Quetzalcoatl, the Maya Maize God, and Jesus Christ

Quetzalcoatl, the Maya Maize God, and Jesus Christ

Diane E. Wirth

Legends about Quetzalcoatl from
Mexico and Central America bring forward
tantalizing resemblances to aspects
of the life and New World ministry of Jesus
Christ. In the past, some leaders of the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints occasionally
drew attention to certain of those similarities.1 Among those mentioned in post-Spanish
conquest manuscripts were that Quetzalcoatl
was the Creator, that he was born of a virgin,
that he was a god of the air and earth (in his
manifestation as the Feathered Serpent), that
he was white and bearded, that he came from
heaven and was associated with the planet
Venus, that he raised the dead, and that he
promised to return. The full picture, however,
is extremely complex.

In light of ancient sources and modern
studies that have appeared in recent decades,
some proposed links between Jesus Christ
and Quetzalcoatl remain quite plausible while
others are now questionable. This article
examines and sets into a helpful context possible
links that may derive from, or be related
to, the Nephites’ knowledge of and teaching about the Savior.

The Primary Sources

Documentary sources for pre-Columbian beliefs
vary in nature and value. The only truly ancient texts
are inscriptions in Mayan hieroglyphs, which scholars
finally are able to decipher in whole or in part.We
may glean some information from these writings
pertaining to Maya beliefs about the creation. Current
interpretations of the iconography (artistic expressions)
found in Mexico are beginning to make valuable
contributions to our understanding of Quetzalcoatl
and the mythology associated with him, an
understanding that did not exist even a few years ago.
Useful information about Quetzalcoatl is also found
in native records known as codices. These screenfolded
pictorial books (see fig. 1) date to both before
and after the Spanish conquest of Latin America. The
bulk of the Quetzalcoatl legends come from colonialperiod
translations of the codices into Spanish and
transcriptions of the codices in the native tongues.

The later Mexican records, a third set of sources,
are the most inconsistent but must be considered in
any discussion of Quetzalcoatl. Because Catholic
clergy and missionaries wrote most of the postconquest
manuscripts, dating chiefly from the 16th
century, any review of that material must exhibit
caution, for as H. B. Nicholson advises, “anything
that has come down to us through the intermediation
of early friars must always be critically examined
for possible Christian influence.”2

There is a very simple reason for such skepticism.
Spanish chroniclers, desiring to please adherents of
both Christianity and the religion of the indigenous
natives, emphasized the powerful symbolic continuity
between the Catholic and Mesoamerican belief
systems. They did this by frequently combining myth
and history from pre-Hispanic times. Such manipulation
was even a native tradition in Mesoamerica.
Kings caused historical records to be manipulated in order to strengthen and authenticate their legitimacy
to rule their people. Because of these practices,
scholars are sometimes in a quandary as to what is
historical and what is mythological.

Some post-conquest stories clearly rest on Christian
embellishment. For example, an account of a
language that was no longer understood, akin to the
episode of the Tower of Babel, appears in the Popol
Vuh of the Quiché Maya, who live in the Guatemalan
highlands.3 A story about parting waters, also mentioned
in the Popol Vuh, is comparable to Moses’
dividing the sea;4 and the writers of the Tí­tulo de
Totonicapán attest that they came from “the other
part of the sea, from Civán-Tulán, bordering on
Babylonia.”5 Referring to the latter source, Allen
Christenson notes that “most of the scriptural material
[of the writings of Totonicpán] was taken directly
from a Christian tract, the Theologia Indorum, written
in 1553 by a Spanish priest named Domingo de
Vico.”6 Thus, apparent references in Mesoamerican
texts to events known from the Bible cannot always
be taken seriously.

On the other hand, although some accounts
from ancient America may sound overtly Christian,
we should not dismiss them entirely for exhibiting
such missionary influence. In fact, these manuscripts
sometimes report the same events that are recorded
in other documents from Mesoamerica. Because it is
highly doubtful that such correspondence is coincidental
or that Catholic friars contacted one another
as they related nearly identical information from different cultures in separate regions and from various
time frames, such accounts may be authentic
and thus warrant serious consideration.

In this discussion we will concern ourselves with
those aspects of Quetzalcoatl that some LDS authors
suggest are related to Christ. This will include accounts
about the ruler Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, whose
history is often confused with that of his god,
Quetzalcoatl. The Maize God of the Maya is also
important to this analysis because characteristics of
this supernatural entity may also relate to the life of
the Savior.

Quetzalcoatl and the Maya Maize God

To identify our principal characters, we
begin with the Mexican deity Quetzalcoatl,
whose name means “Feathered Serpent”
(see fig. 2). Farther east the Yucatec Maya
name for this god is Kukulcan, which has
the same interpretation. Several ancient
leaders who worshipped Quetzalcoatl/
Kukulcan took upon themselves this
appellation, much as Muslims today add
Mohammed to their names.

The most prolific form of ancient
Mesoamerican writing observable today
is the Mayan language in hieroglyphic
inscriptions. A name tied to Kukulcan
was discovered on a Late Classic pot
(AD 600–800) from Uaxactun,
Guatemala, that mentions a date corresponding
to 25 December 256 BC and
applies the name to the current ruler. In
fact, it was common Maya practice to
associate the current king with another
ruler from the past, perhaps even from
an earlier mythological time. As already
mentioned, this custom was prevalent
among the Maya in order to strengthen
their ruler’s legitimacy to reign.
Associating the current king with
a highly revered ancestor accomplished
this goal. The importance
of this inscribed pot found in
Guatemala is that it contains a
shortened version of the name of
the earlier ruler—Kukulcan.7 Thus
the name Kukulcan refers to a much
earlier king than the Mexican Topiltzin
Quetzalcoatl, who lived sometime between
AD 700 and 1000.8 Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, a Toltec
ruler, is the most popular of the culture heroes noted
in colonial literature. Apparently, the name Quetzalcoatl,
or Kukulcan, enjoyed a long duration in Mesoamerica,
whether it referred to rulers, high priests, or
the god himself.

The Maize God is the other deity with which we
are concerned in this study. This mythological, supernatural
figure is called by various names among the
Maya, depending on the locale, but the most prominent
names are Hun Nal Ye and Hun Hunahpu. In
terms of a general time frame, the Maize God is
referred to in iconography and other texts before
the conquest, as well as in the Popol Vuh after
Spanish contact. References in the Popol Vuh
likely go back to earlier hieroglyphic sources.9

Without going into a detailed explanation,
we simply note that the Maize God is
intrinsically involved with later creation
mythologies of central Mexico and the
Mixtec people of Oaxaca, where Quetzalcoatl
stories abound.While the Popol Vuh
does not mention Hun Hunahpu as being
one and the same with the Maize God, a
codex-style polychrome bowl from the Late
Classic period clarifies his identify (see
fig. 3). In the scene portrayed on the
bowl, Hun Nal Ye, the Maya Maize God,
resurrects from a split tortoise shell representing
the earth. His sons, the Hero
Twins, are depicted at his left and right
and are identified as Hun Hunahpu’s
sons: Hunahpu, written as Hun Ahau,
and Xbalanque, written as Yax Balam.10

To understand Hun Hunahpu’s
identification as the Maize God in
Guatemala, we need to retell some of
the story surrounding him. In the Popol
Vuh, Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeat
the evil lords of the Underworld
who have killed their father, Hun
Hunahpu. After avenging their
father’s death, the Twins are
responsible for his subsequent
rebirth. Hun Hunahpu is then resurrected
from the earth, which is
often portrayed as a turtle carapace.
Therefore, this vessel, which visually
demonstrates the same story told in the
Popol Vuh hundreds of years later, clearly
establishes Hun Nal Ye and Hun Hunahpu as the
same person.

In the Popol Vuh we see readily the Twins’ association
with maize. Hunahpu and Xbalanque instruct
their grandmother that if the corn planted in her
house dies, they die; but if it lives, they will remain
alive. According to the story, after they defeat the
Lords of Death in the Underworld, the Hero Twins
are reborn; that is, the maize remained alive in their
grandmother’s house.We conclude that both the
father, Hun Hunahpu, and his sons, particularly his
namesake Hunahpu, are related to maize and may
be designated as maize gods.
Importantly, David H. Kelley
presents additional evidence
from the Popol Vuh that Hun
Hunahpu and the Maize God
are one and the same.11

The importance of including
the Maize God with his differing
appellations in this study is significant.
We will see that the Maize
God functions as a sacrificial god
who dies and resurrects and who
also plays an important role in the
creation and therefore is reminiscent
of the roles of Christ as
Savior and Creator.

The Creation

The available Mesoamerican
sources dealing with the creation
follow in chronological order. Pre-Columbian Mayan
hieroglyphic texts found in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
(see fig. 4), and Quirigua, Guatemala, disclose a role
for the Maya Maize God in the creation.12 Polychrome
vessels and plates also testify to the Maize God’s participation
at this pristine
time. In addition, pictorial
codices drawn
before the conquest
deal with Quetzalcoatl’s
role in the creation.
Concerning other documents,
most scholars agree that the
Quiché Maya’s Popol Vuh is the least
corrupted text written after the conquest. It
also repeats stories of the Maize God that
coincide with Quetzalcoatl creation myths
from Mexico. The Maya accounts corroborate
the acts of creation in a somewhat different manner
because they were recorded by another culture, but
they still present a pan-Mesoamerican mythological
paradigm. Finally, we possess legends in 16th-century
manuscripts declaring Quetzalcoatl as the Creator.
These declarations are discussed in a later section of
this paper pertaining to plausible pre-Hispanic
beliefs recorded after the conquest.

On the whole, scholars view stories concerned
with the god Quetzalcoatl and his involvement in
the creation as exhibiting the least amount of Christian
influence. Referring to colonial
period manuscripts,Michel
Graulich found that “careful
reconstruction and analysis of
the myths dealing with the first
phase of the creation of the world
. . . all [show] variations on a
single theme. Comparative analysis
also suggests that the oftensuspected
Christian influence is
minor and points to the unity of
Mesoamerican thought” on
Quetzalcoatl as Creator.13

At Palenque, inscriptions
inform us that Hun Nal Ye, the
Maize God, raised the sky in one
phase of creation from the primordial
sea (see fig. 4). This happened
when he positioned the World Tree
(or Tree of Life) at the center axis
of the cosmos.14 Speaking to this
theme, Kent Reilly explained that Mayanists now
believe the creation involved bloodletting by First
Father, another name for Hun Nal Ye,15 which blood
fertilized sacred space, causing maize to spring forth.
The sprouting maize served as an axis mundi, or
World Tree, lifting the sky off
the earth and allowing
light to enter creation.16

One further connection
exists between
the Maize God and creation.
The god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl was born on the day 9 Ik (9
Wind), and the Maya Maize God is associated
with this day in 3409 BC, a point in
mythological history. Some scholars
associate these two deities as near equivalents
not only because they were associated
with the same day but because they participated in
similar creation events.17 In the pre-Columbian
Mixtec Vienna Codex, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl is shown
raising up the sky (see fig. 5). A variation of this
theme appears in a post-conquest text wherein
Quetzalcoatl is described as metamorphosing into an
enormous tree. Then he and another deity push up
the sky with their tree forms.18

An identifying feature of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl is
a projecting, red avian snout (see fig. 5). Through this
beaklike device he blew wind, air, and the breath of
life, which was his primary role. This strange-looking
anthropomorphic deity can be traced from the time
of the conquest back to the pre-Classic era. A terracotta
pot sculpted with the face of Ehecatl was found
at Izapa, Chiapas,Mexico, and dates to the first or
second century BC19 (see fig. 6). However, we do not
know whether this particular image bears the same
creative connotation that Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl possessed
1,700 years later. Because wind precedes rain,
Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl is associated with life-giving
rains. In other words, the title of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl
designated him as a god of life, even the Creator.

The Bread of Life

Both Quetzalcoatl and the Maya Maize God are
responsible for bringing maize to humankind, maize
being the most important staple in Mesoamerica.
According to legend, Quetzalcoatl transformed himself
into an ant in order to retrieve seeds from the
Mountain of Sustenance, where maize is kept.20 Ceramics
portray the resurrected Maize God bringing
maize to the surface of the earth from the Mountain
of Sustenance. These kernels served as food and were
believed to be the substance from which humans
were created.21

Sacrificed for Humankind

A story of how Quetzalcoatl saved humankind
appears in the post-conquest Leyenda de los Soles
(Legend of the Suns).
This deity descended to the
Underworld to shed his blood onto the bones of the
deceased so that they would live again.22 The entire
legend, with all its strange details, sounds pagan to
the Christian world, but Latter-day Saints hear echoes
of the saving work of Jesus Christ among departed
spirits. To summarize, Quetzalcoatl goes to the
Underworld to retrieve human bones after a great
flood destroyed his world and its people, people who
were subsequently transformed into fish but were
considered “the ancestors.” An old goddess grinds the
bones of these ancestors like maize and places the
flourlike meal in a container. Quetzalcoatl performs
a bloodletting ritual in which he drips the sacrificial
blood onto the ground bones, giving them the potential
for life. The present race of humans beings is
believed to be descended from those who were reborn
from their deceased state. In an illustration in the
Borgia Codex, Quetzalcoatl appears as the god of
breath and air, Ehecatl, and sits back-to-back with
the God of Death (see fig. 7). It has been suggested
by some LDS scholars that this illustration represents
the above story. The skeleton lives because it contains
a living heart hanging from its rib cage.

As noted previously, the Maize God, or First
Father, gave his blood and thereby caused maize to
be reborn from seed. Maize is intrinsically involved
with man because the Maya believed man to be made
of maize. As with the above story of Quetzalcoatl,
fish were also associated with maize. For example, in
the Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins’ bones were ground
like maize, thrown into a river, turned into fish, and
eventually resurrected.23

The Tree and Resurrection

A World Tree (Tree of Life) is also significant to
this scenario. To the Maya, the World Tree is a motif
of resurrection and life and has been for over 2,000
years.24 In Maya myth the Lords of Death hang the
decapitated head of Hun Hunahpu on a nonbearing
tree, after which it bears fruit.25 When his sons defeat
those denizens of the Underworld, the Maize God
Hun Hunahpu is resurrected.

In the human realm, Pakal, the great Maya king
of Palenque, is buried in a magnificent sarcophagus
deep within the Temple of Inscriptions. The carving
on the lid of the sarcophagus depicts Pakal as the
young Maize God, with the Tree of Life springing
from his body in resurrection (see the photo on p. 4;
compare Alma 32:28–41). This is Mesoamerica’s
most famous and remarkable story in stone, carved
approximately 800 years before the Popol Vuh was
set in cursive writing after the arrival of the Spanish.
Much of this ideology had already existed for many
centuries in Mesoamerica.

Deity, Light, and the Sun

A Catholic friar named Juan de Cordova wrote
the following account while working among the
Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca,Mexico. Quoting them,
he recorded:

On the date we call Tecpatl a great light came
from the northeastern sky. It glowed for four
days in the sky, then lowered itself to the rock . . .
in the Valle [Valley] in Oaxaca. From the light
there came a great, very powerful being, who
stood on the very top of the rock and glowed like
the sun in the sky. . . . Then he spoke, his voice
was like thunder, booming across the valley.26

Allen Christenson brought to my attention that
the above story may be related to the account in the
Popol Vuh of the first dawn, which describes the light
as a man. Dennis Tedlock’s translation follows:

The sun was like a person when he revealed
himself. His face was hot, so he dried out the
face of the earth. Before the sun came up it was
soggy, and the face of the earth was muddy before
the sun came up. And when the sun had
risen just a short distance he was like a person,
and his heat was unbearable. Since he revealed
himself only when he was born, it is only his reflection
that now remains. As they put it in the
ancient text, “The visible sun is not the real one.”27

These citations illustrate that a being of intense
light, comparable to the sun, made a deep impression
on the natives of the New World. It is no wonder
that these ancient people related this personage
to the living sun.

Any early association of Quetzalcoatl with the sun
is a bit obscure. However, we should consider a story
in post-Columbian literature. The god Nanahuatzin,
an aspect of Quetzalcoatl, became the sun. This
ulcerated, sickly being jumped into a fire pit after a
ritual fast, resulting in his emergence as Tonatiuh, the
sun god of the Aztecs28 (see fig. 8). Here we see aspects
of death and life, dark and light woven together.
Importantly, Nanahuatzin combines the facets of
immortality and light in himself.We should also
consider that he sacrificed himself for the well-being
of humankind.

The Maize God, as well as Quetzalcoatl’s counterpart,
Nanahuatzin, are solar gods. To further substantiate
this connection between the Mexican god
Quetzalcoatl and the Maya Maize God, we may look
to a story in the Popol Vuh wherein the Hero Twins,
sons of the Maize God, go to the Underworld to play
a ball game with the Lords of Death. These demons
of the Underworld trick and decapitate one of them,
Hunahpu. Later in the story, like Nanahuatzin, the
Twins jump into a fire pit, an act that leads eventually
to Hunahpu’s resurrection as the sun. Regarding
the conclusion of this story, Raphaël Girard explained:

Hunahpu rises triumphant and ascends to the
heavens, symbolizing at one and the same time
the appearance of dawn and the shoot of maize
breaking through from the Underworld onto the
earth’s surface, where it is crowned by a crest of
green leaves, identified with the magnificent
feather headdress of the young Solar deity.29

The ball of the ball game was considered
Hunahpu’s head, as well as the life-giving sun. In
art, the ball sometimes is portrayed with a skull
inside it, denoting this tradition. Played throughout
Mesoamerica, this ball game exhibited rich cosmic
and mythological significance.30

Association with Christ: The Questionable and the Plausible

The Spanish texts were written 1,500 years after
Christ visited the people of the Book of Mormon.
By AD 200 the growth of the seeds of apostasy were
well under way (see 4 Nephi 1:24–26), indicating an
interim of 1,300 years between the distortion of the
gospel and the writing of the post-conquest Spanish
texts. Consequently, in approaching possible links
between Christ and Quetzalcoatl, scholars need to
be careful in determining which sections of the
post-conquest manuscripts contain pre-Hispanic
traditions. In contrast, pre-conquest traditions are
more well defined and therefore preserve people’s
beliefs more accurately. We will examine specific
problems and perhaps find some solutions to questions
about possible connections between the Savior,
Quetzalcoatl, and the Maya Maize God.

Questionable Associations

Colonial sources referring to the deified
ruler Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl often cause confusion
about the god Quetzalcoatl and Jesus
Christ. Characteristics of this ruler are
that he was born of a virgin, that he
promised to return, that he had an
association with the planet Venus
(the Morning and Evening Star),
and that his emblem was the
Feathered Serpent (presumably
connected to the nonfeathered, brazen
serpent raised by Moses to heal the

We notice that there is certainly more
than one human named Quetzalcoatl, and
maybe even more than one Topiltzin
Quetzalcoatl, and that later chroniclers
amalgamated them into one historical person.
This perception arises from the varied dates
assigned to Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s life in the postconquest
manuscripts. The repetition of histories by
Mesoamerican natives, a practice tied to their concept
of time as cyclical rather than linear, does not make
for an easy study of this ruler. Unraveling these tales
simply cannot be done with accuracy. Even so, we
attempt to tell the story of this revered legendary
hero, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.

To some extent, the records fuse Topiltzin
Quetzalcoatl’s life and deeds with those of his god,
Quetzalcoatl. Nicholson comments on this fusion
that “a certain degree of ‘mythification’ of Topiltzin
Quetzalcoatl almost certainly occurred, . . . as well as
some assimilation to the deity whose particular protagonist
he was credited with being.”31 Therefore, it
is extremely important for researchers to look at the
surrounding content and context of these various
colonial manuscripts when determining which portion
of the account is referring to the deity Quetzalcoatl
and which is giving a historical narrative of the
famed culture hero Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.

We will begin with the “virgin birth” myth. There
is no account in the pre- or post-conquest texts that
says Quetzalcoatl or the Maize God experienced a
miraculous virgin birth. However, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s
illustrious life began with his “virgin birth,”
which story is garnished with a biblical overlay
throughout but obviously mixed with historical places
and events. A strong supernaturalistic flavor pervades
the whole account, especially regarding
this culture hero’s mother, Chimalman,
who received an annunciation from
a heavenly messenger sent down by
the creator god.32 Because both the
Book of Mormon and the New
Testament testify that Jesus Christ was
born of a virgin, it is tempting for a
Latter-day Saint to see ties between
this trait and that found in the story
of these 16th-century manuscripts.
But we must be cautious.

We come to the second point,
that of the return. Nowhere in these
colonial-period texts do we find the god
Quetzalcoatl declaring that he would someday
return. However, the historical narrative
of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s life states that he
said that he would return to his people.33
Since confusion has developed among
scholars over the “returning myth,” I suggest that we
look to one of two possible answers: (1) this ruler
actually said he would return, or (2) his people’s oral
traditions held that their god Quetzalcoatl said that
he would return and incorporated this part of the
tradition into their mortal leader’s history. Clearly,
there is no definitive answer as to what actually
occurred, and researchers can only make guesses in
their conclusions. It is certain, of course, that this
myth is pre-Hispanic. However, it is telling that
King Motecuhzoma believed that Cortés was the
returning Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, who emulated the
personification of his god Quetzalcoatl.34

The worship of Quetzalcoatl underwent a resurgence
with the birth of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. As a
result, a clear-cut distinction cannot be drawn
between the ruler and the god, as noted above. The
Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl saga includes stories of
drunkenness, fornication, and murder.35 Nevertheless,
this ruler was regarded as a deity by his followers, as
was true of some kings in Mesoamerica. Therefore,
we face a smoky screen of mythological, historical,
and Christian influence throughout these legends
that tie mortal Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl to the god

The third element has to do with the planet
Venus. Toward the end of Mesoamerican history,
Quetzalcoatl is shown in pre-Columbian pictorial
codices as associated with this planet. Quetzalcoatl
himself is not linked to Venus in any written text, yet
the history of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, as
recorded in colonial literature, shows
this ruler’s association with
Venus. David Carrasco has noted
that “a Topiltzin-Morning Star
cult was celebrated in Cholula,
suggesting that a fusion of the
culture hero and deity Ehécatl
[an aspect of Quetzalcoatl] and
Morning Star developed.”36 These
legends state that upon Topiltzin
Quetzalcoatl’s death and cremation,
he rose to heaven and became the
Morning Star.37 This is how this culture
hero became resurrected, deified,
and connected to Venus.

Fourth, a more prominent symbol
of Quetzalcoatl is the Feathered
Serpent. As we shall see, this figure
also ties into the Venus ideology. The
Feathered Serpent may exist in artistic
motifs as early as the Olmec civilization, whose culture
some Latter-day Saints equate with the Jaredites.
A rock sculpture, Monument 19 from La Venta,
Tabasco (circa 900–400 BC), portrays a rattlesnake
with an avian beak and feather crest (see fig. 9). Two
quetzal birds are also carved on this Olmec monument
from the Middle Formative period. Taking
into consideration that the Jaredites never knew the
story of the brazen serpent that Moses lifted up on
a pole about 1250 BC,38 we need to question the
assumption that the Olmec version of the Feathered
Serpent has something to do with Christ. The snakes
that attacked the Israelites are referred to as “fiery
serpents.” There is no mention that Moses’ brass serpent
represented a flying serpent or a serpent with
feathers. Would the Olmec people have equated this
avian-reptile with the Messiah, as some propose?
There is no solid empirical evidence that the
Feathered Serpent represented Christ before he visited
the New World.

In this connection, it was the Nephites who
brought this story from the Old World.39 Let us
assume, for the sake of argument, that Monument
19 was carved late in the La Venta sequence, circa
400 BC If by chance any remaining Jaredites heard
this famous Hebrew incident from Mosaic traditions
brought by Lehi’s family or the Mulekites, the
Olmecs/Jaredites could have portrayed the serpent
raised on a pole. But this is not the case.
According to the Book of Mormon,
it was not until 22 BC that
Nephite teachers made the connection
that Moses lifted up the
brazen serpent as a type of Christ.40
Of course, the Nephites may have
made the connection earlier, but we
do not possess an earlier reference at
the present time. Therefore, we cannot
be sure that the Feathered
Serpent had anything to do with
Jesus Christ during Jaredite times.
However, we cannot rule out the possibility
that Nephites adopted the symbol of
the Feathered Serpent after the coming of Christ.
We may rationalize that the quetzal bird
represents heaven and the serpent represents
earth. Christ is both a god (from
heaven) and a mortal man (from earth).
We do not know all the names that the
peoples of the Book of Mormon gave to
Christ, even though he may have been called Quetzalcoatl,
the “Feathered Serpent,” at a later date.

In a related vein, iconographers now know that
the artistic expression of the god Quetzalcoatl is
strongly linked to militarism. If this deity originally
referred to Christ, its nature quickly changed, for
around AD 200 the symbolism of the Feathered
Serpent came to denote power, sacrifice, and war.
Archaeological findings within the Pyramid of
Quetzalcoatl (Temple of the Feathered Serpent) at
Teotihuacán depict this scenario all too clearly.
Starting with excavations in the 1980s, approximately
200 human victims of dedicatory sacrifices have been
found under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.41
In later years many of the plumed-serpent motifs
were combined with images of soldiers and implements
of war. Feathered-serpent columns at both
Tula Hidalgo and Chichen Itza display sacrificial
altars in front of them. At the latter site, panels depict
feathered serpents with warriors coming out of their

A very graphic illustration of Quetzalcoatl in his
animal guise as the Feathered Serpent appears in the
Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Here he devours a male
victim whose body has wounds (see fig. 10). The
Feathered Serpent’s tail includes a sacrificial knife.
To the Aztecs, death through ritual sacrifice was necessary
for a continued existence or
rebirth of all things.43 This would
include the era when the Feathered
Serpent and images of Venus were
vehicles propagating the cult of
Quetzalcoatl through military conquest
and the founding of new
dynasties44 (see fig. 11).

Post-conquest literature records
nothing about Venus that is benevolent
or what we would expect if Christ was
related in any way to this aspect of
Quetzalcoatl.45 The iconography of the
Feathered Serpent and Venus appears at
an early date at Teotihuacán with a clear
message of warfare and sacrifice. A bowl
from this site portrays the Feathered
Serpent with several stars. Beneath the serpent’s
body are four blood-dripping hearts.46
This is another example of the association
of the Feathered Serpent, Venus, and sacrifice
(in this case, the sacrifice of prisoners
of war).

An explanation of the Feathered
Serpent as a representative of Venus is in
order. This fabled serpent is a combination
of a god of warfare and blood sacrifice
as well as water and fertility. Carlson
observed, “The Venus cult was concerned
with the symbolic transformation of
blood into water and fertility through the
ritual execution of captives.”47 This is a
running theme found throughout
ancient Mesoamerica, for worshippers
truly believed that through death (and
sacrifice) comes life. In a
roundabout way, this may
form a parallel to Christ’s
atoning blood, which is for
the benefit of all humankind.
However, apostasy destroyed
any true meaning of sacrifice among these ancient

The Venus sign of Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan pictured
over a shell is a direct reference to war.48 In fact,
epigraphers dub this hieroglyph “Star Wars.” The doctrinal
shift that led to the sacrifice of war captives and
others no doubt started at the beginning of the apostasy
that swept through Mesoamerica about AD 200
(compare Moroni 9:7–8), eventually causing the
spiritual downfall of those Nephites and
Lamanites who denied Christ after his
visit to their ancestors. In fact, Esther
Pasztory has contemplated the idea
that the Ciudadela, the compound
where the Temple of the Feathered
Serpent was constructed about AD
150–200, seems to be the architectural
representation of a major change in
the social and political structure of
Teotihuacán, particularly in its militaristic
orientation and perhaps in a new
dynastic lineage.49 This striking innovation
would certainly coincide with the apostasy
as recorded in the Book of Mormon.

There is another issue that needs
clarifying with regard to the role of the
Feathered Serpent.We have already noted
that at about AD 200 the people of Teotihuacán
associated the Feathered Serpent
with Venus. But Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, the
creation god who raises the sky, had nothing
to do with these two symbols at that
early time. Raúl Velázquez remarks that
“there are no identifying ties that connect
them to one another. Nevertheless, as of the
beginning of the postclassical period (AD
900–1000), these three beings begin to mesh
until they are melded in the multifaceted
character Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.”50
Hence, there seem to be accurate traditions
about the god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl
until Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl incorporated
this god’s attributes into his personality,
attributes that are mentioned in the postconquest

Plausible Associations

Many of the symbols
associated with Christ also
belong to Quetzalcoatl and
the Maize God, symbols that may appear both in
pre-Columbian art motifs and in some later colonial
literatures that do not seem to be Christian interpolations.
Thus it is quite possible that features of the
god Quetzalcoatl may be derived, in part, from Mesoamericans’
remembrance of Christ’s visit to the
Americas. Those parts that fit the native traditions
are these: a deity playing a role in the creation, “raising
the sky”;51 a deity associated with the bread of
life52 (a correspondence to maize); a deity assisting
the dead;53 a deity shedding blood to save mankind;54
a deity dying on a tree55 (the Maize God’s head hung
in a tree); a deity resurrecting and being responsible
for the rebirth of the deceased;56 and a personage of
light57 who is associated with the sun.58

We have already reviewed some of these attributes,
and others are self-explanatory. There are further
interesting aspects to explore. For example,
other Christians equate some of the elements of the
Maize God with Jesus Christ. In fact, the Maya of
today find a strong association between their old
god, the Maize God, and their new Christian god.
A Catholic priest, Father Rother, wanted an ancient
Maya symbol to represent God’s aspect as the “bread
of life” on the pulpit of a church in Santiago Atitlán,
in Guatemala. Perhaps significantly, he chose the
image of the Maya Maize God in lieu of an image of
the Savior.59

Bracketing mythological elements in the colonial
manuscript Leyenda de los Soles, one glimpses a possible
original understanding of Christ’s sacrifice,60
his descent to the spirit world,61 and his promise to
resurrect all people.62 Although this account apparently
refers to those who died before the flood,63 this
aspect may have been introduced after natives lost
their understanding of the gospel.

The writing of Juan de Cordova regarding the
light that emanated from a powerful man, and the
account in the Popol Vuh of the sun’s being like a
person may stem from Christ’s visit to the Americas.
These two stories do not appear to be Christian
manipulations and are in keeping with Christ’s visit
to Book of Mormon peoples. Although 3 Nephi
11:10–11 does not specifically say that the Lord
descended from the clouds as a personage with light
emanating from his being, it is plausible that he did.
After all, he wore “a white robe” and, on the second
day of his visit, radiated a brilliant light to his 12
disciples (see 3 Nephi 11:8; 19:25, 30).

There may also be an answer to the feathered-serpent
motif that is so prevalent in Mesoamerica. If
the Feathered Serpent was once considered benevolent
and not malevolent, this would explain the
apostate situation from an LDS point of view. The
Feathered Serpent’s association with war and sacrifice
would then be a secondary manifestation. And
this may well be the case. In addition, it is known
that when warriors conquered their enemy in pre-Hispanic times, they sometimes adopted the god of
the vanquished people.64 Is it possible this is what
happened to the feathered-serpent symbol? We cannot
be certain, but it stands as a possibility.

One more source pertaining to the Feathered
Serpent is found in the Popol Vuh, wherein the
Feathered Serpent is one of the creator gods in the
view of the Quiché Maya. This supernatural deity is
known as Gucumatz (Quetzal Bird Serpent) and is
in no way related to war and sacrifice, only to creation.
The Popol Vuh mentions this supernatural personality
briefly, although his role is crucial in the
creation. His creative actions, however, are not performed
alone—he is one of several gods who are
involved in the emergence of the earth from the primordial
waters, sowing seeds of plants, and populating
the earth with people.65 This matches the ancient
teaching that the Savior participated with the Father
and others in the creative process (see Moses 2:1, 26;
Abraham 4:1).

Despite discrepancies among Quetzalcoatl myths
in colonial sources and the fairly good mythology
and symbolism in pre-Columbian inscriptions and
iconography, we are left with several crucial points
about Quetzalcoatl and the Maya Maize God that
apply to Christ’s premortal state, his mission on earth,
and his role in the hereafter. Are there plausible links?
Yes. Are there significant differences? Again, yes. This
review should help us to see a complex picture of
continuities and discontinuities between Quetzalcoatl
and the Savior. Because parts of the picture are rather
faint, there is a need for caution in our studies when
we approach the intriguing and mysterious figures
of Quetzalcoatl and the Maya Maize God and attempt
to draw connections between them and the resurrected


  1. See John Taylor, Mediation and
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret
    News, 1882), 201–3, for a view that Jesus
    Christ and Quetzalcoatl are the same
    individual. B. H. Roberts came to a similar
    conclusion in his New Witnesses for
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret News,
    1909–11), 3:37–38, 42–46. See also the
    booklet by Mark E. Peterson, Christ in
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret News,

  2. H. B. Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl:
    The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs

    (Boulder: University Press of Colorado,
    2001), 17.

  3. See Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh: The
    Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of
    the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods
    and Kings
    (New York: Simon and Schuster,
    1985), 171, which reads: “And the languages
    of the tribes changed there; their
    languages became differentiated. They
    could no longer understand one another
    clearly when they came away from Tulan.”

  4. See ibid., 177, where it states, “It isn’t
    clear how they crossed over the sea. They
    crossed over as if there were no sea. They
    just crossed over on some stones, stones
    piled up in the sand. . . .Where the waters
    divided, they crossed over.”

  5. Adrián Recinos and Delia Goetz, trans.,
    The Annals of the Cakchiquels—Title of the
    Lords of Totonicapán
    (Norman: University
    of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 194. The
    original was reputedly written by Diego
    Reynoso, a noble Quiché (see Nicholson,
    Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, 178).

  6. Allen J. Christenson, trans. and ed., Popol
    Vuh: The Mythic Sections—Tales of First
    Beginnings from the Ancient K’iche’-Maya

    (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 34.

  7. Stephen D. Houston, “An Example of
    Homophony in Maya Script,” in American
    49/4 (1984): 800. See also
    Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The
    Code of Kings: The Language of Seven
    Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs
    York: Scribner, 1998), 372 n. 61.

  8. For a discussion of the time frame in
    which Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl lived
    according to the various post-conquest
    documents, see Nicholson, Topiltzin

  9. See Tedlock, Popol Vuh, 1985, 28–32.
  10. See Justin Kerr, “The Myth of the Popol
    Vuh as an Instrument of Power,” in New
    Theories on the Ancient Maya,
    ed. Elin C.
    Danien and Robert J. Sharer (Philadelphia:
    University of Pennsylvania, 1992),
    116, 120. See also Mary Miller and Karl
    Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient
    Mexico and the Maya
    (New York: Thames
    and Hudson, 1993), 69, for a clear illustration
    of the bowl.

  11. See David H. Kelley, “Astronomical Identities
    of Mesoamerican Gods,” Archaeoastronomy
    (supplement to Journal for the
    History of Astronomy
    ) 11/2 (1980): S1–S54.

  12. See David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy
    Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand
    Years on the Shaman’s Path
    (New York:
    Morrow, 1993).

  13. Michel Graulich,”Myths of Paradise Lost
    in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico,” Current
    24/5 (1983): 575.

  14. See Freidel, Schele, and Parker, Maya
    71–74. If Reilly is right, this tradition
    may possibly go back to the Olmec
    (see ibid., 132).

  15. Modern Mayanists sometimes refer to the
    Maize God as First Father because of the
    role he played in the creation. However,
    no text gives his name as a literal translation
    of “First Father.”

  16. Kent Reilly, “Visions to Another World by
    Kent Reilly,” lecture at the H. M. de Young
    Museum, San Francisco, 8 July 1993.

  17. See Raphaël Girard, Le Popol-Vuh: Histoire
    Culturelle des Maya-Quichés
    (Paris: Payot,
    1972), 201.

  18. See John Bierhorst, The Mythology of
    Mexico and Central America
    (New York:
    Morrow, 1990), 147.

  19. See John E. Clark, “A New Artistic Rendering
    of Izapa Stela 5: A Step toward
    Improved Interpretation,” JBMS 8/1
    (1999): 26.

  20. See Karl Taube, Aztec and Maya Myths
    (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993),

  21. See ibid., 67.
  22. See John Bierhorst, History and
    Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex
    (Tucson: University of
    Arizona Press, 1992), 145–46. The myth
    is translated from the Nahuatl language.

  23. See Christenson, Popol Vuh, 118; and
    Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh: The Mayan
    Book of the Dawn of Life,
    rev. ed. (New
    York: Touchstone, 1996), 280 n. 132.

  24. See Elizabeth A. Newsome, Trees of
    Paradise and Pillars of the World
    University of Texas, 2001), 192.

  25. See Christenson, Popol Vuh, 70, 71, 80.
  26. For a translation, see Tony Shearer,
    Beneath the Moon and under the Sun
    (Albuquerque: Sun, 1975), 72. In 1578
    Cordova wrote Arte en Lengua Zapoteca
    in Mexico.
    In addition to the linguistic
    part, this book contains a short but valuable
    note on the rites and beliefs of the
    Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca.

  27. Tedlock, Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of
    the Dawn of Life,

  28. See Taube, Aztec and Maya Myths, 42.
  29. Raphaël Girard, Esotericism of the Popol
    Vuh: The Sacred History of the Quiche-Maya
    (Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical
    University Press, 1979), 226.

  30. See E.Michael Whittington, ed., The Sport
    of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican
    (New York: Thames and
    Hudson, 2001).

  31. H. B. Nicholson, “Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl
    vs. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tollan: A
    Problem in Mesoamerican History and
    Religion,” Actes du XLIIe Congres International
    des Americanists, Congres du
    vol. 6 (Paris, 2–9 September
    1976), 43.

  32. See Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl,
    71–72. See also Nicholson’s summary on
    the following post-conquest manuscripts:
    The Anales de Cuauhtitlan, 41,
    45; the bibliographical section on the
    Histoyre du Mechique, the “lost Olmos,”
    60; and a commentary on the codices
    Telleriano-Remensis and Vaticanus A, 63.

  33. The Memorial Breve, a post-conquest
    document, informs the reader that when
    the Toltec King (Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl)
    left Tollan, he promised to return and reestablish
    his kingdom. The later Aztecs of
    Tenochtitlan were aware of this prophecy.
    See David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the
    Irony of Empire: Myths and Prophecies in
    the Aztec Tradition
    (Chicago: University
    of Chicago Press, 1982), 194, 197. Other
    “returning”myths in post-conquest documents
    are discussed in Nicholson,
    Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, 37; the bibliographical
    section of the Histoyre du Mechique,
    the “lost Olmos,” 56, 59; the codices Telleriano-Remensis and Vaticanus A, 71; the
    writings of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochital,
    115; and the Chimalpahin, 131.

  34. H. B. Nicholson, The “Return of
    Quetzalcoatl”: Did It Play a Role in the
    Conquest of Mexico?
    (Lancaster, Calif.:
    Labyrinthos, 2002), 8.

  35. Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, summarizes
    these stories in the post-conquest
    accounts as follows: from Sahagún’s Historia
    general de las cosas de Nueva España,

    26, 37; from the Anales de Cuauhtitlan,
    47; and from a discussion based on the
    bibliographical section of the Histoyre du
    the “lost Olmos,” 47.

  36. Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of

  37. For a discussion on Venus in post-conquest
    manuscripts with reference to Topiltzin
    Quetzalcoatl, see the following pages in
    Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: 44 (regarding
    The Anales de Cuauhtitlan), 51–52
    (regarding the writings of Motoliní­a), 59
    (regarding the bibliographical section on
    the Histoyre du Mechique [the “lost Olmos”]),
    and 65, 71 (regarding the codices
    Telleriano-Remensis and Vaticanus A).

  38. See Numbers 21:6–9.
  39. See 1 Nephi 17:41; 2 Nephi 25:20.
  40. See Helaman 8:14–15.
  41. See George Stuart, “The Timeless Vision
    of Teotihuacan,” National Geographic
    188/6 (1995), 14.

  42. There is a Mexican war serpent called
    Xiuhtecuhtli, who is associated with warriors
    and fire, but he appears late in
    Mesoamerican history. Xiuhtecuhtli is
    distinguished by his upturned snout and
    fire tail. See Miller and Taube, Gods and

  43. See Eloise Quiñones Keber, Codex
    Telleriano-Remensis: Ritual, Divination,
    and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript

    (Austin: University of Texas Press,
    1995), 181.

  44. See William M. Ringle, Tomás Gallareta
    Negrón, and George J. Bey III, “The
    Return of Quetzalcoatl: Evidence for the
    Spread of a World Religion during the
    Epiclassic Period,” Ancient Mesoamerica
    9/2 (1998): 214, 218.

  45. Revelation 22:16 refers to Christ as the
    “bright and morning star.”We do not
    know if the Nephites were under the
    impression that Christ referred to himself
    as this heavenly body.

  46. John B. Carlson, “Venus-Regulated
    Warfare and Ritual Sacrifice in
    Mesoamerica: Teotihuacan and the
    Cacaxtla ‘Star Wars’ Connection”
    (College Park, Md.: Center for
    Archaeoastronomy, 1991), 30.

  47. See John B. Carlson, “Rise and Fall of the
    City of the Gods,” Archaeology 46/6
    (1993), 61.

  48. See Ringle et al., “The Return of
    Quetzalcoatl,” 226.

  49. See Esther Pasztory, Teotihuacan: An
    Experiment in Living
    (Norman: University
    of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 115.

  50. Raúl Velázquez, The Myth of Quetzalcoatl
    (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
    Press, 1999), 32.

  51. See Genesis 1:6 and Moses 2:6–7 on raising
    the firmament to divide the waters.
    For the Book of Moses as a constituent
    part of the plates of brass, see Noel B.
    Reynolds, “The Brass Plates Version of
    Genesis,” in By Study and Also by Faith:
    Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley,
    John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks
    (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and
    FARMS, 1990), 2:136–73.

  52. “For the bread of God is he which cometh
    down from heaven, and giveth life unto
    the world” (John 6:33); see 3 Nephi 18:1–7;

  53. See Ephesians 4:9; 1 Peter 3:19; 2 Nephi
    9:3–14; compare 3 Nephi 25:5–6; Moses

  54. See Hebrews 9:12, 14;Mosiah 3:7; 3 Nephi
    18:8–11; Moses 6:59; 7:45–47.

  55. See Acts 5:30; 1 Nephi 11:33; 2 Nephi
    25:13; Moses 7:55.

  56. See 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Nephi 9:4–13;
    Moses 7:56–57.

  57. See Joseph Smith—History 1:16–17;
    3 Nephi 11:8; 19:25, 30.

  58. See Psalm 84:11; Malachi 4:2; 3 Nephi

  59. See Allen J. Christenson, Art and Society
    in a Highland Maya Community: The
    Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán
    University of Texas Press, 2001), 26, 114.

  60. See for example Luke 22:44; Moses
    5:6–11; 2 Nephi 9:4–13.

  61. See 1 Peter 3:19–20; 2 Nephi 9:3–14;
    compare Moses 7:56–57; 3 Nephi 25:5–6.

  62. See 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Nephi 9:6–13;
    Helaman 14:25.

  63. Compare Moses 7:38, 57.
  64. See Linda Schele and Nicolai Grube, The
    Proceedings of the Maya Hieroglyphic
    Workshop: Late Classic and Terminal
    Classic Warfare,
    transcribed and edited
    by Phil Wanyerka (Austin: University of
    Texas at Austin, 1995), 31. See also
    Christina M. Elson and Michael E.
    Smith, “Archaeological Deposits from the
    Aztec New Fire Ceremony,” Ancient
    12/2 (2001): 171.

  65. See Tedlock, Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book
    of the Dawn of Life,
    30–31, 64–66, 69, 146.