The Whirling of the Serpent: Quetzalcoatl Resurrected
Author: José Luis Díaz
Translated by Martin Boyd
Review by Tania Hernández Cervantes
If you want to understand the origins of a nation, look at the myths that give it life. Myths, like symbols, the ideological, utopian dreams of individuals and of peoples, describe us. If it were not so, national flags would have no meaning. Quetzalcoatl is one of those myths which, in spite of the rationalism of the modern era, survive in Mexico’s collective imagination. Quetzalcoatl is the bird with green, white and red feathers. It is the Mesoamerican myth of the dual god, bird and serpent. The Mexican flag bears its colours, and in the centre is an image of an eagle devouring a serpent, an indisputable allusion to Quetzalcoatl.
It might thus seem that Mexico is Quetzalcoatl, and that it would therefore be necessary to know Quetzalcoatl to understand Mexico. But what is Quetzalcoatl in the collective imagination of Mexico? Fate? Fatality? A glory that perishes at the very moment it is attained? A god who patiently awaits his return to bring grace? José Luis Díaz, in his book The Whirling of the Serpent: Quetzalcoatl Resurrected, searches tirelessly for the answers in the expressive and fertile terrain over which the myth has spread. And in this search, he explores a diverse range of fields and disciplines where the myth has left its mark, including Mexican history, philosophy, psychology, literature, painting and film.
Through the pages of this book, we find a lucid interpretation of the influence of Quetzalcoatl in the past and present that reveals new dimensions of the myth. In the first part of the book, the author takes us back to the origins of Quetzalcoatl, among the Olmec people, whose culture flourished on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in the years 1500-900 B.C. Here, Díaz meticulously uncovers the historical clues which other authors, such as Enríque Florescano and León Portilla, left behind so that others might pick up the trail of the plumed serpent. In nine brief chapters the reader is introduced to the world that created Quetzalcoatl and discovers his nature as the god who gave corn to humankind, the god defeated by his brother and rival Tezcatlipoca, and the god who ends up in exile, but whose defeat does not mean his death. Rather, it brings about an impasse which gives way to a new cyce of life and ascension. A return. This seems to suggest that Quetzalcoatl has many lives – and brief deaths. José Luis Díaz is clearly aware of this and brings it to our attention. Thus it is no accident that the second section of the book is entitled “The Myth Revived”. Indeed, the myth is reborn many times in Mexico’s history.
What makes this book fascinating is that Díaz identifies critical moments in the history of Mexico and how in the myth reappears in each one of them. For example, it resurges during the process of Christian evangelization of indigenous peoples in the colonial period, and in the reconstruction of the Mexican nation in the twentieth century following the turmoil of the Revolution.
Drawing on sound historical sources, Díaz analyzes how the image of Quetzalcoatl was recreated with Christian plumage during the era of Spanish conquest. The missionaries of the colonial era associated the god with the apostle Thomas, whose name in Hebrew means “twin”. In this way, the indigenous god acquired Western features and was adapted to the Christian tradition. Thus we find our Quetzalcoatl slithering through the foundations underlying the Catholic Mexico of today. He is present, but anonymous, as if hiding his plumage.
Later, in the twentieth century, the myth resurges; this time not to slither, but to soar. At this point in the book, the fluidity of Díaz’s narrative gets the reader caught up in the excitement of the flight. We want to know more. Díaz chooses very well how to interpret the resurgence of the serpent. He does so by analyzing José Vasconcelos, one of the most prominent and key characters in the reconstruction of post-revolutionary Mexico in the early twentieth century. Vasconcelos was the leader of the most important educational crusade in the history of modern Mexico, establishing the institutions that operate the country’s educational system today, and founding the most important university in Latin America, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Vasconcelos gave Mexico wings, and invoked the myth of the plumed serpent to support his mission to transform the country. The marks of his achievements remain today, like a trail streaked across the sky. However, at the height of his flight, Vasconcelos was defeated. His opponents prevented him from assuming the presidency, robbing him of his victory in the presidential elections of 1929. Like Quetzalcoatl himself, he ended up defeated and in exile. As Díaz puts it, “Vasconcelos invoked Quetzalcoatl and received unexpected mercies and bitter rewards” (p. 80). It was as if the myth of the plumed serpent, with all its glory and tragedy, had been repeated, leaving us with a sense of nostalgia for past glory.
Thus, with this halo of nostalgia for greatness, Díaz suggests, is how the myth has inspired great writers and philosophers, both Mexican and foreign. Such was the case with British author D.H. Lawrence, the French philosopher and historian Frances Lafaye, the Mexican poets Carlos Pellicer and Octavio Paz, and the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal. Díaz offers us some interesting extracts from each of their works, and in his analysis reveals his own literary leanings.
José Luis Díaz’s great skill in employing such a wide range of voices and styles makes reading this book a delight. His prose has the quality of the work of a new Renaissance Man, with his ability to offer equally detailed interpretations of historical documents, theories of psychology and works of art. For example, as a scholar of psychology, he analyzes Freud’s and Jung’s interpretations of the significance of myth in the human psyche. As an art enthusiast, he examines the murals of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco in which Quetzalcoatl appears. With all these elements in motion, the author successfully passes on his great passion to understand the universal dimensions hidden under the serpent’s feathers. The precision of the translation gives the English text an exceptional style, without undermining the meanings and concepts unique to the Mexican culture. Martin Boyd here has fulfilled the task here of an expert translator of books on the culture of Mexico.
The myth of Quetzalcoatl has survived the ages, unleashing the full force of its duality: its earthbound nature as a serpent, slithering through the soil; and its airborne nature as a bird soaring through the heavens. Quetzalcoatl flies and falls, departs and returns. As Diáz shows us, he whirls and revives. Perhaps Mexico will soon see his return, and I would like to imagine that it will not be as the bird devouring a serpent, but as a Quetzalcoatl in which the bird and serpent are united, not divided. Glorious.
Tania Hernández Cervantes is originally from Culiacán, México. She is currently completing a doctorate at York University (Toronto) and is a contributor and editor for the online magazine Refundación.
Great review, although I think it’s worth noting that the eagle eating a serpent on top of the nopal cactus that appears on the Mexican flag is actually a reference to a different myth unrelated to Quetzalcoatl. But the review has piqued my interest. Where is the book available in Toronto?
Hi Brian, thanks for your comment. You make a good point which is worth clarifying, although in fairness to Tania I think she really just meant to point out that the myth represented on the Mexican flag, which as you rightly note refers not to Quetzalcoatl but to the vision the Aztecs had when they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, is nevertheless an echo of the Quetzalcoatl myth because of its combination of serpent and eagle, which often seem to recur as representatives of the earthly and celestial duality of human experience in Mexican mythology. I think Dr. Diaz’s book offers a very interesting exploration of this.
The book is available in Toronto through the Antares Publishing House based at Glendon University. Click here for their website. Thanks again for posting!