The people of MesoAmerica revered the feathers of the resplendent quetzal bird (Pharomachrus mocinno).
The resplendent quetzal was considered divine and associated with the “snake god” by Pre-Columbian MesoAmericans.
The Maya had a symbolic system of colors: black for weapons (obsidian), yellow for food (corn), red for war (blood), and blue for sacrifice. The royal color was green, the color of Kukulkan —the feathered serpent god.
<See: The Sacred Colors of the Maya>
The colors of the resplendent quetzal were that of the feathered serpent god, Kukulkan, also known as Q’uq’umatz by the Maya K’iche’ and as Quetzalcoatl by the Aztec people.
The iridescent green tail feathers of this specific bird were venerated by the ancient Aztecs and Maya who viewed the resplendent quetzal as the “god of the air.”
The long tail feathers of the resplendent quetzal in flight look like a serpent slithering through the air.
The Maya also viewed the quetzal as a symbol of freedom and wealth, due to their view of quetzals dying in captivity and the value of their feathers, respectively. Mesoamerican rulers and some nobility of other ranks wore headdresses made from quetzal feathers, symbolically connecting them to Quetzalcoatl.
Highland Indians were allowed to trap the birds and remove their tail feathers (which grow back each year) but they were forbidden to kill or keep them captive. After the cacao bean, which was used as a form of currency, the commodity that probably contributed most to the native’s wealth were these feathers.
When the great Maya cities fell, the highlanders continued to trade quetzal feathers with the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (where Mexico City now stands). When the Spanish conquistadors visited the Aztec city they found rulers, priests and dignitaries wearing elaborate headdresses made from quetzal feathers.
Bernal Díaz, who chronicled the conquest of “New Spain,” described how the great Montezuma II, when he came to meet Cortés, was shaded by a huge canopy of quetzal feathers. But Montezuma made a fatal error. According to ancient texts left by the Mexica, Quetzalcoatl, man or god, had promised to return from the East in the year 1-reed (1519), and this was 1-reed.
Assuming that the Spanish who landed on the coast of Veracruz were the returning gods, the Aztec emperor failed to prepare a defense. Before he knew what had happened, Cortés and his mangy army of 400 had defeated and sacked Tenochtitlán. And along with plundered gold, silver and gems, sent back to the courts of Europe were the exquisite plumes of the quetzal.
Before long there was a growing demand for the feathers. No longer would the serpent bird be protected. The new rulers declared them to be free game.
Read more about Maya Culture in: The Maya by Njord Kane
- Kane, Njord. The Maya : The Story of a People. 2nd Edition. Spangenhelm Publishing, 2016. ISBN: 978-1943066032
- Janson, Thor. “Exploring the Cloud Forest Realm of the Resplendent Quetzal-Serpent.” Revue Magaine, Guatemala. November 1, 2010.
- Owen, Michael. The Maya Book of Life: Understanding the Xultun Tarot. Routledge. Kahurangi Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0473119898.
- Grove, David C. “Caves of Guerrero (Guerrero, Mexico)”, in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: an Encyclopedia, ed. Evans, Susan; Routledge, 2000. ISBN: 978-0415873994
- Miller, Mary; Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993. ISBN 0-500-05068-6
written by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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