Maia Dispatch Maia Dispatch - February 18, 1999
The Odyssey
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Quetzal - The Flight to Freedom

According to legend, Tecun Uman, a Maya chief, died while defending his land and his people from the Spanish conquistadores.

The God of Creation Wears a Plumed Headdress

"The creator, the first fathers and mothers were hidden under the green and blue plumage, for this reason they are called Gucumatz."

This is the way that the Popol-Vuh, the book of creation or the Maya bible, describes the origin of the world.

The green and the blue plumage refers to the feathers of the bird "kuc" or "gugu" for the Maya or "quetzal" for the Aztecs. Today, though, even the Maya have adopted its Aztec name.

The image of the sovereign plumed serpent, seen sculpted on the ruins of many temples and monuments, represents Gucumatz - the god of creation - which is also called Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl.

The iridescent feathers of the Quetzal were considered sacred and only high priests and royalty were allowed to wear them.

The feathers would be carefully plucked from the bird without killing it and new feathers would grow again.

The common people were not only forbidden from wearing the Quetzal feathers, but also would pay with their own lives if caught killing this sacred bird.

If you can imagine a typical ceremony celebrated in the Maya plazas, you can picture a priest wearing a resplendent emerald headdress and holding a scepter adorned with the majestic feathers of the Quetzal.

"The creator, the first fathers and mothers were hidden under the green and blue plumage, for this reason they are called Gucumatz."

This is the way that the Popol-Vuh, the book of creation or the Maya bible, describes the origin of the world.

The green and the blue plumage refers to the feathers of the bird "kuc" or "gugu" for the Maya or "quetzal" for the Aztecs. Today, though, even the Maya have adopted its Aztec name.

The image of the sovereign plumed serpent, seen sculpted on the ruins of many temples and monuments, represents Gucumatz - the god of creation - which is also called Kukulcan or Quetzalcoatl.

The iridescent feathers of the Quetzal were considered sacred and only high priests and royalty were allowed to wear them.

The feathers would be carefully plucked from the bird without killing it and new feathers would grow again.

The common people were not only forbidden from wearing the Quetzal feathers, but also would pay with their own lives if caught killing this sacred bird.

If you can imagine a typical ceremony celebrated in the Maya plazas, you can picture a priest wearing a resplendent emerald headdress and holding a scepter adorned with the majestic feathers of the Quetzal.

He was mortally wounded and blood covered his chest. The Quetzal, who never submitted itself to captivity, wanted to keep Tecum Uman's spirit alive. So, the bird flew and landed with its own chest on the blood of the brave Maya chief.

For this reason, people say, the feathers on the chest of the Quetzal are red.

The legendary Quetzal, depicted on Maya monuments, murals in caves, ceramic pots and jade sculpted figures, continues to be a very important image in the Maya culture.

As the eagle is an important symbol of courage and strength to native and modern Americans, so is the Quetzal to Guatemalans. A symbol of freedom, the Quetzal can not be held in captivity. Even in a zoo, this would not be allowed.

The quetzal in Guatemalan currency
Caption

There is also the highest award, called "La Orden de Quetzal," which is given to national and foreign citizens in recognition for special services rendered to the Guatemalan nation.

But if you come to Guatemala, one reason you could always remember the word "Quetzal" is because this is the name of their currency. Currently, one US dollar is worth approximately seven Quetzales.

   

Since it is very difficult to see a Quetzal, there is a joke in Guatemala that if you want to see this bird, you have to throw a Quetzal bill and watch it fly away...

The Quetzals live in the high mountains, especially in the Coban region of northern Guatemala. It's easy to distinguish the male from the female because of his elegant three-foot-long tail.

Deforestation has caused great damage to the Quetzal's natural habitat, because it impacts its nesting habits. The female lays her eggs in a hole in the trunk of a dead tree, called "tocon," because it is softer wood.

     
Find the quetzal in the $$$
Caption

The Quetzals are very protective of their nests and will alternate shifts while taking care of their offspring. The new birds generally stay in the nest for eighteen days. After its first flight it won't come back to the nest.

The green color of its feathers is a smart way to camouflage against the green color of the trees.

To escape from its predators, the Quetzal can fly really low, gliding over the green canopies and becoming almost invisible.

               
Can you see the quetzal within the coin?
Caption

Then, when it is safe, it will rise again and soar up into the blue sky on its flight to freedom.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
                         
 
 
     

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