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Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Miscellaneous Myths: Quetzalcoatl

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Hey, here's a fun thing people seem to forget.

Ancient cultures... were cultures. As in, they changed.

See, looking back on them, it's easy to see ancient cultures as these static, creed-based civilizations

where everyone lived the same way for hundreds of years and worshipped a multi-theistic pantheon that never underwent any significant changes,

and then when the civilization fell apart, everyone in the civilization presumably evaporated or spontaneously mummified themselves.

So obviously, all Romans wore togas, all Norsemen were seafaring Vikings, and Ancient Japan was all katanas and kimonos.

(which by the way would be a good name for a feudal Japan role-playing game).

But obviously, that's super not-true.

Just like America's gone from being a universally Christian and European nation to a multicultural melting pot in less than 300 years,

ancient civilizations underwent religious and cultural changes all the time!

Like, for a big example, ancient Greek worship of the Hellenistic Pantheon

(which is almost the quintessential ancient-pantheon-and-ancient-civilization combo)

wasn't ever one consistent thing.

Sure, there was a broad scale state religion, but it was supplemented by dozens, if not hundreds

of localized cults that honored specific deities, and whatever cults were more prominent at any given time also determined

what gods were more prominent in worship overall. Stuff was constantly in flux, and as a result, most myths have at least a handful of

variant tellings as a result of localization and disparate cult interpretations.

There's basically no canon as a result of this natural drift, and in a more dramatic version than choose-your-own-adventure myths,

sometimes you had total theistic overhauls as a result of key events in a culture's history.

So today, we'll be talking about the quintessential Mesoamerican god,

the one basically everyone has at least heard about, and even better, the one that had his own Indiana-Jones-style cult

and a dinosaur named after him.

Let's talk Quetzalcóatl.

But, as we've just discussed, cultures change, and Quetzalcatl is an old god

even by Mesoamerican standards.

He doesn't have any broad scale, consistent myths or stories: at least none that we know about anymore.

So before I get into the details of how the cult of The Feathered Serpent became culturally ubiquitous in Mesoamerica,

it's time for a history lesson.

So The Feathered Serpent's story begins way back in the lost-and-found city of Teotihuacán.

But Quetzalcóatl only gets codified when the Aztec empire forms almost 1700 years after that.

So let's start there, because it's a starting point that most of us have at least a little bit of understanding of.

In my Huitzilopochtli video, we talked about Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, which was sacred to the Sun God Huitzilopochtli.

And in Huitzilopochtli's origin story, we touched on the birth of Quetzalcóatl, a happy fun deity of arts and crafts

who also happened to be an ENORMOUS F*CK YOU DRAGON.

What was interesting about that myth is that it doesn't actually explain anything about Quetzalcóatl,

Certainly not to the same level of detail that it explains Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui.

He's just kind of... not there one minute and there the next, and then they move on.

So clearly, Quetzalcóatl was already a major player in the Aztec belief system, even before this myth got codified,

or he would have warranted a more detailed explanation for why we should care.

So where did he come from?

Well, the Aztec civilization only really got big in the 14th century, but the people who would become part of the Aztecs

(who at this point in history were the Nahua, specifically the Mexica)

started migrating into central Mexico as early as the 6th century.

They founded Tenochtitlán in the 1300s and started putting together their empire.

Now, Huitzilopochtli wasn't that much of a big-shot deity at this point.

He'd been relatively small potatoes in the Nahua religion.

But after the Aztec empire was formed in an alliance between three major tribes, this guy Tlacaelel,

who had organized the Triple Alliance in the first place,

decided to pull an Akhenaten and totally revamp the Náhuatl religion,

elevating the former nobody-god Huitzilopochtli up to full scale solar deity and city patron.

That's how we got the fun-in-the-sun god we all know and love, and also how we got such a clear-cut origin story for him.

It was a government-mandated myth, and frankly, the Aztecs didn't last long enough for it to drift.

So if the Aztec/Náhuatl religion underwent such a total overhaul in the early 1400s,

what was it like before? And does this maybe explain where Quetzalcóatl actually came from?

Well, remember how I brought up Teotihuacán a couple paragraphs ago?

Let's go WAY back - 1700 years before the Aztecs - to 300 BCE.

900 years before the Nahua people entered the scene, and back when nomadic tribes were first starting to form settlements in Mesoamerica.

In 200 BCE, somebody - and we still don't know who - starts building Teotihuacán.

Within 300 years, by 100 AD, the Pyramid of the Sun (the most impressive building in Teotihuacán) has been completed.

By 450 AD, the civilization in Teotihuacán is at the height of its power and influence.

References to their people are found all over Mesoamerica, and evidence to their architectural and art style are similarly common.

It's an industrial center and produces all kinds of art: incredible paintings and murals as well as obsidian tools.

The population is estimated to be 125,000 people at least, which would make it the 6th largest city in the world at this point in history.

Teotihuacán is functionally an empire a full thousand years before the Aztecs are a thing.

And sidenote: the city layout of Teotihuacán is incredibly beautiful. They had a GRID.

Then, around the 6th century, the population of Teotihuacán starts declining.

Around the 7th century, the buildings housing the rulers of Teotihuacán are burned to the ground,

and several statues are shattered, with their pieces being deliberately scattered. Shortly thereafter, the city is completely abandoned.

And just like that, a great civilization is... gone.

And no, we don't know why. That's what makes this fun!

The current theory is that there was some kind of internal unrest, maybe even a civil uprising,

possibly fueled by some climate-shifting-induced droughts that we know occurred around 500 AD.

But we still don't know for sure why the city was abandoned.

Now, we know next to nothing about the civilization and gods of Teotihuacán, on account of it being a lost civilization and all,

but conveniently, they left enough murals and statues to give us a rough idea of a few major players.

First off, continuing the tradition of Mesoamerican deities being f*cking terrifying,

the patron goddess of Teotihuacán looked like this and though we don't know any of their names

She's called alternately the great goddess of Teotihuacán or Teotihuacán spider-woman

Yikes. Other players in the Teotihuacán Pantheon included the Storm God,

the Old God, the Netted Jaguar, the Pulque God, the Fat God, the oh-so-charming Flayed God, and the Feathered Serpent.

This, the Feathered Serpent on the side of the third largest pyramid in Teotihuacán, is the first

Recognizable reference to the god that would come to be known by the Aztecs as Quetzalcóatl

Although it is worth noting that the earliest

representation of feathered serpents - although not necessarily as a singular deity - date all the way back to the Olmecs in 900 BC.

Now obviously cultures swap gods all the time, the Romans being particularly egregious in this regard.

And while the Flayed God also shows up later in a few places as a god of household chores -

HOUSEHOLD CHORES? THE MAN HAS NO SKIN! - the Feathered Serpent appears to be by far the biggest

contribution that Teotihuacán affected on the greater

Mesoamerican belief system and unlike the Romans who took totally separate God's had acted like they were the same under different names in this case

The Mesoamerican feathered serpent really does seem to be all the same God

But known by different names in different tribes. The Náhuatl called him Quetzalcóatl

while the Yucatec Mayas called him Kukulcán and the K'iche' Maya called him Q'uk'umatz

I'm definitely saying that wrong I apologize.

Pretty much every Mesoamerican tribe had a feathered serpent some kind of interpretation of the original Teotihuacán God and given the

Teotihuacán had clearly been a trade hub it kind of makes sense that some of their gods might have gone out along trade routes

Quetzalcóatl is functionally much much older and more widely worshipped than any of the other Aztec deities

Which you can actually kind of tell just by virtue of how little is said about him

Don't follow? See all the gods have a tendency to fade into cultural ubiquity because everybody worships them everybody knows them

So why would they write about something everybody already knows?

It would be like if somebody wrote a step-by-step instruction

Manual on how to operate a flush toilet or made a 20-foot sculpted frieze describing the Fitnessgram Pacer test

Why would you do that? So as a result we find terse references that imply a back story

we can't find and maybe stories that weren't even written down because they were probably just known by everybody

Whereas Huitzilopochtli 's single noteworthy story is perfectly documented,

the Feathered Serpent is a mess of fragmented legends frequently referencing facts

or events that probably used to be well known. They are very scattered myths describing his birth

but most of them sound kind of like: "And this was the birth of Quetzalcóatl!"

with no further explanation

about who he is or why it's a big deal like it's some big pop culture reference or a sweet cameo everyone would get.

There's a Yucatec Maya version where his birth story is basically that a snake is born to a human family and his older sister

explicitly recognizes the snake as the Feathered Serpent God

So he's clearly a pre-existing player and not even his origin story properly explain where he comes from. And in contrast Huitzilopochtli's origin story

explicitly ends with a "why you should care" explanation, assigning him the ability to keep the world from getting eaten

Quetzalcóatl never gets that treatment probably because he never had to; which means us modern people who lack the

cultural ubiquity in the context that would have existed at the time have no idea what his general deal was. But anyway moving on from

that bout of rampant theorizing, given the fact that there were so many fascinating Lovecraftian gods in Teotihuacán:

Why was it that only the feathered serpent got so popular?

Why not the flayed guy or that Jaguar thing? Well, according to some theories the feathered serpent had the advantage of some hefty

symbolism to help them get so popular to begin with. First off, although Dragons may make sense to us now, the concept of a flying

snake is kind of an inherent contradiction if you think about it. Since he can fly, and he was inherently divine

but his snake-ness also made him earthly; a being that was both of heaven and of earth was potentially a useful bit of dualism

Maybe that's why the feathered serpent ended up with such a prolific cult although the word cult kind of has wrong implications

But regardless. After or perhaps even before the fall of Teotihuacán, the feathered serpent worship

and iconography spread all over the place. Everywhere his influence landed

he was interpreted in a different way. the Nahua saw him as a god of the winds and of creativity, while the K'iche' Maya had him

as a creator deity with an affiliation with wind and rain who also carried the Sun God tow hill through the sky. The Lacandón

Maya meanwhile saw him is less of a fun God and more of a giant monster that also happened to be a pet of the

Sun God. There were recurring trends. Usually he had some affiliation with the wind or the weather and was at least tangentially related to the Sun

But there's no real consistency in his characterization

Despite the fact that the Feathered Serpent was ubiquitous, the subsistence farming Yucatec Maya even used the ubiquity of the feathered serpent

to cultivate a facility with trade and communication with other tribes. Now because the Feathered Serpent was such a ubiquitous, but subdivided figure,

it's practically impossible to pin down anything resembling solid mythology about him

I mean he'll the Aztecs reimagined him as mostly human

Which has caused some people to theorize that their image of Quetzalcóatl was modified by

anything from a very lost Viking to straight-up Jesus. This is also why he can seem so inconsistent in his overall characterization:

He kind of doesn't have one

He had one to begin with, but this is what happens when cultures last for thousands of years.

Stuff drifts. The Feathered Serpent is more than just Quetzalcóatl.

He's an ancient deity anywhere from twenty to hundred to three thousand years old that we can only get a proper glimpse of through

the dozen's of different interpretations that the tribes of Mesoamerica assigned to him over the millenia.

Which is super cool. But also kind of Lovecraftian. I mean those Teotihuacán's placeholder god names sound straight out of the "Mountains of Madness".

The flayed god? Seriously?

*Red singing beautifully*

The Description of Miscellaneous Myths: Quetzalcoatl