Quetzalcoatl – Public Domain, and El Castillo at Chichén Itzá – CC BY-SA 4.0

The ‘Myth’ of the Plumed Serpent: Revealing the Real Message Behind the Feathered Snake

(Read the article on one page)

The Plumed (or Feathered) Serpent is a Mesoamerican myth that has fascinated modern people for quite some time. Among the Aztecs and Toltecs this divinity went by the name of Quetzalcoatl and to the Maya it was known as Kukulcan. It was a much-revered god who was believed to bring good tidings and civilization to humankind. His preeminent role in ancient times is evident from the fact that not only whole temples, but in fact whole cities were built as centers of worship for this entity. Most well-known of these may be the so-called pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen-Itza in Mexico, which recently was included among the seven wonders of the world and is the most well-known of all Mayan pyramids.

Fig 1. The pyramid of the Plumed Serpent at Chichen-Itza. Note the seven triangles of light projected onto the staircase as scales on the back of the plumed serpent that descends into the earth. (photo by Carl Calleman)

Fig 1. The pyramid of the Plumed Serpent at Chichen-Itza. Note the seven triangles of light projected onto the staircase as scales on the back of the plumed serpent that descends into the earth. (photo by Carl Calleman)

Descent of the Plumed Serpent

The descent of the Plumed Serpent (shown in Fig 1) is one of the most remarkable light shows created in the ancient world. The seven triangles of light (alternating with six triangles of darkness) can only be seen projected onto the staircase of the pyramid for about 20 minutes at the Autumn and Spring equinoxes (and maybe two adjacent days as well). It is an event that attracts some 100,000 visitors and to the local Mexicans it is a celebration of the advent of Spring. It is hard to convey how awesome this occurrence actually is for someone who has not had the chance to experience it firsthand. The reason it is so spectacular is that it is almost incomprehensible how the pyramid could be built so that the projection of the triangles only occurs on a specific day. This is not something you can build by trial and error as you cannot move the pyramid a little bit if does not have the correct position. It must be built right from the beginning and when you realized this, it is something that really goes into your marrow. The Maya had a cosmic resonance that we have now essentially lost.

Feathered serpent sculpture at the base of one of the stairways of El Castillo. (CC BY 2.0)

Feathered serpent sculpture at the base of one of the stairways of El Castillo. (CC BY 2.0)

Serpent, the Central Creator God

This raises the question why the Maya about a thousand years ago built a pyramid – in fact their most impressive pyramid – with the purpose of worshipping a serpent. It does not quite make sense to modern people, who tend to look upon a snake as a low-level reptile, which does not seem worthy of any form of religious worship. For this reason, we have tended to dismiss the Plumed Serpent as a “myth” that lacked basis in reality and was made up by an ignorant people. And yet, the Plumed Serpent was the central deity in ancient Mexico.

Quetzalcoatl in feathered serpent form, Codex Telleriano-Remensis. (Public Domain)

Quetzalcoatl in feathered serpent form, Codex Telleriano-Remensis. (Public Domain)

Not only that, in the Popol-Vuh, which is sometimes called the Bible of the Maya, the Plumed Serpent was seen as the central creator God, the One that the other gods went to when the creation of this universe was to begin. According to the Mexican lore we also know that the Plumed Serpent among other roles was regarded as the bringer of civilization and the calendar.

In their view, when the Plumed Serpent disappeared, their civilizations would suffer, but as he returned they would go through a rebirth and flourish. For this reason, it was a beloved god whose return they would long for. This particular aspect of the mythology of the Plumed Serpent came to play a central role in Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in 1519-1521. It is said that as the Aztec emperor Montezuma had word of Hernan Cortez’ landing at Santa Cruz, he believed him to be the returning Quetzalcoatl, whom he feared as he knew that this deity and its human embodiments would not approve of their large scale human sacrifices.

Quetzalcoatl, God of Wisdom (CC BY 3.0)

Quetzalcoatl, God of Wisdom (CC BY 3.0)

According to legend, an embodiment of the Plumed Serpent (a priest in the city of Tula by the name of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl) had been expelled from his city about five hundred years earlier, but had sworn to return. Because he feared this return, Moctezuma was very accommodating to Cortez and allowed him to enter his capital Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City). This became the beginning of the conquest of this mighty empire by Cortez, his 600 men, 16 horses and native allies who remarkably defeated an emperor who was capable of raising an army of 100,000 men. This defeat is often attributed, at least partially, to the power the myth of the Plumed Serpent had over the Mesoamerican peoples, including the Aztec emperor.


Extremely interesting. I especially found it interesting that the wave theory corresponds with the rise and fall of various empires. I’d be interested in reading a paper on that subject. To the author, does your book cover this subject in greater detail? Great paper.

Thank you, Johnson. Well, both of my two latest books, The Nine Waves of Creation and the Global Mind and the Rise of Civilization expands on this theme. The idea that there is an underlying wave movement for civilizations is not really new. It has been proposed by both Toynbee and Spengler but has later (for no apparent reason) lost favor among historians representing the official view. What is new in my work is to link this wave movement to the Mayan calendar and the Plumed Serpent, which I believe makes sense of it all.

Which book would you suggest for a beginner (preferrably one without a lot of numbers)

I was primarily suggest The Global Mind and the Rise of Civilization but The Nine Waves of Creation as well. That history follows an inherent wave movement of ups and downs is not new but has been proposed by Spengler and Toynbee. However, the Mayan calendar provides the exact timing of this movement of the Plumed Serpent and through this we may make sense of it all.

I would suggest the Global Mind and the Rise of Civilization,
but for the bigger perspective probably the Nine Waves.


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

Prometheus and Hercules by Christian Griepenkerl.
The story of Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora is a popular myth of ancient Greece - one that has been told and retold throughout the ages. It is a tale of Prometheus, the son of a titan, who was punished for helping mankind.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article