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Quetzalcoatl › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 01 August 2013
Quetzalcoatl (Marcelosan)
Quetzalcóatl ( pron. Quet-zal-co-at) was one of the most important gods in ancient Mesoamerica. The god known as the Plumed Serpent is a mix of bird and rattle snake and his name is a combination of the Nahuatl words for the quetzal - the emerald plumed bird - and coatl or serpent. He was also known as Kukulkán to the Maya, Gucumatz to the Quiché of Guatemala, and Ehecatl to the Huastecs of the Gulf Coast. He was regarded as the god of winds and rain and as the creator of the world and mankind. In Central Mexico from 1200 CE he was also considered the patron god of priests and merchants and considered the god of learning, science, agriculture, crafts and the arts. He also invented the calendar, was identified with Venus, the rising morning star, he was associated with opossums and even discovered corn (maize) with the help of giant red ant that led him to a mountain packed full of grain and seeds.
Quetzalcóatl was the son of the primordial androgynous god Ometeotl. In Aztec mythology he was the brother of Tezcatlipoca, Huizilopochtli and Xipe Totec. He is the 9th of the 13 Lords of the Day and is often associated with the rain god Tláloc. The god was particularly associated with the sacred site of Cholula, an important place of pilgrimage from 1200 CE and all round Aztec buildings were dedicated to the deity.



In the Late Postclassical period (from 1200 CE) in Central Mexico the god came to be strongly associated with the wind (in particular as a bringer of rain clouds) and as the creator god Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl. In Postclassical Nahua tradition Quetzalcóatl is also the creator of the cosmos along with either his brother Tezcatlipoca or Huitzilopochtli and is one of the four sons of Tonacateuctli and Tonacacihuatl, the original creator gods. After waiting for 600 years this aged couple instructed Quetzalcóatl to create the world. In some versions of the myth Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca repeatedly fight each other and as a consequence the four ages are created and destroyed with each successive battle between the two gods.
In an alternative version of creation Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca are more cooperative and together they create the sun, the first man and woman, fire and the rain gods. The pair of gods had created the earth and the sky when they transformed themselves into huge snakes and ripped in two the female reptilian monster known as Tlaltcuhtli (or Cipactli), one part becoming the earth and the other the sky. Trees, plants and flowers sprang from the dead creature's hair and skin whilst springs and caves were made from her eyes and nose and the valleys and mountains came from her mouth. In some versions of the story the divine spirit of Cipactli was understandably upset to have lost her physical body in such a brutal attack and the only way to appease her was through the sacrifice of blood and hearts and so one of the more unpalatable practices of ancient Mesoamerican culture, the ritual of human sacrifice, was justified.
In the myth of mankind's creation Quetzalcóatl descends into Mictlán - the underworld - where he is sent to remove some bones. However, Mictlanteuctli and Mictlancihuatl, the ruling gods of the underworld, agree to give the bones only if Quetzalcóatl can blow a conch-shell horn that has no holes in it. The clever Quetzalcóatl gets around the problem by having worms drill holes in the conch and putting bees inside to make it sound. Quetzalcóatl also pretends to leave the underworld without the bones, declaring his intention to leave them where they are whilst in actual fact he steals them from under the nose of Mictlanteuctli. The god is outraged at the deceit and makes a pit to entrap the trickster. Quetzalcóatl does indeed fall into the pit and in so doing scatters the ill-gotten bones so that the male and female parts are mixed. Gathering up the bones, Quetzalcóatl escapes the pit and gives them to the great snake goddess Cihuacóatl to magically fashion them into people by mixing them with corn and some of Quetzalcóatl's blood.
Aztec Double-Headed Serpent (Detail)

Aztec Double-Headed Serpent (Detail)


The earliest surviving representation of Quetzalcóatl is from the Olmec civilization with a carving at La Venta of a beaked snake with a feather crest flanked by two quetzal birds and a sky band. The earliest representation in Mexico is at Teotihuacán where there are 3rd century CE representations of feathered snakes and where a six-tiered pyramid was built in the god's honour. These representations of the god and those at the later site of Cacaxtla include the god with rain and water suggesting a strong association with that element. The god was often represented in architectural sculptural decoration and he appears at other sites such as Xochicalco but rarely with any human form before the Late Postclassical period, an exception is a carved palma from Veracruz.
From 1200 CE Quetzalcóatl is often represented in human form and usually wears shell jewellery and a conical hat ( copilli ).He may also have a hat-band holding sacrificial implements, a flower, a fan of black and yellow feathers and ear-rings of jade circles or spiral shells ( epcololli ). The god also often wears the wind jewel (Ehecailacozcatl) which is a cross section of a conch whorl worn as a pectoral. As Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl he is often black, wears a red mask like a duck's beak and has long canine teeth. As god of the cardinal directions Quetzalcóatl was also associated with the colours black (north), red (east), blue (south) and white (west).
Following the Spanish Conquest the already complex myths surrounding Quetzalcóatl became even more twisted, a situation not helped by the confusion of the god's history with that of the legendary first ruler of the Toltecs at Tollan, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóactl, who took on the name of the god as one of his titles. Even today the legend and symbolism of Quetzalcóatl lives on and he has become a beacon of Mexican national pride and a powerful symbol of indigenous tradition.

Muisca Civilization › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 06 July 2015
Muisca Gold Figure (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Muisca (or Chibcha ) civilization flourished in ancient Colombia between 600 and 1600 CE. Their territory encompassed what is now Bogotá and its environs and they have gained lasting fame as the origin of the El Dorado legend. The Muisca have also left a significant artistic legacy in their superb gold work, much of it unrivalled by any other Americas culture.


The Muisca lived in scattered settlements spread across the valleys of the high Andean plains in the east of modern-day Colombia. Important annual ceremonies related to religion, agriculture, and the ruling elite helped unite these various communities. We know that such ceremonies involved large numbers of participants and included singing, incense burning, and music from trumpets, drums, rattles, bells, and ocarinas (bulbous ceramic flutes). The communities were also linked by trade and there was even a movement of skilled craftsmen, especially goldsmiths, between Muisca cities.


Founded by the legendary figure of Bochica, who came from the east and taught morality, laws, and crafts, the Muisca were ruled by chieftains aided by spiritual leaders. The Muisca controlled and defended their territory with such weapons as clubs, spear-throwers, arrows, and lances. Warriors also had protective helmets, armoured breast plates, and shields. The Muisca took trophy heads from their defeated enemies and they sometimes sacrificed captives to appease their gods. However, warfare was highly ritualized and probably small-scale. There is ample evidence, for example, that commodities such as gold, shells, feathers, animal skins, tobacco, salt, coca leaves and other foodstuffs were traded with neighbouring Colombian cultures such as the Tolima and Quimbaya. Precious goods would have been reserved for the Muisca elite, as was hunting and meat.
Idolizing the sun, the Muisca also had a special reverence for sacred objects and places such as particular rocks, caves, rivers, and lakes. At these sites they would leave votive offerings ( tunjos ) as they were considered a portal to other worlds.The most important Muisca gods were Zue the sun god and Chie the moon goddess. We also know of Chibchacum, the patron of metalworkers and merchants. The most common type of offerings to the gods was foodstuffs along with typical tunjo of snakes and flat male, female, and animal figures rendered in gold alloy which were placed at sacred sites. Elite members of society could also be buried at such religiously significant places, first being dried and then wrapped in many layers of fine textiles, finally placed in a tomb seated on their seat of office, a small stool or tianga, and surrounded by the precious goods they had enjoyed in life.
Muisca Tunjo

Muisca Tunjo


The Muisca today are most famous for the legend of El Dorado or 'The Gilded One'. A Muisca ceremony held at Lake Guatavita, actually only one of many kinds, involved a ruler being covered in gold dust who was then rowed on a raft to the centre of the lake where he leapt into the waters in an act of ritual cleansing and renewal. Muisca subjects would also throw precious objects into the lake during the ceremony, not only gold but also emeralds.
The Spanish, on hearing this story, allowed their imagination and lust for gold to leap beyond the bounds of reality and soon a legend arose of a magnificent city built with gold. Naturally, as it never existed in the first place, the city was never found and even the lake has stubbornly refused to reveal its secrets despite several costly attempts over the centuries.


Figures in Muisca art are often transformational, for example, a man with elements of a bird which may represent the hallucinatory visions of shamans induced by the consumption of coca leaves or yopo (crushed seeds). Animals such as bats, felines, snakes, alligators, and amphibians were also popular subjects. The Muisca did not restrict their artistic output to gold but also created fine textiles which were of wool or cotton, and the latter could also be painted.
Typical Muisca designs include spirals and other geometric, inter-locking forms. Also produced were ceramics (including clay figures) and carved semi-precious stones. The Muisca women were not only capable weavers of cloth but were equally skilled in basket-weaving and feather-work. Most examples have been discovered in tombs and so escaped the avarice of the European invaders in the early 16th century CE and later tomb robbers.
Muisca Double Eagle Pendant

Muisca Double Eagle Pendant

For the Muisca, gold was though the material of choice as it was valued for its lustrous and transformational properties and its association with the sun. It was not used as a currency, but rather as an artistic medium. Gold was mined from exposed veins and panned from mountain rivers. Gold and its alloy tumbaga (a mix of gold and copper with traces of silver ) were used to make tunjos such as figures and masks, coca containers ( poporos ) with lime dippers, and also exquisite jewellery - typically pectorals, earrings, and nose studs. The Muisca goldsmiths employed a wide range of techniques in their work such as lost-wax casting, depletion gilding which gives a two-tone finish, repoussè, soldering, granulation, and filigree. Gold was also made into thin sheets by hammering on round stone anvils or carved stone moulds using an oval hammer of stone or metal.
Perhaps one of the finest Muisca pieces, and solid evidence of the El Dorado ceremony, is a gold alloy raft on which stand figures, one of whom is larger and, wearing a headdress, is undoubtedly the 'Gilded One'. It was discovered in a cave near Bogotá and was a tunjo. The piece is 10 x 20 cm with the main figure being 10 cm high and it now resides, along with many of the finest surviving Muisca pieces, in the Museo del Oro of the Banco de la República, Bogotá, Colombia.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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