The Man of the Sun: The Story of Quetzalcoatl

“[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.” – Hesiod.

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“Allegory of Summer”, by Jerzy Szymonowicz (c. 1660 – 1711)

In Greek mythology, Astraea was the goddess of innocence. She was the  daughter of the Titans Astraeus, god of dusk, and Eos, goddess of dawn. Her name meant “star-maiden” and she was on the earth alongside humans during the Golden Age of Man. When the Iron Age dawned, bringing along misery and wickedness, Astraea sadly abandoned the earth and went to the skies where she transformed into the constellation virgo. When Astraea returns to Earth one day, she will once again bring the utopia that was during the Golden Age, bringing an end to human suffering.

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

In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl was regarded as “The Father of the Toltecs,” and, legend says, was the seventh and youngest son of the Toltec Abraham, Iztacmixcohuatl. Quetzalcoatl became the ruler of Tollan and, by his enlightened sway and his encouragement of the liberal arts, did much to further the advancement of his people.

Quetzalcoatl’s reign had lasted for a long enough period for the cultivated arts to develop to a satisfactory level when his country was visited by Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca gave him a draught of pulque, which intoxicated him. The doom pronounced upon him was banishment, and he was compelled to leave Anahuac.

As a new age dawned Astraea left earth, taking away the last remaining innocence known to mankind, leaving behind only emptiness. Quetzalcoatl’s exile brought about more peculiar changes upon the country. He threw away his treasures, burned his palaces, transformed the cacao-trees into mosquitoes, and banished all the birds from Tollan. His people, nonplussed at these unexpected happenings, begged him to return, but he refused. He proceeded to Tabasco, the fabled land of Tlapallan and, leaving on a raft made of serpents, floated away to the east. In the native pinturas it is noticeable that the solar disc and semidisc are almost invariably found in connection with the feathered serpent as the symbolical attributes of Quetzalcoal. The Hopi people of Mexico symbolise the sun as a serpent, tail in mouth.

Sunset, Birds, Flying, Sky, Colorful, Colors, Orange

A slightly different version of this myth is perhaps closer to Astraea’s story. It says that, in sadness, Quetzalcoatl threw himself upon a funeral pyre. His spirit rose  upward and were changed into birds of brilliant plumage. His heart also soared into the sky, and became the morning star. As Quetzalcoatl died when the star became visible, the ancient Mexicans gave him the title “Lord of the Dawn.” When he died he was invisible for four days, and for eight days he wandered in the underworld, after which time the morning star appeared and he achieved resurrection. He then ascended his throne as a god.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Quetzalcoatl is that which regards Quetzalcoatl as a god of the air. He is connected with the cardinal points, and wears the insignia of the cross which symbolises them. He has a protruding, trumpet-like mouth, for the wind-god blows. His figure suggests whirls and circles. His temples were built in circular form.

American archaeologist and ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837 – 1899) perceived in Quetzalcoatl a similar dual nature. “He is both lord of the eastern light and of the winds,” he writes (Myths of the New World) “Like all the dawn heroes, he too was represented as of white complexion, clothed in long, white robes, and, as many of the Aztec gods, with a full and flowing beard. . . . He had been overcome by Tezcatloca, the wind or spirit of night, who had descended from heaven by a spider’s web, and presented his rival with a draught supposed to confer immortality, but in fact producing an intolerable longing for home. For the wind and the light both depart when the gloaming draws near, or when the clouds spread their dark and shadowy webs along the mountains, and pour the vivifying rain upon the fields.”

An explanation of the origin of Quetzalcoatl is that which would regard him as the Man of the Sun, who has quitted his abode for a season for the purpose of teaching mankind arts which represent the first steps in civilisation. He fulfilled his mission and was displaced by new, invading, deities. Quetzalcoatl was represented as a traveller with staff in hand and, under his rule, the fruits of the earth flourished more abundantly than at any subsequent period.

Several tribes tributary to the Aztecs were in the habit of imploring Quetzalcoatl in prayer to return and free them from the intolerable bondage of the conqueror. Notable among them were the Totonacs, who passionately believed that the sun, their father, would send a god who would free them from the Aztec yoke. On the coming of the Spaniards the European conquerors were hailed as the servants of Quetzalcoatl, thus in the eyes of the natives fulfilling the tradition that he would return.

The titles bestowed upon Quetzalcoatl by the Nahua show that in his solar significance he was god of the vault of the heavens, as well as merely son of the sun. He was alluded to as Ehecatl (“The Air”), Yolcuat (“The Rattlesnake”), Tohil (“The Rumbler”), Nanihehecatl (“Lord of the Four Winds”) and Tlauizcalpantecutli (“Lord of the Light of the Dawn”). The whole heavenly vault was his, together with all its phenomena.

Snake River, Waterfall, Nature, Falls, Rocks, Outdoors
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Dance for Tlaloc: The Rain God and His People

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Carved basalt mask of Tlaloc (the rain god), Mixtec people, Oaxaca, Mexico, c. 10th-12th century

In a country such as Mexico, where the success or failure of the crops depends entirely upon the rainfall, Tlaloc, the Rain God, was a deity of high importance. He made his home in the mountains which surround the valley of Mexico, as these were the source of the local rainfall, and his popularity is vouched for by the fact that sculptured representations of him occur more often than those of any other of the Mexican deities.

Tlaloc is interesting. He is similar to such deities as the Hurakan of the Kiche of Guatemala, the Pillan of the aborigines of Chile, and Con, the thunder-god of the Collao of Peru. The small difference between Tlaloc and these other gods is that his thunderous powers are not so apparent as his rain-making abilities.

Tlaloc is generally represented in a semi-recumbent attitude. His upper body were raised upon the elbows, and his knees were half drawn up, probably to represent the mountainous character of the country where the rain came from. He was married to Chalchihuitlicue (Emerald Lady), who bore him a numerous children, the Tlalocs (Clouds). Many of the figures which represented him were carved from jade, to typify the colour of water, and in some of these he was shown holding a a serpent of gold to typify the lightning, for water-gods are often closely identified with the thunder, which hangs over the hills and accompanies heavy rains.

Tlaloc manifested himself in three forms, as the lightning-flash, the thunderbolt, and the thunder. Although his image faced the east, where he was supposed to have originated, he was worshipped as inhabiting the four cardinal points and every mountain-top. The colours of the four points of the compass, yellow, green, red, and blue, where the rain-bearing winds come from, entered into the composition of his costume, which was further crossed with streaks of silver, typifying the mountain torrents. A vase containing every description of grain was usually placed in front of his idol, an offering of the growth that, hopefully, he could make more fertile.

Tlaloc lived in a watered paradise called Tlalocan (The Country of Tlaloc), a place of abundance where those who had been drowned or struck by lightning or had died from dropsical diseases enjoyed eternal bliss. The common people who did not die such deaths went to the dark abode of Mictlan, the all-devouring and gloomy Lord of Death.

In manuscripts, Tlaloc is usually portrayed as having a dark complexion, a large round eye, a row of tusks. Over his lips was an angular blue stripe curved downward and rolled up at the ends. The later character is supposed to have been evolved originally from the coils of two snakes, their mouths with long fangs in the upper jaw meeting in the middle of the upper lip. The snake, besides being symbolised by lightning in many American mythologies, is also symbolical of water, which is well typified in its sinuous movements.

The Nahua believed that the constant production of food and rain induced senility in those deities who were providing them. In trying to stave this off, the people offer the gods a period of rest and recuperation. Once in eight years a festival called the Atamalqualiztli (Fast of Porridge-balls and Water) was held, during which every one in the Nahua community returned for the time being to living primitively. Dressed in costumes representing all forms of animal and bird life, and mimicking the sounds made by the various creatures they typified, the people danced round the teocalli of Tlaloc to entertain him after his labours in producing the fertilising rains of the past eight years. A lake was filled with water-snakes and frogs, into which the people plunged, catching the reptiles in their mouths and devouring them alive. The only grain food which could be eaten during this season of rest was thin water-porridge of maize.

Should one of the more prosperous peasants or yeomen felt that a rainfall was necessary for the growth of his crops, or should he fear a drought, he sought out one of the professional makers of dough or paste idols to mould one of Tlaloc. He would then make offerings of maize-porridge and pulque to this image. Throughout the night the farmer and his neighbours danced, shrieking and howling round the figure for the purpose of rousing Tlaloc from his slumbers. Next day was spent in rest after the exertions of the previous night.

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Huitzilopochli: the Birth of a War God

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Aztec Warriors (Eagle Warrior at the left and Jaguar Warrior at the right) brandishing a macuahuitl (a wooden club with sharp obsidian blades). (Florentine Codex)

In the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli occupied a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. In ancient Roman religon, Mars was the god of war and a guardian of agriculture – a rather strange combination, but characteristic of early Rome. Second in importance only to Jupiter, Mars was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Although origin of Huitzilopochtli is obscure, the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character.

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Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. By Luidger – Luidger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue (“skirt of snakes”). She had four hundred sons and a daughter called Coyolxauhqui (“”Painted with Bells”). Every day, she went to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit of piety. One day, while she was occupied in her devotions, a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers fell upon her from above. Pleased by the bright variety of its hues, Coatlicue placed it in her breast, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant with another child. Hearing this, her sons rained abuse upon her, incited by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety, but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother. They put on their war-gears, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed his brothers’ plan to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli replied to him: “O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I know what is about to happen.” With the intention of slaying their mother, the four hundred sons went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill Coatlicue.

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Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to tell Huitzilopochtli that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

“Mark well where they are,” replied the infant god. “To what place have they advanced?”

“To Tzompantitlan,” responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: “Where may they be now?”

“At Coaxalco”, was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

“They are now at Petlac,” Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy’s arrival, Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and a blue spear. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then chase Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli means “Humming-bird to the left” as he wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. However, the explanation of Huitzilopochtli’s origin is a little deeper than this. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear and warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, for example, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlantona (“Robe of Serpents”). Huitzilopochtli’s image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In many mythologies the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as “Feathered Serpent”. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior’s dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing a waving panache or plume of hummingbirds’ feathers on his head. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle’s down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight because Hultzilopochtli symbolised the warrior’s death on the gladiatorial stone of combat.

Huitzilopochtli was more than just a war-god. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian people of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They see it also as the symbol of life, because the serpent has a phallic significance due of its similarity to the symbol of fertility. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo people of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with its tail in its mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun.

The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rainmaker to exert his powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

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