The purpose of this research is to examine the ancient Mexican-Aztec God Quetzalcoatl. This deity, originally that of the Toltecs, played a significant role in the rise and fall of the Aztecs, a process which actually required only a few centuries.
A few hundred year before the arrival of Cortes, the Aztecs wandered into the Valley of Mexico, and, in a series of extraordinary brutal wars, conquered the other tribes living there. It is reported that the Aztecs, who in comparison to the people they conquered were no better tan barbarians, had a capacity for learning much from those they conquered. From the more warlike tribes they acquired knowledge of warfare. their more cultivated habits derived from the example of:
. . . the Toltecs, the civilized people whose symbol was Quetzalcoatl, the inventor of arts and of science, the protector of knowledge . . . (Soustelle, 220).
The Aztec conquest of this area and the Toltec civilization was completed sometime after the year 1300 and, since the Spanish expedition under Cortes did not arrive until 1520, this gave the Aztecs roughly two centuries of dominance in Mexico. During this period, captives of other tribes were often sacrificed to the Aztec Gods. The Aztec religion (incorporating Quetzalcoatl and a number of other religious deities from other tribes) was supreme in Mexico during this period.
It is now known what origin of this myth of Quetzalcoatl actually was, although many historians have made educated guesses that he was actually a Viking chieftain who visited among the Toltecs and taught them things that were known in Europe but not in Mexico. In any case, Quetzalcoatl (“The Plumed Serpent’) has white skin, a good education and a capacity for travelling across the ocean. He had arrived at the Toltec city of Tula and left there by, according to legend, walking eastward into the Atlantic. By the religious beliefs of the later Aztecs he was one of their most important Gods. As one source has put it:
. . . the Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcoatl) . . . performed a variety of important functions, having bestowed on man the sciences of agriculture and writing; he was also the god of morning and the evening star and of the wind. Having left Tula at its moment of disaster, he was reportedly expected to return one day from the east . . . (Davies, 24).
Since Cortes was eventually taken for the God, it could be said that the Plumed Serpent did return. Of course, the original model for this deity may not have been a viking, but the concept of European traveller does not make sense. It is known that the Toltec-Aztec knowledge of agriculture and other sciences vastly exceeded that of most neighbors. This could easily have resulted from a visit from a European scientist-explorer.
In any case, the image of Quetzalcoatl was worshipped by the Aztecs as a significant deity. Interestingly enough, this european-based deity was among the mildest and the friendliest of the Aztec Gods. This, of course, is not much of a standard of mildness, since the Aztecs created their deities in the most terrible form, as befitted a conquering race. The rain God, for example, was either appeased or credited with starting earthquakes. Quetzalcoatl, in this pantheon, has been described as a comparative outsider. As one study has commented:
The only exception to this parade-of divine terrors is Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, who is part God, part man, with a long history of battling the jealous divinities in the service of mankind, but subject himself to the weaknesses and temptations that inevitably vanquish man and bring about his fall from power . . . (Karen, 8).
The Aztec legend of Creation involves five different ages, with the Aztecs themselves being the dominant force in the Fifth of these ages. The first, the age of the jaguar, was presided over deistically by Tezcatlipoca, also known as “The Smoking Mirror.” This god, roughly comparable to the Judeo-Christian concept of Satan, was a fallen deity who transformed himself into the sun at the end of this age.
The second of the two ages was governed by Quetzalcoatl. As has been said:
The second age was the age of the wind and the god that ruled over that age was Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. Quetzalcoatl was the mirror image of the Smoking Mirror, a creature born lowly, slithering on its belly on the ground, but with wings so it could fly and reach the heavens (Karen, 80).
This image of the half-man half-god was, in effect, the Aztec’s highest honor ever bestowed on a human being, a fact
which Cortes later took full advantage of. The age of wind that he was given credit for was eventually superseded by the age of rain, with the transfer from one to the anther being achieved in the midst of a hurricane. As has been commented by one source:
The Feathered Serpent represented to the Aztecs the highest aspiration of man. The age of the wind blew to its end in a gigantic hurricane from which only a handful of men escaped alive (Karen, 80).
The concept of these ages coming to an end suited the Aztecs, who lived by heroic legend rather than history. (Roughly a hundred years before Cortes, the Aztecs held several major book burnings in order to prevent history from interfering with the legends). Having barely escaped death so many times during their travels to Mexico and their conquest of the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs sought to make death the destruction a phenomenon attributable to the Gods. During the period of conquest (which lasted almost until the moment of Cortes’ arrival) the Aztecs made tens of thousands of sacrifices to Quetzalcoatl and the other Gods. For the most part, those sacrificed were prisoners of war, this being considered vastly preferable to the sacrifice of the Aztecs themselves. However, most historical accounts hold that these sacrifices had nothing to do with inter-tribal hatred, being merely the expression of a religious belief that this was every bit as natural an occurrence as warfare itself. As one account has stated:
All the relevant descriptions . . . convey the impression not of a dislike between the sacrificer and the victim or of anything resembling a lust for blood, but of a strange fellow–feeling or rather–and this is vouched for by the text–of a kind of mystical kinship . . . (Soustelle, 99).
In this manner, the tribal religion that worshipped Quetzalcoatl can be said to have glorified death, even to the point of glorifying the relationship between murderer and murderee. Those victimized by the Aztecs were perceived, in this manner, to be in the same relation to their conquerors as the Aztecs were to the gods like Quetzalcoatl. In this way, the aztecs created a series of religious beliefs that were very well suited to a conquering race. The problem of what to do with captured or otherwise defeated enemies was thus solved. It has been pointed out that, bloody as the Aztec conquests were, the number of deaths in warfare in Europe and other continents during contemporary and succeeding periods was of a much higher proportion of the total population than was the case in Aztecdominated Mexico. Certainly, in comparison with the Spanish conquistadors, it would be very difficult to label the worshippers of Quetzalcoatl as barbarians, by this standard anyway.
It is therefore highly ironic that the Aztecs who worshipped such warlike deities were themselves to be conquered because of the legend of Quetzalcoatl. The concept that the white-skinned God would one day return and walk out of the ocean was to have long-reaching effects after 1492, when European exploration of the Atlantic Coast of Mexico was renewed. Whatever the race the original Quetzalcoatl belonged to, the story of his inevitable return was to be taken advantage of by a Spaniard named Hernando Cortes, who conquered the Aztec empire and annexed it to the Spanish. The amount of gold possessed by the Aztec was, very quickly, to make Spain the wealthiest and therefore most powerful nation in Europe.
Cortes only had between five and six hundred men, but a number of these were armed with a crossbow, which was more powerful than any Aztec weapons. Far more important, the Spanish conquistador had muskets and cannons in his arsenal. These were considered the tools of a God by the people who for centuries had been worshipping Quetzalcoatl. Cortes, men were also accompanied by horses, whose ancestry actually dated back to North America but which had not been seen in or near Mexico for thousands of years. Cortes, nominally on a search for missing Spanish sailors, was forced to fight a battle on the Gulf Coast. It was the outcome of this battle, in which a large Indian force was defeated, that convinced Cortes of the conquerability of the Aztec Empire. As is reported:
The sight of horses, and riders, at this point still taken to be one and the same animal, was enough to make the Indians turn tail; they formally submitted, after being warned that if they did not render homage to the Emperor Charles V the guns would jump and kill them. A suitable demonstration of cannon fire was staged to show how this could be achieved . . . (Davies, 239).
The Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, was a mystic, priest-like man who left the actual running of the Empire to others in all but the most important decisions. He now made the most important decision in the Empire’s history, one which in due course was to destroy the Empire and make it a Spanish province. As is reported of what Montezuma decided:
As the invasion came from the east, the ruler assumed that it was the God Quetzalcoatl who was returning, since, according to legend, he had vanished thither. . (Davies, 239).
Cortes was thus given valuable help in his effort to conquer Mexico, that of the Aztec Emperor. After the death of Montezuma, the conquistadors h a d a great deal of difficulty in subduing the Aztecs, but while Montezuma (whom the Aztecs were taught to worship as a lesser deity in a manner similar to that by which the Roman Emperors were worshipped) lived, Cortes was given a prolonged series of incredible military advantages which guaranteed the eventual conquest of the nation. Since Quetzalcoatl was originally a Toltec God, it can be said that this was the ultimate revenge of the Toltecs on the Aztecs, even though the Toltecs became Spanish subjects as well. In any case, Cortes’ initial progress through the Aztec domain, dressed as Quetzalcoatl (the costume being the gift of Montezuma) must rank as one of the most extraordinary events in world history. This empire, which had developed its religion as that most suited to the race of conquerors, was itself conquered by a fable of its own religion. The irony exceeds even this, since the God Quetzalcoatl had actually been brought into the Aztec religion only on the defeat of the Toltecs.
In any event, the conquest of Spain was the beginning of three centuries of Spanish colonial rule which left the area still Indian in population but no longer anything but Christian in religion. The Christian religion served the Spanish very well, especially as it taught obedience to earthly authority, which did much to keep the conquered tribes under control during the next three hundred years. The defeat of the Aztecs marked the end of human sacrifice in Mexico, at least for specifically religious reasons. It was considered a matter of course, however, that rebels against Spain would end up suffering roughly the same fate as that of rebels against the Aztecs and their gods.
Quetzalcoatl, therefore, is one of the most significant legends in the history of imperialism. (One of Cortes’ officers, Pizarro, later achieved a similar religious-imperialist conquest by convincing the Incas of Peru that he fit into their legends). The priestly quality of Montezuma II, in contrast to the warrior mentalities of his predecessors, happened to combine sequentially with the outrageous sense of bravado that convinced Cortes that he could actually conquer an empire by using the empire’s own religion against itself. The result of this was unfortunate for the Aztecs, who might have been expected to rule indefinitely in Mexico and highly fortunate for the Spanish, who used the gold of the Aztecs to dominate the history of Europe and the world during the next century.
As a God, Quetzalcoatl was simply one of the major deities of the religious beliefs of Mexico. However, the nature of this legend, which indicates European visitation many centuries before Columbus, had the extraordinary effect of making this entire, warlike empire easily conquerable by a literal handful of Spanish adventurers. This is one of the most extraordinary occurrences in the history of the world, religious or otherwise and casts fascinating light on the role of religion in the development of the nations.