THE FEATHERED SERPENT

A Worldwide Religious Symbol




Ancient Mesoamericans and Egyptians who had never met and lived centuries and thousands of miles apart both worshiped feathered-serpent deities. Wadjet, the winged serpent of Egypt, protected the Pharoahs and controlled the waters of the nile. Like the Mexican version, the Egyptian Feathered Serpent was sometimes depicted with red body, blue head, and green feathers.

From at least 3,000 BC onward Egyptians often portrayed their gods, including the Goddess of the Pharaohs, Isis, in art and sculpture as serpents with wings or feathers, but it is doubtful that this date represents the actual beginning of this politico-religious symbol as a totality.

Winged serpents were placed as guardians of King Tut's tomb (see image left). In Egyptian mythology the Feathered Serpent is most often associated with Rulers (Kings or Queens), usually as protectors or guardians. The image is a symbol of divine authority. The word Uraeus is said to come from Greek oura meaning "tail"-but there could also be some connection with Ouranos, the first king in Libyan mythology. According to legend, the Cobra was assigned to the Pharaohs as a sign of kingship by Keb (a.k.a. Kronos, son of Ouranos).


The serpent Nehebkau ("he who harnesses the souls") was the two-headed serpent deity who guarded the entrance to the underworld. He is often seen as the son of the snake goddess Renenutet. She often was confused with (and later was absorbed by) their primal snake goddess Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra, who from the earliest of records was the patron and protector of the country, all other deities, and the Pharaohs. Wadjet is the Uraeus-Cobra that is placed conspicuously on the front of the crowns of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

The mythological figure of the feathered or plumed serpent is depicted throughout North, Middle, and South America as early as Olmec times (1400 B.C.) The Maya knew him as Kukulkán; the Quiché as Gucumatz; the Inca as Urcaguey. In the Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya, Gucumatz is "the Creator, the Maker"(Pt. I.1). The Toltecs portrayed the plumed serpent as Quetzalcóatl, the rival of Tezcatlipoca, both at Tulá (north of Teotihuacán) and at Chichén Itzá, in northern Yucatán—the Aztecs later at Tenochtitlán and other places in the Aztec Empire.

Olmec Feathered Serpent

Mesoamericans who honored the Feathered Serpent included the Olmec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Toltec (who may have adopted it from the Teotihuacan culture of central Mexico), and Aztec. Art and iconography clearly demonstrate the importance of the Feathered Serpent Deity in the Classic Era as well as in Olmec times. Teotihuacán, a Late Preclassical (either Late Olmec, or possibly Toltec) ceremonial site, features prominent images on the sides of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid (the Teotihuacan images look very "Toltec" to me). The city of Teotihuacan was dedicated to Tlaloc, the water-god, which may suggest a flood connection. Feathered Serpent worship seems to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic Period.

The Aztec Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus


The Toltecs, who had established their style of architecture at the picturesque ceremonial centers of Tulá and Chichén Itzá, seem to have adopted the Feathered Serpent of Teotihuacan, and may have been the first to call him by the name "Quetzalcóatl". In the Postclassic Period (900-1519 AD) the worship of the Feathered Serpent deity was centered in the central Mexican religious center of Cholula. The best known Feathered Serpent of the New World is, of course, the Aztec Quetzalcóatl, who was sometimes depicted as a human.

Early Toltec Feathered Serpent

The Feathered Serpent is a popular iconographic symbol found throughout the Americas from one end to the other: Chile, Peru, Middle America; as well as throughout the American Southwest among the Anasazi (Chaco Canyon), Zuni and Tiwa of New Mexico, even the Hopis of Arizona.

The Tiwa deity Avanyu is the feathered sky serpent of the more recent Pueblos. The Zuni, Kolowisi, and Hopi called the deity Paluluka: a rain and lightning deity who is believed to have created the waterways, and whose voice is thunder. The northern Algonquin pictographs commonly depict a horned, Feathered Serpent known as Mishipizheu. Similar icons are scattered across the North American continent.

Mishipizheu, the Algonquin Feathered Serpent


Across the wide Pacific, there is the 7-headed Naga on the temple at Anchor Wat, in Cambodia, while the Chinese represent the Feathered Serpent in the form of a dragon; here the serpent has somehow become one with a fierce, fire-breathing bird, while simultaneously remaining a protective deity.

Unlike the dragons of Western Europe, which are usually emblematic of evil, the many Eastern versions of the dragon are powerful spiritual symbols, representing seasonal cycles and supernatural forces. In some Eastern cultures, the dragon plays an integral part in Creation mythology. Generally, the oriental Fire-dragon is a benevolent and powerful bringer of good fortune.


Dong Ho painting of the Chinese Dragon Dance

Whether in the form of a dragon, a plumed serpent, a crested snake, or a multi-headed reptile, the symbol is usually connected in some way with the "Cosmic Deep" (abyss) of Creation—e.g., the 7-headed Narayana or the feathered-covered Gucumatz—and/or flood waters—e.g., the 7-headed Leviathan of the Canaanites, the multi-headed Leviathan (Psa. 74:13-14) and proud Rahab of the ancient Hebrews (Isa. 27:1; 51:9-10).

Symbols such as the Pyramid, Cross, or Sun can be derived from things observed in our natural world by any culture, but the Feathered Serpent is not an item existing in the natural world, and thus could not be naturally "assumed"; therefore it must have been carried from culture to culture by a process known as "diffusion" (the dreaded "D" word among cultural anthropologists). For an unnatural symbol to have been so universally recognized, the originators of such a symbol would have to have somehow touched a good many parts of the world (via trade, exploration, colonization, etc.): in any case its influence seems to have been truly worldwide in scope.



Copyright © 2010 by R. Cedric Leonard
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