Aztec Myth: Quetzalcoatl Rescues Humanity in the Land of the Dead

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Part of the Mesoamerican myth of the origin of people, where Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, descends into the Land of the Dead, Mictlan, to rescue the bones of humanity and bring them back to life.

Lord of Mictlan, Plumed Serpent, Aztec Stories

Mictlantecuhtli back to back with Quetzalcoatl, based on the Codex Borgia, detail.

Quetzalcoatl’s Descent To Mictlan, the Land of the Dead

Mictlan is the underworld of the Aztec People (also known as the Mexica), ruled over by its Lord and Lady. It is a gloomy place, reached by the dead only after wandering for four years beneath the earth, accompanied by a “soul-companion,” a dog which was customarily cremated with the corpse.

Aztec myth tells how the deity Quetzalcoatl, who in the Nahuatl language and means “feathered serpent,” journeyed to Mictlan at the dawning of the Fifth Sun (the present world era), in order to restore humankind to life from the bones of those who had lived in previous eras. For bones are like seeds: everything that dies goes into the earth, and from the earth new life is born in the sacred cycle of existence.

Quetzalcoatl and His spirit twin, Xolotl, the god with the serious face of a great hound, said, “I am Xolotl, the Evening Star. Every night, I lead the Sun down to Mictlan to die. I know the way to the Land of the Dead and will guide us there.” Quetzalcoatl, His wise old face wreathed with a beard of brilliant feathers, said, “I am Quetzalcoatl, the Morning Star. Every morning, I lead the Sun back out of Mictlan to be reborn with the dawn. I know the way out of the Land of the Dead and will guide us back home to the sweet paradise Tamoanchan.”

Xolotl led the way down to Mictlan and through the nine layers of the Realm of Death. They retraced the path that the Sun took every night down into the depths of the underworld, all the way to the palace of the Lord of the Dead. “We must be careful,” Quetzalcoatl said. “I know Lord Mictlantecuhtli will not be pleased by our request. He is a wily god and may try to trap us.” Xolotl agreed, and they cautiously proceeded to the throne of the Lord and Lady of the Dead.

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Day f the Dead, mexico, mictlan

Lord Mictlantecuhtli, god of the dead and the king of Mictlan, often depicted with his skeletal jaw open to receive the stars that descend into him during the daytime. From Pink Lady Makeup Artist.

Quetzalcoatl approached the Lord of Mictlan, who sat on his throne surrounded by spiders and owls, as well as the bones of humans, piled up like treasure. “I’ve come for the bones, the precious bones, the jade bones,” said Quetzalcoatl. “Can I have them in order to populate the earth?”

Mictlantecuhtli frowned, and the chill in the air deepened. “And how do I benefit from this? No, I don’t think I’ll give up my splendid bones. If I give them to you, I’ll never get them back and I’ll be poorer for it. No, you can’t have my bones.”

Quetzalcoatl had anticipated this. “Oh, no! You misunderstand me. We don’t intend to keep the bones, we just want to borrow them. The humans would be mortal, and would eventually return to you, just like how everything else is born and eventually dies, even the Sun itself. Only we Teteo live forever. You wouldn’t really lose anything in the end, and in the meantime, your fame would grow.”

Lady Mictlancihuatl looked pleased by these words. Lord Mictlantecuhtli considered them, then spoke. “Hmmm. An interesting idea. All right. You can have the bones…” Xolotl began to move towards the bones. “IF” continued Mictlantecuhtli. and Xolotl froze. “IF you can play my conch-shell trumpet and circle my kingdom four times in honor of me.” He handed Quetzalcoatl a conch shell that with no finger holes did not look like any kind of instrument. They left the chamber.

Xolotl looked at the trumpet in dismay. The conch shell couldn’t make a sound. “He’s trying to trick us!”

“I’ve got a plan,” said Quetzalcoatl. And he called the worms and other gnawing insects, and ordered them to chew holes into the conch shell. Then he took the shell and held it up, and summoned the bees to climb inside through the holes and buzz loudly. The sound echoed through the shadowy realm like a trumpet blast.

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Quetzalcoatl, Aztec Mythology, mexico

To the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent, a flying reptile, who was a boundary-maker (and transgressor) between earth and sky. He was a creator deity having contributed essentially to the creation of Mankind, related to gods of the wind, of the planet Venus, of the dawn, of merchants and of arts, crafts and knowledge.

Mictlantecuhtli hid a scowl when Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl marched proudly back into the throne room. “We’ve done what you asked, Lord of the Dead. Now, give us the bones as you agreed!”

“Very well then,” said Mictlantecuhtli, calm again. “You can have them for now. But the humans will not be immortal. They must die again someday and return to me, just as you had said earlier.” The Morning and Evening Star agreed, gathered up the bones, and left.

Lady Mictlancihuatl looked horrified. “Our treasure! We can’t let them carry it off!”

“Of course we won’t. I may have said they could have the bones. I never said they could leave my kingdom with them.” And then he ordered some of his servants to dig a pit along the path that the two gods must take to escape, and others to chase after them.

Meanwhile, Quetzalcoatl knew that he’d better move quickly to take the bones and leave. Quetzalcoatl thought of a trick. “Tell the Lord I’ll leave the bones behind,” he said to his spirit twin Xolotl. Accordingly, Xolotl assured the Lord of Mictlan that the bones would be left. Meanwhile Quetzalcoatl began to run. Unfortunately, he fell into the pit the Lord of Mictlan ordered dug, having been startled by a covey of quail. Those bones that weren’t already shattered were pecked at by the quail. Which is why humans come in all sizes.

“This has not worked out well,” said Quetzalcoatl to his spirit twin.

“What must be must be,” replied the nahual. And so Quetzalcoatl scooped up the bones and, once safely beyond the dead land, ground them up in a bowl. Together with the old goddess Cihuacoatl (Woman Serpent) and other gods, they sprinkled them with their blood, restoring them to life. And thus humankind was born from the penance of the gods themselves.

Based on the Myth of the Suns and the Toltec-Chichimec Origins of the Mexica People, as translated by Willard Gingerich, in The Flayed God. by Roberta H. and Peter T. Markman, blended with the variant as told by Cehualli.

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt