A few years ago, while reading some of Dr. Michael Coes’ books, I came to the conclusion that what I had learned and taught about Quetzalcoatl, presumably “The Great White God” of meso-America, was Jesus of Nazareth, was wrong. To my excitement, while listening to a podcast with Brant Gardner, I discovered that he had come to the same conclusion. I thought about writing a post about my new disovery and then thought, what if I could get Brant Gardner to write a post for us instead? I thought it was a long shot, but worth a try. To my excitement, Brother Gardner said he would! Woohoo! This blog post has three parts. Each part will examine a different Quetzalcoatl tradition. For those that aren’t familiar with Brant Garner’s works, please read his bio at the bottom of this post, or click here to listen to a five-part podcast where he is interviewed. – Mike Barker, rationalfaiths.com
Click here to link to a lists of books written by Brant Gardner which are carried by amazon.com.
Click here to read Part II of this series.
Click here to read Part III of this series.
Quetzalcoatl, White Gods, and the Book of Mormon Part I: Skin Color
Brant A. Gardner
The Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl has entered public consciousness as the “white god.” The very fact that a Native American people would have a bearded Caucasian deity has led to widespread speculation about who might have been the real person about whom the legends developed. The earliest speculation came from some of the Spanish priests who first encountered Aztec religion. They believed that the original bearded Caucasian must have been St. Thomas the wandering Apostle. Other suggestions have been St. Bernard and Ethan Smith, who published his View of the Hebrews in 1823, suggested that it was Moses.
The LDS speculation has associated the Quetzalcoatl legends with the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the people gathered in Bountiful as recorded in the Book of Mormon. No less a figure than Church president John Taylor, wrote of Quetzalcoatl:
“The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being. But the history of the former has been handed down to us through an impure Lamanitish source, which has sadly disfigured and perverted the original incidents and teachings of the Savior’s life and ministry.”1
President Taylor’s statement recognizes that the Quetzalcoatl legends do not really match what we see in the Book of Mormon, but ascribes those differences to the impure source and time. President Taylor is absolutely correct that over time stories can develop, evolve, and shift away from their original sources. That is actually a perfect description of what has happened to the stories about Quetzalcoatl. However, rather than drift away from the Book of Mormon story of Christ’s appearance into a paganized retelling, they stories have drifted from a pagan story into a Christianized one. The LDS correlation between Quetzalcoatl is more than just a similar attempt to find the bearded Caucasian that we first saw among the Spanish priests, it is based upon the stories that the Spanish priests used to declare that bearded Caucasian as St. Thomas. Unfortunately, while those stories were based on the native deity Quetzalcoatl, they had already been warped into new forms as the Spanish fathers recorded them.
The entire history of the development of Quetzalcoatl stories from native deity to some Christian reformer is one of assumptions modifying data into forms closer to the assumptions. When we do the historical footwork to pull apart the threads of the tapestry, all of the elements of the story that make the bearded Caucasian appear to be Christian are only distortions of the native story—including the idea that Quetzalcoatl was a bearded Caucasian.
How was Quetzalcoatl White? Quetzalcoatl’s statue was always painted black. The artistic representations had visual signals to show that it was Quetzalcoatl (parallel to keys on a ring declaring which figure in a Renaissance painting was Peter). The only time he was “white” was when he was described with his association with the East, which was associated with the color white just as other directions were associated with red, black, and yellow.
Anthropologists Mary Miller and Karl Taube explain the color associations of the Mesoamerican directions:
“The identification of colors with directions is most fully documented among the ancient Maya, who had specific glyphs for the colors red, white, black, yellow, and green. In the Yucatec Maya codices, these colors are associated with east, north, west, south and center, respectively. . . . Like the Maya, Central Mexicans appear to have identified white with the north and yellow with the south.”2
Historia de los Mexicanos por sus pinturas records an unfortunately abbreviated version of the four sons of a heavenly god and goddess, the four Tezcatlipocas. Only two give their particular colors, and Quetzalcoatl is not one of them:
This god and goddess engendered four sons:
The oldest they named Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca, and those of Huexotzinco and Tlaxcala, who held this one to be their principal god, called him Camaxtle: This one was born all red.
They had the second son, whom they called Yayauhqui Tezcatlipoca, who was the best and the worst, and he was more powerful and able than the other three, because he was born in the middle of all: this one was born black.
The third was called Quetzalcoatl, and as another name, Yohualli Ehecatl.
The fourth and smallest was called Omitecutli and by another name, Maquizcoatl and the Mexicans [Aztecs] called him Huitzilopochtli, because he was left-handed. He was held by the Mexicans [Aztecs] to be their principal god.3
We see the pattern, although Quetzalcoatl is not specifically linked to the color. Nevertheless, the Aztec perception was that Quetzalcoatl was white only in the same way that Tlatlauhqui Tezcatlipoca was red and Yayauhqui Tezcatlipoca was black. It was their association with a direction that made the determination, not their skin color.
The Aztecs really didn’t see that big of a difference between their skin color and that of the Spanish. Miguel León-Portilla, professor emeritus at the Institute for Historical Research, National University of Mexico, quotes Alvarado Tezozomoc, a native nobleman (who wrote no earlier than 1609, a date found in the manuscript “Mexican [Aztec] Chronicle”): “Their [Spaniards’] skin is very white, more so than ours.”4
Quetzalcoatl became Caucasian because the Spanish fathers recording the tales couldn’t conceive of the association with a direction and assumed that the description must have depicted skin color. It was part of a transformation of native legend that they made into a prediction that the Spanish would come and rule.
Next week, Brant Gardner will examine Quetzalcoatl’s beard, virgin birth, and his preaching Christian principles.
1John Taylor, Mediation and Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1882), 201, on GospeLink 2001, CD-ROM (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000).
2Miller and Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, 65.
3Garibay K., Historia de los Mexicanos por sus pinturas, 23–24; translation mine.
4Miguel León-Portilla, Visiones de los Vencidos (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1972), 12; translation mine.
Very interesting. I’m not really familiar with this part of history. Great post
Great stuff. I was unaware of the color connections to directions. Though I am not completely convinced there is no connection to the Quetzelcoatl/Kukulkan figures and Christ. I am interested in parts two and three from Brant Gardner.
To me there are still too many parallels to not have some basis of truth. Kukulkan is the one I am more familiar with, but here are just a few that I find incredibly similar: Kukulkan is the feathered serpent (all the symbolism of Christ being a serpent, i.e. on Moses staff). He is feathered because he can still return to the heavens. Kukulkan is often represented as a descending God, bringing an ear of maize to the Mayans (Christ descended from heaven and is the God of the bread of life). And one final, very intriguing tid bit for me is how the temple of the descending God at Tulum was built in alignment with Venus and the Sun so that they are aligned on April 6th. On that day Venus can be seen rising into the night sky directly over the door of the temple and the sunlight forms a brilliant star that can be seen only on that day. This is noteworthy because Mayan Gods were known by the date they were born. There are several other factors, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.
I could be way, way off on all of this because I am not an archaeologist or anthropologist, but rather a dentist. This is just my opinion from some of my limited reading.
One of the biggest problems with seeing Kukulcan as a representative of Christ is the dating. The early Maya word for serpent is *matz, not *can, which comes later. Therefore, linguists can tell that the Kukulcan form is pretty late. It dates to much closer to the AD900 or so date for the Toltec incursion into Maya territory which appears to have brought the feathered serpent information into that region. So while it is a feathered serpent, it was an imported understanding and came from translating a name at a point after the shift from *matz to *can.
You are referencing some Kukulcan legends of which I am unaware. It is certainly possible that I missed some early material, but I have been through most of it. From what I have seen, the descending deity does have some Mixtec antecedents, but the Maya corn god rises reborn from the earth. Something isn’t matching up with the legends you are citing and the historical background. I am interested in the source for this so I can update my files. Thanks.
Cool stuff, thank you. I’ll try and find some references for the legends I cited.
This is very interesting. I am looking forward to the next posts!
This topic is interesting for me and I look forward to the next 2 posts. On my mission in chile our mission president created several pamphlets that we would hand out to investigators. One of those pamphlets specifically cited Quetzalcoatl, the white God, as being Jesus Christ. And we used it all the time…and gave it to thousands of people. We might have been a little incorrect it seems.
My mom raised me on her belief that Christ is Quetzalcoatl, and she based this on the books that treated the subject, like He Walked the Americas, among others. I think I was born jaded, though, as I’ve always been skeptical of tying distinct figures together. There were also many stories in those books of legends in the pacific islands. Will those be discussed in this thread?
I don’t talk about them specifically, mostly because I am really familiar with the Central Mexican data that spawned the whole thing. What I have noticed is that the elements that make everything appear similar are all reported by the same types of people who were interested in distorting the Central Mexican material. It became pretty well known that Cortez was successful, and this “returning white god” was given credit. It isn’t surprising to have other Spaniards (and later others) attempt the same gambit.
I don’t know those traditions as well, and for many we don’t have the kind of comparative information that allows for the unraveling of the Quetzacoatl tales, so I cannot be sure. It just feels to me like a theme that is being applied in the same contexts rather than actually coming from Native Americans.
In your last post, you say
“It became pretty well known that Cortez was successful, and this “returning white god” was given credit. It isn’t surprising to have other Spaniards (and later others) attempt the same gambit.”
Are you saying that Cortez was successful in conquests because he was impersonating the “white god” and that other Spaniards (and later others) attempted the same gambit?
Not quite. Cortez was successful for multiple reasons, including his ruthlessness (and alliance with the Texcocans). Politically and religiously, however, the mythology functioned to help ease the transition once the Spaniards became the conquerors.