Quetzalcoatl: Man or Myth?

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Heather Howdeshell
HIST 3323
Dr. Whigham
The Legend of Quetzalcoatl: Man or Myth?
From the beginning of the Toltec reign in Central Mexico, the deity Quetzalcoatl has been a central figure in the religion and culture of Mexico. This is undisputed. What can be disputed, however, is Quetzalcoatl's legitimacy as an historical figure. The deity Quetzalcoatl, or the "plumed serpent" is inseparable from the man Ce Acatl Topitlzin Quetzalcoatl, known to be a famous leader in pre-historical Mexican myth. The dissection becomes more difficult still as the Spanish friars introduced Christianity and in an attempt to assimilate the Indians, created a parallel between Indian deity Quetzalcoatl and the Catholic figure St. Thomas. In doing so, the priests hoped to incorporate Indian culture and religion into Christianity. In the process, however, they changed and damaged the pre-Christian notions of the god. What information we have now of Quetzalcoatl must be recognized as flawed over the centuries, and we must take this into account when trying to examine the historical origins of one of the three figures. However, with cautious examination, we can separate these three figures and determine each one's traits independent of the others'. To understand the mythical figure Quetzalcoatl, the first of the trinity to emerge, one must look further in to the religious belief of the pre-Columbian peoples. In the Classical period, Quetzalcoatl represented a sort of binary opposition between earth and heaven, visible in his name, quetzalli, or "precious green feather", and coatl, the "serpent." "Precious green feather," according to Enrique Florescano, referred to a bird, which in the Classical period symbolized the heavens. Coatl, the serpent, symbolized earth, and so the mythical creature Quetzalcoatl was a link between the two, present before the Toltec civilization began, and gave birth to the image of twins, one of life, fertility and order (the bird) and the other representing the fatality of death (the serpent) . Yet the link between the immortal and the mortal was further construed by the Classical Period Indians than even the symbolism of the bird and serpent. The binary oppositions within day and night, also the Morning Star and the Evening Star became entangled within the earliest surviving myths of Quetzalcoatl. There is a fine line between the religious and the mythological in Pre-Columbian Mexico. While Quetzalcoatl began as a symbolic interpretation to link life and death, or the gods and humans, his purpose soon extended to an intercessor between the two, symbolic in the ball court game which he is attributed with founding . The game was played by the young, able-bodied men, and while the year of the game's origins can only be speculated, MacLachlan and Rodriguez speculate the game came only a few generations after the establishment of agriculture by the Olmecs, since it was at this point that the Indians would rely on the deities for ample rain and fertility to survive. However, Florescano disagrees, stating the first use of the ball court as designed by the Mayans that the loser might be decapitated, his spurting blood to "water the netherworld" with precious human blood to bring fertility in crops . While this tradition of human sacrifice did not begin until many years after Quetzalcoatl had been recognized as a deity, it will become relevant later on to the Aztecs must choose whether their worship of Quetzalcoatl will be violent, as Huitztelapochtli requests, or peaceful as Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl requested of his followers. While Quetzalcoatl the deity's roots can be traced with ease to the ideology of the Toltecs, whose high priest and ruler Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a follower of the mythological god, the ideological origins of Quetzalcoatl are ambiguous. We know that he did not exist around 1200 B.C., when the Olmecs are conjectured to have become an independent civilization....
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