Kukulkan – The Plumed Serpent of Mesoamerica

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Kukulkan is simultaneously one of the best-known and the most mysterious deities of Central America. The main god of the Yucatec Maya in the Yucatan peninsula, Kukulkan is also known as the Plumed Serpent or the Feathered Serpent. He is also viewed as another iteration of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the Huastecs god Ehecatl, and the Quiché Maya god Gucumatz.

However, while all these deities are viewed as variants of the same god, they are also distinctly different in many ways. In fact, in some Aztec myths Quetzalcoatl and Ehecatl are two entirely separate beings. So, who exactly is Kululkan and what does he tell us about the life of the Yucatec Maya?

Who is Kukulkan?

Kukulkan image
Descent of the snake – Kukulkan depicted at Chichen Itza.

Kukulkan’s name literally translates as Feathered Serpent or Plumed Serpentfeathered (k’uk’ul) and serpent (kan). However, unlike his Aztec variant Quetzalcoatl, Kukulkan is just as often portrayed as a scaly serpent rather than exclusively a feathered one.

In fact, Kukulkan has lots of possible appearances. Depending on the area and the period, he can be either a winged or a non-winged serpent. He is sometimes depicted with a humanoid head or a snake head. There are even myths where Kukulkan can turn himself into a human and back into a giant snake.

In many myths, Kukulkan lives in the sky, is the sky itself, or is the planet Venus (the Morning Star). The `Maya words for sky and snake even have very similar pronunciations.

Other myths say that Kukulkan lives under the Earth and is the cause of Earthquakes. This isn’t to say that earthquakes are malevolent, as the Maya viewed them simply as reminders that Kukulkan is still alive, which was a good thing.

It’s also worth noting that the Mayan people were excellent astronomers for their time and were well aware that the Earth was round and surrounded by the cosmos. So, myths in which Kukulkan lives under the Earth don’t really contradict the belief that he’s also the Morning Star.

What was Kukulkan the God of?

Like Quetzalcoatl, Kukulkan is also the god of a great many things in the Mayan religion. He’s viewed as both the creator of the world as well as the chief ancestors of the Maya people.

He was also the god of agriculture, as there are myths claiming that he gave humanity maize. He was worshipped as a god of language because he was also thought to have come up with human speech and written symbols. As we mentioned, earthquakes were also associated with Kukulkan. In fact, caves were said to be the mouths of giant snakes.

As a creator god and the ancestor of all of humanity, Kukulkan was also viewed as a god of rulership. But probably the most important symbolism of Kukulkan is that of a rain and wind god.

Importance of Kukulkan for the Yucatan Maya

As a sky god, Kukulkan was also the god of wind and rain. This is especially notable for the Yucatan Mayan people as the rain was crucial for their livelihood.

Because the Yucatan peninsula was under the sea until very recently, it’s mostly made out of limestone rocks – much like Florida. However, while Florida’s limestone makes it a very swampy area, Yucatan’s limestone is deeper and all water that falls onto it strains down far below the surface. This brief geological note meant one thing for the Yucatan Maya people – there was no surface water, no lakes, no rivers, no freshwater sources whatsoever.

Faced with this challenge, the Yucatan Maya managed to develop complex rainwater filtration and water storage systems. Astonishingly, they did so thousands of years ago! However, despite all their innovations, they still depended very much on the rain. Their storage and filtration methods meant that they could usually survive a extra dry season, however, two or more consecutive dry seasons usually spelled devastation for entire communities, towns, and areas.

So, Kukulkan’s status as a god of rain and water meant much more for the Yucatan Maya than other rain gods meant for their people elsewhere around the world.

War Serpent and Vision Serpent

Kukulkan’s origins seem to be as Waxaklahun Ubah Kan, akathe War Serpent. This version of the Plumed Serpent dates to around the Classic Mesoamerican period of 250 to 900 AD, although there are even earlier mentions of Kukulkan. In that period, the Feathered Serpent was viewed mostly as a war deity.

As the ancestor of all Maya, Kukulkan was the one they often viewed as their spiritual leader in combat. Curiously, Kukulkan was also one of the few Mayan deities to be opposed to ritual human sacrifice. This is understandable given that he is the father of all the Maya and he wouldn’t want to see his children killed.

At the same time, the vast majority of human sacrifices in Mesoamerica were performed upon prisoners of war, and Kukulkan was the War SerpentIn Chichen Itza, the long-term capital of the Yucatan Maya, there were representations of Kukulkan presiding over sacrifice scenes which further complicates this aspect of the god.

After countless centuries of Kukulkan leading people into battle, the postclassic period (900 to 1,500 AD) saw him slightly rebranded as the Vision Serpent. This is especially notable in much of classic and postclassic Maya art. In this iteration, Kukulkan is the mover and shaker of the heavenly bodies themselves. He commanded the suns and the stars, and he was even a symbol of life, death, and rebirth through the shedding of his skin.

Kukulkan the Hero

Some Mayan myths say that Kukulkan could transform into a man and then back into a giant snake. This is supported by the idea that he is the predecessor of the Maya people and is mirrored by a similar myth about Quetzalcoatl.

However, it could also be a bit of a historical/mythological mix-up. That’s because recent historic sources speak of a person called Kukulkan who founded or ruled over Chichen Itza. Such mentions are especially prevalent in later 16th century Maya sources but aren’t seen in 9th century or earlier writings, where he’s only viewed as the Feathered Serpent.

The current consensus is that Kukulkan, the person, lived in Chichen Itza during the 10th century. This is around the time the Vision Serpent began to be viewed not just as a celestial deity but as a symbol of the divinity of the state as well.

This person may be the reason behind the few myths that say Kukulkan was the first human and/or the predecessor of all humanity. However, it could also be due to Kukulkan’s very fluid and ever-changing nature among the different Mesoamerican tribes.

Are Kukulkan and Quetzalcoatl the Same God?

quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl – Illustration in the Codex Borgia. PD.
Vision serpent
Kukulkan – The Maya Vision Serpent. PD.

Yes and no.

While they are largely the same, there are quite key differences that set them apart. This is especially clear when the two gods are compared side by side and period by period.

The similarities of these two gods can be compared to those of Jupiter and Zeus. The Roman god Jupiter is undoubtedly based on the Greek god Zeus but has nevertheless evolved into a distinct deity over time.

Probably the biggest difference between them is Quetzalcoatl’s death myth which seems absent in what we’ve managed to find about Kukulkan. Quetzalcoatl’s death myth features a ritual suicide of the god after he felt ashamed for getting drunk and fornicating with his older sister Quetzalpetlatl.

In one of the two versions of this myth, Quetzalcoatl sets himself on fire inside a stone chest and transforms into the Morning Star. However, in another version of the myth, he doesn’t set himself on fire but rather sails to the east into the Gulf of Mexico on a raft of snakes, vowing to one day return.

This latter version of the myth was much less common at the time but was exploited by the Spanish conquistadors, notably Cortés who claimed to be Quetzalcoatl himself in front of the Aztec natives. It’s possible that history would have unfolded in a very different way had it not been for this factor. 

This whole death myth seems to be missing in Kukulkan’s mythology.

Is Kukulkan an Evil God?

While Kukulkan is exclusively a benevolent creator deity in almost all his iterations, there is one exception.

The Lacandon Maya people of Chiapas (the most Southern state of modern-day Mexico) viewed Kukulkan as an evil and monstrous giant snake. They prayed to the sun god Kinich Ahau. To the Lacandon Maya, Kinich Ahau and Kukulkan were eternal enemies.

Kinich Ahau was worshipped in other areas of Mesoamerica, including the Yucatan peninsula, however, not to the extent to which he was worshipped in Chiapas.

Symbols and Symbolism of Kukulkan  

Virtually everything in Mayan culture is steeped with symbolism but that’s especially true for Kukulkan. The Plumed Serpent is a god of so many things it’d almost be easier to list the things he isn’t a god of. Nevertheless, the main features and aspects of Kukulkan can be listed as such:

  • A sky god of wind and rain, the very life-essence of the Yucatan Maya people
  • A Creator god
  • A War god
  • A celestial Vision Serpent
  • A god of maize and agriculture
  • A god of the Earth and earthquakes
  • A god of the Mayan rulers and the divinity of statehood.

The main symbol of Kukulkan is the feathered serpent.

Importance of Kukulkan in Modern Culture

When talking about Kukulkan’s presence in modern culture, we should first note that both he and Quetzalcoatl are still actively worshipped in many non-Christian areas and communities in Mexico.

However, if we are to talk about literary culture and pop culture, the two gods are very well represented. In most cases when The Feathered Serpent is mentioned or referenced in culture, Quetzalcoatl is the one the author refers to as he is more popular than Kukulkan. However, considering that the two are often viewed as different names for the same deity, these could be said to apply to Kukulkan as well.

In any case, some of the more famous mentions of the Feathered/Plumed Serpent in pop culture include a snake god in H.P. Lovecraft’s books The Electric Executioner and The Curse of Yig, a playable character by the name of Kukulkan in the famous MOBA game Smite, and a giant alien in the Star Gate SG-1 show’s Crystal Skull episode.

Kukulkan is also the main protagonist of a 1973 animated Star Trek episode by the name of How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth. Quetzalcoatl is one of the Olman deities in Dungeons & Dragons too, and the couatl are flying lizard-like creatures in the Warcraft universe.

Quetzalcoatl is also a reoccurring antagonist in the popular video game series Castlevania although he hasn’t made an appearance in the Netflix animation of the same name as of yet. In Final Fantasy VIII there’s also a thunder elemental by the name of Quezacotl, with the name being shortened due to character limitations.

In Brief

A lesser-known equivalent of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl, Kukulkan was worshipped by the Yucatan Maya in the region that is now modern-day Mexico. Temples to Kukulkan can be found throughout the Yucatan region. As the god of rain and water, he was an extremely significant god to his devotees. Today, Kukulkan remains as a legacy of the great Maya civilization.

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