Next to the sun itself, the most widespread concept of religious thought in Pre-Columbian America was that of the Plumed Serpent. It was to Ancient America what the cross was to Christian Europe: the focal point of human thought and conduct, an epitome of religious aspiration.
Everywhere in America, like the flotsam and jetsam left by a retreating tide, there exists the evidence of a culture which once spread its influence throughout Central America, Mexico, and far into both North and South America.
In The Mahatma Letters (p. 149) we find the following statement in regard to this period:
What do you know of America, for instance, before the invasion of that country by the Spaniards? Less than two centuries prior to the arrival of Cortez there was as great a "rush" towards progress among the sub-races of Peru and Mexico as there is now in Europe and the U. S. A. Their sub-race ended in nearly total annihilation through causes generated by itself; so will yours at the end of its cycle. We may speak only of the "stagnant conditions" into which, following the law of development, growth, maturity and decline every race and sub-race falls into during its transition periods.
Here lies the key to an understanding of history, not only of men, but of nations and races as well; for all are subject to the same cyclic law of periodic expansion and contraction. It explains the successive expansion of Greece, Rome and Europe to a position of world domination, and why each, after its period of world leadership, retires to rest and comparative inactivity.
Yet this period of rest also passes, and already the ancient peoples of America, invigorated by a new impulse, are looking forward to a renaissance as a new racelet approaches rebirth.
What was the spiritual impulse, for high impulse there certainly was, which illumined this ancient civilization before it began its downward rush?
Many think the legends of Quetzalcoatl refer to the founder of a great culture. Others doubt if he actually existed and regard him as a mythical Sun-God who was reported to have left his solar abode to dwell among men for the purpose of founding a just civilization.
There is more here than mere myth, for once research passes beyond the debris left by the rush of the downward cycle — the ambitious priestcraft, the human sacrifice, the continual petty wars and the worship of dark elemental forces — we sense the illumination of the Ancient Wisdom and see unmistakable signs of a great Teacher.
The word Quetzalcoatl seems to have been the name of a historical personage who later became deified and worshiped as his teachings were either forgotten or rejected. But Quetzalcoatl was also a title held by a series of initiated Teachers, and held the same significance as the Naga of India or the Dragon of Wisdom of China.
While there are a multitude of legends obscuring rather than clarifying the historical Quetzalcoatl, most versions agree that a wise teacher came from the East, from the mystic region of Tlapallan landed on the coast, made his way inland to the highlands of Tule and later to Chululu, where he taught for twenty years. At the close of his life he is said to have instructed his four most faithful followers to rule the land until his return. Then he is believed to have departed for the East on a raft of serpents.
The four disciples debated long and at last decided that the best way to preserve the teachings was to incorporate them in the government and social customs of the country, and especially in the calendar system.
The principal teachings ascribed to him were those of all genuine teachers — to live a virtuous life, to offer no sacrifices save the symbolic ones of fruits and flowers, and to engage in no wars or violence of any kind. To him also are credited the introduction of ideographic writing, metal-working, agriculture, and the intricate Central American calendar. His influence was very great. In Yucatan he was known as Kukulkan; among the Toltecs and Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl. Among the Zuni of New Mexico, Awana, the feathered serpent, still figures in an important ceremony. Quetzalcoatl is usually described as a white man with noble features, long black hair, and a full beard, in striking contrast to the Toltecs who were nearly beardless.
To attempt to record the multitudinous and often conflicting myths and legends gathered about this mysterious figure would only result in added confusion. There has been too much speculation about the person of the Teacher and too little about the message and meaning of the myth. There is, however, an understanding of the inner significance of the legend still preserved among the descendants of the Maya peoples of Central America. The symbology of this tradition is that of the bird and serpent, the higher and the lower, and is part of the Secret Doctrine of antiquity.
High in the cloud forest of Guatemala there lives what is considered by many the most beautiful bird in the world. The Quetzal, which is about the size of a pigeon, possesses a tail-like appendage three feet in length. The plumage is principally a golden green with a metallic lustre flashing an iridescent blue in certain lights. The underparts are vivid red, ranging from scarlet to crimson. The feathers about the head form a flat, circular crest, giving the head the appearance of a golden disc. In striking contrast to the rest of the plumage are the black and white wing feathers. The bird has a poise and dignity more commanding than any eagle. The globular nest, built only in the highest trees has two openings, one for entrance and one for exit.
The natives (1) to whom the Quetzal is a sacred symbol call it the Solar Bird, (2) the Dweller in the Great Spaces. To them it is the symbol of the Solar Spirit which is in every one and whose home is the Sun, but which comes winging its way to earth to abide for a time. The Quetzal was the Nehual, or guardian spirit, of the Quiche emperor and therefore a symbol of the Supreme Deity. The High Priests in their trailing ceremonial robes copied the color and form of the Quetzal's plumage.
The feathers or plumes of the Quetzal were always representative of the Great Ones, the Illuminated, the Ones born of Fire and Light. In Quiche mythology the Supreme Deity was Gukumatz, a name derived from Gug, the call of the Quetzal, and Ku, descriptive of its colorful plumage.
In those days, position in life was dependent upon the degree of initiation into the mysteries of the time, and to wear the plumes of the Quetzal identified the wearer as a "plumed serpent." In other words, the serpent of the physical man was united to the spiritual self, represented by the solar bird, the Quetzal, dweller of the spaces of Space. In other countries the plumes of a bird were replaced by the solar halo about the head, or by rays of light issuing from the head. Such a one was a Dragon of Wisdom, a Quetzalcoatl or Plumed Serpent, a Son of the Sun, an Initiate.
1. I am indebted to Dr. C. F. Secord of Guatemala for much of the following. (return to text)
2. From quetzal — a sacred bird living in the Cloud Forests of Guatemala, and coatl — a serpent symbol corresponding to the Earth-dragon of China. The combination signified an initiate, one illumined with the solar splendor, or in Quiche imagery — a plumed serpent. (return to text)
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