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A Mayan Legend: the Resplendent Quetzal

March 1, 2017

The Angloinfo blog team retells the tale of the resplendent quetzal. 

The resplendent quetzal, a magnificent and rare bird found in the mountains of Chiapas and Guatamala, where it proudly holds post as the national bird and gave its name to Guatamalan currency. The history of the quetzal is intrinsically linked with Mayan and Aztec culture, where their feathers were used to create large and imposing headpieces for priests and royalty. But how did the quetzal become king of the jungle? This Mayan tale tells all…

Halach-Uinic, the Great Spirit of the Mayan world, grew frustrated with the jungle birds constant sparring and announced that aking must be chosen. Col-pol-che, a splendid cardinal, showed off his bright red breast; X-col-col-chek, a mockingbird, sang a sweet song; and Cutz, a turkey, showed off his might to the audience, followed by others. Kukul the quetzal said nothing, as he felt his feathers were not fit for a king. He persuaded his friend the roadrunner, Xtuntun-kinil, for a loan of his feathers so that he could be elected king, as the roadrunner was too busy running around being a messenger to put himself forward successfully for the role. Kukul eventually convinced him by promising him riches and reward when Kukul was elected king. Xtuntun-kinil’s feathers were given to Kukul, who became the beautiful, long-tailed bird that we know today, and the Great Spirit named him king. The busy role meant that he forgot all about Xtuntun-kinil, who was found by other birds starving and freezing in the forest and repeating “Puhuy?” (“Where is he?”). The kind birds offered up a couple of their feathers to him to keep him warm and that is why today roadrunners are a mishmash of multi-colored feathers, watching and waiting for the quetzal asking “Puhuy?”

Another Mayan legend has it that the quetzal used to be completely green, until the arrival of the Spaniards, led by Pedro de Alvarado. Almost at the end of their conquest of Mayan lands and people, one great Mayan warrior, Tecún Umán, finally died at the hands of the Spaniards in Olintepeque, quetzal territory. As Tecún lay there dead, a quetzal swooped down and lay on his chest, the blood tinting the bird’s breast red forevermore. 

The Mayans believed that the quetzal would die rather be held captive, and so used to pluck a few feathers and set the bird free. The Guatamalan anthem even includes the words “Antes muerto que esclavo será” (“Rather death than slavery”), inspired by Tecún Umán and the quetzal. The deep respect for the quetzal by ancient populations means it’s no coincidence that it shares its name with the great deity Quetzalcoatl, creator of the world and god of wind and rain. 

Images are reproduced with permission. 

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by The Angloinfo Mexico City Blog Team. Find out more about The Angloinfo Mexico City Blog Team here.