The ‘Myth’ of the Plumed Serpent: Revealing the Real Message Behind the Feathered Snake
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Fall of Tenochtitlan, in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. (Public Domain)
There are many other aspects of the myth of the Plumed Serpent as well. He had been given the calendrical signature of 9 Wind and represented a positive spiritual force to the ancient peoples of Mexico, and was in conflict with his dark nemesis Tezcatlipoca, the “smoking mirror.”
Global Serpent Mythology
Before we go into what the Plumed Serpent actually may have symbolized we should take note of the fact that the Serpent played a very significant mythological role in many other ancient cultures as well. What for instance may be the world’s oldest preserved object of art is a giant python in current-day Botswana that has been estimated to be 70,000 years old. This is believed to symbolize a creator god revered by the ancestors of today’s Bushmen. Similarly, to the aborigines in Australia the Rainbow Serpent was the main creator god and in the Amazonas the great anaconda was seen as the creator of the human beings. In fact, all over the world (including in the Book of Genesis of the Bible) we find the serpent revered as an especially powerful animal. This does not match what a modern person would think of as a snake, and it makes us wonder why the serpent has played such a significant role in ancient myths.
Midgard Serpent wooden carving, detail. (CC BY NC-SA 2.0)
The Waves of Creation
It then seems that there must be some more profound reason that the Serpent, and in particular the Plumed Serpent, by ancient peoples would be recognized as a central creator deity. As I have elaborated on in two books of mine: The Global Mind and the Rise of Civilization, and The Nine Waves of Creation, a serpent is the most natural symbol to use by anyone who would like to represent a mathematical sine wave. And what the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica and elsewhere were aware of was that history, including the rise and fall of civilizations, was driven by waves of creation. There were in fact nine waves of creation that created the universe and the pre-set direction of its evolution. The reason that the Plumed Serpent went by the name of 9 Wind was that there were nine such sine waves creating spiritual winds corresponding to nine levels of creation as symbolized by the terrace-formed pyramids.
Maya Calendar: From the Mayan display inside the National Museum of the American Indian. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
What the ancient peoples were aware of was the nine underlying waves in the quantum field that was driving the evolution of the universe, our planet, as well as humankind. They did not use the same language for them as we would have and instead came to call this wave form the Plumed Serpent, that they perceived as a living deity. Their entire calendar came to be developed in order to chart the movements of this Plumed Serpent. If it indeed was this wave, which they perceived as and symbolized as the Plumed Serpent, that was behind the rise and fall of civilizations then it of course became of utmost importance to chart he ups and downs of this wave movement by means of the use of a calendar. If the predictions would fail (and this was indeed the case when the Aztecs became aware that the Spanish had arrived) then the consequences would be disastrous. The problem of the Aztecs was then that the true Mayan calendar called the Long Count which accurately described the ups and downs of civilization (Fig 2) was not used by them.
Fig 2. The Seven days and six nights of the Mayan Long Count (Sixth Wave of Creation) from 3115 BCE up until 2011 CE. (Diagram: Carl Calleman)
As we can see from Fig 2, the wave movement of the so called Long Count (the sixth of the nine creation waves) leading up to our own time, in principle displays the same pattern as the seven triangles of light and six triangles of darkness of the Plumed Serpent of Chichen-Itza that we can see in Fig 1; Much like a Serpent history which moves like a wave with its ups and downs that makes the pendulum often swing with them. What may be even more remarkable is the fact that the wave movement in Fig 2, which covers seven peaks – each of a duration of a so-called baktun of 3943 years – remarkably well reflects the rise and fall of major empires and civilizations in other parts of the world. While modern people (who are generally unaware of this wave movement) wonder why ancient civilizations have mostly disappeared, this no longer is an enigma if we recognize that upon peaks follow valleys that often, but not always, tend to bring the already existing civilizations down.
The Fire of Rome (Public Domain)
Cycles of Creation and Destruction
The Plumed Serpent, i.e. the wave movement of creation generating the alternating rise and fall of civilizations, is thus not a myth in the sense of being something false. The rise and fall of civilizations that this movement describes reflects a very profound truth of our existence and the power that drives its evolution. The ancient peoples worshipping serpents knew that history went up and down and sometimes tried to chart this movement in mythological terms or harbor the spiritual powers these were believed to embody. There were, in other words, reasons for the Aztecs who saw themselves as living in a dark age (a valley) to fear the shift into a peak. Likewise, they would be aware that the Plumed Serpent would sometimes molt its skin and disappear as it set an end to a civilization. However, most people today have misunderstood not only the message of the Plumed Serpent but also its underlying truth. We may call the Plumed Serpent a myth, but in reality, it is a truth and I believe it is a truth whose time has come and may play a critical role for those that seek a path out of our civilizational crisis.
Top Image: Quetzalcoatl – Public Domain, and El Castillo at Chichén Itzá – CC BY-SA 4.0