THE FEATHERED SERPENT

Feathered serpent head

A drawing by a student of architecture at Carleton Univesity for a workshop on mesoamerican imagery. It wasdone in black and white as a graphic excercise. It depicts a feathered serpent head from the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, dating to about A. D. 450. It is an imaginary head on a rattlesnake body carrying a second mask-like head near its tail. The rattles, on the body (not shown here) are realistically rendered but the heads and feathered bodies are iconic images. They were formed to embody ideas and meanings associated with serpent imagery as that probably referred to a set of supernatural forces. The terraces of this temple contain hundreds of identical repetitions of this metaphysical concept set into a background of shells and aquatic creatures seemingly as a watery, otherworld, context for the subject matter.

   The feathered serpent is one of the most venerable images in the whole corpus of mesoamerican art and to explain it fully would require a whole book. It appears in all cultures from the Olmec to the Aztec. It probably carried many different meanings in different contexts. One can only speculate. It does not mean that mesoamericans worshiped serpents. The temple it appears on was named the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in the first years of this century when these figures were first uncovered. Quetzalcoatl, as a Nahuatl word (the language of the Aztecs) means literally "feathered serpent". The term has Aztec references both to the planet Venus, a supernatural associated with the planet, with wind, and with a number of other things, and to a mythological human who was a Toltec ruler. We do not know what the Teotihuacan people called it. As part of a double-headed image it may refer to the Milky Way or to the zodiac.

To learn more about feathered serpent imagery consult:  David Carrasco, Quezalcoatl and the Irony of Empire; Miller, Mary E.and Karl Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and H. B. Nicholson, 'The Iconography of the Feathered Serpent in Late Postclassic Central Mexico", in Mesoamerica's Classic Heritage, edited by David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones and Scott Sessions, University Press of Colorado, 2000.


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