Legends of the Plumed Serpent

Biography of a Mexican God


By Neil Baldwin

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Meticulously pieced together from personal experiences that come with years of travel, an extensive knowledge of the historic and scholarly works, and a deep appreciation of Latin American art and culture—both ancient and modern—critically-acclaimed biographer Neil Baldwin has created a mosaic of words and images retelling the myth of the Plumed Serpent (or Quetzalcóatl) as it has evolved through the millennia. He has also created an essential guidebook for the armchair traveller and passionate tourist alike.
Only a few hours by air from the United States are the mysteries and hauntingly beautiful ruins of Mexico. Among the vines intertwined in the frail latticework of crumbling palaces, spiraling geometric motifs covering vast walls that sink beneath the jungle, and nearly vertical temple steps leading hundreds of feet to a dizzying view of sky and earth, images of Quetzalcóatl abound. The fanged, bug-eyed feathered serpent thrusts his malevolent, sneering head from the pyramid at Teotihuacán; he swims in a river of rock around the temple at Xochicalco; and at Chichén Itzá, serpent and jaguar dance on a trail of stone, their embrace spawning a monstrous snake with clawed forefeet.
Depicted as part man, snake, and bird, the Plumed Serpent is the earliest known creation myth from Mesoamerica, the region spanning Mexico and most of Central America. He embodies good and evil, sky and earth, feast and famine—the duality of life itself. Steep, massive temples were built in his honor at Teotihuacán, the vast city of ruins near today’s Mexico City, and at Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatán, the intricate complex that includes the famed ballcourt. Moctezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs, mistook Hernán Cortéz and the invasion of the Spanish in 1519 for the return of Quetzalcóatl. The Catholic Church with its army of Franciscan monks adapted his legend to introduce the indigenous people to Catholicism. The myth enhanced Emiliano Zapata’s stature as a latter-day Quetzalcóatl during the Mexican Revolution. Diego Rivera and the modern muralists invoked his image to include indigenous themes in their state-sponsored art. And Quetzalcóatl inspired English author D. H. Lawrence to write a new “American novel.” These and many other tales are recounted in the words and images of Neil Baldwin’s Legends of the Plumed Serpent.
Whether sharing a moment of reflection among the breathtaking ruins, delving into the historic role of Quetzalcóatl during the Spanish Conquest, or tracing the themes of revolution and rebirth in the art of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, Neil Baldwin’s enlightening prose captures the imagination. Accompanied by numerous illustrations—many photographs taken by the author, and others painstakingly researched and gathered over the past decade—Legends of the Plumed Serpent is a true labor of love.




Uxmal ruins, Yucatán


According to my handy guidebook, this was supposed to be The Temple of the Old Woman, but as I scrambled to the top, grasping thick roots, finding a toehold here and there in the dusty clay, it seemed little more than a rocky, limestone-strewn mound. Breathless, I crouched against the gnarled stump of a long-dead ceiba, the sacred tree of the Maya, and squinted out over the jungle into the late-afternoon sun slant. Herds of tourist buses had long since departed; the acrid tinge of diesel exhaust hung in the still air. Now the Uxmal guards blew mightily on their whistles, signaling that the ruins would close in half an hour.

A constant, soughing breeze came at me across the flat Yucatán lowlands, picking up hints of coolness from the impenetrable green bush. Already it was becoming difficult to conjure up a coherent memory of the old colonial city of Mérida, only an hour’s drive north, where I had spent the past three days in a gently seedy hotel with a fountain in its well-swept stone courtyard. Directly across the street was a twin-spired church; a hollow, tinny bell struck every half hour starting at five-thirty in the morning, awakening an insistent rooster. Mérida, capital of the Yucatán — originally known as the “White City”—had long since turned into a rather forlorn, gray place, its moods heightened by brief, torrential rain, swift black clouds, and intense sun.

I drove along narrow, eighteenth-century cobble-stoned thoroughfares, built for horse-drawn carriages. Careening trams overloaded with workers accompanied me, brakes screeching, past pavilioned markets, tortilla shops, and cracked walls adorned with huge posters advertising Cristal sparkling water.

But ten minutes out of the city, on the Avenida de los Itzaes (Avenue of the Foreigners), I was overtaken by a not entirely unpleasant fear that I was a stranger in a strange land, striking off toward the middle of nowhere, “toward the old prehistoric humanity, the dark-eyed humanity” D. H. Lawrence had encountered and romanticized sixty years before.

The straight macadam road undulated over gentle hills past ranks of proud, spiky agave plants, and, lo and behold, the cacophony dropped away. The villages I passed blurred into vivid images: a dozen thatched banana-leaf huts around a muddy yard where dun-coated dogs sniffed and scampered after children among discarded automobile tires; embroidered, stark-white huipiles, handmade peasant blouses strung on clotheslines snapped like sails in the wind; old campesinos on bicycles pedaled methodically on and on in the brutal heat, expressionless deep brown faces in even deeper shadows beneath their straw hats; and women balancing baskets of fruit and bundled firewood on their heads.

Within an hour, even the villages receded, too, and farmed-out milpas, patchwork charred fields still smoking, alternating with waist-high verdant shrubbery, pressed up to the edge of the black tarmac.

Ubiquitous signs for the Zona Arqueologica try to warn me, but even so, swerving out of a bend in the road, gears grinding in the rented, vintage Volkswagen sedan, suddenly — where before there was nothing — the Mayan ruins appear. They simply materialize: smooth, looming, tan facades erupt from the green; they seem lit from within.

As I leave the car and approach, listening to the crunch of my footsteps on gravel paths between buildings, the seductive complexity of the structures emerges and immediately becomes too much to assimilate. But I hunger to look and keep looking: corbeled archways; sneering, tongued, fanged, and bug-eyed rain-god masks hewn from pitted rock; peaked roof combs balancing upon frail latticework, vines intertwining; recurrent, spiraling geometric motifs circumscribing hundred-yard-long walls in layered parades. There is the impassive way the buildings face off against one another: the manicured, I-shaped ritual ball court with its tiered spectator stands and stone hoop; the oblong palace, one story high, its sinister, pitch-dark doorways leading into labyrinthine, bare rooms.

And here is the all-too-familiar stepped temple, a benign image seen on countless travel posters and engraved comfortably into popular imagination. But up close the building is impossibly steep, vertiginous, hostile. Challenged, I grip a cold metal chain spiked into the rock and begin to climb, back rounded against the downward pull, not daring to look back over my shoulder at the receding ground below. I mount the narrow, worn steps ever higher into the palpable, humid quiet.

For no matter how dense with clamorous visitors the ruins become as the day wears on, once you begin this ascent, the space between edifices becomes filled with the pressing silence of past centuries, forcing you to forget everything except your ambivalent way up an incline that seems to say it is not meant to be pursued. A millennium ago, this same path was taken by four chanting, feather-robed priests flanking a joyful young girl, a virgin who would be beheaded and then flayed, obsidian knives penetrating her chest, her still-beating heart torn out as she lay spread-eagled upon the sacrificial altar at the pyramid’s peak 120 feet above the ground.

Agave plants, Yucatán

Uxmal was a decade ago, when I first brushed up on my Spanish. My wife, Roberta, and I, very much the “accidental tourists,” took two trips to the Yucatán on a whim (having been resolutely Eurocentric for my entire adult traveling life, never before venturing south of the border). We explored known and unknown historic sites and then lived near a fishing village with unpaved streets and beaches dotted with rustling palapas, thatched umbrellas, on the Isla Mujeres, off the coast near Cancún, a world away from that overbuilt place. Our island was reachable only via an interminable ride on a pitching and tossing blue ferryboat, accompanied by chicken farmers.

Lying on the sand one limpid afternoon, Margarita-drowsed, gazing out at the turquoise water through half-closed eyes, following the seaweed swaying back and forth just beneath the surface, I fancied (as any self-respecting writer must do) that it would be my turn to write a book about Mexico some day.

What kind of book would mine be?

The answer was already coalescing in my imagination, for in early travels through the country, I had become frustrated with the inadequate orientation materials — or, in many cases, no materials at all — at the remote ruins where the tourist trade had not yet reached critical mass. Even at Uxmal, one of the favored spots on la ruta Maya, the itinerary of most popular sites, the pamphlet I was handed, while visually helpful, was in poorly rendered English and lacked depth. There was no mythic background for the place, no sense conveyed of the intrinsic, underlying meaning, which predates the usual descriptions of what invading Spaniards saw and did when they arrived in the sixteenth century.

The author at the Temple of the Magician (El Adivino), Uxmal

Beyond the rain-forested splendor of Palenque, beyond the austere, classic style of Uxmal, the warlike grandeur of Chichén Itzá, the peaks of Tikal — beyond these magnificent, parklike settings, there are hundreds of other sites, some only partially excavated, others little more than grassy mounds. At the end of a dirt road leading into the jungle, an Indian proprietor in a modest hut sits behind a wooden table. For a few pesos — less than a dollar — he will grant admission to roam among improvised clearings and view barely recognizable stelae clothed in vegetation.

One early morning, driving northwest from Mérida toward the Gulf Coast, I took an impromptu field trip to Dzibilchaltún, the earliest-settled site on the entire Yucatán peninsula. Thriving fifteen hundred years before the birth of Christ, it was a bustling metropolis of more than fifty thousand people. The place was now deserted except for a class of chattering parochial schoolchildren accompanied by two nuns. In the scrub grass, past the remains of a Spanish church constructed out of limestone blocks from a destroyed Mayan palace, lay a depthless, dark cenote—a sacrificial well — where lost pottery, silver and gold jewelry, and human bones were discovered. At the remote end of a mile-long sacbé, a sacred path paved with white stones, was the domed “Temple of the Seven Dolls,” thus named because of the miniature, homunculuslike clay and white chicle sap forms unearthed beneath its foundation. The temple was perched upon a low hill, and each of its foot-thick walls was pierced precisely at the center with a small, porthole window, an observatory for viewing the heavens at certain ritual times of the calendar.

“But why did these buildings come to be situated here in the first place?” I asked myself, “What was the origin of the spiritual mind-set; the deep, religious motivation; the rage for order of the driven people who constructed them? Where did these people come from and where did they go?”

As soon as these initial questions leaped to mind, my earliest notion for the book — simply to compose a thinking-person’s guidebook to Mexico — seemed superficial. I was not going to write a conventional “travel” book, although my many subsequent trips to Mexico over the coming years played an integral part in the structure of the book as I made it a point to be wherever I was writing about. Much as I might like to in some other fantasy life, I would never presume to live among the native peoples, learn a Mayan dialect, or hurtle in a bark canoe down the Usumacinta River. I would not presume to be an anthropologist or an archaeologist, although my readings took me into these and other related fields.

My essential curiosity about Mexico caught hold after the romantic veneer no longer satisfied me. The raw, surface beauty — and there is much of it throughout these pages — was always enthralling but only served as a portal. “I had staged in my head a sham Mexico,” wrote the French artist and critic Jean Charlot in 1922, when he first arrived from Paris, “fanned with feathers of blue, green, and red, its trees feverish with tropical mimics.”1

Aztec calendar stone

This was a literary tradition I was glad to find during my early, intuitive readings. What kind of Mexico did these outsiders expect, and what kind did they discover? At the very end of the eighteenth century, Alexander Von Humboldt came to Mexico from Germany (and went on to Washington to meet with a kindred spirit, Thomas Jefferson) and as a result of a five-year stay in Latin America wrote his trailblazing Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. We now know that Humboldt was the first European to take Aztec art seriously. Visiting Mexico City, he was intrigued by the huge round calendar stone with its glyphic hints at an understanding of the cosmos. In preparing for his trip, Humboldt read accounts of earlier expeditions, “regret[ting] that travelers seldom possessed a wide enough knowledge to avail themselves of what they saw.” Humboldt did not attempt to cover up his civilized background. He did not shy away from presenting himself as an erudite though inexperienced being in the midst of an alien environment. He liked to call himself a “scientific traveler— paying attention to the morphology of landscape, favoring panoramic description, valuing scientific accuracy, and avidly collecting all manner of detail and data.” This mode of inquiry was meant expressly to disclose the “hidden, harmonic unity of nature” in Mexico. In the best romantic tradition, one traveled and observed closely, thereby “dissipating melancholy and restoring peace to the troubled mind.”

Although I suffered my share of nightmares, alone and sweating as the only guest in a remote hotel during the off-season, with no telephone or television, awakening with a start at three o’clock in the morning in the pitch darkness, swearing I could hear the cattle in a field nearby murmuring to each other, in the best of my times in Mexico, Alexander Von Humboldt’s was a soulful sensibility I looked to for solace: “ It is the man himself we wish to see in contact with the objects around him,” he insisted. “His narration interests us far more if local coloring informs the descriptions of the country and its people.”2

My room in the villa near Uxmal faced an open, central courtyard, and every morning at about six-thirty I would be gently awakened by two successive sounds: the swish (pause), swish (pause), swish of broom against concrete, as the porter made his solitary way from one end of the space to the other, unhurriedly gathering into a neat pile the dried palm leaves and husks detached by the prior evening’s breezes; then came the splash! as he cast a bucketful of water across the ground just covered, as if to make this familiar terrain once more ready for the morning. While the sky brightened, his ritual was always the same. There was a certain seductive reassurance in that cyclic pattern. It was a bracing antidote to the “sham” image Jean Charlot had learned to resist, and to the “imaginary Mexico” that I, too, wanted to avoid.3 The man’s persistence in his daily round set me ruminating about a characteristic of Mexican life or even an archetype within the culture that I might be able to capture, that would have the staying power to become the center of my book.

Ingrained, habituated, unself-conscious movements of quotidian life were important to my understanding — from a great distance I was never able to bridge. But I had accepted my distance from the people. Whether I was looking out through the window of a cab speeding down the Insurgentes in Mexico City or confronting the bare, somber look of a peasant vendor crouched on the sidewalk outside the cathedral in the Oaxaca zócalo, the central square of the city, my gringo invisibility did not trouble me or make me feel guilty. As a matter of fact, it allowed me the intellectual latitude to seek the larger and deeper metaphor I required.

Quetzalcóatl, Telleriano-Remensis Codex

I spent my time watching, walking, taking photographs, eating meals alone, dozing fitfully in the midafternoon, jotting notes in my little journal, and, back home, omnivorously consuming history texts, browsing compulsively in the “Latin America” sections of bookstores, and combing through offerings under “Mesoamerica”4 in rare book dealers’ catalogues. At the time, my forays into Mexico seemed shapeless. Recounting them now, as I will do in the pages to come, I believe there was indeed a plan. And likewise with my endless, at times amorphous research, feeling my way through three hundred books I read in ten years: I know when the crystallizing moment occurred.

In the sultry summer of 1989, I reserved a spot in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room at the New York Public Library on Forty-second Street, and there, with the sympathetic assistance of the reference specialists Tim Troy and Wayne Furman, I set up shop in a study carrel, resolving to systematize my delving into Mesoamerican history, to find a single, underlying theme that would pull together all disparate threads, shards, intuitions, and good intentions. To get me going, Tim and Wayne brought out the twelve-volume General History of the Things of New Spain, also known as the Florentine Codex, by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar and the first great ethnologist of the New World. Sahagún had come in the middle decades of the sixteenth century, after Hernán Cortés and the conquistadores resolved to destroy all “pagan” vestiges of the indigenous society. Aside from his mandate to proselytize and convert the native people to Christianity, Sahagún, who lived in the village of Tepepolco on the northeastern edge of the Basin of Mexico, set himself to learn the Nahuatl tongue, and then, with the aid of Indian informants, created an encyclopedic history of the Aztecs, their customs, and religious beliefs. The Florentine Codex appreciates in value when we realize that only sixteen books created in the entire span of Mesoamerican culture before the Spanish Conquest remained intact after 1521.

I leafed through page upon page of parables, legends, and tales transcribed from the mouths of the ”Old Ones” who described how life had been before the coming of the strange, bearded white men from across the waters to the east. “Another time it will be like this,” Sahagún noted an ancient song, “another time things will be the same, some time, some place. What happened a long time ago, and which no longer happens, will be again, it will be done again as it was in far-off times: those who now live, will live again, they will live again.”5

To the Aztecs and to the many other Mesoamerican civilizations preceding them by more than three thousand years, history was not a straight path, one event linked chainlike to the next, but rather a series of cycles, a spinning wheel spiraling forward through time, engendering repetitions as it goes.6

According to the tribal elders, the ”First God” who set this wheel in motion was Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcóatl), the Lord of the Dawn and the Phoenix of the West. He was the great and benign namer of all things in the Universe: “mountains, forests, and sites.” To my Westernized intellect, he appeared in the Florentine Codex like a figure out of Paradise Lost: “He was the wind, he was the guide, the roadsweeper of the rain gods, of the masters of water, of those who brought rain,” Father Sahagún wrote of this transcendent being who gathered together the remains of the human race from Mictlán, the Underworld, the Realm of the Dead, after the primeval flood, and who then reestablished humanity in the “Time Before Time.”

Plumed Serpent took this assemblage of bone ashes and clay, this thing that would become Man, infused him with his own sacred blood, and blessed him with maize, the arts of weaving and mosaic making, music and dance, the science of curing illness, commerce, crafts, time, the stars in the heavens, the calendar, prayers, and sacrifice. Plumed Serpent was the performer of miracles, the supreme magician, the ruler of sorcerers, holding the secret of all enchantments.

The most potent mythologies present symbols of dualism and conflict. Plumed Serpent likewise confronted an alter ego, a dark side, his “Evil Twin”: Tezcatlipoca, Smoking Mirror, the adversary who dogged Plumed Serpent through his peaceful mission and ultimately tempted him to fall from grace. According to Aztec lore, Tezcatlipoca posed as a servant and infiltrated Plumed Serpent’s monastic household, concocting from the sap of the maguey plant a pulque brew with which he intoxicated the priestly god and his sister and deluded him into sleeping with her, thereby breaking his vows of chastity.

The legend tells us that the now fallible Plumed Serpent, cast out in anguish as a result of his transgressions, abandoned his earthly possessions and began an epic flight. A pilgrimage of purification resulted in the proliferation of his image and name throughout ancient Mexico, on and on toward the eastern horizon through Cholula, Quauhtitlán, Xochicalco, and as far as Chichén Itzá. There, when the angle of the sun is just right at the summer solstice, the shadow of an immense serpent ripples down the side of the many-tiered pyramid consecrated to Quetzalcóatl’s Mayan name: Kukulkán.

When he finally reached Tlillan Tlapallán, the Land of Black and Red, his final place of spiritual enlightenment on the shores of the holy sea where the morning star announces daily the rebirth of the sun, Plumed Serpent declared with messianic flair to his weeping followers that he had been “called forth.” He promised to return in the year named Ce Ácatl, One-Reed. He donned a turquoise mask and a robe of feathers and “ordered a raft to be made of snakes, and he entered it and sat down as in a canoe, and thus he left, navigating on the sea.” Whereupon Plumed Serpent burst into flame, and the ashes of his heart rose upward, phoenixlike, and became the planet Venus.

Ironically, the fateful year 1519, when Spanish galleons were first sighted off the shore at Veracruz, coincided with Ce Ácatl, which cycled around every fifty-two years in the native calendar. Reports of giant, white-winged birds swooping over the seas bearing fair-skinned men reached Moctezuma, reigning king of the Aztecs. Surely this was the anticipated return of their beloved Prince Plumed Serpent, as it had been prophesied. Hernán Cortés and his musketed equestrian army — the Aztecs had never seen a horse or a gun before — were greeted with open embraces and offerings of gold. Within two years the Aztec world was destroyed.

“The myth of the Plumed Serpent is dazzling in its beauty. It is the complete fairy tale. All things change perpetually into something else. Everything is elusive, intangible, yet permanent and true. The great bird-serpent, priest-king Quetzalcóatl is the most powerful figure in all the mythology of Mexico and Central America.”7

Indeed, I soon discovered that I was backing into a much vaster saga than the one unfurled by Fray Bernardino Sahagún. His was merely the very tip of the mountain, one act in a complex drama that had begun more than fifteen hundred years before Christ and is still enacted today in modern Mexico. This book is the mosaic mural depicting that vast myth. I use the term “mosaic” because it is composed of interlocking, contiguous bits and pieces fitted together, many brightly colored and varied iconographies, some foreboding and vicious, others noble and lofty, provided by a multitude of civilizations within the framework of Mesoamerica.

The great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss cautions that “ all available variants of a myth must be taken into account. There is no single, true version.”8 I use the term “mural,” though the story fabricated here is a narrative, necessarily presented in the conventional sense — from beginning to end, in a book, with chapters — because in fact (as we are striving to remain true to the ancient Mexican sense of time) the story of Plumed Serpent should authentically be seen as a simultaneous array, a swirl of impressions evolving over millennia.

Plumed Serpent is the only symbol with so much staying power that it can be found permeating nearly every formative culture of Mexico. As a biographer I set forth to understand and chronicle Plumed Serpent’s persistent, indomitable “life,” an undertaking that required me to go back to a time before he even possessed a proper name. Like the biography of a person, this story moves through stages — gestation, birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, maturity, death — and into various transfigurations, including emotional crises along sacred and secular roads. I also try to recapture the spirit of place so vivid in widely varying geographic locations, encompassing the tropical Olmec world of Veracruz, Villahermosa, and the Gulf Coast; the magisterial ceremonial realm of Teotihuacán northeast of Mexico City and the societies engendered by its fall at Xochicalco and Cholula; the Toltec world of Tula so revered by the Aztecs; the Mayan empire at Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Mayapán; the literary culture of the Zapotec and Mixtec people in and around Oaxaca, Monte Albán, and Mitla, encompassed by the Sierra Madre mountains; and the final tragic efflorescence of the Nahua Aztec culture of Tenochtitlán, which was reborn in the search for a national identity during the long colonial centuries.

Revived and glorified, Quetzalcóatl, with all the hope inspired by his promise of return, was burned into the soul of the nation by the pioneering modernist philosophers, writers, and painters of the Mexican Revolution and the 1920s.

To begin this journey, we confront the elusive idea of an archetype and then visit an agricultural society where potent denizens of field and forest — animals such as the crocodile, the snake, and the jaguar — hold sway. We then move to the beginnings of organized religion, where the priestly class takes on a greater role, and examine Plumed Serpent’s position in a pantheon, a community of gods, after which the god’s mantle is assumed by actual men, the hombre-dios, kings who rose, flourished, and fell under Quetzalcóatl’s banner. Next we view Plumed Serpent as the symbol for the diaspora of an entire people across ancient Mexico and follow him to his apotheosis and transformation as a warlike figure colliding with the conquering Europeans. We then see his problematic recasting in veiled Christian terms and examine the dilemmas this adaptation created in the psyche of the native peoples.

The wise words of the late Octavio Paz — philosopher, poet, diplomat, and voice of Mexico — are invoked and resonate often throughout this book because, more than any other teller of the Mexican tale in our time, he unerringly found the pulse of the nation. Paz says that to comprehend the whys and wherefores of Mexico, we must conduct “archaeological digs in the historical subsoil.”9

The spade enters the earth.




Before “the science of men in time”—otherwise known as the discipline of history — was created,1 and long before art began to depict imaginative beliefs, there came simply the tracks of men across landscapes. From northwest to southeast, twenty thousand years and more before Columbus, migrant peoples descended on foot through the plains of what we now name the North American continent.2

As they traversed the terrain, they encountered animals, plants, and hills, which became sacred neighbors and allies.3


On Sale
Aug 28, 2012
Page Count
224 pages

Neil Baldwin

About the Author

Neil Baldwin is the executive director of the National Book Foundation and the author of three critically acclaimed biographies, Edison: Inventing the Century, Man Ray: American Artist, and To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, the Doctor-Poet. He is also the co-editor of a collection of interviews with authors about their working lives, The Writing Life. He lives in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife Roberta, and their children, Nicholas and Allegra.

Learn more about this author