Nahua and Quetzalcoatl

Extracted from “THE NATIVE RACES OF THE PACIFIC STATES.” By Hubert Howe Bancroft

From Project Gutenberg

During the Olmec period, that is, the earliest period of Nahua power, the great Quetzalcoatl appeared. We have seen that in the Popol Vuh and Codex Chimalpopoca this being is represented as the half-divinity, half-hero, who came at the head of the first Nahuas to America from across the sea. Other authorities imply rather that he came later from the east or north, in the period of the greatest Olmec prosperity, after the rival Quinames had been defeated. To such differences in detail no great importance is to be attached; since all that can be definitely learned from these traditions is the facts that Quetzalcoatl, or Gucumatz, was the most prominent of the Nahua heroes, and that his existence is to be attributed to this earliest period, known in Mexico as Olmec, but without a distinctive name in the south. Quetzalcoatl was a white, bearded man, venerable, just, and holy, who taught by precept and example the paths of virtue in all the Nahua cities, particularly in Cholula. His teachings, according to the traditions, had much in common with those of Christ in the Old World, and most of the Spanish writers firmly believed him to be identical with one of the Christian apostles, probably St Thomas. During his stay in this region his doctrines do not seem to have met with a satisfactory reception, and he left disheartened. He predicted before his departure great calamities, and promised to return in a future year Ce Acatl, at which time his doctrines were to be fully accepted, and his descendants were to possess the land. Montezuma is known to have regarded the coming of Cortés and the Spaniards as a fulfillment of this prediction, and in his speech to the new-comers states further that after his first visit Quetzalcoatl had already once returned,and attempted unsuccessfully to induce his followers to go back with him across the sea. The first part of the prophet’s prediction actually came to pass, as traditions tell us, for only a few days after his departure occurred the earthquake which destroyed the pyramid at Cholula, the American Babel, and ushered in the new or fourth age of fire, according to Ixtlilxochitl. On the ruins of the pyramid was built a temple to Quetzalcoatl, who was afterwards worshiped as a god.

We shall find very similar traditions of another Quetzalcoatl who appeared much later, during the Toltec period, and who also made Cholula a centre of his reform. As we shall see, the evidence is tolerably conclusive that the two are not the same, yet it is more than likely that the traditions respecting them have been considerably mixed both in native and European hands. After the time of Quetzalcoatl we know nothing of Olmec or Xicalanca history down to the establishment of the Toltec empire, when these nations were still in possession of the country of Puebla and Tlascala. Boturini conjectures that, being driven from Mexico, they migrated to the Antilles and to South America. There is not, however, the slightest necessity to suppose that the Olmecs ever left the country at all. Their institutions and language were the same as that of the Toltec peoples that nominally succeeded them, and although like the Toltecs they became extinct as a nation, yet there is no reason to doubt that their descendants lived long in the land, and took part in the new political combinations that make up Nahua history down to the Conquest.


Of the Nahua hieroglyphic system and its capabilities enough has been said elsewhere. By its aid, from the beginning of the Toltec period at least, all historical events were recorded that were deemed worthy of being preserved. The popular knowledge of these events was perpetuated by means of poems, songs, and plays, and this knowledge was naturally faulty in dates. The numerous discrepancies which students of the present day meet at every step in the investigation of aboriginal annals, result chiefly from the almost total destruction of the painted records, the carelessness of those who attempted to interpret the few surviving documents at a time when such a task by native aid ought to have been feasible, the neglect of the Spanish priesthood in allowing the art of interpretation to be well-nigh lost, their necessary reliance for historical information on the popular knowledge above referred to, and to a certain degree doubtless from their failure to properly record information thus obtained.

But few native manuscripts have been preserved to the present time, and only a small part of those few are historical in their nature, two of the most important having been given in my second volume. Most of the events indicated in such picture-writings as have been interpreted are also narrated by the early writers from traditional sources. Thus we see that our knowledge of aboriginal history depends chiefly on the hieroglyphic records destroyed by the Spaniards, rather than on the few fragments that escaped such destruction. To documents that may be found in the future, and to a more careful study of those now existing, we may look perhaps for much corrective information respecting dates and other details, but it is not probable that newly discovered picture-writings or new readings of old ones will extend the aboriginal annals much farther back into the past. These remarks apply of course only to the Aztec documents; the Maya records painted on skin and paper, or inscribed on stone, are yet sealed books, respecting the nature of whose contents conjecture is vain, but from which the future may evolve revelations of the greatest importance.