Quetzal: the history of the most sacred pre-Hispanic bird

The history of the quetzal goes beyond a natural classification for it’s the very heart of pre-Hispanic cultures and a symbol of identity.

The quetzal is the bird by excellence that represents the heart of pre-Hispanic cultures. With its vibrant plumage and its extremely peculiar figure, the quetzal and its imposing colorful feathers are the clear manifestations of untamed nature. But the great figure of the quetzal for pre-Hispanic cultures represents much more than a bird. It’s the heart of their culture and worldview. A clear example of this is the constitution of the most famous headdress: Moctezuma’s headdress that distinguishes with the powerful feathers of this bird. The history of the quetzal is of great value and identity for those descendants of pre-Hispanic civilizations.

Quetzalcóatl, the god of the air

In the worldview of the Mayan and Aztec cultures, the quetzal occupied a very important place. This beautifully plumaged bird symbolized the feathered serpent, the great god Quetzalcóatl or Kukulkán, who was in charge of protecting heaven and earth. With its serpent form, but crowned with quetzal feathers, Quetzalcóatl was the god of the air. He's a deity that appears repeatedly as a symbol in the pyramids and representations of both cultures. Perhaps the most famous of these representations is the feathered serpent that descends from the Chichen Itza pyramid in the middle of the spring equinox.


But another one of the clear manifestations that prove the Central American civilizations’ veneration of the quetzal is Moctezuma’s headdress, which is constituted with the iridescent feathers of this bird. To get the long feathers, they had to capture quetzal specimens and then release them. These birds were sacred to the Mayans and Aztecs, so killing a quetzal was considered an unforgivable crime that was punishable by death.

The history of the quetzal

Finding specimens of quetzal was not an easy task and remains so to this day. These birds of great beauty reside in the depths of the humid forests, where the abundant undergrowth and cloudiness don't allow visibility to identify them despite their showy plumage. For this reason, when the Spanish stepped on Central American soil, they thought that the existence of the quetzal was based on the imagination of pre-Hispanic cultures. It was not until the 18th century when the naturalist José Mariano Mociño, during a botanical expedition, discovered a specimen of the quetzal in the Chiapas jungle.


Later, in 1832, the naturalist Pablo de la Llave was in charge of naming and classifying this bird for the first time. It was given the breed of Pharomachrus from the ancient Greek 'pharos' (blanket) and 'makros' (long). The species, in turn, received the name of moccino from the Spanish naturalist.

Today the quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and their national currency has been named after it. The bird continues to be of utmost importance to countries where Mesoamerican cultures once rose with great momentum and bequeathed their roots to us. The history of the quetzal borders between the mystical and the beauty of nature. Its image, which awakens the unimaginable, has been part of the identity of millions of people throughout Central America.


Text courtesy of Ecoosfera
Photos from Shutterstock

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