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Dr. Paul A. Johnsgard

Quetzal

One of the most beautiful birds in the world, after which the unit of currency of Guatemala is named, and a creature highly revered by the Aztecs, is the (resplendent) quetzal. World expert Dr. Paul A. Johnsgard, Foundation Professor of Biological Sciences Emeritus, School of Biological Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (USA), has generously allowed us to reproduce here the introduction to his book ‘Trogons and Quetzals of the World’, in which he pays fitting tribute to this endangered bird.

Resplendent quetzal, male and female; hand-coloured lithograph by J. Gould
Resplendent quetzal, male and female; hand-coloured lithograph by J. Gould (Click on image to enlarge)

If ever there existed an ultimate symbol of the beauty embodied by birds, the resplendent quetzal would certainly qualify. Rare, stunningly beautiful, elusive, and limited to the remote and mist-draped cloud forests of Middle America, this bird, with its shimmering golden green and blood-red feathers, is an artist’s dream. Most birders, if asked which tropical bird they would like to glimpse in its natural habitat sometime during their lifetime, would probably nominate the resplendent quetzal.

To the pre-Columbian aborigines of Middle America the bird’s glorious plumes were more highly treasured than gold, and only high priests and royalty were allowed to possess and wear them. Ornaments made of the incredibly long, golden-green tail-coverts of the male quetzal adorned the heads of these personages; like the equally coveted and similarly rare jade, these feathers are the color of maize leaves and all the other green vegetation that gives life and beauty to the earth.

Quetzalcóatl in the Codex Magliabechiano, folio 62
Quetzalcóatl in the Codex Magliabechiano, folio 62 (Click on image to enlarge)

Little wonder then that of all the deities of the Nahuatl-speaking tribes, Quetzalcoatl was preeminent. The name of this benevolent god come from quetzal (representing the sky); co (representing earth); and atl (denoting water), thus collectively comprising and representing a combination of the earth, the seas, and the heavens. This so-called plumed serpent is often represented in human form as having a headdress of flowers and feathers and holding in one hand a staff of life and in the other a spear with its point representing the morning star, where his heart resides. Perhaps initially based on an actual historic figure, the last hero-king of early Toltec culture, Quetzalcoatl was later gradually transformed into a major deity among the Aztecs of the high plateau of central Mexico. There he gradually metamorphosed into a wind god, presiding over earth, water and sky, and a peace-loving guardian of arts, crafts, and music. indeed, in a sixteenth-century Nahuatl manuscript, a poem describes how Quetzalcoatl (in his wind-god persona) stole Music and his attendant musicians from the possessive Sun, in order to bring them and their special treasures back to Earth...

Crested quetzal, male and female; hand-coloured lithograph by J. Gould
Crested quetzal, male and female; hand-coloured lithograph by J. Gould (Click on image to enlarge)

Bearing them gently lest he should harm their tender melodies,
the Wind with that tumult of happiness in his arms
set out on his downward journey, generous and contented.
Below, Earth raised its dark eyes to heaven and its great face shone,
and it smiled.
As the arms of the trees were uplifted,
there greeted with Wind’s wanderers the awakened voice of its people,
the wings of the quetzal birds,
the face of the flowers,
and the cheeks of the fruit.
When all that flutter of happiness landed on Earth, and the Sun’s musicians spread to the four quarters,
then Wind ceased his complaining and sang,
caressing the valleys, the forests, and seas.
Thus was Music born on the bosom of Earth.

Pavonine quetzal, male and female; hand-coloured lithograph by J. Gould
Pavonine quetzal, male and female; hand-coloured lithograph by J. Gould (Click on image to enlarge)

In a similar way, birds once brought the first real music to our Earth, music that together with their great beauty and grace, we now all enjoy. It would be a much poorer and sadder world if the quetzal and all of its avian relatives were to disappear. Then Earth would become a more silent and fearful place, as it was before we received, at least in these mythic traditions, the gift of Music from Quetzalcoatl.

Text from:-
Trogons and Quetzals of the World by Paul A. Johnsgard, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 2000
Quote from Mexican and Central American Mythology by Irene Nicholson, Paul Hamlyn, London, 1967
Colour illustrations: reproductions of 19th-century hand-coloured lithographs by John Gould, scanned from Trogons and Quetzals, op cit.
Codex illustration scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA 1970 facsimile edition of the Codex Magliabechiano, Graz, Austria
’A male quetzal’ scanned from Quetzal Quest by Victor von Hagen, OUP, 1940.

‘A male quetzal’; illustration by Antonio Sotomayor
‘A male quetzal’; illustration by Antonio Sotomayor (Click on image to enlarge)

NOTE! According to the famous English evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley, it was the American historian and explorer Victor von Hagen who was ’the first man to bring the gorgeous and almost mythical Quetzal birds alive to Europe. You can see the birds he brought over in the Bird House at the London Zoo’. (Foreword by Julian Huxley to von Hagen’s book Quetzal Quest, OUP, 1940). Not any more you can’t, but the Zoological Society of London have confirmed to us that the ZSL purchased 3 male and 3 female quetzales from von Hagen on November 15th 1937; sadly three died the following year, one in 1939, and the remaining two survived till 1941.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 30th 2011

Learn more about Quetzalcóatl as the Wind God...

‘Did they take feathers equally from male and female quetzal birds? ‘

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