Quetzalcoatl: Man Or Myth?

Quetzalcoatl: Man Or Myth?

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The Legend of Quetzalcoatl: Man or Myth?
From the beginning of the Toltec reign in Central Mexico, the deity Quetzalcoatl has been a central figure in the religion and culture of Mexico. This is undisputed. What can be disputed, however, is Quetzalcoatl’s legitimacy as an historical figure. The deity Quetzalcoatl, or the “plumed serpent” is inseparable from the man Ce Acatl Topitlzin Quetzalcoatl, known to be a famous leader in pre-historical Mexican myth. The dissection becomes more difficult still as the Spanish friars introduced Christianity and in an attempt to assimilate the Indians, created a parallel between Indian deity Quetzalcoatl and the Catholic figure St. Thomas. In doing so, the priests hoped to incorporate Indian culture and religion into Christianity. In the process, however, they changed and damaged the pre-Christian notions of the god. What information we have now of Quetzalcoatl must be recognized as flawed over the centuries, and we must take this into account when trying to examine the historical origins of one of the three figures. However, with cautious examination, we can separate these three figures and determine each one’s traits independent of the others’.
To understand the mythical figure Quetzalcoatl, the first of the trinity to emerge, one must look further in to the religious belief of the pre-Columbian peoples. In the Classical period, Quetzalcoatl represented a sort of binary opposition between earth and heaven, visible in his name, quetzalli, or “precious green feather”, and coatl, the “serpent.” “Precious green feather,” according to Enrique Florescano, referred to a bird, which in the Classical period symbolized the heavens. Coatl, the serpent, symbolized earth, and so the mythical creature Quetzalcoatl was a link between the two, present before the Toltec civilization began, and gave birth to the image of twins, one of life, fertility and order (the bird) and the other representing the fatality of death (the serpent) . Yet the link between the immortal and the mortal was further construed by the Classical Period Indians than even the symbolism of the bird and serpent. The binary oppositions within day and night, also the Morning Star and the Evening Star became entangled within the earliest surviving myths of Quetzalcoatl.
There is a fine line between the religious and the mythological in Pre-Columbian Mexico. While Quetzalcoatl began as a symbolic interpretation to link life and death, or the gods and humans, his purpose soon extended to an intercessor between the two, symbolic in the ball court game which he is attributed with founding .

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The game was played by the young, able-bodied men, and while the year of the game’s origins can only be speculated, MacLachlan and Rodriguez speculate the game came only a few generations after the establishment of agriculture by the Olmecs, since it was at this point that the Indians would rely on the deities for ample rain and fertility to survive. However, Florescano disagrees, stating the first use of the ball court as designed by the Mayans that the loser might be decapitated, his spurting blood to “water the netherworld” with precious human blood to bring fertility in crops . While this tradition of human sacrifice did not begin until many years after Quetzalcoatl had been recognized as a deity, it will become relevant later on to the Aztecs must choose whether their worship of Quetzalcoatl will be violent, as Huitztelapochtli requests, or peaceful as Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl requested of his followers.
While Quetzalcoatl the deity’s roots can be traced with ease to the ideology of the Toltecs, whose high priest and ruler Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a follower of the mythological god, the ideological origins of Quetzalcoatl are ambiguous. We know that he did not exist around 1200 B.C., when the Olmecs are conjectured to have become an independent civilization. However, it seems apparent that he had emerged by the year 100 A.D. when Teotihuacan began its reign as the most powerful city in MesoAmerica . According to Laurette Sejourne, Quetzalcoatl the man emerged approximately the time of Christ, nearly 100 years before the establishment of Teotihuacan . According to David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl the man was even responsible for the establishment of Teotihuacan . This makes it difficult to know whether Carrasco was referring to Quetzalcoatl the man or the god, since it would have been possible for either to have been adapted and misconstrued over the past 2,000 years. While these numbers conflict in their establishment of a chronological order to the birth of Quetzalcoatl, they do convey importance in that when considering the rise of Quetzalcoatl as a deity, we must take into account that the historical figure Quetzalcoatl was also influencing the legends associated with his deity .
According to most sources, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is born in the religiously significant year of 1 Acatl, the beginning of a new cycle of the Meso-American calendar passed down from the Olmecs. To understand the calendar, we must backtrack just a few years to the Olmecs’ amazing ability to trace the solar and lunar calendars. The solar calendar, of 365 days per year, had a symbol or animal with specific characteristics assigned to it for each day. The lunar calendar, only 260 days, had the same sort of principle, with an animal or symbol assigned to each day. Each day would be recorded by both its solar and lunar symbols, and when the calendars each reached the final day of their year simultaneously, the solar-lunar cycle would begin again. For all Mexican cultures, this had a profound impact on the way they believed the universe worked. According to Adela Fernandez, the Toltecs and later peoples believed that the gods, like the rest of the universe they could observe, was cyclical . Day and night, the seasons, and life itself was cyclical. The gods, who had little care for humans, would determine whether or not the cycle would begin again, and if it did, then the cycle of life would not be interrupted for another 52 years. Therefore, it is significant that Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was born at the beginning of a new 52-year cycle because if there were to be any changes to Mexican religion and culture, it would most likely correspond with this date.
It was also believed by some followers of the cult of the Plumed Serpent that Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was the incarnate of the god himself. As Sejourne says, “the historical reality [of Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl] seems to be established without a doubt, since his qualities as a leader are many times mentioned.” While some aspects of his biography are not credible as historical data (such as his mother being a member of the immaculate conception) and his father being the god Mixcoatl (Serpent of the Clouds), we can use this biography to imply how Ce Acatl was revered by his followers. According to Nigel Davies, Mixcoatl is similar to Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, cine he too was most likely a human figure as well as a god. Davies claims that Mixcoatl may have been a victim of divination after his death, and this would explain the contradiction of Quetzalcoatl being born from an immaculate conception. What information we have of Quetzalcoatl is most likely that passed on through oral tradition, with some gleaned from hieroglyphics, and the archaeological excavation of Tula. Yet most of this information must have been passed down by the followers of Quetzalcoatl, who it is likely believed that Chimalman (Quetzalcoatl’s mother) conceived immaculately. This is not so much of a stretch for a people who see Quetzalcoatl as a champion of the people and great religious leader.
According to almost all sources, Quetzalcoatl was a leader of the Cult of Quetzalcoatl, and also a cultural innovator with which few could compare. He established the city of Tula for himself and his followers, and made himself King and high priest, and through his excellent leadership made Tula “a place of peace and without hunger”. A champion of the people, he made Tula a cultural center for North-Central Mexico for nearly thirty years before warring peoples and political unrest ended Ce Acatl’s peaceful reign.
There are several versions of Ce Acatl’s exile from Tula, one of the most accurate by Carrasco’s standards coming from the merging of the Codex Florentine and the Vaticanus A copy . Each source has some flaws and missing details of the exile, but merging the two of them together, that warring factions of Tula became blood-thirsty and demanded that the followers of Quetzalcoatl also begin serving Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl’s nemesis, who demanded human sacrifice as well as vioelnt wars. After the emergence of this counterculture, Tula was plagued with famine and perhaps some sort of plague, and in fear of revolt, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl led a small group of followers from the city of Tula to the East, towards either the Gulf of Mexico or the Yucatan Peninsula. Ce Acatl vows one day to return and avenge those who did not follow him, then vanishes.
On the most basic level, this is the story of Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, but what is more interesting than surmising what facts we know to be true about Quetzalcoatl is trying to discern which events actually happened to Ce Acatl, how the myth became entangled in the truth, and what caused the myth to change over the years. Quetzalcoatl the deity has become entangled in legend with 9 Ehecatl (9 Wind) even more than it has become intertwined with the human being of the same name. 9 Ehecatl is a god of approximately the same age as Quetzalcoatl yet of Eastern Mexico rather than Olmec origin. What is truly ironic about the melding of these two gods is that in personality and characteristics, they have little in common with the other. However, between 900 and 1000 A.D., they begin to mesh together, also taking on the characteristics of Venus, believed by many Indians to be the Morning Star and Evening Star.
It seems that most of the mixture between the lives of Ce Acatl and Quetzalcoatl the deity occurred after the death of Ce Acatl, and the large majority of this myth deals with Ce Acatl’s promise to return in the year 1 Ce Acatl (a Reed year) to bring revenge on those who caused him to abdicate the throne of Tulla. Statements such as this may have given the Indians reason to believe that Ce Acatl was a god, if he could promise to return nearly 52 years from that day. Also, him threatening of such power seems to be something only a god would do-mortals would have no way to back up this claim. If we knew that Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl actually made a statement like this, it would make sense to say that Ce Acatl considered himself a god and unified with the deity Quetzalcoatl. What seems more likely, however, is that this prophecy was only part truth fabricated by Ce Acatl’s followers. It may be that after his exile, they began to see him as a god-like figure and made up his claim to return. Yet another option is that Ce Acatl did promise to return, yet had no intentions of returning so far in the future.
It is impossible for us to know exactly what Ce Acatl prophesied that day, because all accounts we receive more than 1,000 years later have been exposed to the same contamination as the myth we already have. What is clear is that Quetzalcoatl’s promise to return in the year 1 Reed had a profound impact on the Indians in the Classical and Post-Classical period. According to myth, we know that Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a man of light skin and a beard. This, too would have a uge effect on the Aztecs and Moctezuma II later in Mexican history, when Hernando Cortes is seen by the Aztecs as the returning Quetzalcoatl, avenging his throne . While this will be discussed in much greater detail later on, it is an excellent example of how powerful the words of Quetzalcoatl were to the Indians. Perhaps they were not worshipping him when Cortes came to conquer Mexico, but words such as these, true or not were important enough to have been passed down for more than 500 years of Mexican history, speaking of their importance to the Indians.
To understand the character of Quetzalcoatl seen by the Indians, it is important to examine myths not dealing directly with the incarnation of Quetzalcoatl as Ce Acatl. By examining these myths, many of which date to the period before period before Ce Acatl, we can distinguish which qualities were associated with the deity before he was associated with a human being. According to Florescano,
In the creation of the cosmos, four creative powers intervene: earth, wind, fire, an water. These primordial elements and their interrelations imply a history of creation. Therefore, the primoridal gods participate directly in the formation of the cosmos.
The gods who then begin to patronize the creation of the sun and humanity are moe connected to the destiny of human beings, the most prominent being Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl. According to Nahuatl tradition, in addition to creating powers of the cosmological cycle and one of the four supports holding up the sky, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl directly participates in the creation of the fifth sun an in the generation of new humanity.

To explain what this means in terms of mythological qualities of Quetzalcoatl, it is necessary to understand the Nahuatl creation story (similar to the Five Suns myth of the Aztecs in most aspects). The Nahuatl tradition inherently believed by the Toltecs and Aztecs after them tells of four previous creations of life before the current cycle of life in Mexico. As a creation god, we do not know if Quetzalcoatl was attributed with all of the previous four creations, but it is apparent that as a creator god, he had sufficient power to destroy the world also as he and the other gods of creation saw fit. According to Florescano’s passage, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl did not create the world surrounding the Indians, but even more significant, the Indians themselves. As the sole creator of humanity, humans should worship Quetzalcoatl for his mercy and generosity in their creation. Therefore, we know that he was considered to be a kind yet all-powerful god. Kind because he created humanity as the Indians knew it, but all-powerful because, if I understand this correctly, he had created four other cosmos that he, with the other gods, had destroyed. This myth appears to date back to before the time of Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, for if he was the leader of a cult to worship Quetzalcoatl, his supremacy must have already been well established.
     To go back to the tales of Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s reign in Tula, however, this conflicts slightly. In Ancient Mexico, Jaqueline Cantrell claims that “the young Priest-King Quetzalcoatl believed in only one god-the ancient Feathered Serpent Deity, Quetzalcoatl.” However, this means that Ce Acatl is rejecting what we assume to be common belief of socialization in Toltecs peoples: the story of creation. While at first site this is puzzling, it can be resolved by looking closely at Ce Acatl’s actions in moving from the city of Culhuacan to Tula. It seems that in doing so, he is establishing his people as a cult not necessarily agreeing with a large portion of religious myths told before his rise to power. If he had agreed completely with the socialization of the time, it seems that he would not have taken the initiative to move the Toltec capital. It seems Ce Acatl’s move, while cited by Cantrell as “for reasons unknown to us,” has some significance with Ce Acatl’s decision to become High Priest of the Cult of Quetzalcoatl, since he could then help reshape the notions of creation in Tulteca Mexico to include only the creation deity of Quetzalcoatl.
     The monotheistic belief of Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl of the Toltecs somehow became lost within the period 978 A.D. (when several sources claim that Ce Acatl abdicated from Tula) and the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries when the Aztec empire began to rise in Central Mexico. By the time the Aztec myths are scribed, the names and qualities of the god Quetzalcoatl and his nemesis Tezcatlipoca have changed drastically. Whereas Quetzalcoatl’s father among Toltecs myths is Mixtec, the Serpent of the Clouds, in Aztec mythology the deity Ometeotl (“God of Duality”) fathers both Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, and as twins they have many of the binary oppositions spoken of earlier. According to Taube:
Sometimes allies and sometimes adversaries, [Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca] create the heavens and the earth. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, is widely identified with water, fertility and, by extension, life itself… Whereas Quetzalcoatl is portrayed as a benevolent culture hero and identified with balance, harmony and life, Tezcatlipoca represents conflict and change.

It is this conflict between the brothers that in the Five Suns Myth leads to the creation of humanity. The myth claims that the multiple creations of the earth are the actions of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, and their constant warring and attempts to outwit and outdo each other. Along with two other brothers, they make ire, the heavens, earth, sea and underworld, the first human couple, and the sacred calendar. Each brother rules one world, with Quetzalcoatl ruling over the second creation, that of the Sun of Wind. It is destroyed by Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl and his people are carried off by fierce winds. As the myth continues, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca (who in some versions is divided into two brothers Red Tezcatlipoca and Black Tezcatlipoca) war with their other brother Huitzlapochtli through the creations of the first four destroyed civilizations, but then ally themselves to make the fifth and currently reigning creation. However, as they have done before, it is possible for the brothers to become angry at each other at any time and sabotage the current creation, making life something not to be taken for granted. It is this myth of the Four previous suns that leads Aztec peoples to believe in impending doom for humanity, especially important when Cortes lands in Mexico with intents to conquer it.
     The Five Suns Myth also gives us insight into the character Quetzalcoatl as he is seen through the eyes of the Aztecs. Whereas he was offered butterflies and serpents by the Toltecs and is essentially a god of kindness, mercy, and peace, he is much more violent in Aztec myth. In the story of Quetzalcoatl’s fall from power in Tula, he does not try to avenge his honor against Tezcatlipoca, nor does he call all of his followers to arms to help him stay in power after he commits incestuous acts with his sister and breaks the moral codes of his cult. Rather, he chooses to leave peacefully with a promise to return, but even this promise seems to be made without excessive anger and more calmly than one might expect from one who has just had to give up all power and leave his people. However, in Aztec myth, Quetzalcoatl fights violently with his brothers, and seems to have little difference from their conniving ways. Perhaps the change is just an evolution of a myth already several hundred years old, but it seems likely that the myth’s violence coincides with the ideology of the Aztec people.
     Within Aztec religion, all four of the brothers/ deities were worshipped, because the Aztec people believed that any or all of the four gods could bring forth the destruction of the world. It is this belief, as well as many other complex ideologies of the sanctity and value of human life, that lead to the great of irony of human sacrifice to the deity of passivity and life. However, human sacrifice took place in Aztec society for more than 600 years. According to Nigel Davies, priests of Quetzalcoatl took full part in human sacrifice ceremonies, disregarding any previous beliefs against the relevance of human bloodshed. Davies claims that it is only after the conquest of Mexico by Spain that there were attempts to “whitewash the god, and to portray him as squeamishly averse to bloodshed,” then goes on to say that these attempts to portray Quetzalcoatl as once-again passive “have been given more credit than they deserve.” What we do know about the Aztecs is that they often used territorial expansion and conquest as a means of practicing their religion, namely to gain prisoners for later human sacrifice, yet on a larger scale than the conquest and spread of religion by the Olmecs.
     Aztec religion embodies a complex ideology of both the value and importance of life to the Aztec Indians (and humans in general) and the “cheapness” of life to the gods. To quickly summarize the logic behind human sacrifice, life itself is the most valuable thing humans have, and because the gods have the ability to destroy humanity at any time, it is only logical that to appease them (and hopefully to prolong the time before humanity was destroyed) the Aztecs must offer to the gods their most valuable possession. To Quetzalcoatl, the god of life itself, the Aztecs reasoned that this would be a compliment and display of gratitude for his creation. Therefore, human sacrifices were an integral part of Aztec life. While many countries today try to separate their government from religion, the Aztecs incorporated religion into every aspect of life, including government, day to chores, art, and the socialization of their children.
     To complicate matters further, refer back to the banishment myth of Quetzalcoatl, when he threatened that he would return in a year I Reed to avenge his enemies for not being willing to serve him. As Aztec legend of the Five Suns myth is merged with the Quetzalcoatl banishment, it becomes apparent why the Aztecs believed that if Quetzalcoatl returned to Tenochtitlan, they would not be serving him to the means he demanded, and would decided, as he had before, to destroy creation. Therefore, the Aztecs had a distinct fear of Quetzalcoatl’s returning during any year 1 Reed and destroying the earth. To try and appease Quetzalcoatl, when he returned in a year 1 Reed, they committed more sacrifices than normal, believing that their offering of life would persuade him to postpone destruction. This process repeated itself over and over for more than three hundred years of Aztec reign, each Reed year sacrificing huge numbers of Indians, the world not ending, and then thanking the gods for their kindness with the sacrifice of more humans. The more 52-year cycles the Aztecs survived, the more they believed the next cycle would be the end.
The cycle passed repeatedly until the year 1519, when “Quetzalcoatl” returned to bring destruction upon his people. He landed on the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula, sailing slowly North and conquering small Indian groups as he went. Word quickly reached Moctezuma II, then ruler of the Aztecs, of the man of light skin and beard, who brought new weapons that seemed to render the Indian battle techniques useless. Also, he did not take captives in his battles, but rather killed all he came in contact with in battle. By the Aztec reasoning, no human would consider killing warriors rather than taking them prisoner. Therefore, a man who could dispose of life so freely must be a god, logically Quetzalcoatl because of his light skin and the fact that it was a Reed year.
In retrospect, we know that it was not Quetzalcoatl reincarnate who returned to the Aztecs, but rather Hernando Cortes, Spanish conquistador and one of the first few Europeans to land on the Americas. The weapons he carried were those of European combat, such as steel swords and cannons with gunpowder, as were his battle techniques. Yet Cortes, a man of wit and scheme did not deny these rumors of his return as Quetzalcoatl. We know from any history book that Cortes was able to conquer the entire area known as Mexico for Spain in a reasonably short period of time. And often we speak of the reasons for his speedy conquer as if they were absolutes. Yet there is more to the story dealing with the legend of Quetzalcoatl. It is no mystery that Cortes did not deny himself as Quetzalcoatl, and was therefore believed to be so, but there is more involved in the Aztecs’ belief that Cortes was the Plumed Serpent, and also how Cortes was able to us one psychological gain such as this to conquer a nation.
According to Laurette Sejourne, the events leading to the fall of the Aztec empire and the rise of the colonial New Spain are some of the most important in all of Mexican history. In light of the events following Moctezuma II’s death, I tend to agree with her. The Spanish conquistadors had many advantages, other than sheer overpowering of Indian troops that led to the defeat of Mexico. These included the tactical advantages afforded the Europeans from their constant need to maintain their countries. No strategic warfare of any kind was used by the Aztecs, but rather the Aztecs bringing an overpowering number of soldiers to fight, taking a large percentage of the opposing army captive, and going back to celebrate their victory. This, however, was nothing like European fighting, leading the Aztecs to believe, because of huge losses, that the men of Cortes were the men of Quetzalcoatl, back to take revenge on the bloodthirsty Aztecs, who had not been serving him as he had requested service.
Also, while the Aztec believed that Quetzalcoatl might have sailed over the ocean to another country, or perhaps had ascended into the heavens to observe them. Yet other than this belief that Quetzalcoatl might have disappeared to the East (which may have been added in the codices written after the Conquest, therefore incorporating knowledge that was known by the author but not the Aztecs of pre-European contact), there was little belief that other groups existed outside the Americas. The Aztecs, having conquered the vast majority of land in their area, would have had little need to improve their military, or even to fight in more than minor skirmishes. Therefore, the army Cortes faced in Tenochtitlan may have been an army weaker than normal, even by Aztec standards. The Aztecs were by no means prepared for the army of Cortes that they faced. They may have had more warriors, but the Aztec warriors were often young men with training in combat, but not in the art of killing: that was left up to the priests.
Whatever the cause, we know that when Cortes reached Tenochtitlan he was welcomed by Moctezuma’s government as the god Quetzalcoatl and shown great honor, including feasts and personal attention from Moctezuma. According to David Carrasco, this attention was ironic for a number of reasons, the first being that a
Return of Quetzalcoatl uncovered an atmosphere of cosmic instability and cultural inferiority that had apparently plagued he Aztec capital since its foundation. While the Aztecs had claimed divine right to Toltec legitimacy and ordered their capital according to the cosmo-magical formulas of ancient capitals, they suffered the anxiety that their authority was illegitimate and their city would be subject to a lethal blow from the gods, namely Quetzalcoatl.

So it was most likely, according to Carrasco, that Moctezuma was trying to make the god Quetzalcoatl feel welcome and worshipped, while also being wary of the god’s motives. It seems logical that if Quetzalcoatl were going to take revenge on the citizens of Tenochtitlan and creation itself, he would not act as Cortes did, marching in with a great army of followers to merely occupy the city (which seemed like Cortes/ Quetzalcoatl’s first intentions. If the city was rightfully his, why did he sit by for any time and allow Moctezuma to rule what he would consider his own city?
     Moctezuma, according again to Carrasco, was willing to abdicate his throne when he believed that it was actually Quetzalcoatl who had arrived. He even refers to him ina message, as “our lord the god,” and later in the message says, “Here is what he [Mocetezuma} giveth thee, for [the god] had come to reach his humble home in Mexico. The messengers then proceed by dressing Cortes in the outfit of Quetzalcoatl, leaving little doubt to anyone that Moctezuma believe at some point that his rule in Mexico was over (ironically, it is, but not because of Quetzalcoatl’s reign).
     Only weeks later, as Cortes has left Tenochtitlan for the coast but left his troops in the city, El Noche Triste occurs, and Moctezuma is killed during a ceremony to honor the gods, hit in the head by a stone. The priests are slain by the Spanish conquistadors, and the city of Tenochtitlan, as well as the entire Aztec Empire fall into shambles. The people, while they now do not know if it was Quetzalcoatl who has destroyed them, realize they are defeated, both physically and psychologically. It is almost immediately that the Spanish begin to colonize the area, first by Cortes’s conquistadors who are given encomiendas, but also by the Catholics clergy, coming to Christianize the heathen Indians. It is at this point that Quetzalcoatl’s power is once again brought to the forefront of Mexican consciousness.
     It is not long after the Aztec concession of its land to Spain that the friars begin their exodus to the new land, with hopes of teaching the pagans of Mexico about Christianity. The first missionaries to enter New Spain do so are well established by 1531, when their teachings will inevitably lead to the sightings of the Virgen de Guadalupe. However, it is within their first years in the Americas, when they are trying more to understand the Aztec beliefs and learn the language, that the connection between Quetzalcoatl and Saint Thomas begin to be made, first with little acknowledgment of their ability to prove to the Indians that the Christian god indeed applied to them. The first priests to enter Aztec villages for ministry did not realize how difficult their job of converting the Indians would prove to be. The Indians, which as stated before had a polytheistic belief system, readily believed that the European god existed, and even consented to worship him. At first, the priests were thrilled at their ability to baptize even thousands of Indians within a short period of time. However, their victory was short-lived, as they realized the Indians outwardly agreed to worship the Christian god, yet did not give up their worship of pagan gods, also. For them to believe that the Christian god existed was simple; for them to see him as the only god who existed was difficult. They did not even believe when Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, their cultural hero, claimed Quetzalcoatl was the only god, yet they were expected to believe that a Christian god they had never heard of before was?
     It did not take long for the priests to realize they would have to incorporate some aspect of Indian mythology and religion into Christianity to truly convert the Indians. As they became more familiar with Aztec history and mythology, the priests noticed a link between the god and cultural hero Quetzalcoatl, who had traveled supposedly across the Atlantic Ocean, and the Saint Thomas, who had claimed to go to India and the Far East to evangelize the natives.
     There were many reasons that Saint Thomas was assumed to be the Aztec’s cultural hero Quetzalcoatl, not all reasons because of the historical fact behind the story. The story of Saint Thomas as the missionary did not originally include the Americas. Originally, Saint Thomas was the missionary to the Indies and China, and according to legend and accounts from missionaries who visited China in later years who heard of his visits, he retired in the Indies. Yet as the age of discovery had dawned, and the world’s geography was being remapped, it became apparent to the Franciscan missionaries that what had previously been referred to as the East where Saint Thomas had settled may actually have been the West (namely, Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula). It was by the geography of Ptolemy ad Christopher Columbus that the pinpointing of Saint Thomas envangelizing the east was made. However, this same geography included everything south of Europe on the African coast as Guinea, and the boundaries of China (Cathay), India, and Japan to be defined during this time period. America was considered to be an extension of Asia for approximately half a century after its discovery, perhaps leading the Fransiscan monks to believe that Saint Thomas had merely gone further East to retire from his journeys to China, rather than returning to the West. Needless to say, they claimed that Saint Thomas was actually Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, and in some aspects, this made sense. Jesuits were the first to notice some Christian symbolism in the customs of the Mexican Indians, such as symbolic crosses (which the Jesuits interpreted as Cruciform signs), as well as ritual custom of fasting. While these signs did not mean that the Indians had been evangelized enough by Saint Thomas to actually change their religion, these slight remnants of Western culture of the times gave the Jesuits reason to believe some Western civilization contact had been made, most likely by a religious missionary because of the types of Western customs that had supposedly been passed down.
     While there may have some argument that Westerners had visited the country before its rediscovery by Columbus (similarly as we believe the Vikings may have landed in the Northern tip of Canada and the United States approximately the same time), the decision to make Saint Thomas the cultural hero Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl is in some ways arbitrary in its historical proof, but brilliant in the strategy. The first to put the Quetzalcoatl-St. Thomas theory into words was Father Duran, who stated that the historical Quetzalcoatl “ was a very venerable and religious person whom the Indians greatly revered; they honored him and felt as much reverence for him as if her were a saint.” Yet this is the beginning of many coincidences that seemed to point to a Christian missionary, most pointed out by Duran in his Historias de los Indians. These include one recitation of the exile of Quetzalcoatl that began to include details from Exodus chapter 14,as well as a book claimed to be burned six years earlier because the Indians could not read the writing. According again to Duran, this book was most likely a copy of the Bible, written in Hebrew. Duran’s next claim of Quetzalcoatl’s relationship to Saint Thomas began with Ce Acatl’s prophecy to return and take revenge upon his enemies in the year of I Reed. Taking the Indian’s word that Quetzalcoatl was a fair-skinned man with a beard (who could not be of Indian descent, since almost no Indians can grow facial hair), Duran stated Quetzalcoatl must have been of Aryan descent. Duran also claimed that Saint Thomas, as Quetzalcoatl, had predicted the invasion of the Europeans more than five hundred years before the conquest. This, too, was a claim which would remain unproven.
With little evidence, it seems likely that this postulation would have been immediately dismissed, but it instead became more widely recognized and believed by the Indians. Realizing that the myth relating the Indians to Christianity was making more of an impact than most of their past years of mission work, the Catholic missionaries encouraged the belief. To the Indians, the idea of Quetzalcoatl incorporated Western Christianity into Mexico, and also gave them reason to believe the Western God had a purpose for their future, which up to that point had been uncertain, since they were being displaced from the way of life they had held for hundreds of years. On the other hand, it seems to me that the Indians should have been insulted by this claim that one of the most important historical figures in their culture was being taken from his Toltec heritage, or his possibility of being a deity, and being assigned a Western title, essentially claiming he was not an Indian. It seems that this sort of claim that the hugely popular Quetzalcoatl was not a true Indian would cause offense among some Aztecs.
Even with the legend of Quetzalcoatl-St. Thomas, Catholicism did not begin to flourish to its greatest heights until the year 1531, with the sighting of the Virgin Mary at Guadalupe, slightly outside today’s Mexico City. In the story, Indian Juan Diaz is walking in a field when he sights the Virgin Mary, who appearing Mexican in features, tell Juan Diaz to go to his Bishop, for she desires that a church be built on the sight she stands. Amazed, Juan Diaz runs to the Bishop, who doesn’t believe him. Juan Diaz goes back to the field to speak to the Virgin, and as he speaks a rosebush appears, and Mary instructs Juan to take the petals back to the Bishop, who turns out to be a cultivator of roses. Juan spills the rose petals out of his cape, and to his awe, the imprint of the Virgin Mary is on his cape. Needless to say, a basilica is built on the site. Yet the impact of the Virgin sighting at Guadalupe is not my reason for mentioning this story.
The Virgin did lead the way to thousands of Indian conversions to Christianity, but more curious is the impact of her figure on Juan Diaz’s cape. In this picture, as well as many other pictorials of Mary drawn in Mexico after the sighting, Mary is depicted as stomping a snake under her feet. While the traditional interpretation of this occurrence refers to Satan, of Christianity, the snake under Mary’s feet may have a secondary significance.
The serpent, in Nahuatl tongue, coatl, is an extremely common religious symbol in Aztec mythology and belief. Not only does it appear in the names and drawings of Quetzalcoatl and Mixcoatl, but it also is the archetypal figure for death and evil. Mary’s trampling of the snake, therefore, can be interpreted two ways: first, she is standing, (or trampling) upon the Aztec religion, which by her appearance, she has subverted, including the legend of Quetzalcoatl, associated with the snake. Secondly, it may be Mary’s use of the traditional symbolism of Mexico, as was done in the legend of Saint Thomas as Quetzalcoatl, to bring the Indians to Christianity.
It is often this sighting of Mary in Mexico, as a Mexican woman of dark features, no less, that leads us to compare the two religions. The Virgen de Guadalupe is seems to be the thread that brings Indians from their traditional beliefs to a belief in Christianity. However, their traditional beliefs, in some aspects, are quite similar to Christianity without this bond. Quetzalcoatl, for example, has many qualities similar to Jesus Christ himself. The first of these qualities is his birth from the Virgin Chimalman, who like Mary, was impregnated by a deity. Just as Christ, Quetzalcoatl claims to be the incarnate of a God, specifically one of life, and also believes in a monotheistic religion, with Quetzalcoatl as the only god. Later, he is plotted against by evil Tezcatlipoca (or Satan), who wants the sacrifice of humans (or humanity, in Satan’s case), and Quetzalcoatl and Jesus Christ both leave of free will, promising to return and reclaim their crowns. While Quetzalcoatl had some similarities with the legend of Saint Thomas, he compares much more closely with the center of Christianity, Jesus Christ.
It seems strange to me, based on the striking similarities between Jesus Christ and Quetzalcoatl, that we automatically assume that the story of Christ happened in all literal terms, yet in the case of Quetzalcoatl, immediately resign it to legend-only. This is not to say that I believe that Quetzalcoatl was actually born of a virgin. While both characters more-than-likely walked the earth, the rest of their lives seem to be legend, which can only be proven by faith. The Shroud of Turin cannot carbon date correctly; the codices describing the life of Quetzalcoatl in its entirety were all burned in a zealous attempt to psychologically defeat the Aztecs who still believed in their native religion.
If the Catholic priests had intended to convince the Aztecs of the Christian religion from the beginning, they should have incorporated the legend of Quetzalcoatl as the most basic comparison to Jesus Christ. In some versions of the myth, Quetzalcoatl is even claimed to ascend into heaven, much like Christ did. What I would like to propose, is that since there were nearly 1,000 years between the time of Christ’s rise to power as King of the Jews, and the time Quetzalcoatl’s similarly told reign took place, there may have been someone, like Saint Thomas, who had found away to cross the ocean and tell the story of Christianity. This is an extremely radical notion, but it is difficult to otherwise account for the striking similarities between the two religious figures, both men in flesh, yet deities incarnate. Perhaps this, too, is a tainting of the story of Quetzalcoatl that has occurred over the past 500 years since Europeans first heard the tale. Like all aspects of this story, which only has a few pictorials and codices written from the time of contact that still exist, with those translations that remain often having been copied many times, we are looking at a case of mischief by the translators. It is difficult to know.
For all the stories we have about Quetzalcoatl, as the God of Wind (Ehecatl), the God of Fertility and Life, God of Peace for the Toltecs yet Violence and bloodshed for the Aztecs, we should learn our lesson: this is a god ever-evolving to apply to all Mexican peoples. Indians and Europeans alike have used the god to illustrate their own beliefs. What it is important to remember is that Quetzalcoatl was, by all likelihood, a man, who helped the Toltecs rise to power. Perhaps his name as Ce Acatl Topiltzin (“our prince”) Quetzalcoatl was assigned after his abdication, and all the traits given to him, with the exception of his strong and peaceful rule in Tula, are mythical in nature, and none of them have truth. Yet I have found that in some cases such as Quetzalcoatl, it is not the truth in a story that matters, but rather its impact on the people. While we can argue whether or not Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl ever existed (which he probably did) and whether or not he was Saint Thomas (which he probably was not), we can say without argument that the legend of Quetzalcoatl had an immeasurable impact on Mexican history. First, in his leadership of the Toltecs, ancestor to the Aztecs, second in his prophecy to return in the year Ce Acatl, which happened to be in the year of the Spanish conquest, and third in the use of his legend to convert the Indians of Mexico to Catholicism. While his physical presence we can deny, Quetzcoaltl’s impact upon the Mexican people is undisputed.
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