Thursday, March 2, 2017

Xochicalco Part 5: The enigmatic Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl

Carving of a Maya "Lord of Time" on the side of Pirámide Quetzacoatl. The Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent is unusual for a variety of reasons:

  • First, and foremost, are the wonderful high-relief carvings that richly cover its walls. Traces of colored paint have been detected on the relief carvings, including red, green, yellow, blue, black, and white. The effect must have been stunning. Their meanings are enigmatic and I will discuss several different theories about them later in this posting. 
  • Second, the co-mingling of the Teotihuacán, Maya, and Zapotec styles found in this structure is greater than anywhere else in the ancient city. 
  • Third, Xochicalco's builders intentionally placed the pyramid near the exact center of their most important ceremonial space, Plaza Principal, making the Plumed Serpent pyramid the focal point of the entire complex. 
  • Finally, the pyramid is hollow, unlike any of the others at Xochicalco or anywhere else that I have visited. 
All of these factors demonstrate the high level of importance placed upon this structure by its ancient architects.

Overview of Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl

View of the Plaza Principal from the northeast. The Plumed Serpent pyramid is the hollow square structure in the center of the photo. There is another structure to its right, also square and covered with grass. However, archaeologists don't think that the second structure held the same level of importance as Pirámide Quetzalcoatl. If you were to draw lines connecting the opposite corners of the Plaza Principal, you would find the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent at the point where they cross in the middle. It is the focal point of all the other temples, palaces and other structures surrounding the plaza.


Site map of Xochicalco showing the location of Quetzalcoatl's pyramid. The overall alignment of the city is north-to-south. However, the upper part deviates from a true north orientation to one that is 15.5 degrees off north. The reason has to do with celestial observations. Xochicalco was built by refugees from the collapse of the great city of Teotihuacán. That city was built half a millennium before Xochicalco, but with the same, slightly off-kilter orientation. Archeo-astronomers theorize that this orientation is connected with an ancient desire by priest-astronomers to record sunrises and sunsets on particular days of the year. They needed to calibrate their all-important calendars, with which they tracked the cycles of the world including those of planting and harvesting. Along with their celestial orientation, Teotihuacán's refugees brought with them a deep reverence for QuetzalcoatlThis reverence clearly manifests in the most extravagantly decorated structure in Xochicalco.


Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl, viewed from the Plaza Principal's west side. Although the pyramid is relatively small, it is the most highly decorated structure in Xochicalco. Quetzalcoatl gets the first part of his name from the Quetzal, a bird highly valued by the ancients for its colorful plumage and long tail feathers Coatl means "snake" an animal of great symbolic power. Joined together, they become the Plumed Serpent, the Creator-God who gave life to humans as well as the all-important gift of maiz (corn). In the lower left of the photo you can see a small square altar which was probably used during the ceremonial occasions when the Plaza Principal was filled with people. In the center-right, behind some trees, is the Temple of the Three Stelae. It was the abode of the high priest, which I covered in Part 3 of this series.


How the pyramid once appeared. An artist's rendering shows a covered structure on top of the base. The roof has long-since disappeared, exposing the pyramid's hollow interior. As is often the case with Mesoamerican ceremonial structures, archaeologists found an earlier structure underneath the Plumed Serpent pyramid.



The architecture shows the classic Teotihuacán "talud y tablero" style. The talud sections are the sloping lower walls, while the tablero parts are the vertical panels above them. The tableros are topped by an overhanging cornice, another unusual feature of this pyramid. Such cornices are not found on any of the other tableros of Xochicalco's structures. The talud sections on all four sides are the best-preserved parts of the temple's decorative elements. The tableros once contained extensive relief carvings, but only fragments now remain.


The Lord of the Serpents, found at Pirámide Quetzalcoatl. This large statue was intended to connect Xochicalco's nobility with the Plumed Serpent creator-god. The male figure's posture is regal and severe. He is adorned with a jeweled headband, large ear rings, a necklace, bracelets, and wears a short, kilt-like garment. His left hand holds one serpent while others twine about his body. The power of the rulers, priests, and nobility was based upon their connection to, and ability to communicate with, Quetzalcoatl and the other gods of Xochicalco's pantheon. This power could only be maintained if common people believed in the ability of the elite to intercede with the gods to maintain the balance of the cosmos. That balance was expressed in the regular arrival of the rains, good crop harvests, and the avoidance of weather disasters, earthquakes, epidemics, lost battles, etc. The elite used these beliefs to justify their wealth, authority, and privileges. If the common people's beliefs ever wavered, a popular uprising might be the result. There is evidence that the destruction of the elite areas of Teotihuacán in 650 AD may have been related to a great drought caused by deforestation. The elite of Teotihuacán found itself unable to deal with the drought or with the famine that followed it. This led to a loss of faith and a great revolt. The surviving nobility and priesthood fled south, where they founded Xochicalco. They brought with them a sophisticated culture, an understanding of urban design and trade practices, and a continuing fealty to Quetzalcoatl.


The relief carvings along the pyramid's sides


View of the north side of the pyramid. Each of the taluds on the sides and back have a similar design: two long writhing snakes, with their heads at the corners turned to face each other. The tails meet in the middle of the talud. The two snakes on the front of the pyramid are separated by the staircase. The design of the snakes shows a strong Teotihuacán influence.


View of the northwest corner of the pyramid. In this photo, you can clearly see the snake head turned and the body looping along the side of the talud.


The Plumed Serpent's head, from the northwest corner. The head and neck are fringed with feathers, clearly identifying the serpent as a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl. The mouth gapes open, showing upper and lower fangs curving back. Protruding from the mouth is a long forked tongue. The fork in the tongue has been interpreted as a symbol of the New Fire ceremony, which took place at the end of each 52-year cycle in the sacred calendar. This was a ceremony of great significance because the change-over from one cycle to the next was a moment of cosmic death and rebirth, a time of great danger. On the day of the New Fire ceremony, all fires were extinguished and could only be re-lit when the ritual was complete. Quetzalcoatl was himself a symbol of death and re-birth, which probably is the connection with the New Fire symbol.


Maya-style figures sit between the undulations of the snake's body. There are a series of similar--but not identical--figures on all four sides. For reasons I will explain later, these individuals are sometimes called the "Lords of Time." The seated postures and the figures' profiles show a strong Maya influence. The attire is similar to that of the Lord of the Serpents, except that the head dress is more elaborate. However, these Maya figures are much more artfully created, indicating that the Lord of the Serpents may not have been crafted by a Maya artisan. To the right of the figure is a symbol which may indicate either speech or a place of origin. The combination of Teotihuacán-style Plumed Serpents with Maya-style figures shows that the great empire's refugees apparently shared power with the Olmeca-Xicalanca, a Maya group from the Yucatan's Gulf Coast. The Olmeca-Xicalanca moved into the territories of the Teotihuacán Empire as it began to collapse. They founded Xochicalco's trade rival, Cacaxtla, at about the same time Xochicalco was built.


These symbols were placed inside other curves of the snakes' bodies. At the bottom, you can see a single bar with four dots below it. The dots each represent the number 1 while the bar represents 5. Together, they form the number 9 in the Zapotec numeric system. The inclusion of Zapotec numbers shows the third major influence on Xochicalco's architecture and culture. The complex symbol above the number means "Eye of the Reptile". Above it, the symbol for New Fire occurs again. All together, this forms a written version of Quetzalcoatl's name. However, it can also be read as a date, 743 AD, when an eclipse occurred.


A lattice decoration was placed at the point where the snakes' tails meet. This decoration appears at the mid-point along the talud, where the snakes' tails meet. Lattice decorations can also be found at Cacaxtla. Both cases form additional examples of Maya influence.


A series of stylized conches for the cornice of the tablero. The connection between conches and Quetzalcoatl can be found in his myth. The Plumed Serpent volunteered to populate the newly created world with human beings, but needed materials. To obtain them, he had to enter the underworld and undergo many trials in order to recover bones from perviously destroyed worlds. Mictlantecuhtli, the God of Death, refused to give up the bones unless Quetzalcoatl traveled around the underworld four times blowing a trumpet made from a conch shell. However, this was a trick because the conch had no holes for blowing. Quetzalcoatl overcame this obstacle by persuading underground worms to drill the holes. He filled the conch with a swarm of bees to amplify the sound. When Mictlantecuhtli heard the Plumed Serpent blasting on the trumpet, he was forced to give up the bones. A final trap set by the Death God caused Quetzalcoatl to fall and break the bones into many pieces of various sizes and shapes. This is the reason that people appear to be different from one another.

The pyramid's top level and interior

Lord of the Serpent Helmet, found near the Pirámide de Quetzacoatl. The sculpture above is another example of an artist making the connection between Xochicalco's nobility and Quetzalcoatl. The figure shows a great serpent with its mouth wide open. On either side are large, fierce-looking eyes and at the top is the snake's nose. Drooping from the lower jaw is a short, bifurcated tongue. Between the jaws is a human head, worn and somewhat indistinct, but still discernible. The sculpture is another reference to Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulkan, his Maya incarnation. The image of a human face emerging from a snake's mouth is common in Yucatan and the other Maya areas. Over time, the image spread throughout Mesoamerica. This may have come about through a campaign by Olmeca-Xicalanca merchant-traders from the Yucatan's Gulf Coast. They actively propagated the feathered serpent cult throughout Mesoamerica as a way to create a common bond with people of different ethnicities, languages, and customs. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that profitable business would be greased by religious proselytizing.


Interior of the pyramid. From this view, it appears that there may have been at least two floors, the upper one supported by the pillars. There is no staircase or other obvious route down into the bottom level. In the center-left, behind a pair of pillars, is a low square platform which was probably an altar.


Wall support in Teotihuacán style with a small niche in the side. This buttress supports the back wall of the pyramid on the lower level. Just above the sloping talud, in the center of the buttress, is a small niche. This may have once contained an image or object relating to Quetzalcoatl or possibly a candle or lamp to help light what must have been a dark space.


Conches found inside the pyramid. These don't appear to be trumpets, since--like the one the God of Death gave to the Plumed Serpent--they lack blowing holes. These offerings probably originated on the Pacific Coast and were brought to Xochicalco through the trade networks.


Relief carving from the right side of the pyramid's upper level entrance. Originally there were a number of similar--but not identical--carvings on the back, sides, and front walls of the second level. This is one of the few that is nearly intact. The figure in the center is seated in a cross-legged position. The face is worn away, but other elements of the carving are still clear and sharp. A cluster of arrows is strapped to his back, suggesting a military commander, or possibly a ruler. An elaborate necklace is draped around his neck and shoulders and he wears a bracelet on his right hand. Both of these indicate a high-ranking individual. The outstretched hand grasps a staff of power. To the left of the figure is a date glyph with the Zapotec number 8 at the bottom. On the right, at the top, is a fruit-bearing tree or possibly a stylized maiz plant with the ripe cobs. Below it is a rather abstract image of a crocodile sitting upright with the tail curled. While the seated human figure in each three-panel carving is similar to the others on the second level walls, the images, symbols and numbers on either side of the figures differ from one three-panel group to another.


Fragment from the upper entrance on the left side. The seated figure in the center is gone, except for the feet, a hand holding a scepter on the right, and the fletched ends of the arrows of the left. There is a date symbol on the right. It is similar to the previous carving, except for the Zapotec number 10 at the bottom and a New Fire symbol at the top. On the left, the coyote seated on the mat indicates royalty or rulership.



Glyph containing a jaguar head with the number 7 at the bottom. This is all that remains of a three-part grouping. Absent are the human figure and the date glyph. As we have seen, animals such as snakes, quetzal birds and coyotes were important symbols in the pre-hispanic world. Big cats, particularly jaguars, were among the most powerful of these symbols. Jaguars are the third largest of the big cats, after African lions and Indian tigers. They are also skillful hunters. That they seek their prey in the dead of night was especially significant. It implied that they could move freely between the worlds of darkness and light, and of death and life. Jaguars have long been a preferred symbol for warriors and rulers.


Another powerful symbol was the eagle. The fierce nature and hunting ability of eagles made them another favorite as a warrior symbol. Their ability to soar across the heavens associated them with the sun and the gods. It is no coincidence that the two most important warrior cults were named for eagles and the jaguars. At Cacaxtla, a huge ancient mural depicts an epic battle between warriors of the eagle and jaguar cults. Some archaeologists think that the mural may have been modeled after an actual conflict.

So, what does all of this add up to? Why was Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl built and what did it actually represent? As I said at the beginning, the answer is enigmatic. There are several theories:


  • The pyramid may have been built as a political statement and historical record to celebrate Xochicalco's conquests. In this version, the defeated rulers are depicted on the upper level walls, with each three-part grouping listing the dates of victories and tributes levied. At the Zapotec capital of Monte Alban, conquered cities are depicted in relief carvings in somewhat the same way. The figures entwined in the Plumed Serpents' coils may be the Xochicalco lords who defeated the rulers shown on the upper level. Their Maya style might be due to the Olmeca-Xicalanca origins of the artists.
  • Another possibility is that these upper-tier figures are rulers of other regional powers, such as Cacaxtla and La Quemada, who may have come together at Xochicalco to participate in the observation of an eclipse in 743 AD. The symbols and animals accompanying each figure might indicate their kingdom and the dates of their accession to their thrones or of their alliances with Xochicalco. The Maya figures entwined by the snakes on the lower level would then be the "Lords of Time", i.e. Maya priest-astronomers who had arrived hoping to use the occasion of the 743 AD eclipse to re-calibrate their calendars. The Maya mastery of astronomy, mathematics, and calendric calculations was far in advance of the rest of Mesoamerican societies. The glyphs that appear in the snakes's coils can be read either as the name of Quetzalcoatl or as the date 743 AD. Under this theory, the Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl would have been a monument to commemorate the occasion when this great gathering of political leaders and astronomer-priests assembled to observe an eclipse.
  • Still another possibility involves a legendary human leader who had taken the name of the god Quetzalcoatl. The theory is that he ruled Xochicalco for a time before going to Tollan (modern Tula), to become the ruler of the Toltecs, an emerging power in the late Epi-Classic era. After he was forced to leave Tollan, he is said to have ended up at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. It is thought that the figures shown on the upper level are the heirs he had left in Xochicalco, with the dates and locations of their conquests placed beside them in the glyphs. The Maya figures on the talud level may represent priests of the Quetzalcoatl cult originally established by the leader who had adopted that name while he ruled Xochicalco.


The mists of time long ago closed over Xochicalco. No one knows for sure which of these theories, if any, is closest to the truth.

This completes Part 5 of my series. Next time, we'll look at the ruler's palace, called the Acropolis, along with many of the items found within it. I hope you enjoyed my posting on the Plumed Serpent pyramid. If so, and you would like to leave a comment or ask a question, please use the Comments below or email me directly. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

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