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.