The Feathered Serpent

Please click any thumbnail at right for a larger image!

Click any highlighted name to hear its pronunciation!

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, alongside its full-colored replica at the NMAH. For the sake of convenience, the temple is often referred to as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, though the use of Nahuatl at Teotihuacan is extremely doubtful. The front face of the temple still bears many of the Feathered Serpent and Rain Lord images that together signify their complementary roles of wind and rain, of life and fertility. However, it has been suggested that the front face of the temple was walled away from the city's main avenue in civil protest against the domineering hierarchy. (For a detail of the rain god's image on this temple, see the Rain of the Earth page.)

Teotihuacan, National Museum of Anthropology and History

Wagner Mural

This elegant, well-preserved mural comes from the Techinantitla apartment compound, northeast of Teotihuacan's ceremonial center. It depicts the Feathered Serpent streaming over a row of thirteen flowering trees, which the National Museum of Anthropology relates with a possible ritual cycle. The Feathered Serpent combined two prominent symbols: the dynastic continuity represented by the serpent body and the spectacular plumage of the quetzal, a bird of royalty.

National Museum of Anthropology and History

Xochicalco Pillar Relief

The Epi-Classic site of Xochicalco was the first to not only depict the Feathered Serpent in his human form but also to connect him to creation myths. In this pillar relief from Xochicalco, Morelos State, the god's face emerges from the surrounding jaws of the earth. Above the jaws are four dots and the sign of Movement that signify this present solar age. The Feathered Serpent is thus linked to the creation of the current earth and sun.
Quetzalcoatl was also the name of a Toltec ruler-priest, fully titled as Topiltzin ("Our Lord") Ce Acatl ("One Reed" - the birthyear) Quetzalcoatl. In the Aztecs' epic poem of this innovative Toltec leader, his monotheistic beliefs made him a threat to the religious and political establishment in the Toltec capital of Tula, now in Hidalgo State. King Huemac collaborated with the dark sorcerer Tezcatlipoca to first shame Quetzalcoatl and then coerce him to exile.

National Museum of Anthropology and History

Toltec Shell Mosaic

The most inspiring feature in the Aztecs' poem is the promise Quetzalcoatl makes during his exile - he would return from the eastern land of Tlapallan and restore spirituality to the followers of his god. The mosaic work here is made from carefully sculpted pieces of mother-of-pearl, inset into a wooden carving. The face has been interpreted as Quetzalcoatl emerging from the jaws of the earth, as in the Xochicalco relief above; the animal head is in fact a bat's.

National Museum of Anthropology and History


Before the introduction of the Feathered Serpent, the Maya had already established a religious belief that certain gods and royal ancestors were carried down from the heavens to the earth within the vessel of a great serpent. Toltec influence into the Yucatán Peninsula had imported the image of the Feathered Serpent, which in turn was translated into the Maya languages. The most popular name is the Yucatec Maya version - Kukulkan. (Interestingly, in Ch'ol Maya the sound "kan" is a homophone that may mean 4, serpent and sky.) In the Quiché Maya epic myth of the Popol Vuh, the Feathered Serpent is Kukumotz, who contributed to the creation of the earth primeval.


Aztec Quetzalcoatl Sculptures

Using a name borrowed from the Toltecs and an image borrowed from Teotihuacan, the Aztecs would eventually create the most intricate depictions of the Feathered Serpent. In Aztec myth Quetzalcoatl descended to the underworld to retrieve human bones from previous generations, in order to be ground into a paste that would be molded into the shape for the first humans of the present generation. Quetzalcoatl was also patron of the Calmecac priestly school and an inspiration for the arts and humanities. As with previous civilizations, the Aztec Feathered Serpent remained a fusion of both the royal quality of the quetzal feather and the continuous life force of the serpent.

National Museum of Anthropology and History