- 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.
Overview of Pirámide de Quetzalcoatl
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 Quetzalcoatl. This reverence clearly manifests in the most extravagantly decorated structure in Xochicalco.
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.
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.
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
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.
Cacaxtla, at about the same time Xochicalco was built.
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.
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
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