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Secrets of Mexico's flying snake gods

Kukulkan mural in a hotel on the Riviera Maya. Photo by Bob Schulman.

The name “Kukulkan” pops up a lot around Cancun, the Riviera Maya and the rest of what was once the Mayan empire, all the way down to Honduras.You see it on Cancun’s main boulevard signs, on a big pyramid in the inland ruins of Chichen Itza, on restaurants, bars and even grocery stores. Who (or what) was Kukulkan? The answer is simple (but probably not very helpful): Kukulkan is the Mayan version of Quetzalcuatl.

So who (or what) was Quetzalcuatl? You’d know if you saw the 1982 movie “Q: The Winged Serpent.” (In the film, the ancient Aztec flying snake god Quetzalcuatl somehow ends up nesting in the art-deco spire of the Chrysler Building in New York and swoops down to the streets now and then to gobble up hapless New Yorkers until cops David Carradine, Richard Roundtree and a SWAT team gun the beast down. The film grossed a whopping $255,000.)

If you missed the movie, here’s the story:

Legends of Quetzalcuatl (pronounced ketz-ahl-qwa-til) go back for more than two thousand years around Mexico. He first shows up as a god-king – a great diety who took human form to become king of the Toltec tribes living in central Mexico. Under his wings, the Toltecs became masters of arts and sciences. Their capital at Tula (a drive of about two hours from Mexico City) was said to be “an immense city of golden turquoise-laden palaces, where meat, maize and honeyed sweets were plentiful as earth and air.”

Among the largest and most elaborate pyramids in Tula was the five-tiered Temple of Quetzalcuatl. He was a good god, legends say, and was beloved by his people. But he was too good (for instance, he hardly ever required human sacrifices), so his less liberal priests conspired to get rid of him. One day, they tricked him into doing something that today would be described as, er, inappropriate.

After that, he left town – perhaps around 900 A.D. -- to ship out across the eastern sea to repent. According to popular stories, he told his people he'd eventually come back, and that he’d be on “a large raft manned by fair-skinned, bearded sailors.”

For centuries after that, emperors of the Aztecs (the Toltecs’ successors) assumed the god-king would return during the year of his birth, One Reed (one of 52 years in the Aztec calendar). During the watch of Emperor Moctezuma II that year corresponded to the Christian year 1519. And guess who showed up at the eastern port of Veracruz to begin the conquest of Mexico on April 11, 1519 -- with 11 galleons loaded with fair-skinned, bearded sailors, no less?

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes had no idea there was anything special about that year, much less his bearded sailors, when his army of 500 soldiers came charging ashore that day.

Moctezuma wasn't sure all this marked the return of Quetzalcoatl, but he wasn't taking any chances. Spies brought him daily messages of the invaders' progress and the battles they fought with local tribes on the 200-mile trek from the coast to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

On Nov. 11, 1519, when Cortes and his troops finally got there, the emperor welcomed them into the city and treated them like gods. He even put them up in the luxurious palace of his father.

Big mistake. After awhile Cortes put Moctezuma behind bars, and the emperor was later killed – opening the door to the Spanish conquest of the whole country.

And what happened to Quetzalcuatl? It looks like he's still out at sea atoning, because he never did come back (if he did, it would have been all over the papers and the Internet). As things turned out, other than having a bunch of things and places named after his Kukulkan personae, about the biggest splash Quetzalcuatl has made in the last half-century is his appearance in a forgettable movie.

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