Niños Héroes #3: Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl was an enduring, often even preeminent god of all the great pre-Columbian Mexican civilizations, including the Olmecs, Teotihuacán, Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs. The amazing pyramid at Cholula (near Puebla), the most massive ever built in the Americas, honored Quetzalcoatl.

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A plumed snake, Quetzalcoatl was at various times the god of water, wind, air, learning, knowledge, the dawn (Venus), merchants, the arts, and the priesthood. He was even credited with creating the human race.

The Toltecs fought an ethnic/religious/political civil war over Quetzalcoatl. Their priest/king (with the honorific name of Quetzalcoatl, so his and the god’s stories become entwined) was head of the Quetzalcoatl religious cult which eschewed human sacrifice. He confronted militaristic newcomers who favored another god, Tezcatlipoca, depicted, not with feathers, but with a spear and shield; and which demanded human blood. Quetzalcoatl, the king, lost; and he and his followers were banished. Subsequent Toltec religious lore told of Quetzalcoatl, the god, having similarly lost to Tezcatlipoca, disappearing as well. (Some myths have them both setting sail in a canoe and immolating themselves.)

Aztec rulers claimed to be direct descendants of Quetzalcoatl the king, but added their own, even more warlike god to their religious pantheon: Huitzilopochtli, voracious in his need for sacrificial, still-beating human hearts. But, since the Aztecs held to a cyclical, not linear concept of history/time, some believed Quetzalcoatl (perhaps both the god and the king, as one) would one day return and triumph — which may explain why Emperor Moctezuma II supposedly welcomed the conquering Cortés obsequiously. Most modern scholars, however, discount this, Cortés’ version of history.

Quetzalcoatl yet lives. Some members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) believe he was a second-coming of Jesus Christ; and when Lakota Natives attempted to defend their water rights at Standing Rock in 2016, Quetzalcoatl’s image symbolized their noble cause.

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