Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Snapshots of Serpent Deities:The Feathered Serpent

By Bethany Youngblood


Known as “Quetzalcoatl”, “Kulkulcan”, and “Viracocha”, this serpent deity was venerated by the Olmec, the Maya, the Aztec, and even the Inca. As mentioned in our blog post “Serpent Sanctuary”, many names have been used for this deity, but we know it collectively as the “Feathered Serpent” of Meso-America.
Here is a brief snapshot of who and what this deity represented in the ancient world.

Quetzalcoatl - The Names

The name “Quetzalcoatl” is the most well-known name for the Feathered Serpent, but it is certainly a mouthful! It is pronounced: ket-sahl-koh-aht-l and means "feathered snake". It comes from the Nahuatl words quetzalli (feather) and coatl (snake).[1]  The name could also be translated as "plumed serpent", just as the serpent deity of the Olmec was known. The Maya name Kulkulcan also means "feathered snake".

“Viracocha”, the Incan version of this deity, is the only name that does not translate into "serpent". Viracocha is actually never recorded to have appeared in the form of a snake at all. So why is he included in the list of names for the Feathered Serpent? Because the Feathered Serpent did not always appear as a snake; he had other forms.   

One Deity, Many Forms

The Feathered Serpent is most commonly described just as its name suggests: a winged, plumed, or feathered snake. However, the pagan god apparently had other forms as well. He could take the form of the wind and other elemental deities;[2] for the Aztecs, the serpent deity was the morning and evening star, the planet Venus.[3]

What about Viracocha? All three, Quetzalcoatl, Kulkulcan, and Viracocha, are said to have appeared at one time in the form of a white, bearded man in long robes who came from across the sea.[4]

Viracocha, Wikimedia Commons

Brief History

Commonly the deities that fall under the "Feathered Serpent" title are credited with creation of the world and mankind.[5] Furthermore Quetzalcoatl, Viracocha, and Kulkulcan, in the form of a white man with a beard, apparently arrived from afar and brought wisdom to man. He built the foundations of civilization and spread his knowledge through the help of his many messengers. But the myths and legends also tell us that he left with the promise to return (some say he was exiled while others say he left by his own choice).[6]

There seem to be two versions of the cult surrounding this deity. Its earliest form describes the Feathered Serpent as a peaceful entity. He introduced justice and only required minimal sacrifices.

Later the cult underwent a revision[7], with the exception of Viracocha, who appears to have remained a peaceful entity replaced by sun worship.[8] The Feathered Serpent became the patron of priests, representing death and renewal. Human sacrifices became necessary to appease him, and this bloody legacy is what remains most prominent about the Feathered Serpent today.


Studying serpent deities can’t help but lead us back to the Garden and the Serpent of Old. His deceptions and counterfeits continually pop up, influencing cultures in ancient times in ways that we don’t yet fully know. Yet because we know the truth, by God’s grace, we can see the distortion for what it really is, false worship and rebellion against the true God.

Always More Questions

As is usual with ancient studies, we’ve left you with a plenty questions to mull over and intrigue you:
  • Why do you think the peaceful creator-god morphed into the bloody feathered serpent we know today?
  • Were the names Quetzalcoatl, Kulkukan, or Viracocha once applied to an actual flesh-and-blood man who came to the native peoples in ancient times and shared knowledge with them?
  • Why are there three names for one very similar deity?
  • Based on your own research you probably have different answers and theories for these questions that we would love to hear about! Share your thoughts in the comments or send us an email! 

[1] “Quetzalcoatl.” Web.
[2] “Quetzalcoatl.” Micha F. Lindemans.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Viracocha/Kulkulkan/Quetzalcoatl.” Web.
[5] “Quetzalcoatl.” Web.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “Viracocha and the Legendary Origins of the Inca.”  Christopher Minster.

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