No one outside the adyta of initiation can know the ultimate origins of American Indian spirituality, and only a few have penetrated the veil of metaphor and symbol constituting the core of Nahuatl literature. No one knows how many, if any, of those who still speak the Nahuatl tongue, spoken by the Aztecs before them and already richly developed in the time of the earliest Toltecs, really fathom the inner meaning of its startling profusion of juxtaposed images, symbolic descriptions and ethereal allusions. The Nahuatl mind found truth only in "flowers and songs", in intuitive apprehension, and entirely dispensed with delusive dichotomies and mechanistic categories. Only the barest lineaments of the history of the Aztecs, latest of the major pre-Columbian civilizations in Meso-America, are known. The peoples before them are immersed in an obscurity dimly illuminated here and there by legend and archaeological discovery. Ancient Mexico and the lands immediately south of it are, as H.P. Blavatsky said, "a land of mystery". Yet within that lost continent is to be found Quetzalcoatl, one of the iridescent spiritual impulses of poorly recorded history. Quetzalcoatl emblazoned a trail through human thought and culture that could not be effaced by the indifference of the rapacious conquistador and the ruthless zeal of the Inquisition.
The earliest American high culture known to history was that developed by the Toltecs, whose name in Nahuatl means 'master craftsmen'. They built the great city of Tollan, a sacred precinct laid out to mirror and intimate the mysteries of existence. Tollan, literally 'metropolis', became the prototype of later cities which bore its name as well as specific names of their own. Tollan was the magnificent Teotihuacan which was recognized as the source of Nahuatl civilization, and Quetzalcoatl was the spiritual source of the earthly Tollan. Like Osiris in Egypt, Quetzalcoatl was a divine king who taught all the arts and sciences. Like Prometheus, he gave mankind sacred keys to wisdom. He is the spiritual progenitor of the tlamatinime, the wise men who were the priests and preservers of divine knowledge.
The priest who through purity and insight emerged foremost amongst his peers was given the name Quetzalcoatl, reminiscent of the Egyptian Initiate who earned the epithet Hermes Trismegistus. He is a mirror of the world and of the Divine, "pierced on both sides", so that the transcendent shines forth upon the world and man sees beyond the immanent through the wise man. The tlamatini mirrors the primordial and aeviternal activity of Quetzalcoatl, the divine sage, high priest and inner being of humanity.
Quetzalcoatl's ineluctably numinous nature, a mystery impenetrable to theological and mythological analysis, abides in his role as the bridge between ontological levels and between pairs of opposites within each level. The duality essential to manifestation is constrained by and unified in Quetzalcoatl. Thus, to explain the intertwined and enigmatic functions of this man-god, mythographers have been compelled to import the Sanskrit concept of avatara. Surviving fragments of myth, legend and history provide a tantalizingly incomplete mosaic of a priest-king and spiritual principle omnipresent in Nahuatl thought and life. Accounts of his functions and activities seem confused and contradictory, most likely because the keys to levels of interpretation perished with the silent tlamatinime. Nonetheless, Quetzalcoatl, believed to have incarnated as a righteous priest-king in Tollan, was first a metaphysical principle involved in the primordial creative emanation of the world. Ometeotl is the great god who abides forever in the twelfth and thirteenth heavens. In the highest realm, he alone is unaffected by the emergence and dissolution of the cosmos. In the twelfth heaven, Omeyocan (the Realm of Duality), he is "Our Mother and Our Father, Ometeotl-Omecihuatl, who is Dual Lord and Dual Lady", the first cause.
The appearance and passing of worlds is the work of hierarchies of divine beings who operate in strict obedience to the universal law, the will of Ometeotl. Yet he also dwells in the centre of the cosmos and on every plane of being as Xiuhtecuhtli, the Lord of Fire and Time.
As Mother-Father, the Dual Lord confirms the connection of a soul to the body engendered by conception. In this role, he sits on high with his consort, his feminine self, and Quetzalcoatl sits between them, for Quetzalcoatl creates the connection willed by Ometeotl. As Ometeotl is the heart of manifestation, Quetzalcoatl is the heart of the dual Ometeotl. Within the vast unfoldment of cosmos, the world has emerged five times through five rebirths of the sun. Whilst some say the fifth sun is the last, others suggest that there will be seven suns, and still others hint at the possibility of twelve suns. Each sun has come into existence through the sacrifice of a god, just as Ometeotl must sacrifice his utter transcendence to become the dual first cause. Tezcatlipoca, son of Ometeotl, sacrificed himself in the cosmic fire so that the Sun of Night and of Earth might arise. Represented by the jaguar or tiger, the raw forces of this world were sterile from an evolutionary standpoint and therefore perished. Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself to produce the second world, the Sun of Air, but its purely spiritual powers could not sustain form. Creatures of this world who corresponded to human beings in the world of the fifth sun became monkeys. Tlaloc, Lord of Rain, immolated himself in the cosmic fire to give birth to the Sun of Rain and Fire, but the volcanic intensity of this world allowed only birds to survive, though during its existence the prototype of maize was grown. Chalchiuhtlicue, life-giving goddess of waters, offered herself so that the fourth Sun of Waters might appear. Whilst men consumed the acicintli seed, it could not grow in water alone, and the world perished in a universal deluge.
Two gods volunteered themselves in the fiery sacrifice to create the fifth sun. The divine hearth was constructed at Teotihuacan, the centre of what would be the fifth world. After suitable ritual preparations were made and the gods had purified themselves, the moment came to approach the fire. Tecuciztecatl, Lord of the Snails, who had arrogantly claimed primacy, could not muster the courage to enter the cosmic fire. Nanahuatzin or Nanahuatl, the god whose form is diseased, who therefore understood the pain of limitation and imperfection, stepped forward and threw himself on the pyre. Shamed by such detachment, Tecuciztecatl followed him as the moon (which Tecuciztecatl became) follows the sun. The sun did not rise immediately, however, and the gods became anxious in the oppressive darkness. Quetzalcoatl, however, divined the locus of the sunrise and proceeded to the east. There he welcomed the rising sun as Lord of the Dawn and, when the sun wobbled uncertainly on its rising course, steadied it as god of wind. Thus, the fifth sun is called Nahui Ollin, Four Movement, Naollin, the synthesis of the four elements through dynamic interaction, the Sun of Quetzalcoatl, who as movement is the active ingredient of the ever-changing balance which sustains – and is – life. Its symbol is the human face, the countenance signifying life and intelligence, self-conscious will or choice in the service of unalterable cosmic law, that mystic promise of immortality within necessary dissolution that alone can mirror unmanifest eternity. Its glyph includes the four transient elements and three aspects of divine creativity, arranged as a quincunx that points to both the Fourth Round and Fifth Root Race.
In his Promethean aspect Quetzalcoatl is involved in the creation of human beings and in inspiring them with intelligence. Before Naollin's roseate splendour had burst into full day and brought the present world to light, Quetzalcoatl had to descend into the realm of the dead, Mictlan, to secure the precious bones of man so that humans might again inhabit the earth. In Mictlan, the realm of the fleshless, he confronted Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, Lord and Lady of the Land of the Dead, the 'masks' or reflections of Ometeotl and Omecihuatl in the lowest sphere of duality, beyond which is unknowable darkness, just as there is the Unknown above Omeyocan, the highest heaven. When Quetzalcoatl demanded the bones, Mictlantecuhtli offered them on condition that Quetzalcoatl sound the conch-shell and circle the kingdom four times. Whilst this seemed to be a genuine challenge, the shell had no sounding-hole and was ever mute. Quetzalcoatl called upon the worms to pierce the shell, and bees entered through the hole and made it sound. Whilst appearing to yield possession of the bones, Mictlantecuhtli called upon the forces of the underworld to prevent Quetzalcoatl from fulfilling his charge. Mirroring this deception, Quetzalcoatl sent his double, nahualli, who is Xolotl, his twin and another aspect of himself, to inform the Lord of the Dead that the bones would be left in Mictlan. Even whilst this message was being delivered, Quetzalcoatl gathered the bones of Man and Woman and fled.
The forces of the underworld did not pursue Quetzalcoatl directly; they had prepared a trap. Quetzalcoatl fell into the trap and lost consciousness for a time. When he recovered, he found the bones damaged and in disarray. Crying out to his nahualli, he asked, "What shall I do now?" His twin gave the pre-ordained response: "Since things have turned out badly, let them turn out as they may." And Quetzalcoatl took the bones to the gods.
Within this mysterious allegory one can see the failure of nature alone to produce intelligent men, the gathering of the lower vestures and their animation with the breath of life within the body of clay, as well as the penitential self-sacrifice of the gods, represented by the seminal blood and signifying the incarnation of the spiritual and divine within the prepared living human form. Once this complex process was completed, Quetzalcoatl stole maize, the proper food of self-consciously intelligent beings, and gave it to humanity.
Under Naollin, the fifth sun, Quetzalcoatl is the dynamic order of Nature, the homoeostasis in which humanity can flourish. Celestially, he guards the Milky Way, 'the Luminous Petticoat of Stars'. Tezcatlipoca, son of Ometeotl, became the four Tezcatlipocas who guard the four quarters of the world. In the west this fourfold hypostasis is Quetzalcoatl, whilst in the east he is the red Tezcatlipoca, the two constituting the tension between birth and death, which is also death in this world of change and birth into the Divine Darkness. The red Tezcatlipoca is also Xolotl, the twin of Quetzalcoatl, the other half of one ceaseless activity. In the atmosphere which blankets the fertile earth, Quetzalcoatl is the wind and the water it bears in the air. He is also lightning, sudden illuminator of darkness, who, like an ambassador, precedes Tlaloc, the god of rain. His multivalent functions are intimated in the deliberate ambiguity of his name: Quetzalcoatl is derived from quetzal, 'feathered' or 'precious', and coati, 'serpent' or 'twin'. Thus he is both the Plumed Serpent and the Precious Twin.
In tlalticpac, the dream world which is earth, Quetzalcoatl is the divine king who, like Osiris, the second divine pharaoh of Egypt, brought civilization to humanity. As the divine ruler in Tollan, he taught all the arts and sciences, from cultivation of maize to metallurgy and from astrology to poetry, as well as the sacred tlilli tlapalli, red and black ink, that is, writing and, by extension, wisdom. During the golden age he dwelt in his invisible form, guiding and governing in a kingdom of innocent joy. Yet the forces of limitation, shadows in this realm of light, plotted Quetzalcoatl's downfall. Tezcatlipoca took a mirror and invited Quetzalcoatl to gaze into it. To his horror, he thereby gained a body, rather like Anthropos, and seeing himself reflected in the mirror of inchoate Nature, became one with it, according to the Hermetic tradition. In his confusion he allowed a mask and feathered head-dress to be made for him, so that people might look upon him without fear. Whilst he was disoriented, demons made pulque, a fermented drink from sap of the maguey, and gave it to Quetzalcoatl. Thus intoxicated, he took Quetzalpetatl, his feminine aspect from which he now felt alienated, and slept with her, falling afterwards into a stupor. As the archetype of humanity, his deeds brought pain and suffering to humanity – the pain of having a body, the suffering of loneliness, the disharmonies of striving, contention, fear and guilt, which pit person against person and turn the powers of human consciousness into instruments of selfishness and its inevitable offspring, conflict and greed.
In the morning Quetzalcoatl awoke filled with grief and remorse. As god, he knew the unavoidable problems of incarnation, but as king, he saw the massive failure of civilization. Between potentiality and actualization fell the dread shadow of self-induced ignorance. Within the architectonics of human life, the problems of creating man had been wholly reflected, and thus Quetzalcoatl's earthly work was completed. He resolved to leave his beautiful Tollan and set out with his closest devotees. He journeyed throughout his kingdom, leaving at different sites marks of his presence – a sacred footprint here, a raised stone there – and stripped himself of his arts and powers as he went so that these might remain with humanity in his absence. He ordered a stone casket to be made, and when it was finished he lay in it for four days so that his most precious secrets might be absorbed into it. When he was ready, he ordered the stone box sealed up to prevent theft or contamination of its contents. Only those who have redeemed Quetzalcoatl's wisdom through severe penance and self-sacrifice can hope to know the contents of that mystic sarcophagus now secreted in the human breast, in the place of purity where Quetzalcoatl was accustomed to bathing.
All work finished, Quetzalcoatl went to the sea.
There at Tlillin Tlapallin, the place of burning, he built a huge pyre, mounted it and set it aflame. His ashes rose into the air and the rarest birds of the earth appeared. As the red flames lit up the celestial vault, Quetzalcoatl became again the Lord of the Dawn.
The heart of Quetzalcoatl became Venus, the morning star which promises first the dawn, then the rising sun itself.
The Nahuatl word for 'heart' is yollotl, drawn from the root that yields ohm, 'movement', from which the name of the sun, Naollin (Four-Movement), is derived. The heart is the vitalizing principle of immortality in the human being. Each individual is in his inmost nature Quetzalcoatl. If it is to shine like Venus, who accompanies the sun, it must rise from the ashes of self-purifying sacrifice, enthroned in its natural realm, which is not the dream-world of tellurian tlalticpac, but rather the limitless sky.
The wise men, tlamatinime, know that in tlalticpac there is no truth. Truth, neltiliztli, is that which gives support and is a foundation, nelhuayotl. The Place of Knowing, Tlilantlapalan, cannot be found in the world of movement, but only in the region of the changeless, the realm of Ometeotl above the heavens. Yet it is reflected in the still centre of the revolving world, which is the invisible sanctuary of the heart. Through Quetzalcoatl alone one comes to truth.
Reaching the sealed casket of Quetzalcoatl through self-purification and throwing oneself into the fire of self-purgation, one may not only come to the Place of Knowing but also become Quetzalcoatl, the countenance of Ometeotl, eternal truth and omniscient immortality. The pilgrimage of the penitential soul is long and arduous through the frightening, intoxicating, separative delusions of tlalticpac, and the journey would be impossible if it were not for the sacred landmarks Quetzalcoatl left as witnesses to his presence. They are those who know that truth cannot be described, much less set forth in a set of propositions, and that it is only known in and through one's whole being. It is expressed emblematically through "flowers and songs", the one suggesting the fruit not yet tasted, the other the encompassing silence which frames it. These knowers are the wise men, the greatest of whom are called Quetzalcoatl. The true tlamatini is temachtiani, teixcuitiani, tetezcahuiani – the road and teacher, the spiritual therapist, the wise moralist. To him one can apply the beautiful phrase cemanahuactlahuiani, "he attends to things, he applies his light to the world". Despite the inversion, degradation and materialization these noble ideals suffered under the Aztecs in the last days of Nahuatl sovereignty, they were not wholly lost. When missionaries had presumed to instruct the fallen lords of Tenochtitlan in sacred matters, one of them rose up and pointed to the Nahuatl branch of the wisdom-tradition as old as thinking man. This had been patiently nurtured by Topiltzin, Our Dear Prince, Quetzalcoatl.