Busting the Myth Behind Moctezuma’s Headdress; Did It Really Belong to Him?

Researchers believe that the famous feather headdress, which has not been returned to Mexico (and never will), didn’t really belong to Moctezuma. So, who did it belong to?

Gabriela Castillo

The feather headdress of Moctezuma is one of the treasures of pre-Hispanic Mexico; its history and location have been a source of conflict for decades. The majestic headdress, attributed to the important Mexica Emperor, has been exhibited at the Weltmuseum in Vienna for a very long time.

Many believe it should be returned to Mexico since, like many ancient objects throughout the world, it was pillaged through colonization.

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Now, taking the conversation on where should the headdress rest aside, let’s delve into a matter that many ignore. According to some experts, Moctezuma’s feather headdress didn’t even belong to him. So why is it attributed to the huey tlatoani?

The headdress arrived in Spain in 1519 as a gift to Charles I. It was later part of the collection of Ferdinand II of Habsburg, and in the 17th century, before it arrived at the Weltmuseum in Vienna, it was believed to be a crown of Moorish origin.

When it was finally determined that the headdress was made from quetzal feathers in the Mexica empire and that it was actually known as “quetzalapanecáyotl,” European researchers erroneously attributed the headdress to Emperor Moctezuma.

But if it did not belong to the tlatoani, whose headdress was it?

The Quetzal Headdress Did Not Belong to Moctezuma

In 2005, researcher Gerardo Del Olmo told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that the garment attributed to the emperor may have belonged to someone else, perhaps a priest.

“The so-called feather headdress of Moctezuma is actually a precious feather cloak worn by some priest and not the emperor of the Mexica empire,” said Del Olmo, who is also based on iconographic research by Rafael Martín del Campo, a researcher at the Institute of Biology of UNAM, published in 1952.

Moctezuma headdress - busting the myth behind moctezuma’s headdress; did it really belong to him?

Rafael Martín del Campo researched the materials that make up the headdress, specifically the quetzal feathers that were spun into the ceremonial garment.

The researcher described the activities in which the headdress would have been used by a priest who would have been the representative of Quetzalcoatl. He also proposed that the correct name for the headdress is “quetzalquémitl,” which means “precious feather cloak.”

Research suggests that tlatoanis, such as Moctezuma, did not wear feather headdresses, but rather diadems made of materials such as turquoise and gold, called “xiuhuitzolli.”

The possibility of returning it to Mexican lands has been considered, but the fragility of the feather headdress makes it impossible to be removed from its resting place. However, if you are of Mexican nationality, you should know that you can access the Weltmuseum in Vienna for free to closely admire the historic piece.

Even if it didn’t belong to Moctezuma, the feather headdress is a very important piece of Mexican history and should be preserved and admired as one of the most intricate ancient objects of the Mexica culture.