Dragons of North America Part I

Welcome to our first episode on the other side of the Atlantic. Your guides through all things draconic today are Anike and Koji.

We are still working together on our season finale renga, which will allow you to be a part of our end of the season episode. If you’d like to take part, come and join our Discord community at https://discord.com/invite/G3PRfrU. This also means you get to be among the first to see sneak peaks of Anike’s episode art, and weigh in on which creature we’ll be looking into in season two!

See you there!

Podcast transcript

Anike: Hello, hello Mythsters, and welcome to North American Part 1. Today I’ve got the lovely Koji with me because, well, she sort of demanded it. I suppose as she is from the US, she wanted to get a word in on some of the serpents from her homeland. Hi Koji!

Koji: Hey Anike and hey Mythsters. And you’re right. North America has been one of the most fascinating areas for me to research. Mostly because I knew so little about it when I started. But it’s really fascinating to see legends about places I’ve lived or visited.

Anike: And this is just part one. I am guessing you found quite a lot of North American dragons?

Koji: That I did. And didn’t. As with all of our regions, there is an over-abundance of research available on some cultures and very little on others. But I did find enough to fill a book or two.

Anike: You mean an episode or two.

Koji: Right, right. Yeah, just an episode or two.

Anike: Okay, before we jump in, first off, we have our usual disclaimer. And that is going to be, I think, especially relevant to this episode.

Koji: Oh, so relevant.

Anike: We do sincerely apologize for any butchering of words, and as always if any of our listeners happen to know how to pronounce these names properly, please, let us know. We are very eager to learn, and it really helps us to understand our dragons better. And of course, also a reminder that we’re still running our renga on our Discord server which we will link to in the show notes, as usual. So if you want to get involved in anything and you want that poster that Jaz keeps going on about, come join us in the server, hit up a few lines of the renga, and you’ve got a ticket into the draw, and you can just win the poster itself. But aside from that, we really love our Mythsters together. So, let’s jump into it. Where shall we start then?

Koji: I thought we would start by talking about some of the most famous American dragons which are the feathered dragons. These existed in several cultures such as the Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, and Popol Vul. They all have different words for the feathered dragon and slightly different mythologies around him. But they also share some commonalities beyond the descriptive name. For example, they are all powerful, creator gods.

Anike: Moving into some specifics, Quetzalcoatl (Quet-zal-co-at) was the great feather serpent god of the Aztecs, and there is a lot of mythology surrounding this god. Depictions of Quetzalcoatl were found as early as 3rd to 8th century CE, when he seemed to be a vegetation god who controlled earth and water. When the northern tribes immigrated to the area, and the Toltec civilization rose from the 9th to 12th centuries, the cult of Quetzalcoatl changed a lot. The culture began to focus on war and human sacrifice, and Quetzalcoatl became the god of the morning and evening star. After the 12th century, he was seen as the patron god of priests and merchants as well as the god of learning, science, agriculture, crafts and the arts.

Koji: So, the history is all fascinating, but let’s back up a bit and get into what I really like, which is his physicality. He was apparently the mix of an emerald plumed bird and a rattlesnake. He had a beak, a snake body, and feathers. He is usually seen with a conch shell, which depicts wind. But in some monuments, he was shown as a man, sometimes wearing a duck-like red mask, and again with the conch shell. Some stories claim that before he became a god, he was a priest who refused to sacrifice humans. He only sacrificed snakes, birds, and butterflies. Because of this, he was exiled on a raft made of serpents and returned a year later as the planet venus.

Anike: As such, he became the symbol of death and resurrection. It sounds a lot like some other dragon we happened to discuss previously in our Egyptian episode. If I’m not mistaken.

Koji: Apep, right?

Anike: During this time, he had a companion god named Xolotl. He was a man with a dog’s head, and he was thought to be one of the four sons of the two main creator gods. These gods ordered Quetzalcoatl and his brother, Tezcatlipoca to create the world. As brothers do, they fought and four ages were created and destroyed.

Koji: That’s a lot of destruction. When they finally cooperated, they created the sun, the first man and woman, and the fire and rain gods. Then they got real dragon-y about things, and they turned themselves into huge snakes that ripped the female reptilian monster, Tlaltcuhtli, in half, one part becoming the sky and the other part the earth. Supposedly she was a little upset by this (I mean, who would think that she was a little upset?) and that’s why she demanded human sacrifice to appease her.

Anike: Right, but first there has to be humans, if I’m not mistaken? So Quetzalcoatl and his faithful sidekick Xolotl descended into the hell of Moctlan to collect the bones of the ancient dead. Quetzalcoatl annointed the bones with his blood, giving them life, creating the men who would inhabit our current universe.

Koji: Well, that seems a bit circular. He was this man priest who was exiled and went away and returned and then created humanity.

Anike: Yeah, there is definitely some conflicting mythology there. Probably mostly to do with the culture rebuilding the myth instead of adding onto it. But speaking of circular, since Quetzalcoatl was a wind god, his temple is completely circular, so there were no sharp edges to stop the flow of wind, which actually makes a lot of sense.

Koji: That’s actually pretty cool, I think.

Anike: Yeah.

Koji: Well, there’s a lot more we could say about Quetzalcoatl, but if let’s try to get a few more dragons in this episode. So, I’m going to shift to Kukulkan, the Mayan version of the feathered serpent. Unlike the Aztec version, the Mayan feathered serpent was originally known as the “War Serpent” or the “Vision Serpent”, which is seen wrapped around rulers or presiding over sacrifices. Supposedly he served as a messenger between the rulers and gods.

Anike: He also was depicted as a man and as a serpent, but that was likely because a priest once shared his name, and the mythology and history became blurred throughout time. Things became even more blurred as the legends spread North and South. In the Itza state, Kulkulkan became the symbol of the divinity of the state. In Mixco Viejo, Guatemala, there is a sculpture of Kukulkan, jaws open, with the head of a man warrior coming out of its mouth. And at El Castillo, the temple of Chichen Itza is built so that during the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadows cast look like a massive serpent descending onto the pyramid.

Koji: Okay, now that’s actually a place I want to visit.

Anike: Yes.

Koji: Kulkulkan also has some unique mythology around him. First, he was thought to be a human boy who was born as a snake. As he grew, it became obvious he was the plumed serpent. So his sister took him to a cave and cared for him until he became too big for her to feed. He left the cave for the sea, creating an earthquake with his movement. Every year, Kulkulkan causes tremors during the month of July to let his sister know he’s alive.

Anike: That’s sweet of him.

Koji: It is. It’s a sweet way to look at earthquakes.

Anike: It is, it is. Usually when we hear about serpents and dragons causing it’s either because the dragons are in agony or some other not-so-good thing, so this is very nice.

Koji: Yeah, just “Hey, I’m still here.”

Anike: Modern tales say he was a winged serpent that flew to the sun and tried to speak to it, but burnt his tongue in the process.

Koji: So a dragon Icarus? I wonder if that’s where fire breathing comes into play?

Anike: I don’t see anything about fire breathing, unfortunately. Just a burnt tongue.

Koji: Poor guy. Maybe that’s why he likes working with the rain-god, Chaac, sweeping the earth clean with his tail to make way for the rains.

Anike: Or maybe it’s why in some regions he is viewed as a monstrous snake that is the pet of the sun god. But let’s keep going. Down to Guatemala and the Q’uq’umatz. (Gucumatz).

Koji: Right, some say Q’uq’matz was based on Aztec myth and others say Mayan myth. Either way we have another feathered serpent, based on the bright blue Quetzal bird and a snake. I want to take a moment to look at the symbology of that. The blue-green feathers of the bird symbolized vegetation and the sky, while the bright red feathers of the bird’s chest symbolized fire. The snake was a symbol of rebirth because of how it shed its skin. Qʼuqʼumatz combined the celestial characteristics of the quetzal with the serpentine underworld powers of the snake, giving him powers over all levels of the universe, which we’ve seen in some mythology about serpents and the world tree.

Anike: And going a step further, these characteristics indicated a sexual duality between his masculine feathered serpent aspect and his feminine association with water and wind. This duality enabled the god to serve as a mediator between the masculine sun god Tohil and the feminine moon goddess Awilix.

Koji: In some texts, he was also associated with water, a symbol of the underworld. He could also change shape, being the feathered serpent, an eagle, a jaguar, or a pool of blood.

Anike: Okay, that is a pretty interesting form to take. But maybe not as interesting as his form of a two-headed sky monster that carries the sun across the sky.

Koji: Oh, very cool. I like that one best. Q’uq’matz also has a pretty cool creation myth, in which he was floating in nothingness with another god, surrounded by quetzal feathers when they decided to create the earth, they spoke it into existence, including all of the animals, but were not satisfied because the animals couldn’t worship them. So they made humans to worship them.

Anike: I think that covers most of the feathered serpents in the area, if I’m not mistaken?

Koji: I think so. There might be a few more, but not as much information on them. But the Aztecs and Mayans had other serpent gods. We’ve already mentioned one: Chac, the god of rain and water. He was a chimera, with a long, hooked nose like an elephant’s, sharp fangs, a long tongue, fish or snake scales, catfish-like whiskers, deer ears, and a crocodile head. It was thought his blood was the rain, and because he had to shed his own blood, people sacrificed human blood — usually children — to Chac.

Anike: But some said the rain wasn’t Chac’s blood. Chac could turn himself into four gods, which would throw axes made of jade or stone up at rain-bearing snakes, letting the rain loose from their bodies.

Koji: Either way, there are serpents in there for sure. Raining serpents.

Anike: It’s raining serpents. I think we have time for one or two more, if we’re quick. Who’s up next?

Koji: Coatlicue (koh-at-lee-kway), Coatlicue an Aztec goddess who  is an old woman with a skirt made of snakes, a heart necklace, sharp claws and two dragon heads. She was the goddess of duality and fertility.

Anike: That is awesome.

Koji: Yeah, she’s my favorite, by far.

Anike: In Aztec mythology Coatlicue started out as a priestess who maintained the shrine on the top of the sacred mountain Coatepec (‘Snake Mountain’). One day, as she was sweeping, a ball of feathers descended from the heavens. She tucked it into her belt, and it miraculously impregnated her. The resulting child was a powerful Aztec god of war named Huitzilopochtli.

Koji: Of course, Coatlicue’s other children were outraged at this shameful episode and they stormed Mt. Coatepec with the intention of killing their dishonoured mother. Because, you know, that’s gonna help things. But one of them didn’t have the heart to go through with it and decided to warn the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Rising to his mother’s defence, the god sprang from her womb fully-grown and fully-armed as an invincible warrior.

Anike: That’s not something you see or read about every day. In another version the god springs from his mother’s severed neck but either way, with his formidable weapon, the xiuhcoatl (‘Fire Serpent’) which was actually a ray of the sun itself, the warrior-god swiftly butchered his unruly siblings.

Koji: Vicious.

Anike: Want to talk viscous? Listen to the most famous statue of Coatlicue. It is 3.5 m high, 1.5 m wide and shows Coatlicue with a severed head replaced by two coral snakes, representing her flowing blood. She wears a necklace of severed human hands and hearts with a large skull pendant. She also wears her typical skirt of entwined snakes whilst her hands and feet have the large claws which she uses to rip up human corpses before she eats them. This could reference the connection between Coatlicue and the star demons known as the tzitzimime, who the Aztecs believed would devour the human population if the sun should ever fail to rise. At her back, her hair hangs down in 13 tresses symbolic of the 13 months and the 13 heavens of Aztec religion. The statue was discovered in 1790 CE but it was thought so terrifying that it was immediately reburied.

Koji: I mean yeah, I would rebury that too. I would be afraid of curses.

Anike: It is so gruesome, it is awesome.

Koji: But now you can actually see it. It’s on display in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology. The decapitation part is interesting, because in one myth, she was one of four goddesses of previous eras. When the era ended, she sacrificed herself to keep the sun, and time itself, in motion, hence the decapitation.

Anike: So she’s either a goddess that demands human sacrifice or who sacrificed herself for humanity?

Koji: Or both. I think it depends on how you want to look at her.

Anike: That is the actual ambiguity we see with a lot of dragons, so I’m not surprised. With that, I think we should be wrapping this episode up.

Koji: One but one more real quick one, please? We did promise our listeners longer episodes.

Anike: True, alright. Who do you have in mind?

Koji: Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent of the Mexica. The serpent played an important role in Aztec religion. Xiuhcoatl has the head of a serpent, short legs finishing in claws and a curved snout. The end of his tail is formed by the conventional Mexican year symbol (xihuitl): a triangle, like the solar ray sign, and two entwined trapezes. Sometimes its body is segmented and two arms flank the head, terminating in claws. These bring up the thoracic legs of caterpillars, which were associated with igniting fires and shooting stars by the Aztecs.

Anike: Xiuhcoatl actually means “turquoise snake.” To the Aztecs, turquoise denoted preciousness and was related to time, the calendar, fire, and celestial bodies. Fire Serpents carried the sun on its journey across the sky, bringing light to the world each day.

Koji: As we hope your days are filled with light, my dear Mythsters.

Anike: That is sickeningly cute, Koji.

Koji: Sorry, I had to. But you know what I just realized? We did Mexico and Guatemala, and didn’t even get to the Northern part of the continent.

Anike: I smell a next episode then?

Koji: Yep, next episode. Until then, later Mythsters!

Anike: And we wish you all Days like Dragons Greeting Clouds.


Black Drago: Dragons of North America

Britannica: Chac Mayan Deity

Gods and Goddesses: Chac

World History: Coatlicue

Britannica: Coatlicue

Khan Academy: Coatlicue

Inside Mexico: The Legend of Coatlicue

Britannica: Quetzalcoatl

World History: Quetzalcoatl

Mythopedia: Quetzalcoatl

Smart History: Xiuhcoatl, Fire Serpent

Dumbarton Oaks Museum: Xiuhcoatl

Wikipedia: Kukulkan

Ancient Origins: KuKulcan

Gods and Goddesses: Kukulcan

Wikipedia: Q’uq’umatz

Theme music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com) Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License


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