Resplendent Quetzal (from Wikipedia)

13 Jan

Myth and legend

The Resplendent Quetzal was considered divine, associated with the “snake god”, Quetzalcoatl by pre-Columbian Meso-american civilizations. Its iridescent green tail feathers, symbols for spring plant growth, were venerated by the ancient Aztecs and Maya, who viewed the quetzal as the “god of the air” and as a symbol of goodness and light. Mesoamerican rulers and some nobility of other ranks wore headdresses made from quetzal feathers, symbolically connecting them to Quetzalcoatl. Since it was a crime to kill a quetzal, the bird was simply captured, its long tail feathers plucked, and was set free. Quetzalcoatl was the creator god and god of wind, often depicted with grey hair. In several Meso-american languages, the term for quetzal can also mean precioussacred, or erected.

Until recently, it was thought that the Resplendent Quetzal could not be bred or held for any long time in captivity, and indeed it was noted for usually killing itself soon after being captured or caged. For this reason it is a traditional symbol of liberty. However, a zoo in Mexico has kept this species since 1992, and in 2004 breeding in captivity was announced (Orellana, 2004).

The bird is of great relevance to Guatemalan culture, being a character in the widely popular legend of the local hero Tecún Umán, a prince and warrior of the Quiché (K’iche) Maya during the latter stages of the Spanish conquest of the region. This quetzal was his spirit guide. The Quiché repelled several attacks from the Spanish army, even though outmatched in weaponry (guns, armor and cavalry against spears and arrows).

Legend has it that on the day the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado fought against Tecún Umán, there was a quetzal flying overhead. On the first strike Tecún Umán, on foot, managed to disable Pedro de Alvarado’s horse. Alvarado was then given another horse and on the second strike ran through Tecún Umán’s chest with a spear. The quetzal flew down and landed on Tecún Umán, dipping its chest in the warrior prince’s blood. It is there that the bird acquired its distinctive red chest feathers.

It is debatable whether these events happened, but the Maya fought fiercely for their land and freedom during the conquest. One Mayan legend claims that the quetzal used to sing beautifully before the Spanish conquest, but has been silent ever since; it will sing once again only when the land is truly free.

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