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HISTORY - The Legendary Quetzalcoatl: From Olmec to the Mexica

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

The oldest relic of Quetzalcoatl begins with the ancient Olmec, who dwelled in southern Mexico from approximately 1200-400 BCE, and is the civilization credited for being the Mother of Mesoamerican Civilization. There are studies that have long argued this mysterious culture arrived in the Americas from the Mende region of Western Africa due to the African facial features of the colossal stone Olmec heads of La Venta in modern day Villahermosa, Tabasco, but most scholars reduce this to psuedoscience, and maintain that the Olmec have Asian connections. As further studies are done, and analysis evolves, we may just yet have enough information to understand where the Olmec arrived from, and why they brought with them, or developed, the religion of Quetzalcoatl, which deeply influenced this part of the world.

Whether or not the Olmec revered the Plumbed Serpent in the same way as their contemporaries, Monument 19 at La Venta clearly depicts a rattlesnake with a bird beak and feather plumes. A nobleman sits as though cradled, holding what looks like a bag, which many presume to be symbolic of universal knowledge.

One reason archaeologists are uncertain about the continuity of Quetzalcoatl between the Olmec and Mexica (Aztec), is due to the linguistic challenges that have made the Olmec difficult to know much about. There are three schools of thought on Olmec linguistics, with the dismissed claim of former links to the writing style and language of the Mende's who live in modern Sierra Leon, and one that makes a case for a later link between the ancients and the Maya.

Among the Maya, Quetzalcoatl is Kukulkan, with the word for snake and sky being the same, while the word Kuk means Quetzal. This means the Maya translation of Kukulkan could be Quetzal Sky, or Quetzal Snake. What remains most confusing is the absence of Quetzal birds in Nahuatl territory, and the fact that the religion of Quetzacoatl was brought to the Maya by the Toltecs, from central Mexico, while the Olmec thrived in the south. This interesting detour of information means it's possible Teotihuacan inherited Quetzalcoatl from the southern Olmec, passed it on to the central Totonac, Toltec, Zapotec and Mexica, and took it back down south to the Maya. Though the Olmec were not located in the cloud forest where the Quetzals live, they were nearby and had access to these beautiful plumes.

Who built Mesoamerica's largest pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan remains a mystery, though much thought and investigation has been given to this. An old theory was the Toltecs had constructed this city, but due to their cultural peak much later, this theory was laid to rest. Others believe the Totonac built it, while some say volcanic eruptions forced different cultures from surrounding areas to settle there as refugees, combining ideas that created Teotihuacan as a cosmopolitan city.

There is no evidence of a ball court at Teotihuacan, which has long been associated with Quetzalcoatl and other ancient cultures of Mexico. Teotihuacan does feature the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (pictured above), which features intricate 3-dimensional Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc masks among the intricate stone veneers. It is the only structure of its kind here, was the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan, and was built around 150-200 CE. In the 1980's, archaeologists discovered around 100 human remains of sacrificial victims beneath the temple.

These two deities are often pictured together, with Quetzalcoatl being the God of Wind, and Tlaloc being the God of Rain. The Mexicas believed one of Quetzalcoatl's roles was to sweep the land, or cleanse it, and Tlaloc would follow with the rains that fertilized the seed for abundant crops.

Turquoise Mask depicting Tlaloc, with features of Quetzalcoatl

Mexica Artefact from 1400-1521 CE.

Housed in the British Museum


"Two serpents of blue and green turquoise mosaic entwine to form this stylized mask. Their interwoven bodies create the prominent twisted nose and goggle eyes associated with Tlaloc, the god of rain. The eyebrows, which double as the two rattles from the serpents' tails, are made from pine resin and beeswax and would originally have been gilded. The teeth are depicted in white strombus shell. "Snakes copulate by intertwining, sometimes in a vertical position. In Mesoamerica, this act of procreation may have been observed and adapted, both visually and metaphorically, to symbolise the fertilizing rains sent by Tlaloc. The striking green and blue colours of the mosaic evoke the waters and vegetation covering the earth's surface. On the mask's forehead an engraved mosaic tile in the shape of a bivalve shell may symbolise water, while the large green mosaic tile on the opposite snake perhaps represents vegetation, both aspects associated with Tlaloc. Mosaic representations of feathers flanking the face may have mimicked part of a larger headdress that once complemented the mask. "Open cavities in the eyes and suspension holes indicate that this mask may once have been worn. The priest who served Tlaloc in the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan was known as Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui, and may have worn a mask like this as part of his ritual attire. Another example of a Tlaloc wooden mask, painted in blue, has recently been excavated from the Templo Mayor. It bears similar perforations and may have been worn by a deity impersonator."

- Vila Llonch, In McEwan 2009, Cat.66, p.158

Archaeologists have documented Olmec influences at Teotihuacan, but the time-gap between the fall of the Olmec, and the rise of Teotihuacan is substantial, with the former ending in 350 BCE, and latter being settled around 100 BCE. Still, this time period is much closer together than that of the Totonac, who are also contenders as the original inhabitants of Teotihuacan, yet who thrived at the ancient city of El Tajin, Veracruz, between 600-1200 CE. An architectural and under-rated treasure, El Tajin featured at least 17 ball courts, as well the Pyramid of the Niches (pictured above), which is believed to be a dedication to Quetzalcoatl. If the Totonac built Teotihuacan, what happened between then and the construction of El Tajin, that the latter city had so many ballcourts? And what about the massive time gap between the fall of one, and the rise of the other? Only time will answer these questions, as the study of archaeology continues to develop, along with funds for future excavations.

Among other interesting facets, Quetzalcoatl was known for sacrificing birds, snakes and butterflies, but never human beings. Some legends say he was born in Tepoztlan, and later established Tollan-Xicocotitlan. As legend has it, his brother Tezcatlipoca, God of the Night Sky, used dark magic to expel Quetzalcoatl from Tollan. Tezcatlipoca means "smoking mirror," and his tools included mirrors of obsidian. Due to an internal struggle within Tollan society over the blood-rites of human sacrifice, and Quetzalcoatl's refusal to participate in such practices, a great battle raged between these two gods, with Quetzalcoatl transforming Tezcatlipoca into a jaguar. Tezcatlipoca's counterattack involved secretly intoxicating Quetzalcoatl and tricking him into lying with his sister. When the humiliating scandal was uncovered, Quetzalcoatl admitted ultimate defeat, and left the city of Tollan.

Tezcatlipoca is credited for helping Quetzalcoatl create the world and its inhabitants. As a trickster and agitator, Tezcatlipoca embodies duality - bringing change from conflict, instigating disaster to create fortune, and being both a creator and a destroyer. Quetzalcoatl, by comparison, was quite a humble deity. Upon being exiled, he left for the south, and later self-immolated to become the morning star (Venus).

With so many cities featuring Quetzalcoatl in their temples and frescos, including an exquisite platform at Xochicalco (pictured above), and the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, the importance of Quetzalcoatl is certainly obvious. The many legends and stories about Quetzalcoatl make it confusing at times, to differentiate between him as a god, or a man and King-Priest.

There is a common and convenient myth that Moctezuma mistook Cortes as Quetzalcoatl, due to his fervent belief in the prophecy that Quetzalcoatl would return to reclaim his kingdom. Historians dismiss this, as the story surfaced long after the arrival of Cortes, and had no documented provenance. The fact that such mistruths were construed to explain or even justify the exploits of New Spain is a testament to the importance and power of this legendary God.


Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Coe, Michael D. The Maya. 7th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005

Llonch, Vila - Turquoise Mosaics From Mexico : McEwan, Middleton, Cartwright & Stacey, 2009

Miller, Mary and Karl Taube The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993

Minster, Christopher 2015: 9 Facts about Quetzalcoatl: The Plumed Serpent God of the Toltecs and Aztecs

Pohl, John - John Pohl's Mesoamerica: Major Archaeological Sites: PreClassic to PostClassic -

Robb, Matthew H - City of Water Teotihuacan City of Fire: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco & de Young Los Angeles Country Museum of Art & University of California Press

Stuart, Gene - The Mighty Aztecs: National Geographic Society, 1981

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