Quetzalcoatl: Man, Myth or Super-Intelligent Archaeopteryx?

“Take great pains to make yourselves friends of God who is in all parts, and is invisible and impalpable, and it is meant that you give Him all your heart and body, and look that you be not proud in your heart, nor yet despair, nor be cowardly of spirit; but that you be humble in your heart and have hope in God. Be at peace with all, shame yourselves before none and to none be disrespectful; respect all, esteem all, defy no one, for no reason affront any person.”—Quetzalcoatl (allegedly)


Painting of Quetzalcoatl Writing about the Mayan motifs found in some crop formations recently got me thinking about some of the various and fragmented things that I know about Native American history and mythology. Mostly, it got me thinking about Quetzalcoatl. Although I didn’t mention it because I think it’s silly, there are some who think that he was an alien and that this is why there have been so many Mayan themes included in these formations. I guess anything is possible.

I’ve been meaning to learn more about Quetzalcoatl for a long time, but I’ve just never quite gotten around to it. By that, I mean the legends about the white dude in long robes who some think was Jesus and allegedly taught the Mesoamericans about everything from art to science to civilization, not Quetzalcoatl the god. What’s the difference? That’s a tricky question. I shall do my best to clear that up.

Quetzalcoatl the god goes way back in Mesoamerican mythology, although there is some debate about how far. His name translates as feathered serpent: quetzal meaning feather, and coatl being snake in the Nahuatl language. He was known by many other names by different groups, most of which still translate, more or less, to feathered serpent, and he was the god of so many various things that it’s hard to pin down exactly what his role was. What is generally agreed upon is that he was a god of culture and civilization. There are also several stories that claim that he created us, or at least he helped out. (That could be interpreted metaphorically, even if it wasn’t meant that way. Stay tuned.) What isn’t agreed upon is pretty much everything else.

One of the most amazing things about the history of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations is how little we know about them and how much the supposed experts disagree on. This includes not being able to agree when certain things happened (or even if they did happen), and sometimes their estimates are hundreds of years apart. And if this isn’t confusing enough, various rulers and priests from these different cultures had a habit of taking the name of one of their gods, so there were lots of important men in these civilizations who called themselves Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulcan, or whatever their name for him was. All of this makes it almost impossible to separate facts from myths. Add to that the New Age crap that some pinheads spew, apparently based solely on what they want to believe is true, and you get one very convoluted picture. At least the complete failure of December 21, 2012 to have amounted to anything has shut most of that last bunch up.

Now that we’ve completely failed to clear all of that up, let’s move on to the legend of this mysterious stranger and see if we can untangle who he might have been and what he had to say about things.

This particular Quetzalcoatl is described as being tall, fair skinned and having a beard, sometimes with blond hair and blue eyes. He either wore long white robes or armor – a contradictory detail of some significance but which we have no way of confirming either way. Exactly when he arrived on the scene is, naturally, a matter of some debate. Although most scholars reject the idea that he ever existed as anything but a myth, if such a man ever did really exist, the general consensus is that he showed up at about the time of the emergence of the Toltec empire around 1000 CE and may have been the guiding force behind its rise to power. He may have also been in contact with the few remaining Mayans of the time, who called him Kukulcan, and whose civilization had been in decline for centuries at that point and was then just a shadow of its former self.

Most of what we know of this guy comes from the Aztecs, whose empire followed on the heels of the demise of the Toltecs. Despite the fact that they were definitely a few rungs down on the enlightenment ladder, you have to give the Aztecs some credit. They freely admitted that they were basically squatters in the cities of those who came before them, unlike the Egyptians pharaohs who tried to erase all records of their predecessors so that they could take credit for all of their accomplishments. The downside is that most of our information about the enigmatic Quetzalcoatl comes from a secondhand civilization that revered him but didn’t really practice what he preached. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate their story by itself. What the Catholic Inquisitions did was at least as bad as the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs, but they still knew all about Jesus. For that matter, the Toltecs also practiced human sacrifice even though Quetzalcoatl condemned this practice, so either he wasn’t as influential as we’ve been led to believe, or his followers fell back into bad habits after he left. No one who thinks that he was real has ever been able to satisfactorily explain this. Somewhat ironically, this is where his story begins, or at least one version of it.

Quetzalcoatl was said to have arrived in the Toltec city of Tollan just as a priest was about to make a sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca, who just happens to be the god Quetzalcoatl’s brother. Quetz was not at all happy about this act of barbarity and ordered them to stop. The angry priest replied that if they didn’t do this then horrible, nasty, awful things would happen to the city, but Queatz assured them that as long as he was there, the city would flourish. For whatever reason, they believed him, maybe because they had never seen a blond hippie before and didn’t know quite what to make of him.

After this, he went on to teach them about science, especially astronomy, how to grow corn, dye cotton, work gold, etc. He is also said by some to have devised their calendar and taught them to worship one god. After a time, he left the Toltecs and sailed away to the east from whence he had come, promising to return one day, as gods always do.

Quetzalcoatl as JesusThe main problem with all of this is that there had already been Mesoamerican cultures who knew how to do all of these things before then and that there is no evidence that any of them, including the Toltecs, ever worshiped just one god. No wonder most of the “experts” consider him to be a myth. But if he was a myth, where did the idea of a bearded white guy come from? In case you’ve never noticed, Native Americans with beards are extremely rare, and the ones in that region were pretty well bronzed as well.

For some, the answer is quite simple: he was Jesus. Most Mormons accept this explanation even though the LDS Church doesn’t officially make that claim. John Taylor, third president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints wrote in 1882

The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being. But the history of the former has been handed down to us through an impure Lamanitish source, which has sadly disfigured and perverted the original incidents and teachings of the Savior’s life and ministry.

Since The Book of Mormon states that Jesus came to America after his resurrection, I suppose this makes perfect sense…at least to them.

Another less esoteric theory is that Quetz was actually a group of Vikings that arrived in the area around this time. Perhaps the natives of the region had possessed all of the aforementioned knowledge in the past but had forgotten it, so these Vikings decided to re-teach them what it was obvious that they had once known judging by their ancient art and architecture. It’s possible, but that doesn’t sound like the Vikings I know. I’ve never heard them described as being anything even remotely similar to teachers of culture and civilization. Some sources have claimed that this theory is strengthened by the fact that Quetzalcoatl was said to have shown up wearing armor rather than robes, but that’s probably revisionist history put forth by those who want to believe this version of the story for whatever reason. There are also supposedly paintings of red-bearded men with swords engaged in battle that have been found in the area, but I can’t find them anywhere.* At least that does sound more like what we would expect from Vikings.

A theory that I originally dismissed but have now warmed up to a bit is the idea that Quetzalcoatl and his clan may have come from Atlantis. My initial rejection of this idea wasn’t based on a disbelief that such a place has ever existed: there is plenty of evidence that at least one somewhat advanced civilization existed before what is generally agreed upon by mainstream science. (I am especially fond of Michael Cremo’s term “forbidden archaeology” to describe this field of study.) What bothered me was the timeline. The first written mention of Atlantis that is accepted by mainstream scholars was in Timaes by Plato, and he claimed that his knowledge of the place came from Solon, who in turn said that he heard about it from Egyptian priests. This puts its existence back to around 1000 BCE at the very latest. Most historical heretics think that Atlantis was destroyed thousands of years earlier than that.

This was way before Quetz arrived on the scene, so I quickly ruled out this possibility for his origin. But the more I kept digging, the more pervasive I found the “white god” mythos to be. It existed in cultures across many centuries from Mexico all the way down into South America. I was especially impressed by the legend of Viracocha, the creator god of the Incas and their forebears who was also said to be white, bearded and connected with the sea. He also left by sailing away, in this case west across the Pacific (or walking on the water by some accounts) but it was believed that he would someday return. He was also connected with a great flood that destroyed most of humanity (sound familiar?). In fact, the more I learned about Viracocha, the more I came to realize that he was a better Quetzalcoatl than Quetz had ever been.

Like the feathered serpent god, we really have no good indication of how far back the origin of Viracocha goes. Most modern scholars now claim that the idea of bearded white gods was started by the Spanish invaders. There is some evidence that this could be true, but as is often the case, much of their dismissal of inconvenient ideas seems more a matter of expedience and doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Why the Spanish would have done this is far from clear. The archaeological company line is that they were trying to convince the natives that they were gods. I guess it’s possible, but wouldn’t these people have known enough about their own deities that there was no way that they would have fallen for this? And why were only some of their gods white? How would all of this have worked?

Cortes: Hi there Moctezuma. I’m one of your gods. You should know this because I’m white and have a beard like Quetzalcoatl, but not any of your other gods for some reason.

Moctezuma: Quetzalcoatl was white and had hair on his face?

Cortes: Yes, now do everything I say and give me all of your gold.

Moctezuma: Okay, I guess that sounds reasonable enough. Here you go.

And just in case I haven’t made it clear enough, all of these white gods from various cultures had a lot in common and were all said to have shown up in person to bring knowledge of science and civilization to the people. If any of their other gods ever put in a personal appearance, I’m not aware of it. I’m fairly certain that at least one of the skeptics would have pointed this out.

However, in the interest of fairness and accuracy, I’ll play experts advocate for a moment and admit that this tactic of pretending to be gods isn’t completely without precedent. When the missionaries were attempting to spread Christianity across Central and Northern Europe, one of their methods was to incorporate some pagan rituals and beliefs into Christianity, and some of them are still there today. Also, some of their gods were converted into Christian saints as a way to appease them. The goddess Bridgette became Saint Bridgette, and Demeter became Saint Demetrius, changing sex in the process, which is supposed to be the sort of thing that the Catholic Church frowns upon. On the other hand, the Horned God became Satan so that they could accuse his followers of worshiping the Devil.**

Noah's Ark: photo by Shem
Noah’s Ark (photo by Shem)

Just to be difficult. I’m going to proceed on the assumption that the experts are wrong and that these legends about white guys have some basis in fact. Since they appeared all over this region, and at least one of them can be traced back to the time of the Great Flood (possibly the one that we typically associate with Noah but which has been recorded in legends from around the world and so might have actually happened), it’s not unreasonable to suspect that he/they showed up much earlier than is generally reported. The myths about Quetzalcoatl, Viracocha, et al. were all conceivably based on a much older truth that may have had its roots in lost civilizations.

Estimates of when the Great Flood occurred usually place it at around 5000 BCE. The earliest written record of it is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2100 BCE. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that this flood is what wiped out Atlantis. Most who subscribe to the theory of its existence think that it was destroyed long before that. I’m just using Viracocha’s association with this event to try to find a marker in time. If 5000 BCE is accurate, this puts him back at the very earliest estimates of the beginnings of farming and domesticating animals in South America, which just happened to have been in Peru, right where the Incas would later build their empire and tell stories about Viracocha.

Skeletal remains found in the area from this time indicate a very different group of people than the ones the Spaniards found living there. These earlier people had elongated skulls with pronounced jawbones. This sounds like the mysterious moai statues of the Easter Islands. This, along with Viracocha’s association with the Pacific Ocean, indicates that if a lost civilization was the origin of these people, it was most likely Lemuria, or Mu, the Pacific version of the Atlantean legend. And just to throw another wrinkle in this already wrinkly subject, the melting of the glaciers from the last ice age that likely triggered the Great Flood really kicked in about 12,000 years ago. This could have flooded any island civilizations long before it reached higher elevations in the Middle East where Noah lived.

Genetic analysis of Native American remains has yielded some interesting results. Most of this work has been done on North American remains and is more indicative of an Atlantean civilization, but only a small percentage of Native American groups have been tested. If the ancient Peruvian skeletons have been analyzed, I can’t find any record of it. If and when they are, I would be surprised if they don’t turn out to share a type of mitochondrial DNA found in Asians and Polynesians.

While none of this testing has yet proven the existence of any lost civilizations, when the Iroquois of North America and the Basque people of Spain have been shown to share some common ancestors, it definitely raises some interesting points. The Basque have long been considered by some to be the descendants of refugees from Atlantis, and Iroquois legends tell of them coming to America after fleeing their original homeland following a great disaster.

Quetzalcoatl's PyramidCan you see why I had to put off posting this when I originally planned two weeks ago? I started off just intending to write a piece about alleged white guys showing up in ancient Mesoamerican legends, and now I’m reporting on the results of genetic testing done on Native American skeletal remains. I ended up going so far off the reservation (pun partially intended) that I didn’t know where I was headed…and still don’t. There’s lots more; this just seemed like a good stopping point. I definitely see a Part 2 somewhere in the near future. Maybe not next week, but soon – although I fear that it might not amount to anything more than a smattering of loosely connected ideas and minutiae that I couldn’t find a convenient place to include here. I barely even mentioned the Mayan elements found in some crop formations that were the inspiration for all of this to begin with. Oh well, such is life.

As far as the opening quote which is attributed to Quetzalcoatl, I don’t know if he really said that, but it’s probably not bad advice no matter where it came from. 


*If you do an image search for “Vikings in Mexico,” you get a bunch of photos of Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders on the beach. I’m not complaining, it’s just not what I was looking for.

**I don’t mean to pick on the Catholics; they were the only Christian game in town back then. I’m sure that the Baptists, Charismatics, etc. would have been doing the same thing if they had existed at the time.


and all the devils are here


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