Air Pavilion

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

In an ancient city in Mexico, a temple stands in ruins. Stone snake heads with gaping jaws guard the steps to the top. What god was worshipped here? The Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl, or "feathered serpent." This god appeared in many forms. He often had the sharp fangs, fiery gaze and winding body of a snake--and the deep green feathers of the quetzal, a tropical bird. In Aztec religion, Quetzalcoatl was linked with the sky: with the rain, the wind and the movement of the planet Venus. Like the dragons of Asia and Europe, he was also a symbol of power for priests and kings.

A New World Dragon?

The winding form of Quetzalcoatl was carved in the wall of a temple at Xochicalco, Mexico, the capital of a wealthy kingdom between AD 600 and 900. Many early pictures of the feathered serpent resemble the dragons of Asia and Europe. Why do snakelike creatures appear in so many myths of the world? One reason might be that the snake's long, sinuous body and rippling movement suggest flowing water, a source of life.

© D. Finnin/AMNH

Serpent Head

Serpent heads similar to the one shown here stare out from a temple at Teotihuacán, Mexico, a lavish city that rose and fell between AD 1 and 700. These stone sculptures are some of the oldest images known of the dragonlike deity honored by the ancient civilizations of Mexico and Central America. No one knows what he was called by the residents of Teotihuacán, but his Aztec name was Quetzalcoatl, and the Mayans knew him as K'uk'ulkan. Both names can be translated as "feathered snake" or "plumed serpent."