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photograph of a sculpted bronze relief of Quetzalcoatl
Lee Lawrie's figure of Quetzalcoatl. Bronze doors, John Adams Building, Library of Congress)


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Artist Lee Lawrie’s figures on the Adams Building bronze doors provide us with an opportunity to highlight important mythical and heroic figures that helped promote the written word. For Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month we highlighted the figure of Brahma. It seems only fitting that for Hispanic Heritage Month we feature the bronze image of the Quetzalcoatl*(quetzalli= precious green feather and coatl= serpent) who dominated ancient Mexico’s history for almost  2,000 years (ca.2nd century BCE- ca. 17th century CE).

Photograph of sculpted bronze relief doors featuring Odin and Quetzalcoatl.
Oden and Quetzalcoatl. Sculpted bronze relief doors, John Adams Building, Library of Congress. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2007.

Quetzalcoatl is the basis of Nahualt (a group of people native to Mexico and Central American, which includes the Toltec, Aztec, and Mayan) culture and religious teachings – – he is a spiritual equivalent to Buddha or Christ.  There is some confusion about the myth and history of Quetzalcoatl and it can be hard to decipher whether a story is speaking about the god, the priests that were given the name Quetzalcoatl or rulers. Many of the stories of Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, a Toltec warrior and governor of Tula (Tollan), have merged with the stories of the deity Quetzalcoatl.

As you can imagine, there are numerous interpretations and stories about Quetzalcoatl. For this post I used the following books as my sources:  The myth of Quetzalcoatl by Enrique Florescano (1999), Quetzalcoatl, in myth, archeology, and art by José López Portillo, Demetrio Sodi, and Fernando Díaz Infantel (1982), and Encyclopedia of Latin American history and culture edited by Jay Kinsbrunner (2008).

Quetzalcoatl recreated mankind after the 4th destruction of the world. He is known as the god of time, subsistence, penitence and wisdom. He is also the creator of writing and the calendar.

It is said that Quetzalcoatl rescued the light of wisdom from the underworld and educated man. His house is the Calmecac**, the temple of wisdom, and in the Calmecac the majority of upper class and some commoners were educated.

Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl (details), Teotihuacán, Mexico
Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl (details), Teotihuacán, Mexico

If you are interested in learning more about Mesoamerican culture and history you might want to visit our Exploring Early Americas exhibit, especially the Pre-Contact section, the World Digital Library collections and our Luso-Hispanic online collections.

The Library have also digitized a selection of pre-1923 books about the Aztecs. Keep in mind that these books were written in a different era and much more has been learned about these cultures since they were published.

The Aztecs (Indian Races) by A. Van Doren Honeyman (1905)

The history of Mexico and its wars : comprising an account of the Aztec empire, the Cortez conquest, the Spaniards’ rule, the Mexican revolution, the Texan war, the war with the United States, and the Maximilian invasion; together with an account of Mexican commerce, agriculture … and the social condition of the people by John Frost (1882)

For more contemporary interpretations you might wish to search the Handbook of Latin American Studies for articles and books about Quetzalcoatl.

* Often referred to as the Plumed Serpent

**In the Nahua language it means row of houses or school of advanced education.

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