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Aztec Beliefs Helped Conquer Mexico
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
By Armando BarrazaGugumatz, Kukulcan, Viracocha, Votan, Quetzalcoatl - all are names for one god common to Mesoamerican peoples before the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans. The Toltecs, Mayans, Incas, Aztecs and other tribes worshipped many gods they believed directed various aspects of their lives, but archaeologists and historians have concluded that the figure called by these different names is probably one and the same.
According to legend, Quetzalcoatl, as he was known in Mexico, taught the natives their religion, art and science. Mesoamerican reverence for this god helped prepare the way for Hernán Cortés and other European explorers to conquer the New World.
Image caption: Replica of Aztec Calendar (Sun Stone) located downtown and cast from the original in the National Museum of Mexico Presented to the city of El Paso by Petroleos Mexicanos. Photo by Danny Martinez
Quetzalcoatl, like some gods in other mythologies, was part human and part god. Some believe Quetzalcoatl's father was the god Mixcoatl, known as Sky Father of Cloud Serpent. Others see his father as a sun god. The Aztecs believed that his mother, a virgin named Chimalma, became pregnant by swallowing an emerald and them giving birth in the year 1-Reed. Being part human and part god made Quetzalcoatl grow to be very wise and cultured.
Legends say that Quetzalcoatl was tall and light-skinned, with blonde hair and a beard, in contrast to the natives who were short, dark skinned and dark haired. He is said to have worn a long, flowing robe. Quetzalcoatl was special because he was a god of creation. The Incas believed that he made the sun, moon, stars, and planets. The Mayans believed that with Tepeu, another god, he helped create the earth, mountains, streams and all animals. But his fines creation was man because other forms of life could not think about and worship their creator.
The Aztec believed that Quetzalcoatl and other gods were bothered because no life existed on earth. Quetzalcoatl traveled to the land of the gods of death and announced that he had come to take the precious bones they kept and use them to make life on earth. After being tricked and temporarily trapped by the devious death gods, Quetzalcoatl escaped with the bones. Aztecan god Cihuacoatl ground the bones, placing the powder in a bowl. Quetzalcoatl then bled on the bones, a symbolic self-sacrifice. From this mixture sprang humans.
The Mesoamericans believed that Quetzalcoatl lived on earth with the people who worshiped him, teaching religion, moral, art and science. He brought good laws and sound doctrine, as well as prosperity to the people. One Aztec poem says, "Truly with him it began, truly from him it flowed out, from Quetzalcoatl all art and knowledge."
On earth, Quetzalcoatl was regarded as a saintly and good man, who taught the natives to avoid bad habits and sin. He introduced baptism to the Mesoamericans as a form of penance. Ixtlilxochitl, an Aztec poet, says that Quetzalcoatl reverenced the cross and taught that through fasting, humans could overcome their passions and dishonesty.
Quetzalcoatl bought beauty to the land and taught through art that beauty could be applied to all surroundings. Mexican scholar Angel Garibay says that all types of beautiful colored singing birds come to the land at the time of Quetzalcoatl's life on earth. He helped build new cities with beautiful houses of silver, green stones, white and colored shell, turquoise, and exquisite feathers.
As the god of sciences, Quetzalcoatl taught the Aztecs astronomy and gave them their calendar. He taught the natives how to work with metals and also gave them their writing. Thus the people prospered, never lacking for anything including gold, which was so available that it was worthless. Crops were huge and the harvests always prosperous. The people were happy.
Legends do not agree on why Quetzalcoatl left his people and the land, taking all prosperity with him. Poet Ixtlilxochitl wrote that he left because the people paid very little attention to his teachings. Others say he was banished of left after deliberate dishonor by an evil magician. Quetzalcoatl ordered the riches, happiness and beauty the people enjoyed to be buried in the ground, and he wept for his servants before his departure.
He traveled to the east and told the people that he would return in the future. But before he did, the natives would suffer and would be persecuted. At the eastern coast, Quetzalcoatl sailed away on a raft of serpents and the people looked forward to his return.
Quetzalcoatl's life is fascinating enough, but his name is a topic unto itself. His name translates variously to "plumed serpents," "green-feathered-serpent," or "serpent of precious feathers." They all suggest the combination of "quetzal," a beautiful, green Guatemalan bird, and "coatl," meaning serpent.
The idea of a feathered serpent can be symbolic of many things. Writer Sheila Savill says that Quetzalcoatl may have originally been thought of "as a fertility god of the rain clouds, for quetzal feathers symbolized spring vegetation, while the serpent is both a fertility and lightning symbol among many peoples."
The quetzal, or bird, also may represent heaven and the coatl, or serpent, can represent earth or the underworld or death. The sacred "feathered serpent" is not unique to Mesoamerican cultures. In fact, it is a symbol that is nearly universal, in that it appears around the world, during all eras of history.
Greek mythology has feathered serpent called the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession. Hermes, messenger of the gods, and god of athletes and guardian of health, carried a caduceus, a double-winged wand around which were coiled two snakes. The snake was symbolic of health for it regularly rid itself of its outer covering without bleeding, illness or infection and revealed a brand new skin.
Early man may have looked upon the snake as an immortal creature. University of Iowa researcher Clifford C. Snyder notes that one of the first appearances of the caduceus was around 2000 BC when a Sumerian king's physician used the symbol. The American Medical Association welcomed Greek Aesculapius' single-serpent staff to their seal in 1910.
Biblical scripture also mentions reverence to snakes. Numbers, chapter 21, tells of the prideful Israelites during the time of Moses. God sent "fiery serpents" to their land, and many people were bitten and died. The people repented and asked Moses to ask God to save them. Numbers 21:8 says that "the Lord said unto Moses, make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live."
A cross reference to John 3:14-15 says that when Moses lifted the serpent on the pole, it was symbolic of Jesus Christ and those who would look upon him would be saved. In Christian belief, Christ came form heaven and descended to the earth, like the quetzal who came form the sky and the serpent who lived on earth.
It is no wonder, then, that the Indians were not surprised when Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico. When he entered the country in 1519, the Aztecs were living in a "ce ácatl" or 1-reed year, a potential time for their god Quetzalcoatl to return. Like him, Cortés landed ashore on a raft o boat. And Cortés was tall, bearded and light-skinned. With him were servants carrying crosses (priests).
Scholars say Cortés began to pose as Quetzalcoatl when he learned about the god. The Spanish possessed powerful weapons, the like of which the Aztecs had never seen, helping the Europeans to appear omnipotent. Many similarities between references to Jesus and Christianity and the Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl also existed.
The native belief in Quetzalcoatl became a thorn in the side of the Spanish priests as they attempted to spread their own beliefs among these civilizations. The Spanish admit to finding beautiful books but burned them because "The Devil has got here ahead of us and has shown false Christianity," as Diego de Landa, Bishop of the Yucatán wrote. Vernon W. Mattson in his work "The Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Important Discoveries" says, "In one place alone, they burned 100,000 Mayan books."
One researcher writes that Montezuma II, the Aztec king, may simply have been "too mystified to organize resistance." A few hundred Spaniards conquered the Aztecs who numbered in the thousands. The natives had learned that Cortés was not their god but a cruel oppressor bent on destroying their culture.
Quetzalcoatl has been called by some "the most influential person of the Americans." Stone engravings referring to him have been dated back to 300 BC, and legends date back over 2,000 years. Today, all Mesoamerican school children study about him and legends about him inspire scholars and archeologists to keep studying these ancient cultures.