Temple of Teotihuacan

Ancient Mexico: Exploring the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcóatl) at Teotihuacán

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcóatl) in Teotihuacán – Background

Location of Teotihuacan close to Mexico City.
Location of Teotihuacan / Credit: University of South Carolina

The ancient site of Teotihuacán, located northeast of Mexico City, is home to many huge monuments. It stretches out in a highly organized grid layout. 2 perpendicular avenues, north-south and east-west, divide the city into quarters. At the north end of the north-south avenue stands the Pyramid of the Moon.

Aerial view of north-south avenue between the Pyramids of the Moon (north, background) and Sun (south, foreground).
Aerial view between the Pyramids of the Moon and Sun / Credit: 123RF


Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan
Pyramid of the Moon / Credit: National Geographic


Further down this avenue rises the Pyramid of the Sun. Countless other monuments dot the land around these key places. For instance, just south of the Pyramid of the Moon stands a ring of much smaller, but still sizable temple pyramids. The scene altogether is quite reminiscent of St. Peter’s Basilica and the colonnade arms reaching out from it in the Vatican. In addition, beyond the towering monuments, many homes, workshops, markets, and whole neighbourhoods have since been uncovered in the ancient suburbs, or in the city area itself, now known to have been much larger than previously conceived. The 3 largest monuments on the whole site are the Pyramids of the Sun, the Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent).

Aerial view of Teotihuacan with the Pyramid of the Sun and a major avenue in view.
Pyramid of the Sun / Credit: Britannica

The Pyramids of the Sun and Moon are the most impressive to tourists. Their monumental steps have been the subject of ancient urban planning, mysticism, pseudohistory, and other interests. However, their sloped faces are relatively plain, whereas their smaller neighbor, the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, is much more decorated. This temple features a 4-stepped pyramid with a staircase in front. However, ancient builders added features much later. The back (eastern) side of the pyramid temple shows many complex sculptures of animals and other symbols. This level of detail isn’t found as much in any of the other pyramids. Why was this 3rd temple in particular made much more intricate?

Frontal (western) view of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent
Temple of the Feathered Serpent (west main view) / Credit: Wikipedia

To begin with, the functions of the Temple of Quetzalcóatl in ancient times were likely very important. Ancient monuments very rarely showed random decoration. There was almost always a religious purpose behind everything put on the surface of these important buildings. Luckily, there are many scholarly theories about the temple’s ancient purpose. As a result, we may better understand why the decor on this temple was specially crafted.

Architectural design & decorations of the temple

First, let’s examine the decorations on the Temple of Quetzalcóatl. The pyramid temple stands in the talud-tablero style, with upward-sloped walls (talud) and vertical platforms (tablero).

A diagram of the ancient talub-tablero (sloping wall - table) architectural motif present in the pyramids at Teotihuacán and other ancient Mexican monuments.
Talub-tablero style / Credit: Wikipedia

This pattern makes up the structure of many ancient Mesoamerican monuments across a wide variety of pre-Columbian cultures (Sugiyama 1989). There are also countless variations of this style across many different ancient Mesoamerican cultures. It’s worthwhile to note that to this day, scholars still aren’t sure which people(s) built or lived in Teotihuacán. We also aren’t certain about which languages people spoke in the ancient city. However, there is evidence of ethnic neighborhoods amongst the different quarters. Therefore, it’s possible that the Maya peoples and other better-known peoples at least had some presence in this great city. They do think that this city liked to wage war far and wide. Some skeletons found at Teotihuacán came from modern Guatemala!

It’s also thought that at one point, Teotihuacán conquered the great Maya city of Tikal, and imposed a ruler loyal to Teotihuacán. At any rate, this city was very wealthy, and could afford to show it through its temple construction. Important religious patterns adorn both elements of this architectural style. Moreover, the tablero decorations on the Temple of Quetzalcóatl show 2 different, alternating snake-head patterns (Sugiyama 1989).

View of the 2 major serpentine motifs on the pyramid: the smaller serpent and the larger serpent
Temple of Quetzalcoatl / Credit: Uncovered History

The meaning of snake heads

Physical description

Second, let us break down the intricate designs found on the western face of the temple. On one hand, one of the head designs features a serpent with a feathered collar. It emerges forward from a carved hoop, behind which the rest of its body extends to one side. In the reconstruction below, this head is shown in red. On the other hand, interspersed with these “bodies” is the other head design, featuring a larger, more abstract representation of a snake. In the reconstruction below, this head is shown in green, and is more boxy in shape.

Over the years, archaeologists have wondered about the meaning of the larger of the 2 head patterns. Both patterns are likely depictions of various deities, namely alligator-like cipactli beings, Xiuhcoatl, and the feathered serpent Quetzalcóatl (Sugiyama 1989).

Digital reconstruction of the temple's main western facade showing the 2 alternating snakehead motifs.
Reconstruction of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl / Credit: Twitter (David Romero)

Furthermore, other theories include a dualist-creation interpretation for the alternating heads (Sugiyama 1989). It’s possible that the alternating heads recall the role which the god Quetzalcóatl played in numerous dualism-themed creation myths. One theory which has gained recognition was independently conceived by both Sugiyama and Taube (Austin et al, 1991). It identifies the larger heads as ceremonial headdresses worn by elite priests during ritual observances dedicated to Quetzalcóatl (Sugiyama 1989).

Political and military significance of the snake heads

These abstract snake headdresses likely had connections to the wider use of the temple, including those of military and statecraft. Contrary to first impressions, the Ciudadela, in which stands the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, was the center of Teotihuacán. The map below shows the Ciudadela as the gray square in the middle. In the right center of this square, a tiny red square shows the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. To the north of the Ciudadela, you can also see the pyramids of the Sun and Moon in red.

An elite headquarters

This picture helps to highlight the importance of the original question. Why was the Feathered Serpent Pyramid much more decorated, when it was so much smaller? Why was this the governing center of this ancient cosmopolis? In addition, many lordly palaces and ritual centers were once concentrated in this location (Taube 1992). It is possible that this palace witnessed an intersection of devoted religion and practical war management.

Map of the full Teotihuacan urban grid. The Ciudadela is the gray square visible in the center.
Teotihuacan urban grid / Credit: Ancient-Wisdom
Reconstruction of the Ciudadela with the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in the back center.
Reconstruction of the Ciudadela / Credit: Wikipedia

The physical reconstruction above shows the size of the plaza in Ciudadela. One would’ve likely entered it from the small temples on the western side of the main avenue (foreground in the picture). It’s also interesting to see that a lot of Mesoamerican architecture, across many cultures, used red and white as the 2 most important colors for decorating buildings.

The white was likely stucco, made from melted limestone. The amount of stucco they produced meant they constantly had to keep burning huge furnaces day and night. It’s also thought that this stucco contributed to soil erosion. This likely spelled the end for many advanced Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya, and the people of Teotihuacan. Towards the end of Teotihuacán, there is also evidence of scorched rebellion, where the commoners burned the residences of the elite.

Sacrifice in the Ciudadela

In any case, the Ciudadela probably saw many uses in war and religion. Archaeologists excavated tens of young male sacrifices on the Ciudadela grounds. Many of them bear artifacts revealing their occupations as soldiers (Taube 1992). Teotihuacán’s militant nature was no secret at home or “abroad”. The discovery of a mural north of the Ciudadela connects the city’s warlike nature with the militant aspects of Quetzalcóatl. The mural depicts warriors with feathered-serpent headdresses (Sugiyama 1989).

Also, Sugiyama used this mural to suggest a Quetzalcóatl-dedicated elite based in Ciudadela. Furthermore, their religious status would’ve been visually conveyed via the patterns of the serpent on the temple’s tableros.

Dualist religious interpretations of snake heads

Nevertheless, Sugimaya counters Coe’s claims that the alternating snakeheads demonstrate dualist religion. He argues that both tablero snakehead patterns are depictions of the feathered serpent. Consequently, he assigns the entire temple to one deity, Quetzalcóatl (Sugiyama 1989). However, there are other interpretations of duality which aren’t as readily dismissed.

For instance, Taube agrees that the abstract snakehead symbolizes headdress gear. In contrast, he then claims the headdresses portray the War Serpent, or the god Xiuhcoatl, instead of the Feathered Serpent (Taube 1992). In this case, a dualism occurs between the War and Feathered Serpents, or between Teotihuacán’s military expansion and internal prosperity. Thus, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent was altogether one dedicated to war (Taube 1992).

The snake head and human hierarchy

In fact, there is another dualist interpretation. This possibility moves away from cosmic religion. It highlights a duality between secular rule between Teotihuacán’s king and priests (who may have worn these headdresses), and Quetzalcóatl. Together, they’re represented as peers on this earth ruling over the common people of Teotihuacán. This duet implies that the universe can’t exist and prosper without the deity or the elite human priests. It is an example of the incorporation of religion as a way of backing up the temporal human hierarchy. Most importantly, the deity “chose” the priests to help uphold the universe. From all this, it is little wonder that the following Aztecs regarded Teotihuacán as the “home of the gods”.

The pyramid as a temple to “time”

The Temple of Quetzalcóatl no doubt helped the people of Teotihuacán maintain sacred connections with their world. Therefore, it’s worth thinking more about specifically what the Temple of the Feathered Serpent meant in the vastness of Teotihuacán mythology. In ancient Nahua myth, Quetzalcóatl transmits the divine to the worldly. One of his greatest gifts was “time” (Austin et al, 1991). In some myths, Quetzalcóatl takes a goddess named Cipactli, often an alligator, and slices her in 2 (Austin et al, 1991).

16th century Aztec depiction of Cipactli in the Codex Magliabechiano.
Cipactli in Codex Magliabechiano / Credit: Wikipedia

Afterward, within the cavity between her two halves, our world, the heavens, and the underworld form through multiple levels. Each level corresponds to 20-day months, with 18 in total) (Austin et al, 1991). The nature of this leveled cavity gave rise to divided, ordered, calendrical time (Austin et al, 1991). Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta says the calendar was Quetzalcóatl’s idea; the gods wished to guide us (Austin et al, 1991).

In other words, the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, as well as other Mesoamerican monuments to Quetzalcóatl, were temples for Time. Quetzalcóatl transmits time from its divine source to its earthly recipients in order to  distribute divinely assigned duties. These duties reflect those the gods carry out, including the rising and setting of the sun (Austin et al, 1991).

In fact, the young male sacrifices are found in groupings of calendrical numbers, including 18 in a northern pit. These numbers match the number of Quetzalcóatl headdresses found on each side of the west staircase (Austin et al, 1991).

Time in the arrangement of sacrificial graves

Other archeological discoveries support the interpretation of the Feathered Serpent pyramid as having been dedicated to time. Additional graves flanking the 18 total 20, recalling the days in each of the 18 months (Austin et al, 1991). Other artifacts also suggest devotion to Cipactli, whose body was the source of time. Necklaces found on the sacrificed victims recall the original myth of Cipactli’s splitting (Austin et al, 1991). At any rate, it’s also possible to interpret the headdress patterns as resembling alligators like Cipactli.

This combination between Quetzalcóatl and Cipactli celebrates the beginnings of calendrical time, and may be what the snake headdresses convey. It’s also what makes the whole temple a brilliant physical (urban) model of the universe as the ancients knew it.


Review of Theories

Ergo, we’ve reviewed many different theories on interpreting the snakehead patterns in the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Thanks to them, we now better understand that this structure was second to none in Teotihuacán’s religion and political landscape. Many maps of Teotihuacán often start in the north with the Pyramid of the Moon. They then follow the main north-south avenue down to the Ciudadela. This often misleads viewers into thinking the massive Pyramid of the Sun was the true center of the ancient city.

However, detailed studies of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, and the Ciudadela, belie the falsity of this conception. After studying the religious and political significance of the snakehead patterns on the temple sides, we learn about the central importance of this monument over all others. But we don’t just learn that the Ciudadela was the more likely political and religious center of the city. We also think about this in light of the fact that, thanks to excavations leading to the present, archeologists uncovered much more of Teotihuacán.

Reevaluating our thoughts about Teotihuacán

This firmly places the Ciudadela at the geographic center of a much vaster city than ever previously imagined. It was deliberately planned to stand there in an age where space, time, and belief matched each other as closely as possible. In the case of Teotihuacán, this resulted in a marvel of urban planning which rivals anything in the contemporary Old World, and continues to stun people until this day.

We may imagine the elite priests of the Ciudadela putting on headdresses with the gods. They would’ve performed military rituals involving tens of sacrifices atop a temple representing war and the birth of time. In short, there should really should be no question then, about why this smaller temple needed some decoration.


Works Cited

Taube, Karl. “The Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the cult of sacred war at Teotihuacan”. The
University of Chicago Press, no. 21, 1992, pp. 53-87.

López Austin, Alfredo; López Luján, Leonardo; Sugiyama, Saburo. “The Temple of
Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan – Its Possible Ideological Signifícance”. Cambridge
University Press, vol. 2, no. 1, 1991, pp. 93-105.

Sugiyama, Saburo. “Iconographic Interpretation of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan”.
Mexicon, vol. 11, no. 4, 1989, pp. 68-74.

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