The Mystery of the God Worshiped by All Pre-Hispanic Cultures

There is a god who traverses many cultures at different times and with very similar characteristics, which suggests that perhaps they were not as different as they thought.

Gabriela Castillo

El misterio del dios que adoraban todas las culturas prehispánicas

Pre-Hispanic cultures are an important part of our national identity, which has made Mexico a multicultural country where different cosmogonies, languages, and traditions coexist and intermingle perfectly.

Despite the diversity of cultures that arose in our territory and their differences – which sometimes culminated in wars, domination of some over others, and tribute payments – there is a god who traverses such cultures at different times and with very similar characteristics, which suggests that perhaps they were not as different as they thought.

That god was Quetzalcoatl, Kukulcan, or better represented as the feathered serpent.

The feathered serpent, with similar meanings and a common representation, can be traced in the Olmec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Mixtec, Maya, and Mexica cultures. Although the degree of importance of this god changed from one culture to another, he was always a relevant deity, and if something is clear, it is that Quetzalcoatl had a great impact on the development of pre-Columbian life and was generally associated with the figure of the priest, as well as the creator of humanity.

In the Olmec culture

The feathered serpent began to make its appearance as a symbol of fresh water, in what many consider one of the primordial cultures of our country.

Later, this protector began to mutate, in its representations it acquired feathers and wings, which brings it closer to the best-known representation of the Teotihuacans and later of the Mexicas, so experts immediately associate it with Quetzalcoatl:

“At the Olmec site of La Venta (Tabasco), there is a stone with the iconographic representation of a priest in a seated position with a copal bag and his body touched with jaguar spots in ‘X’ […], all protected by a large rattlesnake making the serpent with a dragon-ophidian head his backrest and protection creating one figure inside another; a ‘serpent-priest’ anthropomorphization concept is created, a link between the divine sky of the serpent as an astral vehicle, and the human earth through its priestly component that links them in sacrifice.”

In the Teotihuacan Culture

In this culture, which had its heyday in the early classical period, the figure of Quetzalcoatl as the feathered serpent is much clearer. Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl were the most important deities, and the perfect example of this is La Ciudadela, where the Pyramid or Temple of Quetzalcoatl is located, in which the representations of both gods can be observed. Similarly, Teotihuacan, the City of the Gods, was configured as the place where Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself so that humanity could be born. Some identify that the cult of Quetzalcoatl was one of the great legacies that this culture left in other contemporary cultures, particularly those with which it had commercial contact.

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In Toltec Culture

Quetzalcoatl as a deity is intimately inscribed in Toltec history; it was believed that one of its rulers, Ce Acatl Topiltzín, the last of Tollán – identified as Tula – was Quetzalcoatl himself, who developed certain rituals that begin to associate him with the figure of the priest who can invoke other gods. However, according to the myth, the gods Huitzilopochtli, Tlacahuepan, and Titlacahuan decide to end Quetzalcoatl. The method to deceive him was to make him fall into moral faults, for which they managed to get him drunk with pulque, causing him to miss his ritual obligations. Similarly, in his drunkenness, he shared his bed with a woman, thus committing one of the most serious offenses. Faced with his dishonor, he decides to march west, and upon reaching the coast, he immolates himself, causing, upon his death, the creation of Venus.

“And when Quetzalcoatl was finally burned, they saw his heart rise up to the sky. As the elders say, it became a star, the star that shines at dawn.”

Additionally, the god was also responsible for agriculture, measuring time, astronomy, medicine, and a myriad of other disciplines.

In Aztec Culture

Quetzalcoatl takes on the personification of Ehécatl, the god of wind. “His appearance orders the cosmos, terrestrial space, and time” 4. Likewise, he is responsible for the creation of the universe and the sun, and the Toltec traits of this god are recovered. In their cosmogony, it is believed that Quetzalcoatl would come twice a year, until his second “carnal” coming, in the form of a bearded man; which led to the popular confusion upon the arrival of the Spanish, when they believed that Hernán Cortés was the returning god.

In Mixtec Culture

With the Mixtecs, Quetzalcoatl retains his quality as creator of the sun and life, as well as his influence on agriculture – particularly the cultivation of corn – in Arqueología Mexicana describe him thus:

“He is the god who brought light and the different colors that manifest themselves in corn, in richly feathered birds, in precious stones, in trees, and in the different directions of the world of the living.

In Maya Culture

It is important to remember that there was a strong commercial exchange among different cultures, including those of Yucatan, since the Teotihuacan culture. Therefore, there was also a transfer of symbols. According to the myth, when Kukulkan arrived in the Maya area and conquered Chichen Itza, he adopted the name Kukulkan. As the creator of the sun and the cosmos for the Mayans, he was also the lord of thunder. Additionally, he is also mentioned in the Popol Vuh as Gucumatz.

The image of Kukulkan can be seen in the Temple of Warriors in Chichen Itza, as depicted in a 1951 photograph from the INAH Media Library. These are some of his meanings and personifications, although there are other important cities contemporary to some of the cultures described here that also paid tribute to this god.

Chichen itza: why climbing the pyramid of kukulcan is forbidden?

This article was originally published in Spanish by Beatriz Esquivel on February 26, 2019 and has been updated.