet another type of snake appears in these conditions: the lightning snakes. Of lightning, The Florentine Codex records, "We were blinded, we lost our sight . . . we were terrified. It was unbearable to look at; it was dazzling. Everywhere it flashed repeatedly - again and again - like the light of the dawn breaking over and over." [Vol. 7, p. 15] In a storm, the sky snakes recreate all the terrors of the first dawn of creation and snuff them out just as quickly.

Above the tumult of the lower layers, the sky of day remains blue, the color of water. This is associated with the green of vegetation and the earth snakes that produce jade. Snakes in the field take on a bluish color as they shed their skins and are reborn with new ones. Quetzalcoatl presided over similar patterns of rebirth on a cosmic as well as a terrestrial level. When the sky changes, Quetzalcoatl is changing his skin.

A phenomena that occurs in climates and terrains such as those of central and northern Mexico involves the falling of rain in the upper atmosphere and warm air from below lifting it back up again. People on the ground can see the rain fall, but it does not reach them. The meso-Americans perceived this as a form of punishment for not observing proper respect for the earth.

One of the most noticeable features of snakes is their forked tongues. As noted above, this fork repeats itself in young corn shoots. The forked tongue, the one that becomes two, is important on several levels, cosmic as well as vegetative. Quetzalcoatl was the planet Venus, which appears as the Morning and Evening Star, and is also the One that becomes Two. Of the two parts of the pair expressed by Quetzalcoatl's name, we now turn to the bird half.


Meso-American philosophers probably noticed some striking similarities between birds and snakes. Birds have snake-like scales on their legs. Both hiss. Both have highly developed eyesight, but are not particularly adept in distinguishing odors. Both lay eggs. There are similarities in mouth and tongue structures. Both molt. A bird can glide just above the ground, following its contours; a striking snake can fly for a short distance. In their proper elements, each can move with a graceful fluidity shared by no other animals save fish. To the thoughtful meso-American, a bird might seem a snake of the sky.

We now believe that these relations find reasons in an evolutionary context: snakes and birds evolved from a common ancestor. Snakes streamlined themselves for travel on the ground, while birds developed flying gear. Snake scales and bird feathers are made of the same material, keratin, a fibrous protein. Birds evolved their scales into feathers, except for those on their legs. The scales of snakes allow them to glide along the ground as surely and gracefully as birds' feathers enable them to fly through the air.

Birds and snakes also show a strong similarity in their economy of movement and the precision with which they strike. These characteristics are essential to their natural conditions. As cold-blooded animals, snakes must conserve their energy, and from this conservation comes their ability to focus all their powers on a single movement. Their lack of arms or legs means that they have to grasp prey or strike an enemy quickly and precisely - they may get only one chance. When hunting, many birds spend a good deal of their time looking for prey as they fly or glide. When they see their target, they too must go for it decisively and precisely, since they may not be able to find another moment when their position and the vulnerability of their quary intesect. The Aztecs also noted that a bird can attack and eat a snake. The god Huitzilopochtil told the Mexica Aztec tribe that they would build their Promised City on a spot where they found an eagle eating a snake, and that is one of the reasons why they built Tenochtitlan, Serpent Mountain, where they did. The icon of an eagle capturing a snake persists in the flag of contemporary Mexico.

In Aztec art, Quetzalcoatl is often represented with a bird mask over his mouth or over his whole head. The beak of this mask probably evolved out of the bill of a duck, a creature of sky and water, which, in its migratory behavior suggests the disappearances of Quetzalcoatl as the Morning and Evening Star. The snout above the beak may have had its origins in the nose of an alligator, a creature of land and water, a relative of the snake, also associated with fertility. The beak of the hummingbird - the small but energetic warrior whose actions echoed the duels of Venus and the sun - may have fused with the duck's bill and the alligator's snout. A fang usually appears at the corner of the mouth - possibly derived from Quetzalcoatl's snake component. This mask, when shown by itself, represents Wind, the second of the twenty day-signs in the indigenous calendar. When Quetzalcoatl is represented with this mask, we are to understand that we are seeing his Ehecatl, or Wind, manifestation. A bird's mouth rides ahead of the serpentine wind.

The Mexican artists stated the bird mouth so emphatically because of the important function it served for the god and for all other birds: song. Birds sing for a great variety of reasons - probably including many that we do not understand at the present time. Their songs often set models of economy. The American robin - among others - sounds one note when it sees a raptor above it and another when it spots a predator on the ground. Some songs, like the one just mentioned, warn other birds of danger. Some function as curses and threats, used to keep other birds out of their territory or to express rage. For birds that travel and forage in groups, songs keep the flock together. Bird songs play a crucial role in courtship and mating. All these characteristics - economy, warning, setting limits or boundaries, keeping the community together, and mating are basic functions of Quetzalcoatl.

In the last century, scientific study of avian behavior centered largely on the territorial aspect of bird songs. Although the implications of this study in our time bring back something like the social Darwinism of the previous era, the fact that birds issue claims for territory remains. Birds may fight ferociously for their territory, but they can't own it or sell it. A bird's territorial claims extend no farther than its voice, and is, in fact, a reflection and definition of its vocal range. When the bird's voice is the wind, that claim can extend to great distances, though even these areas can be bounded by features of the landscape. One of the titles of an Aztec emperor translates as "great speaker," and the extensions of spoken authority can extend through an empire and through time. Perhaps we can see the central Mexican attitude toward territory in terms of divine mandates, the extensions of divine voices. These appear frequently in texts transcribed from oral sources and in the preconquest iconographic Codices. Perhaps this can be seen most grandly stated in Codex Vindobonensis. The first side of this preconquest manuscript delineates the districts and responsibilites of the Mixtec regions. Quetzalcoatl, in the form of 9-Wind presides over the divisions of the area, most of them apparently based on geographical formations, and modified through historical useage. 9-Wind takes part in the New Fire ceremonies that mark the chronology of the area just as surely as he delineates regions. All this he handles in a serene and logical manner, reflected and reinforced by the style of the manuscript's painting. The reverse side, written considerably later, chronicles the lords of the rulling house. This side was painted hurriedly, without the serene majesty of side one. Presumably this was done to reinforce claims to lands and titles during a period of invasion and crisis. The claims are made in part in geneology, but the god's mandate is clearly the base of the lineage. The delineation of territories comes from the song of the god, echoing the nature of the land. As setter of boundaries, Quetzalcoatl's voice defines each one and then moves on, though the wind watches over the space claimed.

In the previous section, we saw that the sound of the wind snake was a voice of Quetzalcoatl. A purpose of the mouth mask is to provide an organ for this voice. But it also introduces the god's second voice: in the deity's avian aspect, he finds lyric vocalization. Birds identify themselves by their songs. In addition to the basic musical phrase that identifies the type of bird, individuals of many species add additional sound patterns to distinguish themselves from other birds of the same species. The song becomes not only a statement of membership in a group, but also an insistence on individuality. Of the deities in the Aztec pantheon, Quetzalcoatl is the one most concerned with the development of the individual. He is the patron of the arts that unite individual and group - education, writing, painting, music, dance, etc. - and he is the god who forms each individual's "face," or soul, at the time of conception.

Quetzalcoatl's lyric voice may follow the traditional conception of individualized expression into the sense of lyric as song of unabashed and unrestrained beauty. The beauty of bird song is so universal and pervasive that it becomes a standard for it in virtually all cultures. Surviving Aztec poetry affirms this dimension over and over. Even people who pay little attention to bird songs can be moved by them, and to the experienced listener, an environment in which a number of birds sing can be as engrossing and gratifying as a Bach cantata Bird songs have acted as a base for musical forms the world over. Birds accompany their songs with other sounds, produced by clapping their beaks, shaking their feathers, stamping their feet, and so forth, suggesting primordial instrumentation. This accompaniment shades into dance, an art practiced by birds, particularly at mating time and times of community gathering. We know that many Aztec dances imitated those of birds, as do dances still practiced by indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. It was Quetzalcoatl who gave the arts - particularly song, music, and dance - to humans and this gift may be the fullest expression of his bird nature in its most general form.

The name Quetzalcoatl is usually translated "feathered snake" or "plumed serpent" - "feathered" corresponding to the "quetzal" element in the name. Although this word can stand for feather or for bird in general, it also refers to a specific member of the trogon family. Visually, the quetzal is the most magnificent of the trogons. The adult male is about 50 inches long, three fourths of that length being taken up by resplendent tail feathers. It has colorful rings around the eyes, deep, brilliant green feathers on head, top side of the body, and tail. Bright red feathers cover the breast and lower abdomen. The shimmer of these feathers can suggest the altered perception brought about by hallucinogens as part of religious ceremony. There is a small white area at the base of the tail, between areas of green and red. This color arrangement suggests that this bird is a micorcosmos as well as a presider over ceremonies. Burr Cartwright Brudnage observes:

This latter coloration in fact must have been especially apparent to the hunter looking upward into the high foliage of the rain forest - more apparent than the emerald of the bird's back and tail feathers. What more impressive symbol of the sky as a whole than this most beautiful of birds - a bird whose plumage could symbolize not only the waters in the sky but also the great shining light that punctuated it, the sun. The quetzal bird thus represented the widest possible range of the celestial phenomena and can be adjudged to be a proper symbol of the sky. [The Phoenix of the Western Word, pp. 38-39.]

We can go farther along these lines. To the Aztecs, blue and green were simple variations on the same color: both carried more or less the same significance and often acted interchangeably. This conception of color may have been reinforced by the way jade and water can shade from blue to green. Bearing this in mind, we can see that the quetzal embodied the calendar sign Olin:

There are a number of variations of this sign, but they all - including the laced cord form - work the same way. The word Olin may be glossed as "movement" - the movement of people in crowds or in battle, the turmoil of celestial war, the movement of earthquakes. 4- Olin is the calendar name for the present world age, and, by extension, for the earth as we know it now, since its present form is singular to this epoch. In the Codices, one half of the sign is painted blue, the other, red, and the small disk in the center is usually left white or painted yellow. The disk is the sun or Venus. In one reading, the blue is the sky and the red is the earth. In a related reading, the blue half is the night sky, and the red half is the daytime sky. The juncture of the red and blue halves represent the place where heaven and earth, the night and the day, come together, with the sun struggling in the middle, or with Venus acting as mediator. The result of this conjunction is the dynamic movement of the world and of time. Quetzalcoatl presides over this meeting place in his Venusian and solar manifestations. His hat is usually painted half red and half blue, with a small disk between them to indicate this meeting. Behind the hat he wears a quetzal plume above a black fan, sometimes spotted with stars and sectioned with red quills. His nahuali, or double, is particularly associated with the sign Olin.

If the placement of colors in the quetzal replicates the major dynamic divisions of the cosmos, they also summarize its system of exchanges. From at least Teotihuacan times onward, red and blue/green were, to use Esther Pasztory's terms, kennings for each other. A verbal kenning for blood in Nahuatl is "precious water." In the Codices, a vessel of blue/green liquid, particularly if associated with a jewel, can represent blood, and red can indicate water. Water is the blood of the gods, given to humans so they may live; in return, humans must give the deities their own blood which is the water of the gods. Quetzalcoatl's red and blue hat is usually depicted with a bone awl used in autosacrificial blood letting, an important part of the cosmic economy of human and divine water, summed up in the feathers of the quetzal.

The form and color of a bird's plumage often evolves as a function of courtship and mating. In courtship, the quetzal puts on elaborate displays, including song and dance, with the feathers playing a crucial role. The feathers are part of the fertility, the mating ability, of the birds, and their green color evokes water and vegetation, while the long tail feathers of the male replicate the leaves of mature corn plants and the bodies of snakes. When an Aztec woman became pregnant, a ceremony was held in which a priest told her that she carried in her body a precious stone and a quetzal feather. This formula was repeated through the ceremonial stages of pregnancy and birth. One of the first things a child heard on entering the world was a liturgy recited by the midwife describing the child's genesis as a precious stone and a quetzal feather. The stone, of course, is the serpentine jade described above, and the combination of snake stone and feather indicate Quetzalcoatl's role in forming the child's "face."

The word "quetzal" has two meanings: the first is the quetzal trogon; the second is "precious" - both meanings probably come from the same source. An important manifestation was Yacatecuhtli, Lord of the Vanguard, patron of merchant adveturers. The merchants of Aztec Mexico brought the quetzal feathers from the mysterious and dangerous jungles of the south. The distance these adventurers had to travel and the difficulties of the journey increased the value or preciousness of the trogon feathers. Although children grew their "faces" in their mothers' wombs, their essences came from the distant Ometecuhtli, Dual-Lord, living above the calander, out of the reach of the other gods and only reaching through the distance to contact humans at the moment of conception and the moment of death. The Aztec merchants were wanderers. Our word "planet" means, etymologically, "wanderer," since the planets do not follow the annually repeated circuit of the fixed stars. As the planet Venus, Quetzalcoatl was also a wanderer who disappeared regularly, conducted flamboyant missions in an invisible world, and came back with precious cargo in the form of the sun, the rain, or the more magical forms of fertile power. In the Codices, Quetzalcoatl often appears as one of the merchants, carrying a fan and walking staff, with a cargo bundle on his back. Merchants scheduled their departures from the cities of central Mexico on day 1-Snake of the indigenous calendar.

The Aztecs thought of the sun in its passage through the sky of day as an eagle, a bird that can fly in a long, straight line at high altitude. The quetzal, however, is not suited for this kind of flight - instead, it flies in short arcs, a pattern that shows it as Quetzalcoatl's bird in two ways. First, the short puffs of its flight resemble short gusts of the wind. Second, its path resembles the arcs of Venus along the horizon when the sun rises or sets. There are two of these arcs: one to the east, the other to the west. They form a pair - you could say a pair of twins.


Quetzalcoatl works through many pairings. Just as "quetzal" can refer to "plumed" or "precious," "coatl" can mean either "snake" or "twin," so that the name may be interpreted as "feathered serpent" or "precious twin." Quetzalcoatl's twin is Xolotl, whose function can shift as Quetzalcoatl moves through different states. He can be considered Quetzalcoatl's brother, or his cohort, or his antithesis, or a lesser form or avatar of Quetzalcoatl. One way to conceptualize the differences is to say that if Quetzalcoatl is the precious twin, Xolotl is the humble twin. At times Xolotl can be either the Morning or Evening Star, an altered mirror of Quetzalcoatl. When Quetzalcoatl needs to divide himself into two major parts, Xolotl plays the second. As the humble twin, Xolotl sometimes appears in the form of a diseased, deformed, or crippled man, and he can appear as an odd type of fish, capable of seeming transformations, which still bears his name in contemporary Mexico. But most often he appears in the form of a dog. The dogs native to central Mexico tended to be a small-sized, scruffy lot, and we should not confuse them with images of more stately dogs from other parts of the world. Xolotl assumes the dog aspect most often when Quetzalcoatl appears in human rather than animal form.

With Xolotl in dog form, we move into nahualism. This was a potent and pervasive belief in preconquest Mexico and it survives today, most fully in isolated rural areas. It has gone though some strange metamorphoses since the conquest of Mexico, including the keeping of animals, often cattle, believed to be the nahualis of members of the community, in pens. In the pre-Columbian era, everyone was thought to have a nahuali, or animal alter ego. For most people the two components had little direct or conscious contact. Human and animal lived independently, possibly never meeting each other, but informing each other's lives in subconscious and magical ways. This invisible link could be very strong: the death of one could bring about the death of the other, for instance. Some humans possessing magical powers could merge with their nahualis, assuming purely animal form for specific purposes. If we see Xolotl as Quetzalcoatl's nahuali, we can see that Xolotl could sacrifice himself to become the sun while Quetzalcoatl remained as the sacrificer, dying himself as a result of Xolotl's immolation. Perhaps we can see in this one of the most basic forms of autosacrifice, an activity particularly important to Quetzalcoatl. Xolotl can pull the earthbound sun into Death's kingdom while Quetzalcoatl acts as the wind, setting in motion the machinery that will bring the sun back into the day sky.

The dog is a good nahuali for Quetzalcoatl. Dogs bury things, which they may dig up later - an appropriate description of Xolotl's burial of the sun. Dogs have acted as human companions since time immemorial, probably accompanying the first human inhabitants of the Americas across the Berring Straits. One of the reasons humans have encouraged this relationships is that dogs can act as guides, leading them to water and game, particularly in unfamiliar territory. Unlike humans, snakes, and birds, dogs have relatively poor eyesight, but have acutely developed olfactory ability and superior hearing. This allows them to detect or explore areas difficult of access to humans, and dogs can act as advance alerting systems, detecting things considerably before people do. Dogs are inquisitive, and with their keen sense of smell, can locate that which is hidden from sight. When Xolotl turned himself into an ant he retained his dog-nature in sniffing out the corn seeds in the mountain. When an Aztec man died of natural causes, a dog was buried with him. The dog would accompany him through the nine stages of Death's kingdom, acting as guide and companion on this fearful journey. In myth 6, Xolotl accompanied Quetzalcoatl on a similar mission, to gather the bones of the Ancestors. The sex drives of dogs are strong and obvious even to the most casual observer, perhaps explaining how the "xolotl" came to mean the penis. This can relate to the dog's creative functions as well as his hornyness in several myths not related here. Dogs are good trackers and fast runners, able to follow and bring down a swift quarry.

The dog's hunting capacities bring us to perhaps the most important part of Xolotl's dog nature, a complex of ideas including persistence, toughness, ferocity, and crudeness. These qualities were thought characteristic of a group of preconquest people called Chichimecs. Though the name yields multiple interpretations, the one most important here is "dog people" or "people who talk like dogs." The wild and uncivilized peoples who kept pushing their way into the Valley of Mexico, conquering its stately cities, were called Chichimecs. The term was general instead of specific, and any one group of Chichimecs was likely to become civilized and have to defend itself when a new group of Chichimecs threatened them. The gloss of the name that yields "people who speak like dogs" finds its greater twin in the Nahuatl speaking people, that is, the people who spoke eloquently and clearly. As an imitation of speech sounds, "Chichimec" finds a precise counterpart in "barbarian," that is, people who babble unintelligibly. Not only does the patron of civilization, Quetzalcoatl, find his perfect alter ego in the Chichimecs, but civilization constantly needs the renewal of barbarians. One of the most clear contemporary articulations of this may be found in Cavafy's poem, "The Barbarians Are Coming." Several Chichimec groups destroyed the Toltec empire, creating their own in its image. One great Chicimec war chief was even named Xolotl. The last Chicimecs to complete this cycle were the Mexica Aztecs, who had become the metropolitan elite of central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. The bestial Evening Star always turns into the resplendent Morning Star, even in this historical process. The civilized peoples of the Valley of Mexico felt strong ambivalences toward the Chichimecs, as have other peoples toward "barbarians" in other times and places. The stately, feathered birds might preside over ceremonial dances, but the Chichmecs were party animals, who at times seemed to have more fun. The name might be used in derision, but at the same time, the title Chichimec Tecuhtli, Chichimec Lord, was one of the highest honors awarded by the Aztec military hierarchy. The Chichimec was precisely the strong, crude warrior who could track the sun, seize it, and drag it to the ground.

In the underworld, the dog acts as companion to the sun, much as it acts as the companion of the individual human soul, through the nine levels of the underworld. At the same time, it keeps its agressive character, sacrificing the sun at each of the nine stages of the descent.

In myth 3, Nanahuatl, the god who sacrificed himself to become the sun, was a form of Xolotl. As Xolotl brings the sun to the ninth sacrificial stone, both gods go through several metamorphoses. After the ninth sacrifice is enacted, a form of Xolotl himself becomes the new sun, battling other forms of Quetzalcoatl into the morning sky. In cult, the impersonator of Quetzalcoatl was sacrificed at midnight, precisely the time of the ninth sacrifice of the sun in the underworld. The heart of the human impersonator was offered to the moon, which was, in myth 3, a failed sun.

Although snakes and birds deliver messages and set examples, they remain reserved, litterally aloof in the case of birds, and coldly indifferent in the case of snakes. Dogs are more friendly. Although people can watch birds play, the birds don't play with them. Dogs do. It's easy enough to see birds flock to you if you feed them, and their songs may express exuberance, but they cannot share your happiness with the same delight as dogs. Their expressions of annoyance and gratitude are much more personal. Birds and snakes pay visits to humans, but dogs can live with people in a manner congenial to both. They can make a home with people, and return to it after excursions elsewhere. Birds and snakes deliver messages, but dogs respond to their names and to some forms of human speech. In many ways, the Aztec world was a stern place, but it was also one of balances. The dog redresses what would otherwise be an imbalance of comfort in the animal series of manifestations. Dogs can be tough, and this follows into the Xolotl myths, which can be grim, but the status of the humble twin adds a fuller and more personal dimension to the Quetzalcoatl spectrum of divinity.

Quetzalcoatl can manifest himself in many other animal forms. In myth 8, he appeared as an ant. He can also become a jaguar or a badger or a raven or an opossum. In the form of a monkey, he can act as a static bridge between animals and humans. As a bat, he becomes the gloomy lord of caves and the sinister genius of twilight, the time of Venus as evening Star.

He can also appear not in the form of a living animal, but something an animal creates. The shell is perhaps the most frequent of the articles found in Quetzalcoatl's iconography. He usually wears a necklace of shells, shell earplugs, and a large sectioned conch on his chest. Other gods wear this shell when they assume his powers. This shell is often referred to as his wind jewel, primarily because such a conch could be made into a horn that duplicated the most dramatic of his voices as the wind. The spiral of the conch shell freezes and gives solid, lasting form to the coils of the wind snake. Shell horns were used in ceremonies and festivals. The sound that came out of them could be considered the voice of the god himself, carrying with it characteristics of his snake, bird, and dog nature. in some contexts, the feathered shell trumpet could take its place as a minor deity. In his Ehecatl manifestation he can appear with the calendar name 9-Wind - born of the wind to create the wind.

Throughout meso-America, shells were associated with fertility, partly because of their aquatic origin, partly because they could be thought of as a type of womb from which new life could issue. In myth 3, Tecuciztecatl, the shell god, became the moon. Shells were associated with the moon, which was in turn associated with fertility and the cleansing of sins. Durán remarks that the wind jewel took the shape of a butterfly, and, indeed, it often looks like one in the Codices and in other iconographic contexts. The pre-Columbian central Mexicans thought of butterflies as the resurrected souls of dead warriors, a belief with cognates that persist today in many parts of Latin America. Butterflies are also creatures of the sky, as shells are products of the sea. Like Quetzalcoatl, the conch is a little world living in the water - it functions like the god in uniting earth and sea. At the same time, the chambers of the shell were seen as a template of the underworld which Quetzalcoatl helped to create and which he knew so well. One of the forms of Xolotl is a sort of larva or mollusk, and the life of the creature that created the shell was a replication of the creative activity of the subterranean Quetzalcoatl, who both created the world and continues to maintain it. The shell then recapitulates the patterns of rebirth of the sun and Venus.


To us, there is a clear distinction between human and animal life, and an equally clear distinction between any form of life and inanimate matter. This distinction did not exist among the Aztecs, for the simple reason that virtually everything was seen to be to some extent alive. The life of a dog was not so much different fro the life of a human. The life of a lightning snake may have been significantly different, but lightning was still a living entity, not simply an electronic discharge in the atmosphere. A snake gliding along the side of a mountain may not have had the divinity of the snake that made the mountain, but the two were none the less related. Birds, like dogs and humans, are highly talkative creatures.

For us education becomes more and more a matter of learning how to make detached measurements of the hurrying of material, whether that material be chemicals or theoretical postulates, and learning how to manipulate material covers most of the educational spectrum. For the Aztecs, education was a rigorous (in our terms, harrowing) self-discipline, which apparently included extensive practices that we might call indigenous yoga. The aim of this discipline was not so much the manipulation of the environment but self control and direction, the gaining of wisdom rather than mastery of data. Study of the ritual calendar was the backbone of Aztec higher education - not because it supplied a key for manipulating the environment but because it provided students with a means of understanding what the universe was constantly telling them. Also important were song, dance, and ritual, which taught moral rectitude, cemented community, and helped each person perfect his or her own "face" or soul. Even such sciences as architecture, hydraulics, and metallurgy depend primarily on knowledge of, and cooperation with, the living environment.

One of Quetzalcoatl's most important functions was patron of education. It was he who showed people how to attain self-discipline, how to worship the gods, and how to behave decently. He designed the current form of the ritual calendar and taught humanity the arts and sciences. He founded and presided over the Calmecac, the indigenous university. We have seen how Quetzalcoatl's animal forms gave him knowledge of all parts of the cosmos: the earth, the sky, the realms of water, the underworld, the mechanics of time, the sources of fertility, etc. Perhaps the fact that he could assume such judiciously chosen animal forms is a key to his position as god of wisdom, or perhaps we should say that his animal nature gave him wisdom to pass on to humanity.

Numerous tribal sources from around the world, including many from other parts of Native America, tell us that learning is acquired through interaction with animals: first through careful observation of their behavior, and second by imitation of their actions or by actually becoming animals through mystical processes. Even in a relatively recent English novel, T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone, the young King Arthur acquires wisdom by being changed into various animals by Merlin. We don't have much direct evidence from preconquest Mexican sources, but evidence from the colonial period as well as from indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, both old and contemporary, strongly suggests that observation, imitation, and transformation were an important part of Aztec education.

I mentioned earlier that every Aztec had a nahuali, or animal double, and that the human and the nahuali communicated with each other throughout their lives. We may assume that this relationship continued the process of education throughout the human's, and perhaps the animal's, life. The nahuali relationship functions on a number of levels and serves a number of purposes, many of which we will probably never be able to understand. We may say, however, that the nahuali served as a link between the individual and the continuum of the universe. Probably the nahuali was tied into the human's birth date, and hence his fate. Certainly it kept him in touch with the world of animals, and, since the universe was thought of as a complex of living beings, with larger, perhaps cosmic, processes. A man whose nahuali was a jaguar would perhaps be kept in touch with the water-filled mountains associated with jaguars and with the god Tezcatlipoca, whose primary manifestation was a jaguar.

One of the most interesting and perhaps to modern minds most confusing characteristics of Aztec religion is the volatile nature of its gods. They constantly change their manifestations, appearing as anthropomorphic beings one moment and as animals the next. They borrow each others' characteristics and powers, and they constantly change into each other. We have seen how Quetzalcoatl becomes Nanahuatl who becomes the sun. The first three components of this equation all belong to the same family of gods, but at least one, the sun, is the major figure of a completely different family. Through a similar process, Quetzalcoatl can become virtually any other god. Quetzalcoatl, the bird snake, becomes the solar eagle by first becoming a dog. He can also become the sun through his snake and bird avatars. He can become Tlaloc, the rain god, through a snake, bird, or jaguar manifestation, and through a jaguar he can become Tezcatlipoca, a god who sometimes acts as his enemy but who can also become his nahuali. The nahuali relationship becomes clearer when we remember that two gods, Mixcoatl and Tepeyolotli are avatars of both Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl can become Tezcatlipoca through the intermediary stage of Mixcoatl, the Cloud Snake, who can also appear as a jaguar; and Tezcatlipoca can become Quetzalcoatl through Tepeyolotli, the Jaguar Heart of the Mountain. This is a process of universal dynamics: the two gods can act as separate parts (id and superego) of an individual psyche or as the agents of light and darkness that keep the world moving. Read in astral terms, Quetzalcoatl can be seen as the bringer of light, and Tezcatlipoca, as Xolotl, the god who takes the light out of the sky. In one myth it is Tezcatlipoca who will end the world by stealing the sun from the heavens.

In a cultic sense, humans also become gods through deity impersonation. This was particularly important in a sacrificial context, where the Ixiptla, the one sacrificed, became the god for a time. During this time, an Ixiptla might take on the god's animal characteristics, and could have been considered the god's nahuali.

If we read these transformations as functioning along the lines of nahualism, we can see animals as links between all forms of life: that is, links between any given entities in the universe. In this context, they are essential components in the grammar of the universe - a universe whose speech is not a metaphor.

Go to The Continuum of Life in Codex Borbonicus
(examples of stages in the continuum as shown
in an indigenous iconographic manuscript)

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Copyright © 1983 and 2000 by Karl Young