Cultural Anthropology

Aztec Gods the Legend of Quetzacoatl



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Religion was central to Aztec life. The Aztec religion was a sun-worshipping cult. The Aztecs, like the Romans, absorbed conquered people’s gods into their own religion. Aztec priests believed in aspects of one god although the common people worshipped many gods and goddesses. Each god or goddess ruled one or more human activities or part of nature. There were many agricultural gods and goddesses because the Aztecs’ culture was an agrarian one and other gods and goddesses presided over natural elements. The Aztecs believed that the gods determined the world’s natural balance and their own destiny and that people should not provoke the Gods’ anger otherwise catastrophe and disaster could result. The Gods, therefore, required regular attention, thanks and worship and so the Aztecs built huge truncated pyramids with temples on the top so that they could perform their religious rituals as close to heaven as humanely possible. Many Aztec gods and goddesses required regular human sacrifice.

Quetzacoatl was one of the gentler gods and did not require human sacrifice or painful trials. He was originally a Mayan god, who specifically forbade human sacrifice, because he loved his people too much to allow such things, and ordered that sacrifices be limited to snakes, flowers and small birds. Quetzalcoatl was also a real character in Aztec history. Aztec history tells that he was probably born around 947AD. Mixcoatl, Quetzalcoatl’s father, the king of the Toltecs, and was assassinated by a jealous brother before he was born. Quetzalcoatl’s pregnant mother escaped but died in childbirth. Quetzalcoatl’s grandparents brought him up and sent him to a religious school where he was renowned for his piety, wisdom and intelligence and his teachers gave him his name Quetzcoatl means “feathered serpent” and is equivalent to being designated as a saint, wise man or genius. Quetzacoatl went to the Toltec capital city, Tula, and took his inheritance pushing his murderous uncle into a sacrificial fire. 

Quetzacoatl ruled wisely, progressively and well. He was saintly in his habits and lived as a priest king. Then history and legend blur. Legend has it that the priests, summoned an evil god called Texacatlipoca, who tempted Quetzacoatl into drunkenness and smuggled a dancing girl into his room. Awakening with a hangover, Quetzacoatl realized that he had broken his vows of piety and abstinence. Texactlipoca tricked Quetzacoatl with a mirror showing his own evil image to him, Quetzacoatl thinking that the evil reflection was the result of his debauchery fled Tula. He burned himself to death on a self-made funeral pyre.

Both the Mayans and the Aztecs believed they were descended from the Toltecs. Quetzacoatl was depicted as a feathered snake or in human form as a warrior wearing a tall cone-shaped crown or cap of ocelot skin and a jade pendant.

Aztecs believed that Quetzacoatl was a son of the sun and the earth goddess and that his fights with the god Tezcatpolica created and destroyed four suns and earths, leaving the fifth sun and earth. The fifth earth was unpopulated, Quetzacoatl travelled with his brother, Xolotl to collect the people’s bones from the Underworld (Mictlan). As he was running away from the Underworld, he dropped the bones and they broke into pieces. He gathered them up and took them to the earth goddess Cihuacoatl, who ground them into flour, which Quetzacoatl moistened with his blood. He and Xolotl moulded the dough into human forms and taught them to reproduce.

Having made humans, Quetzacoatl cared for his creation. He showed them how to cultivate maize or corn, the staple food in Mexico, by stealing the grains from red ants. He also taught the people astronomy, calendar making, metalworking, and other crafts. The Toltecs, who were in Mexico 800-1100, believed Quetzacoatl was the god of the morning and evening stars and the wind. As the Aztecs took power, they absorbed Quetzacoatl into their pantheon of gods as the god of life and civilization. The legends about the god melded with the myths about the Toltec Priest-king Quetzacoatl until they became indivisible. Quetzacoatl had told the people he would return.

Montezuma, the Aztec emperor at the time the Spanish conquistadors came in search of gold, strongly believed in Quetzacoatl and legend spoke of a white bearded god. This is why Montezuma welcomed the conquistadors. Many depictions show a white bearded man with Northern features and historians believe that the legend may have been referring to a visit by a Viking. This may be so, as it is known that Vikings had settlements in America. The Quetzacoatl legends are many and are interesting because the god and the human dimension, Aztec myth and history, are muddled, and they interact and inform one another. The Spanish destroyed many of the written resources and knowledge of the Aztec civilization is limited to what Archeologists can glean from physical evidence, scraps of written evidence and oral history.

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