Mesoamerican and South American Mythologies: Maya, Aztec, Inca

Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl

What is the myth of Quetzalcoatl?

Quetzalcoatl’s myth is more complex. As a cultural hero to many Mesoamerican people, he taught the people the arts and the use of the calendar, and he gave them maize. In a golden age he was the king of the Toltec city of Tula (Tollan), the City of the Sun. He had light skin and a white beard. Quetzalcoatl’s conception and birth mark him as a hero figure. His mother, Chimalman, was a virgin who became pregnant when a great god took the form of “morning” and breathed on her. Like the Buddha’s mother, Maya, Chimalman died soon after giving birth to the hero, signifying his belonging to an entire culture rather than to a particular mother or family. At birth Quetzalcoatl was fully adult, endowed with all powers and wisdom, making him able to immediately help the people. Quetzalcoatl lived in a shining house—a veritable sun palace surrounded by beautiful gardens. But in time he was challenged by his dark opposite, Tezcatlipoca, who came down to Tula on spider webs, bringing cold death to the gardens. Quetzalcoatl knew that Tezcatlipoca had come to drive him out of Tula, so he burnt down his silver palace and went with his opposite to the ball court. As Quetzalcoatl was about to hurl the ball through the ring, Tezcatlipoca took the form of a jaguar and attacked him, chasing him through the streets of Tula and out into the countryside. As he fled, Quetzalcoatl became an old man. When he came to the sea, the great hero made a raft of snakes and sailed away. Some say that in Tlappallan (Middle Aztec heaven) he drank from a fountain of immortality and will return one day, as will Arthur, a “once and future king.” Others say that he died and became a star in the heavens. There is a popular story that says when the light-skinned, white-bearded Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec thought he was Quetzalcoatl returning.


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