When you go to ancient Maya sites, you are likely to see a serpent carved in stone. But what do these serpents represent? And why Feathered Serpent? What does this cult mean?
Snake (and often dragon) worship is present in the ancient cultures of Rome, Africa, Egypt, Cambodia, India, China and Korea, where snakes were seen as entities of strength and renewal. Snakes shed their skin through sloughing; they are therefore historically symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, eternity and continual renewal of life. Every serpent you will encounter represents that rebirth and immortality symbol. But that is not all. It is much more complex. Most ancient stories or myths did not depict actual events or people. They used metaphors or symbols to make the greater meaning. These myths were handed down generation after generation as a memorised story. The story of the Feathered Serpent deity in Mesoamerica is no different.
The Feathered Serpent was a prominent supernatural entity in many Mesoamerican religions. It was called Quetzalcóatl among the Aztecs, Kukulkán among the Yucatec Maya, and Q'uq'umatz (and Tohil) among the K'iche' Maya. The double symbolism is considered allegoric to the dual nature of the deity: being feathered represents its divine nature or ability to fly (to reach the skies) and being a serpent represents its ability to creep on the Earth. Feathers represent the freedom to go between worlds. Birds are the only animals that have the freedom to manoeuvre between all the elements, air, earth, and for some water as well. Maya mythology describes serpents as being the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, cross the heavens. And they are a vehicle for human resurrection.
The earliest known recording of the feathered serpent is depicted on Stela 19 at the Olmec site of La Venta built in 900 BC. At this time the serpent was just that, a serpent. Trade routes spread the popularity of this deity across Mesoamerica. Each culture took the original myth, and transformed it to suit their culture.
Stela 19 from La Venta, in the Olmec Museum Park Villahermosa seems to depict a person inside a cave or maybe some kind of 'machine' (and I won't get into any von Däniken theories about ancient astronauts, although it is tempting). Some believe that it is a jaguar knight wearing a jaguar headdress (that looks like an astronaut's helmet); others claim it to be a priest or a ruler. He carries an object, perhaps a bag, probably used to hold copal, an incense. In Mayan art the priests or kings also often carry a 'bundle', with the instruments for bloodletting (the rulers had to give their blood to the gods in exchange for rain and fertility for their people and the bundle would contain such instruments as sting ray for cutting into the penis or ears). Could this priest also be carrying such a bundle? The rattlesnake has a large flaming eyebrow. The theme of a man with a serpent appears also on stela 3 at La Venta. Neither of the two shows the feathers but the crest over its head is interpreted by some as feathers. It is believed that for the Olmecs the serpent was a minor entity (the centre of Olmec religion was the jaguar). Think of it as the forerunner of many later Mesoamerican deities.
The Olmec snake is also referred to as the Olmec Dragon but Karl Taube renamed it as Avian Serpent, as he noted that it merges the meaning of the snake and bird. Sky serpents are integral parts of Pre-classic framing bands in Olmec and Maya cultures. Many framing bands on reliefs and ceramics include the heads of serpents and abstract symbols such as inverted U shapes and diagonal lines (which may also reference the snake). The framing bands had the function of wrapping scenes, objects and people in identifiable symbols and meanings. Sometimes it works as a kind of portal through which the person emerges, or a cosmological boundary. Santiago Andres Garcia believes that it was used to differentiate social classes, and enhance the status of elite Olmecs. An argument by Taube is that the motifs depict a supernatural serpent.
In Altar 4 (photo on the left), now in the La Venta Olmec Park Museum in Villahermosa, two serpent heads face each other above the man who is emerging from a cave (the two heads look like a pair of large eyes). Between their fangs below is a cross-band motif, a symbol of serpent and sky. The man is emerging from a cave, the borders of which constitute the representation of aquatic nature. How to interpret this? Out of the aquatic mass is born the human figure, to which the double presence of the divine serpents allies itself. So the snake is the symbol of birth (or rebirth).
The Avian Serpent also appeared on pottery. On the left there is a pattern from Tlatilco pottery in the Valley of Mexico as identified by Karl Taube.
(a) hand-paw-wing; (b) flame eyebrow;
(c) upside down U bracket; and (d) St Andrew’s cross.
Some Avian Serpents appear with a crossed band as the symbol of the Feathered Serpent either on their bodies or eye sockets. Michael D. Coe pointed out that in Maya society the glyph for sky and for snake is an X, which he termed the 'St Andrew’s cross'.
Avian Serpent imagery was a symbol with cosmological meanings of earth and sky, used by Early Formative people (i.e. Olmecs and early Maya)to substantiate their beliefs and legitimise their status and identity. Some researchers believe that the Olmec sculptures relate to myths of spiritual journeys or human origins. The Olmec symbol of the snake was then developed by other tribes across Mesoamerica. Juxtlahuaca cave in the state of Oaxaca is the site where the earliest feathered serpent appears painted on rock (painted apparently in Olmec style). The plumes of the serpent are no longer visible.
Michael Coe has estimated that the paintings might probably date between 1200-900 BC.
The actual cult of the feathered serpent was developed by the people of Teotihuacán (200 BC–700 AD). Several feathered serpent representations appear on the building of the Temple of the Quetzalcóatl (150–200 AD), including full-body profiles and feathered serpent heads (see below). The relief images on the temple alternate between a serpent’s head surrounded by feathers, and a crocodile’s head with a headdress. The former is easily identified as the creator god Quetzalcóatl; the latter is believed to be god Tláloc. The word Quetzalcóatl comes from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, meaning Bird (Quetzal) and Serpent (Cóatl). We do not know the name of the feathered serpent in the language of Teotihuacanán (instead, the name of the Aztec god is used). The Teotihuacános are thought to have derived the feathered-serpent from the image of an owl fetching a serpent from a cave and it is thought that the large, goggle-eyes of Tláloc are representative of the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the underworld. In this culture snakes were associated with water and in particular the water found underground or within caves.
Tláloc, the Aztec god of rain (and water), ruled the underworld where he resided; he regenerated life. He was commonly depicted with large eyes ('goggles') and fangs and wore a headdress of heron feathers and carried a rattlesnake. Recent research has brought us a new twist.
The rings, which were believed to have been around Tláloc’s eyes, were actually on the forehead. The eye rings are in fact directly above what looks like the upper jaw (from where the teeth and fangs are visible). Karl Taube and Saburo Sugiyama individually concluded that the relief represents serpentine headdresses on the bodies of the Feathered Serpent. So Tláloc here acts as Quetzalcóatl's avatar, the feathered serpent (Quetzalcóatl also had other avatars, such as Ehecatl, lord of the wind). As Sugiyama further states, the headdress is of the day sign Cipactli, which is the first day of the Aztec ritual calendar, the beginning of time. The temple was dedicated to the myth of the origin of time.
Scholar Cecelia Klein has suggested that the ringed eyes of Tláloc refer to mirrors, which represents fire or water, which are other attributes associated with the Feathered Serpent (in Teotihuacán he was a symbol of water and the wet season while later in Aztec iconography he was a symbol of fire representing the dry season). It was commonly believed that mirrors were caves for the gods to enter into the human world, to communicate a message to the inhabitants: to please the gods through sacrifice as giving one's own life was believed to be the greatest gift one could offer the gods. It imitated the ways of their god Quetzalcóatl: in legend he burnt (sacrificed) himself and vanished into the skies and turned into Venus.
Susan Gillespie argues that two completely different animals (bird and snake) conceptualised a meeting between the levels of the cosmos: earth and sky. This was the natural that transformed into the supernatural, and any composition of a Bird-Serpent acted as a 'mediator' between the earth, the underworld and the sky.
The Lord of the Serpents, found at Pirámide Quetzalcóatl at Xochicalco was intended to connect the nobility with the Plumed Serpent creator-god. His left hand holds one serpent, while others twine about his body. The power of the nobility was based upon their connection to, and ability to communicate with Quetzalcóatl and the other gods. That balance of power guaranteed the regular arrival of the rains and good harvests. The elite used these beliefs to justify their wealth, authority, and privileges. It is believed that the elite of Teotihuacán found itself unable to deal with the lack of rain and drought in the 7th century, which led to a loss of faith in them and a great revolt by their people and the destruction of Teotihuacán. The surviving nobility fled south, where they founded Xochicalco and the cult of Quetzalcóatl.
The great religious centre of Cholula, near modern Puebla, was also dedicated to Quetzalcóatl. Another key centre for plumed serpent worship at that time was the important trading city of Cacaxtla. Next, the Toltecs began their rise and they adopted Quetzalcóatl as one of their major gods. The city of Tula (Tollan in Nahuatl), the capital of the Toltecs (950–1150 AD) was ruled by Quetzalcóatl (his full name was Topiltzin Cē Ācatl Quetzalcōatl) who ruled as a priest or demi-god but was later sent into exile from Tollan and went on to found a new city elsewhere in Mesoamerica (some say he went to Chichén Itzá, to become its ruler Kukulkán in the 10th century). This is actually a historical figure of Quetzalcóatl (the name was used as a noble title). Claims of Toltec ancestry and a ruling dynasty founded by Quetzalcóatl have since been made by such diverse civilisations as the Aztec, the K'iche' and the Itzá Mayas.
In Chichén Itzá you can see the Feathered Serpent on many monuments. The most famous is the Kukulkán sliding down the pyramid during the equinox. Thousands gather in Chichén Itzá every year during the spring equinox to watch the shadow of the serpent god Kukulkán slither down the pyramid El Castillo. Mayan symbolism here uses the serpent to describe the movement of celestial bodies relating to the ecliptic path (or the Milky Way). When I visit Chichén Itzá, I always imagine the serpent slithering down from the earth (the pyramid) on his way down to the underworld (the cenote under this pyramid), where he changes to a black jaguar (representing the night) and then flying out in the morning as the symbol of the new day (that is why the serpent needs the feathers). This way, the serpent represents the circle of day and night, earth and sky, life and death. It is certainly my favourite representation of the symbol and power of the Feathered Serpent.
In the Popol Vuh Mayan book of creation Kukulkán is the creator of the cosmos. A snake or a forked serpentine tongue is also often seen in images of the Mayan Rain God, Chac.
Although heavily Mexicanised, Kukulkán has his origins among the Maya of the Classic Period, when he was known as Waxaklahun Ubah Kan, the War Serpent, and he has been identified as the Postclassic version of the Vision Serpent of Classic Maya art. The Vision Serpent was very important during the bloodletting rituals, often at the time of the ruler's accession to the throne. Participants would take hallucinogenic mushrooms and experience visions in which they communicated with the ancestors or gods. The Vision Serpent (named so by Linda Schele) thus came to be the method by which ancestors or gods manifested themselves to the Maya; it was a direct link between the spirit realm of the gods and the physical world. Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán shows Lady Xoc and the Vision Serpent ritual in October 681 AD, the date of her husband Shield Jaguar II’s ascension to the throne. The ancestor (or god) who was being contacted was depicted as emerging from the serpent’s mouth.
In the Mayan languages the word chan or kan means both sky and snake, and is a code for the vision-serpent-sky portal and alludes to the path the gods and ancestral dead travel in their journey in and out of the Underworld during bloodletting ceremonies, and at death and resurrection. Serpents are therefore associated with the Tree of Life and immortality. The World Tree (Ceiba tree) has its roots in the Underworld. A serpent named Kawak (also referred to as Earth Monster) guarded the entrance to this underworld. The trunk (where the humans dwell) supports the Heavens above the Earth. Winding through the branches of the tree is the double-headed Vision Serpent, bringing knowledge and power.
In Nikolai Grube's view, serpent imagery is further related to themes of centrality and social partitions. Snake images on murals at Tulum connect individuals who are probably genealogically related. Serpent cords (known as the k'uxa'an suum) connect lineage groups and have represented a sort of umbilical binding that related individuals together. The snake cords in Tulum connected the celestial realm in the ceiling to the other scenes on the temple walls.
In Mayan mythology, the deceased entered first the underworld (water in the cave or cenote) and then travelled through the tree of life up to the sky (heaven) on top, to be reborn.
Recent research has further demonstrated that the Feathered Serpent was associated with human sacrifice and warfare, as depicted in Teotihuacán on the Temple of Quetzalcóatl. Karl Taube further noted that feathered serpent imagery painted on ceramic vessels at Teotihuacán is often depicted with a heart and droplet signs, which probably allude to heart sacrifice and blood. Feathered serpent imagery is also often depicted with the woven mat, a Mesoamerican symbol of rulership from the Early Classic through Postclassic times (the nobles carried a woven mat to the assembly, to sit on because the benches were made of hard rock).
Furthermore, the serpent is an ethereal being of life, breath and wind. The best example of that is perhaps in Uxmal. Serpents on the Nunnery building at Uxmal are among the sculptures of a god, a king and a priest; symbolising a conduit for their passing through the underworld and the heavens.
Q'uq'umatz (alternatively Qucumatz) was a deity of the Postclassic ' Maya, considered to be the equivalent of Ehecatl to the Huastecs of the Gulf of Mexico and Kukulkán of the Yucatec Maya tradition, borrowed and blended with other deities that the K'iche' worshipped.
Q'uq'umatz (on the left) was also god of wind and rain and was closely associated with Tepeu, god of lightning and fire. Both of these deities were considered to be the mythical ancestors of the K'iche' nobility by direct male line.
Q'uq'umatz carried the sun across the sky and down into the underworld and acted as a mediator between the various powers in the Maya cosmos.
In Aztec society (1300-1521 AD), the plumed serpent is often represented in human form as having a headdress of flowers and feathers and holding in one hand a staff of life and in the other a spear with its point representing the morning star (Venus), where his heart resides. The feathers are from the beautiful bird quetzal (which were treasured more than gold). Quetzalcóatl was gradually transformed into a major deity. In the Sacred Precinct at Tenochtitlán, the Temple of Quetzalcóatl once stood directly facing the Templo Mayor. The two most important priests at the Templo Mayor both possessed noble titles of Quetzalcóatl. The Aztec Quetzalcóatl is known from several Aztec codices. He was a primordial god of creation, a giver of life, bringer of knowledge, the inventor of books, and he was associated with the planet Venus. After the last world (the so-called Fourth Sun) had been destroyed, Quetzalcóatl went to Mictlan, the land of death, and created our current world, the so-called Fifth Sun, by using his own blood to give new life to old human bones. With his opposite Tezcatlipoca he created the world. Quetzalcóatl is also called White Tezcatlipoca, to contrast him with the black Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky. The Mesoamerican duality is also expressed in the fact that Quetzalcóatl had a twin brother Xolotl who accompanied him to the underworld. As the Lord of the East, Quetzalcóatl is associated with Venus (as the morning star) and his twin brother Xolotl was Venus (as the evening star), the Lord of the West. In a sense, this recreation of life is recreated every night when Xolotl guides the sun through the underworld, to make a new day. To me it seems a similar circle of life to the one that Kukulkán undertakes in Chichén Itzá.
To take the story one step further, according to Mayan legend, they were visited by a robed Caucasian man with blond hair, blue eyes and a beard, who taught the Maya about agriculture, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. This legend goes back to around 3000 BC, when the world was in turmoil, and there appears to have been flooding in the Caribbean. When the flood came, people fled to high hills. Others claim that they sheltered underground in caves. The legend about the visit of a great civilizer (who visited them and taught them agriculture and other skills) was born. My burning question is if he was an alien from the sky. They called him the prophet or healer. According to the prophecies in the Book of Chilam Balam, the Maya were warned about the white-ruling culture but were also promised with his return a new religion that would bring the world back into harmony. Some say, that despite the warning, the Aztecs mistakenly warmly welcomed the invading Hernán Cortés as Quetzalcóatl, the 'white god'. And how wrong they were, if this story is true! For Cortés cruelly defeated them.
In conclusion, the worship of the Feathered Serpent, as I see it, came out from early man's fear of death and his hopes for resurrection. The shamans looked to the powerful forces such as the sun, the moon, Venus, wind and rain, as well as fearsome creatures in their environment such as the jaguar, eagle and serpent as a means of understanding the place and fate of human beings. These beliefs, over time, led to the creation of a great variety of gods. The Feathered Serpent deity throughout time represented the beginning of time, freedom to manoeuvre between worlds, knowledge, wind, water, fire, regeneration, vehicle for celestial bodies moving across the sky, Venus, fertility, human sacrifice, legitimisation of elite rulership and militarism. The variants of Quetzalcóatl, Kukulkán, Gucumatz and Ehecatl may have different names and be associated with different attributes in different culture areas, but they acted everywhere as a portal between two worlds and are linked to Venus and sky through divine rulership, lineage and descent.
For me personally, the question still remains if Quetzalcóatl was an ancient astronaut. For those who like cinema, he was portrayed in modern popular culture in many films, usually as a monster. Perhaps you can now view him as a more complex entity, with his ancient powers, as presented in this post.