It is commonly asserted that a possible meaning of the name of the deity Quetzalcoatl is "precious twin". Sometimes it is even claimed that this is the real meaning and that the more commonly given meaning "Feathered Serpent" is false. In this blogpost I take a look at the history of this claim and its validity.
The claim is found in many different places:Historian Enrique Florescano states in his 2002 "The Myth of Quetzalcoatl" that "Uniting into one single entity the attributes of the serpent and the bird, metaphorically combining both the germinating powers of the earth and the creative powers of the sky, the Plumed Serpent became synonymous with the Precious Twin" (p. 147)
Nahuatl translator John Bierhorst states in his 1974 "Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature" takes it as an example of the multifaceted meanings of Nahuatl metaphors: "The name Quetzalcoatl means literally "plumed serpent" from quetzalli, feather of the precious green quetzal, and coatl , a snake". ... A particularly ingenious reinterpretation, involving a double pun, transforms "bird-snake" into "precious twin", an epithet of the morning star considered the twin of the evening star (quetzal = "quetzal" or "precious", coatl = "snake" or "twin")" (p. 4)
The idea is not new either, in 1908 anthropologist H. Beyer published an article about the "symbolic meaning of the dog in ancient Mexico" in which he stated that "Xolotl is the twin-brother of Quetzalcoatl, and vice versa. Therefore Xolotl became the 'god of the twins', and Quetzalcoatl’s name can be translated not only as 'plumed serpent' but also as 'precious twin'.”
And in the more extreme form denying the meaning "plumed serpent" it is found in discussion fora on the internet: "Another lie. Quetzalcoatl was not white, he made no prophecy, he didn’t promise to return, and his name does not mean ‘feathered serpent.’ The name means ‘precious twin’. The myth that Quetzalcoalt promised to return is a total fabrication--a post-conquest myth contrived by Spanish missionaries to facilitate their conversion of Indians." (2012 discussion forum)
So lets look a bit at what the evidence for this secondary meaning actually is.Everyone agrees that the name Quetzalcoatl is composed of two roots quetzalli /ketzal-li/ and coatl /ko:wa-tl/. What is less clear is what exactly the meanings of those two words are.
Related to the verb quetza /ketza/ "to stand/put upright", the meaning of the word quetzalli is given by Molina as "pluma rica, larga y verde" (Long, green, rich feather). The relation probably refers to the way that feathers stand up from the skin of the bird. In the Florentine Codex we find sentences such as "in quetzalli īhuān in nepapan tlazohihhuitl " (the quetzalli and the other precious feathers), or the description of the feather seller at the market "quināmaca in quetzalli in chīlchōtic, in tzicoliuhqui, in pilihhuitl" (he sells the quetzalli, the chili-green-colored, the curved, the young feathers) and "ca ixachi inin tōtōtl īquetzallo" (they are huge that bird's feathers) (I have the examples from the Florentine from Wimmer's dictionary under the entry "quetzalli"). This should show adequately that the meaning is primarily related to a particular kind of long green feather which is highly valuable for decorative purposes. According to Sahagun the metaphorical usages of the word quetzalli were as a reference to an unborn child, and as a form of address when addressing the Tlatoani "Quetzallé!". This does suggest that it was used to express feelings of deep appreciation similar to calling somone "my treasure" or "my jewel". However I have found no examples of usages of "quetzalli" as modifier with the meaning "precious". In compounds it always seems to refer directly to the quetzal feather itself , e.g. quetzalcomitl "a recipient for holding feathers" or quetzalcopilli "feathered headdress" (one possible exception is the word quetzalitztli, describing a kind of precious stone, but I wonder if we can assume that quetzal- necessarily means "precious" in the Nahuatl word, it might well refer to some other property of the stone, perhaps a green color - or to the original literal meaning of quetzalli as "something that stands upright").
The word coatl /ko:wa:tl/ (with the plural form cocoua /ko:ko:waʔ/) however clearly has two meanings, "snake" and "twin". Molina gives it in several instances both in the Spanish and Nahuatl parts of his vocabulario:
- Geminos,hermanos nacidos de vn vientre. - Cocoua.
- Mellizo - coatl
- Cocoa - culebras o mellizos.- Coatl.- culebra,mellizo,o lombriz del estomago
The usage of "twin" lives on in Mexican Spanish as cuate "twin/close friend".
So half the translation holds, Quetzalcoatl could be translated as "feather twin", which would not be weird given the fact that he is described as being the twin of the dog-deity xolotl, and that he was related to the planet venus which was considered a twin-star with different twins appearing in the evening and the morning.
But where does the "precious" aspect come into play? How and when was it suggested that the word for "precious feather" could be used to mean simply "precious".
Here we have to go even further back in the literature.Jacques Lafaye in his "Quetzalcoatl and Guadalupe" points us to a manuscript called El Fénix de Occidente: Santo Tomas descubierto con el nombre de Quetzalcoatl written by the Jesuit Manuel Duarte in the second half of the 17th century (Lafaye argues that it was not written by Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora to whom the text is usually attributed). In this manuscript Duarte was determined to demonstrate that the native people of New Spain were not strangers to the Christian Gospel. Many friars had a hard time believing that God could have left an entire hemisphere devoid of his word for 1500 years, and they looked for signs to suggest that they had in fact been subject to evangelization which they had then subsequently forgotten.
Duarte was convinced that Saint Thomas the apostle, who was known to have preached in India, had also reached the West Indies, and converted the natives to Christianity and he looked for all the evidence that he could find for this thesis. In the myths of Quetzalcoatl he found exactly what he was looking for. The idea that Quetzalcoatl was in fact St. Thomas had already circulated among the Franciscans and Dominicans (e.g. Diego Durán) as a quiet heresy, but Duarte made it explicit. He argued that apart from the ways that the figure of Quetzalcoatl as bringer of knowledge and light, and his relations to the human prince called Topiltzin suggested that the myth had its origin in the figure of of a religious man, the very name of Quetzalcoatl was indeed the same as St. Thomas. He derived the name Thomas from the Greek form of the Aramaic name תָּאוֹמָא (Ta'oma') which means "twin", corresponding also to the greek didymus "twin". Here was a clear correspondence between the two! But what about the Quetzal part? What did that respond to? It seems that Duarte in his eagerness to make the two parts fit, considered quetzalli with its connotations of appreciation and value corresponded to the title "Santo" (Saint/Holy). Quite a stretch when you think about it.
The idea of Quetzalcoatl being a European Christian missionary is also found in the work of Bartolomé de las Casas, who nonetheless does not give the translation "precious twin" or suggest that it wa specifically St. Thomas. Rather Las Casas states that Quetzalcoatl refers to a certain kind of snake which has a feather on top of its head, and which is mostly found in the tropical province of Xicalango.
So no, Quetzalcoatl, cannot and does not translate to "precious twin",The idea behind this translation can be traced back to the millenarian heresy of the Franciscans (which is also the origin of the erroneous ideas that Quetzalcoatl was blonde, and that he promised to return and that the Aztecs thought that Cortés was the returning Quetzalcoatl/St. Thomas). It is extremely unlikely that any native Nahuatl speaker in the 16th or 17th century would have considered Duarte's etymology to make any sense. They might have accepted the idea of coatl as a double entendre connoting subtly his status as a twin, but it is unlikely that they would ever consider quetzalli to mean anything other than "precious green feather". So indeed they must have thought of the deity Quetzalcoatl as being characterized by plumage, and to have the dual aspect of a twin and a snake.
Thus it is not surprising to look at the way Quetzalcoatl was depicted in the codices, either as a snake or a man, but in both cases decorated by long, rich green feathers.
[Thanks to the readers of the Nahuat-l listserv
who responded to a query of mine regarding this issue,
and pointed me on the way towards the facts.
I have also made some corrections in
response to comments from the list.]
I have also made some corrections in
response to comments from the list.]
|Quetzalcoatl as Snake in Codex Telleriano Remensis|
|Quetzalcoatl as human in Codex Telleriano Remensis|