Perhaps among the greatest of religious symbols are the gods and goddesses who have managed to capture within themselves both the nobility and baseness of humankind. Their appeal is wide and it is one based in images, many of them finding their origin in times before literacy was widespread. Because of their graphic interest, it is no surprise that religious icons of all types find their way into the tattoo repertoire. From the arid deserts and lush tropics of ancient Mexico, one of the principal gods of the Aztecs still captivates our thoughts and finds his way into skin via ink. Quetzalcoatl (from quetzalli which means the tail feather of the quetzal bird – which is quite long and beautiful – and coatl which means snake) is also known as the feathered serpent and he was revered in the 14th through 16th centuries but perhaps as early as the 3rd century.
A child of the earth and the sun, he was a patron of priests, of craftsmen, a spirit of the wind, and the inventor of both books and calendars. In short, he represented what was good and life-affirming. He also had a calendar name, One Reed, marking a previous year in the great and unending, cyclical time system of the Aztecs. His great rival, however, was his brother, Tezcatlipoca, a god of war, who tricked Quetzalcoatl into getting drunk and sleeping with his own sister. Ashamed, Quetzalcoatal sailed away to the east on a raft of serpents, promising one day to return. Believing that he would return in another One Reed year, the Aztec ruler Montezuma II tragically thought that the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés was a divine representative of Quetzalcoatl, because 1519, the year that the Spanish landed in Mexico, was a One Reed year.