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.

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How to Destroy an Empire: The Rise of Tezcatlipoca and the Destruction of Tollan

The religion of the ancient Mexicans was a polytheism or worship of a pantheon of deities, the general aspect of which presented similarities to the systems of Greece and Egypt. As a matter of fact, the Nahua displayed a theological advancement quite on a level with that expressed by the Egyptians and Assyrians which were rather more nuanced and complicated.

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Red Tezcatlipoca described in the Codex Borgia.

Tezcatlipoca (“Fiery Mirror”) is a sort of equivalent of Jupiter of the Nahua pantheon. He carried a mirror in which he was supposed to see reflected the actions and deeds of mankind. Originally the personification of the air, the source both of the breath of life and of the tempest, Tezcatlipoca had all the attributes of a god who presided over these phenomena. He was the tribal god of the Tezcucans who had led them into the Land of Promise, and had been instrumental in the defeat of both the gods and men of the previous people they dispossessed. Tezcatlipoca advanced so speedily in popularity that within a comparatively short space of time he came to be regarded as a god of fate and fortune, and as inseparably connected with the national destinies.  The place he took as the head of the Nahua pantheon brought him many attributes which were quite foreign to his original character. As what happened with many other deities in pantheons all over the world, fear and a desire to exalt their tutelar deity will lead the devotees of a powerful god to credit him with any or every quality. Therefore, there is nothing remarkable in the heaping of every possible attribute, human or divine, upon Tezcatlipoca. He was known as Moneneque (“The Claimer of Prayer”), and in some of the representations of him an ear of gold was shown suspended from his hair, toward which small tongues of gold strained upward in appeal of prayer. In times of national danger, plague, or famine universal prayer was made to Tezcatlipoca. The heads of the community repaired to his teocalli (temple) accompanied by the people en masse, and all prayed earnestly together for his speedy intervention. The surviving prayers to Tezcatlipoca prove that the ancient Mexicans fully believed that he possessed the power of life and death.

As Tezcatlipoca was regarded as a life-giver, he had also the power of destroying existence. In fact on occasion he appears as a death-dealer, and as such was styled Nezahualpilli (“The Hungry Chief”) and Yaotzin (“The Enemy”). Perhaps one of the names by which he was best known was Telpochtli (“The Youthful Warrior”), from  his reserve of’ strength, his vital force and  his boisterous vigour. Tezcatlipoca was usually depicted as holding in his right hand a dart placed in an atlatl (“spear-thrower”), and his mirror-shield with four spare darts in his left. This shield is the symbol of his power as judge of mankind and upholder of human justice.

Tezcatlipoca is closely associated with the legends which recount the overthrow of Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs. His chief adversary on the Toltec side is the god-king Quetzalcoatl. In the days of Quetzalcoatl, there was abundance of everything as well as peace and plenty for all men.

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

But this blissful state was too good to last. Jealous of the calm enjoyment of Quetzalcoatl and the Toltecs, three “necromancers” plotted their downfall. They were Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca and Tlacahuepan. Tezcatlipoca  took the lead as they laid  enchantments upon the city of Tollan. Disguised as an old man with white hair, Tezcatlipoca  presented himself at the palace of Quetzalcoatl, where he said to the pages: “Pray present me to your master, I desire to speak with him.”

Although the pages advised him that Quetzalcoatl was ill and could see no one, Tezcatlipoca insisted to wait outside. Eventually, he was admitted into the chamber of Quetzalcoatl. Upon entering the chamber, Tezcatlipoca feigned sympathy with the suffering god-king. “How are you, my son?” he asked. “I have brought you a drug which you should drink, and which will put an end to the course of your malady.”

Quetzalcoatl drank the potion, and at once felt much better. Tezcatlipoca gave him another and then another cup of the potion, but it was nothing but pulque, the wine of the country. Quetzalcoatl soon became intoxicated, and became putty in Tezcatlipoca’s hands.

Quetzalcoatl_and_Tezcatlipoca

Tezcatlipoca then took the form of a man of the name of Toueyo, and went to the palace of Uemac, chief of the Toltecs in temporal matters. Uemac had a daughter so beautiful that she was desired for marriage by many of the Toltecs. The princess, in seeing the form of Toueyo passing her father’s palace, fell deeply in love with him – so in love that her feelings for her rendered her ill. Upon realizing the reason for this illness, Uemac gave orders for the arrest of Toueyo, and he was haled before the temporal chief of Tollan. Although angry at the handsome youth, Uemac said, “if I slay you my daughter will perish. Go to her and say that she may wed you and be happy.”

Now the marriage of Toueyo to the daughter of Uemac aroused much discontent among the Toltecs. To distract his people from this , Uemac distracted the attention of the Toltecs by announcing a war upon the neighbouring state of Coatepec.

This distraction was proven to be uneffective as, when the Toltecs arrived at the country of the men of Coatepec they placed Toueyo in ambush with his body-servants – hoping that he would be slain by their adversaries. But Toueyo and his men killed a large number of the enemy. His triumph was celebrated by Uemac. The knightly plumes were placed upon his head, and his body was painted with red and yellow – an honour reserved for those who distinguished themselves in battle.

Tezcatlipoca’s, as Toueyo, next step was to announce a great feast in Tollan, to which all the people for miles around were invited. Great crowds assembled, dancing and singing in the city to the sound of the drum. Tezcatlipoca sang to them and forced them to accompany the rhythm of his song with their feet. Faster and faster the people danced, until the pace became so furious that they were driven to madness, lost their footing, and tumbled down a deep ravine, where they were changed into rocks. Others in attempting to cross a stone bridge were changed into stones. Thus, Tezcatlipoca destroyed both the Coatepecs and the Toltecs. However, he did not stop there. On another occasion, Tezcatlipoca put on a different disguise as a valiant warrior named Tequiua, and invited all the inhabitants of Tollan and its surrounding areas to come to the flower-garden called Xochitla. When they assembled there, he attacked them with a hoe, and killed a great number of them. In panic, the survivors crushed their comrades to death.

Later, Tezcatlipoca and Tlacahuepan went to the market-place of Tollan, the former displaying upon the palm of his hand a small dancing baby. This infant was  Huitzilopochdi, the Nahua god of war. At this sight, the Toltecs crowded to get a better view, and their eagerness resulted in many being crushed to death. Even in mythology, anger makes one vulnerable. Tlacahuepan took advantage of this and advised the raging people to kill both Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. When this had been done the bodies of the slain gods gave forth such an awful discharge that thousands the Toltecs died of the pestilence. Tlacahuepan then advised them to cast out the bodies, but they discovered that the bodies were so heavy and could not be moved.

It was soon apparent to the Toltecs that their fortunes were on the wane and that the end of their empire was at hand. Quetzalcoatl, chagrined at the turn things had taken, resolved to quit Tollan. In anger, he burned all the houses which he had built, and buried his treasure of gold and precious stones in the deep valleys between the mountains. He changed the cacao-trees into mosquitoes, and he ordered all the song birds to quit the valley of Anahuac. On the road from Tollan, he discovered a great tree at a point called Quauhtitlan. There he rested, and requested his pages to hand him a mirror. Seeing himself in the polished surface, he said in defeat, “I am old,” and from that circumstance the spot was named Huehuequauhtitlan (“Old Quauhtitlan”). Proceeding on his way accompanied by musicians who played the flute, he walked until fatigue arrested his steps, and he seated himself upon a stone, on which he left the imprint of his hands. This place is called Temacpalco (“The Impress of the Hands”).

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