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D H Lawrence’s ‘The Plumed Serpent’

D H Lawrence and ‘The Plumed Serpent’

Lawrence finished the first draft of his famous fantasy novel ‘The Plumed Serpent’ (first titled ‘Quetzalcoatl’) in June 1923, in typical Lawrence style - inspired by, if not directly looking out over, a beautiful lake, sea or ocean: in this case, Lake Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico’s largest natural lake. Considering he had only arrived in Mexico for the first time in March of that year, Lawrence (then aged 38) quickly absorbed the atmosphere of post-Revolution Mexico. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Lake Chapala at sunset
Pic 1: Lake Chapala at sunset

When completed in 1925, the author was pleased with the result: ‘It interests me, means more to me than any other novel of mine. This is my real novel of America...’ And his German wife Frieda commented later ‘All of Lawrence is in that book. Two years he spent writing it, one winter in Chapala and the next winter in Oaxaca’. But just how far did Lawrence succeed in faithfully portraying Mexican culture - particularly its pre-Columbian roots?

Pic 2: Descending the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán, 1923
Pic 2: Descending the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán, 1923 (Click on image to enlarge)

Writing at a time of fervent revivalism among Mexico’s cultural leaders (he was introduced to Diego Rivera, José Orozco and other muralists, became a good friend of Miguel Covarrubias, and sought to meet José Vasconcelos, the country’s first Secretary of Public Education), Lawrence was deeply impressed by the monolithic grandeur of the country’s pre-Hispanic past - he can be seen in these photo’s visiting the ruins of Teotihuacán and Mitla with Frieda and friends.

Pic 3: The Lawrences with friends, Mitla, 1924
Pic 3: The Lawrences with friends, Mitla, 1924 (Click on image to enlarge)

According to his close American travelling companion, the poet Witter Bynner, the germ of the novel’s theme may well have come to him at Teotihuacán, where, as Bynner wrote, ‘In the great quadrangle of Quetzalcoatl, we saw Lawrence stand looking and brooding. The coloured stone heads of the feathered snakes in one of the temples were a match for him. The stone serpents and owls [presumably the Tlaloc reliefs!] held something that he obviously feared. In The Plumed Serpent he mentions "the ponderous pyramids of San Juan Teotihuacan, the House of Quetzalcoatl with the snake of all snakes, his huge fangs white and pure today as in the lost centuries when his makers were alive. He has not died. He is not so dead as the Spanish churches, this all-enwreathing dragon of the horror of Mexico."’

Pic 4: The Lawrences at Chapala, 1923
Pic 4: The Lawrences at Chapala, 1923 (Click on image to enlarge)

The established Church’s ‘hold’ on Mexico depressed Lawrence, as did what he called ‘that heavy, black Mexican fatality’ - like ‘the weight of obsidian’ - that he felt stemmed ‘from the silent, serpent-like dark resistance of those masses of ponderous natives...’

Pic 5: The Lawrences with Witter Bynner, Teotihuacán, 1923
Pic 5: The Lawrences with Witter Bynner, Teotihuacán, 1923 (Click on image to enlarge)

Unable to fathom the Mexican Indian psyche - Lawrence wrote off Mexico’s magnificent Day of the Dead festival (‘There’s no hope or happiness in it, no real gaiety, only a black, crude cynicism’) - Lawrence succumbed to his personal fears and complexes, his distrust of people, his homesickness, his tuberculosis, his anti-democratic politics, his belief in racial superiority: speaking through Kate in the novel he writes of her (his) being from ‘... a proud old family. She had been brought up with the English-Germanic idea of the intrinsic superiority of the hereditary aristocrat. Her blood was different from the common blood, another, finer fluid. But in Mexico none of this...’ (Lawrence called mixed-bloods ‘a calamity’, and claimed that ‘the dark races belong to a bygone cycle of humanity’).

Pic 6: Feathered Serpent figures on the temple of Quetzalcóatl, Teotihuacán
Pic 6: Feathered Serpent figures on the temple of Quetzalcóatl, Teotihuacán (Click on image to enlarge)

The novel is peppered with language that reflects far more on Lawrence’s pessimistic outlook on life than on the people of Mexico, to whom he ascribed everything from ‘brutish, pure evil’, ‘doom’, ‘hopelessness’, ‘dark-souled death’, ‘blood-lust’, ‘negation’, ‘resentment’, ‘demonish hatred of life’ - a people ‘incomplete’, ‘weighed down by the dragon of the Aztecs’...

Pic 7: ‘La Serpiente Enplumada’, Teotihuacán
Pic 7: ‘La Serpiente Enplumada’, Teotihuacán (Click on image to enlarge)

For Lawrence the solution was ever-so-simple: ‘They need a new religion.’ And so was born his search for deliverance through a messianic new belief system, in which the gods themselves ‘must be born again’, led by a new Quetzalcóatl (and a new Lawrence...), and symbolised by the ‘snake of all snakes’ that had haunted him at Teotihuacán. Lawrence (through Kate) ‘could well understand the potency of the snake upon the Aztec and Maya imagination. Something smooth, undeveloped, yet vital in this man [Cipriano in the novel] suggested the heavy-ebbing blood of reptiles in his veins. That was what it was, the heavy-ebbing blood of powerful reptiles, the dragon of Mexico.’

Pic 8: Quetzalcóatl, the Plumed Serpent, in the British Museum
Pic 8: Quetzalcóatl, the Plumed Serpent, in the British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Lawrence’s morbid fascination with the ‘gruesome’ world of the Aztecs who ‘saw nothing but death’ (‘Aztec things oppress me’, says Kate in the novel) blinded him to the opposite ‘face’ of the double-headed serpent - the positive, life-giving, poetic, resurgent force without which the idea of duality becomes meaningless.
And the feathered snake is an example of duality ‘par excellence’: a mythical creature of the sky (bird) and at the same time of the earth (snake). Indeed the god Quetzalcóatl (from the Náhuatl ‘quetzal’ or precious feather of the quetzal bird and ‘cóatl’ or snake) is one of the oldest and best known deities (albeit with other names) throughout the whole of Mesoamerica, a creation god and - for the Aztecs - the god of learning, science, arts, crafts, the calendar, agriculture, of priests, the winds, and much more.

Pic 9: The Pyramid of the Serpents at Xochicalco
Pic 9: The Pyramid of the Serpents at Xochicalco (Click on image to enlarge)

Entire temples were dedicated to the cult of the Plumed Serpent, rich in relief sculptures of flowing feathered snakes... Often - the best examples are at Teotihucacán and at Xochicalco - the temples were jointly dedicated to Quetzalcóatl and to Tlaloc (god of rain). Quetzalcóatl was largely a benevolent god, associated with learning, knowledge and general prosperity. Because of an age-old connection between him and good government, rulers and priests adopted his name, the most famous being the legendary leader of the Toltec people, Ce Acatl Quetzalcóatl.

Pic 10: Karl Taube’s drawing of the life-giving plumed serpent that features in the mural of Techinantitla, Teotihuacán
Pic 10: Karl Taube’s drawing of the life-giving plumed serpent that features in the mural of Techinantitla, Teotihuacán (Click on image to enlarge)

In their sculptures the Aztecs usually portrayed the hero-priest Quetzalcóatl as a man emerging from the jaws of the mythical plumed serpent creature (as in the British Museum figure). This god-made-person was considered the creator of all human beings and as such became an important source of political power said to stem directly from divine power.

Pic 11: Karl Taube’s drawing of plumed serpents on top of petates, Teotihuacán
Pic 11: Karl Taube’s drawing of plumed serpents on top of petates, Teotihuacán (Click on image to enlarge)

In fact the early carvings of plumed serpents at Teotihuacán seem to reflect the idea of the benefits to humankind of good government (both earthly and divine). In the mural paintings of Techinantitla, Teotihuacán, plumed serpents can be seen pouring rain over growing vegetation - and over rulers’ thrones, perhaps as a symbol of the high value placed on the responsibilities of governing the earth.

Pic 12: Quetzalcóatl in the Codex Borbonicus
Pic 12: Quetzalcóatl in the Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

In Professor Karl Taube’s line drawings of the plumed serpents from the Techinantitla mural (at Teotihuacán) you can easily spot the petates (reed mats so closely associated with the power of rulers) under the plumed serpents. For more on the petate, follow the link below.

Pic 13: Itzapapálotl - ‘The Obsidian Butterfly’ - in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Pic 13: Itzapapálotl - ‘The Obsidian Butterfly’ - in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Click on image to enlarge)

If D H Lawrence could only see the dark, negative ‘face’ of the Mesoamerican plumed serpent - the stone sculpture in the National Museum he describes in the novel as ‘hideous,fanged, writhing...’ - and failed to grasp its age-old duality, he made some beautifully perceptive comments on ancient Mexican culture in general.
In conversation with Kate the young Mexican Mirabal sings the praises of the very names of the Mexican deities: ‘Ah, the NAMES of the gods! Don’t you think the NAMES are like seeds, so full of magic, of the unexplored magic? Huitzilopochtli! - how wonderful! And Tlaloc! Ah! I love them! I say them over and over, like they say "Mani padma Om!" in Tibet. I believe in the fertility of sound. "Itzpapalotl" the Obsidian Butterfly! Itzpapalotl. But say it, and you will see it does good to your soul. Itzpapalotl. Tezcatlipoca.... Think of "Jehovah! Jehovah!" Think of "Jesus Christ!" How thin and poor they sound...’

Pic 14: Manga, Aztec-style! ‘Quetzal’ © Caroline Kintzel/Nadine Schmitt
Pic 14: Manga, Aztec-style! ‘Quetzal’ © Caroline Kintzel/Nadine Schmitt (Click on image to enlarge)

The Plumed Serpent continues to inspire...
The ancient gods of Mesoamerica continue to offer inspiration today, not only in Mexico but in the most unexpected quarters; as one small example, we look forward greatly to announcing the publication of a forthcoming Aztec-themed manga (comic) originating in Germany and Mexico, with whose creators we have been collaborating in recent months. Keep up the good work, Nadine and Caroline...!

Pic 15: © Caroline Kintzel/Nadine Schmitt
Pic 15: © Caroline Kintzel/Nadine Schmitt (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources
D H Lawrence: ‘The Plumed Serpent’, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1950
Witter Bynner: ‘Journey with Genius, Recollections & Reflections concerning the D.H. Lawrences’, Peter Nevill Ltd., London, 1953
’La Serpiente Enplumada en Mesoamérica’, Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. IX, no. 53, Jan-Feb 2002
David M Jones: ‘Mythology of the Aztecs and Maya’, Anness Publishing, London, 2003.

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