The Birth of the Feathered Serpent

The religious art in Pre-hispanic Mesoamerica featured an abundance of iconographic deities that resembled the most important fauna in the region. It was common to combine the characteristics of multiple animals to create the image of a god, which is the case with the mythical deity of the feathered serpent. The feathered serpent was named differently throughout Mesoamerica. In nahuatl-speaking Central Mexico, the feathered serpent was known as Quetzalcoatl (from quetzalli, “quetzal feather” and coatl, “snake”). In the Mayan-speaking regions, the feathered serpent held the name of Kukulcan (in Yucatec Mayan) and Gucumatz (in Quiche Mayan). The amount of significance this religious figure acquired in Mesoamerica derives from the purpose of its creation.

Since the beginning of civilization, the serpent was a reptile associated with land, water, and the rebirth of vegetation. It remains unclear when the serpent transformed into a vastly worshipped deity in Mesoamerica, but what is known is that it is not until the start of the Classic period (150 A.D.) that a serpent adorned in feathers appears painted on the murals of the grand city of Teotihuacan. In later centuries, the reverence to the feathered serpent became much more profound as the inhabitants utilized the deity to explain their origins, the gift of life, and the legitimacy of political power.

The aspect of the feathered serpent in relation to agriculture is one of the most ancient and traditional beliefs of present villages. It was believed that the feathered serpent possessed both terrestrial and celestial powers, as it could travel to the sky and with its continuous movement through the clouds, generate rainfall for the crops. The plumed serpent was a deity that had the power to take away one of the most precious substances of the land, maize. Maize was a highly grown crop in Mesoamerica and an essential element to the indigenous diet. The growth cycle of maize was often associated with the feathered serpent, because of their similar features. The maize’s green leafs were comparable to the green quetzal feathers and the shape of the corncobs, equivalent to the serpent’s scales. The feathered serpent’s ability to travel from the deepest to the highest surfaces of the earth, results in a circular motion that germinates the land and its fruits. The lustrous colors decorating earth’s plants and animals were thought to be a result of the plumed serpent’s direct connection to fire and lightening. The feathered serpent represented the syncretism of cold elements extracted from the subterranean and hot substances from the extraterrestrial, both necessary for the growth of vegetation.

At the end of the Classic period in Mesoamerica (900 A.D.), the feathered serpent began to be deemed a cultural hero, as it was respected for its attributes and worshipped by individuals who were considered protectors of their people. The mythical deity served as a foundation for the creation of dynasties, as ancient communities began developing political organizations and noble linages that would govern the rest of society. The historic individuals would utilize myths as a form of establishing dominance of certain inhabitants over others. Therefore, the devotion to the sacred feathered serpent and its relation with the gods and man was integrated into the history of these villages, which the inhabitants personified and displayed in their architecture, sculptures, murals, ceramics, and even in their oral traditions. The plumed serpent became a well-known mythical deity, as an increase in religious interaction permitted the sharing of these cult ideals with other inhabitants in the region. The image of the divine feathered serpent in Pre-hispanic Mesoamerica consisted of a synthesis between the opposites of the universe, which has managed to capture the interest of contemporary artists.

A contemporary expression of the feathered serpent is located on display at the Popular Art Museum in Mexico City. The metal sculpture, titled Quetzalcoatl, was handcrafted by Alejandro Marin Fuentes, a student from the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (School of Crafts) in Mexico City. The representation of the feathered serpent in modern artwork, demonstrates that the religious symbol continuous to hold significance, even in the lives of the inhabitants of modern Mexico.