Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Quetzalcoatl’s Descent To Mictlan, the Land of the Dead

A change of pace for today, because I’m in a storytelling mood and I even found a kickass danza video to go with it.  Today I’ll tell the legend of how Quetzalcoatl brought humanity back to life by stealing the precious bones from the Lord of the Land of the Dead, Mictlantecuhtli.

This version of the “Quetzalcoatl goes to Mictlan” tale is a composite of the several different variants of the myth that exist, and the wording of it is completely my own. I fleshed it out a bit in order to try to restore some of the richness and “naturalness” that gets lost when you try to take an oral tradition that was typically performed with song and dance and try to move it to the written page, especially if you have to translate it to boot.

As a bonus, I found a danza video showing a beautiful dance rendition of the story! I’m going to put that in its own post so the formatting doesn’t get all awkward. So, let’s get started!

Quetzalcoatl’s Descent To Mictlan

As told by Cehualli

It was the beginning of the Fifth Sun. Newborn Tonatiuh shone His light over the earth below. His rays revealed the beauty of the recreated land and sea, yet the gods were unhappy with what They saw. Why? The world was empty of life.

The gods gathered to share Their sorrow at the absence of Their creatures. “We’ve brought the earth and sky back together and made them whole again, but what good is it all without anyone to live there? Who will worship Us? We can’t let things go on like this!”

But the humans were all dead, killed when the Fourth Sun fell in a torrent of rain. And the dead were far away, hidden deep in Mictlan, the Land of the Dead. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, the Lord and Lady of that cold, dark, silent realm, now kept their bones as treasures. Without the bones, there could be no more humans.

The Teteo continued, “We must give life back to the humans, our faithful servants who We first created long ago. But We need their bones to recreate them, and they are lost in Mictlan. Someone must go down to the Land of the Dead and persuade Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl to give them back to Us. But who among Us is best suited for this dangerous quest?”

After a few moments of deliberation, Quetzalcoatl and His twin, Xolotl, nodded to each other and stepped forward. Xolotl, the god with the serious face of a great hound, said, “I am Xolotl, the Evening Star. Every night, I lead the Sun down to Mictlan to die. I know the way to the Land of the Dead and will guide us there.”

Quetzalcoatl, His wise old face wreathed with a beard of brilliant feathers, said, “I am Quetzalcoatl, the Morning Star. Every morning, I lead the Sun back out of Mictlan to be reborn with the dawn. I know the way out of the Land of the Dead and will guide us back home to sweet Tamoanchan.”

The rest of the gods heard Their brave words and thought the plan wise. Tezcatlipoca said, “Though We may fight and compete for glory, Brother Quetzalcoatl, I too want to see the humans brought back from Mictlan. May You succeed in bringing back the bones.”

With that said, Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl set out from Tamoanchan, descending towards the Land of the Dead. The other gods watched Them go with great concern, for They knew that Mictlantecuhtli was a proud and cunning king who wouldn’t give up the bones willingly. They gathered around Tezcatlipoca’s smoking mirror, a device of wonderful power through which the god could see everything, to watch the progress of the twins and wait.

Xolotl led the way down to Mictlan and through the nine layers of the Realm of Death. They retraced the path that the Sun took every night down into the depths of the underworld, all the way to the palace of the Lord of the Dead. “We must be careful,” Quetzalcoatl said. “I know Mictlantecuhtli will not be pleased by Our request. He is a wily god and may try to trap Us.” Xolotl agreed, and They cautiously proceeded to the throne of the Lord and Lady of the Dead.

Mictlantecuhtli was waiting for Them. “Welcome to My kingdom, gods from the bright realm of Tamoanchan. What brings You so far from your home?” Scattered around the royal chamber were heaps of the bones of the humans, piled up like treasure.

Quetzalcoatl spoke respectfully, one god to another. “We have come for the precious bones of the humans. We have need of them in Tamoanchan.”

Mictlantecuhtli eyed the two gods. “And why do You need my lovely bones? It must be very important if You came all the way to the Land of the Dead.” Already He seemed to be planning something.

Quetzalcoatl replied, “The Fifth Sun has dawned, and it’s time for humans to walk the earth and bask in His rays again. We need those bones so we may bring them back to life.”

Mictlantecuhtli frowned, and the chill in the air deepened. “And how do I benefit from this? No, I don’t think I’ll give up my splendid bones. If I give them to You, I’ll never get them back and I’ll be poorer for it. No, You can’t have My bones.”

Quetzalcoatl had anticipated this. “Oh, no! You misunderstand Me. We don’t intend to keep the bones, We just want to borrow them. The humans would be mortal, and would eventually return to You, just like how everything else is born and eventually dies, even the Sun itself. Only we Teteo live forever. You wouldn’t really lose anything in the end, and in the meantime, Your fame would grow.”

Mictlancihuatl looked pleased by these words. Mictlantecuhtli considered them, then spoke. “Hmmm. An interesting idea. All right. You can have the bones…” Xolotl began to move towards the bones. “IF” continued Mictlantecuhtli. Xolotl froze. “IF You can play My conch-shell trumpet and circle My kingdom four times in honor of Me.”

“Of course,” said Quetzalcoatl. Mictlantecuhtli gave Them His trumpet and watched Them leave His throne room. He smiled, satisfied that He wouldn’t have to give up those bones after all…

Xolotl looked at the trumpet in dismay. The conch shell had no holes and couldn’t make a sound. “He’s trying to trick Us!”

“I’ve got a plan,” said Quetzalcoatl. And He called the worms and other gnawing insects, and ordered them to chew holes into the conch shell. Then He took the shell and held it up, and summoned the bees to climb inside through the holes and buzz loudly. The sound echoed through the shadowy realm like a trumpet blast.

Mictlantecuhtli hid a scowl when Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl marched proudly back into the throne room. “We’ve done what You asked, Lord of the Dead. Now, give Us the bones as You agreed!”

“Very well then,” said Mictlantecuhtli, calm again. “You can have them for now. But the humans will not be immortal. They must die again someday and return to me, just as You had said earlier.” The Morning and Evening Star agreed, gathered up the bones, and left.

Mictlancihuatl looked horrified. “Our treasure! We can’t let Them carry it off!”

“Of course We won’t. I may have said They could have the bones. I never said They could leave My kingdom with them.” And then He ordered some of his servants to dig a pit along the path that the two gods must take to escape, and others to chase after Them.

Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl saw the army of the Lord and Lady of the Dead in hot pursuit, and ran as fast as They could, up towards the way out of Mictlan. Looking back at the mob chasing them, They didn’t see the pit ahead.

Suddenly, a flock of quail burst out of hiding, surrounding the two gods and startling Them. Quetzalcoatl slipped and fell into the pit, then Xolotl heard a sickening crunch of breaking bone. “What happened?” cried Xolotl, running over to help.

Quetzalcoatl was looking in horror at the bones. They had shattered into pieces, and some of the quail were gnawing on them. He chased away the quail and sifted through the bones, weeping. “They’re ruined! Now what will We do?”

Xolotl said, “Maybe they will still work, and We can still make this turn out for the best. It’s the only thing We can do now.” And He helped Quetzalcoatl gather up the broken bones in a bundle and escape with them.

They got back to Tamoanchan and showed the rest of the Teteo the ruined bones. Cihuacoatl looked at the pieces thoughtfully, then smiled. “We can still bring the humans back to life.” Then She took the shattered bones and ground them up like corn in a clay bowl, turning them into a fine powder. Then Quetzalcoatl bled His penis into the bowl, and the rest of the gods also gave blood. The blood mixed with the ground bones, and immediately living humans formed.

The gods rejoiced. “We’ve succeeded, the macehuales (literally, “those gained by divine sacrifice”) are born! The earth will be filled with humans once again. They will worship Us, and We will be their gods.”

And that is the story of how Quetzalcoatl went to Mictlan and brought back the precious bones so that humans could be reborn into the age of the Fifth Sun.

7 responses

  1. xuchilpaba

    Theres variations of this story. Sometimes its Xolotl that saves the bones, rather than Quetzalcoatl.

    Some points in the story though. Variations say Quetzalcoatl “stole” the bones, which would be on par with His myths as a theif. (And His monkey nahualli Ehecatl.)

    Xolotl acts totally in His psychopomp nature. As a guide to Mictlan.

    Itzpapalotl has over whelming evidnce that She might be the same as Cihuacoatl. If this is true, Quetzalcoatl returning to Tamoanchan (Because thats His consort; Cihuacoatl I mean) & Itzpapalotl ruling over Tamoanchan seems to have a connection.

    April 20, 2008 at 6:03 PM

  2. cehualli

    Yup yup, a bunch of variations. I’ve seen Quetzalcoatl alone, Xolotl alone, and both of the gods together. I opted to do the version with both of them since it’s the one with the most detail, and it gave me more opportunities to flesh the story out a little, especially by having the two gods talk about their identities and roles a little.

    As far as the stealing goes, yeah, I’ve noted His actions being referred to that way, though I haven’t yet seen a version where Quetzalcoatl doesn’t at least try to cooperate with Mictlantecuhtli’s impossible challenges. I’m inclined to think that it’s getting at how Q outwits M and still gets them, despite M’s false “consent” to take them.

    Glad you spotted Xolotl fulfilling His psychopomp role, it was something I wanted to emphasize. 🙂

    That’s a very intriguing detail about Itzpapalotl you bring up, it’s news to me since I haven’t studied Her too much yet. Can you point me in the direction of your sources? I’d like to read about that, and it could be something interesting to write about. Especially since there seem to be a fair number of Itzpapalotl fans out there.

    April 21, 2008 at 1:05 AM

  3. xuchilpaba

    I wish I had the references for the theory, but Shock & Yehe would not eve tell me what books its in.

    I’ve got plenty of Cihuacoatl and Itzpapalotl stories though. You have the codex Chimalpopoca, And Duran’s book for starters. I don’t know which version you heard about; Cihuacoatl is Mixcoatl’s mother or Itzpapalotl being Mixcoatl’s mother. Thats another reason for the theory. I guess some gods “die” and come back different gods in their “dead” forms. SInce Itzpapalotl is a Cihuateteo Herself, I think its implied she gave birth to Mixcoatl and subsquently died from it. I think I’ll have to hit up Shock for the resources again. Theres nothing online about it. 😦

    April 21, 2008 at 3:51 PM

  4. cehualli

    Old comment and post, so I don’t know if you’ll see this, Xuchil, but I came across the story where Itzpapalotl dies and it refreshed my memory. She’s actually killed by Mixcoatl, slain as the Divine Two-Headed Deer. When She dies, She leaves behind a scattering of flint knives of different colors. Mixcoatl selects the white knife as holding sacred power, and puts it into a sacred bundle containing Itzpapalotl’s divine essence. The bundle is then carried with the tribe as a powerful holy object that protects them on their migration. This is all in the Codex Chimalpopoca if you want to read it. Interestingly, it even records a short speech given by Itzpapalotl to Her chosen tribe before Mixcoatl takes the lead.

    November 24, 2008 at 6:09 AM

    • Xuchil

      You know it took me years seeing that comment, Cehualli and I had that codex for sometimes but didn’t read all of it. I came here on something unrelated too! Someone asked about why the gods see people as slaves and I went to this post. xD

      April 21, 2013 at 11:22 PM

    • lilituwind

      I replied to this and it ate my reply.

      It took me years to see your post, Cehualli and I came here for another reason. Someone had asked about the gods considering people slaves and why they would think that. All I could give her was this myth in depth because the myth doesn’t appear as in depth anywhere else.

      I had the Chimalpopoca but I lost my book collection and it’s very, very difficult to go by memory on some of this. (Among my books the first six Florentine codexes! D:< ) I may not get my book collection back or if I do it will be along way down the road because I am poor and pay for everything by myself now.

      I didn't read all of the Chimalpopoca, so I don't remember the latter parts of the story you're talking about. But yes, it does interest me. There is not a lot of information on Itzpapalotl and she's one of those overlooked goddesses. I know of no one that cares or worships her like I do. Her relations to the tribes is not something I've encountered in my research much, other than being a Chichimec deity. I think further research for myself is needed! 😀

      April 21, 2013 at 11:48 PM

  5. Question for you: I’m soliciting pieces for a devotional volume (to be published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina/Neos Alexandria) on cynocephalic deities, of which Xolotl is a major one. Do you know of anyone who might be interested in submitting something on Xolotl, or would you be interested in submitting something on him yourself?

    July 25, 2011 at 9:40 PM

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