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SOUL-BIRD, WINGED STAR
In connection with the departure of the god-king's heart- soul as a "plumed" or "burning" star, one notes that Mesoamerican traditions produced many variations on the underlying idea. One influential variant was the idea of the heart-soul sprouting wings and soaring away. "On the death of a great noble, his soul was thought of as taking flight like a bird or a butterfly. At such a time he was addressed by those attending:
Awaken, it has reddened, dawn
has set in.
The most popular form of the "soul-bird" appears to have been the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. My friend Phil Peters, who lived for several years among the Quiche Maya of the Guatemala lowlands, recounts the story of the famous hero, Tecúm-Umám, who lived at the time of the Spanish invasion. On the plains of Xelaju, the story goes, Tecúm-Umám was killed by Pedro de Alverado, of Cortez' army. "Then the quetzal bird that was in his headdress took flight, and since that tragic occasion, the quetzal no longer sings."
What is crucial in any study hoping to comprehend such ideas is the ability of the celestial reference--the mythical archetype--to give meaning to the symbol. In the Vienna Codex, or Vindobonensis, the planet Venus is depicted with wing-like appendages. Can the "wings" of Venus--said to represent Venus' "radiance" or "greatest brilliancy"--be separated from the global myth of Venus as the soul-bird?
Though we cannot here stop and review the countless parallels in other lands, we would be remiss if we failed to observe that the avian flight of the heart-soul is a world- wide theme. The earliest instances will be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the Venus goddesses Inanna, Ishtar, Isis and Hathor (to name only the most prominent instances) all represent the "soul" in the form of a bird taking flight. Thus, the great god-kings, whose heart-souls are the star Venus, customarily depart in the form of a dove, partridge, or swallow, virtually universal symbols of Venus, of transformation, and of the departing "soul". (The reader will find many examples in the remaining installments.) Are these widely dispersed recollections of Venus as soul-bird different from the universal myth declaring that the great king's or chief's soul appeared in the sky as a comet? Though the issue will not be resolved in a few paragraphs, cross referencing will suggest potentially fruitful lines of inquiry. It is certainly of interest, for example, that the Babylonians employed the phrase "winged star" for the comet. Additionally, as we will see, it is when Venus as soul-bird spreads its wings that the cometary images are most emphatic.
In our brief list of comet glyphs cited earlier we have also listed the cosmic serpent or dragon, and in Mexico this fascinating theme proves to be crucial. Once the researcher has learned that Mesoamerican stargazers considered a comet to be the ascending heart-soul of a great chief, he can no longer ignore the full range of related symbols: the planet Venus, the rising heart-soul of Quetzalcoatl, is not just portrayed as an ember-like star (= comet), not just depicted as a star with quetzal-tail ( = comet), but is said to have taken the form of a great cosmic serpent (= comet both in Mexico and in the universal language of comets).
The name Quetzalcoatl itself is simply a combination of two Nahuatl terms--that for the quetzal-bird, known for its long brilliant turquoise tail, and the serpent or coatl." Thus two of our listed five most common comet glyphs are brought together in the name of the god. And the combined hieroglyphs clearly have a long history. The earliest known version of the plumed serpent pre-dates the Aztecs by many centuries, appearing on monuments of the Formative Olmecs. Conceptually, the avian serpent reached significantly beyond Aztec culture. The Maya name for the same god, Kulkulkan, carries an equivalent meaning, as does the Quiché figure, Gucumatz. The same figure appears to have entered Zuni ritual as the plumed serpent Kolowisi and Hopi ritual as the plumed serpent Palulukong.
Though the figure of Quetzalcoatl is complex and appears to combine originally distinct traditions, the identification of the spiraling serpent itself (the transformed heart-soul) with Venus has survived even into modern times. Some of the Tzotzil groups, for example, still describe Venus as "the Big Serpent" (Mukta Ch'on.) Among the Chichimec tribes, Venus is still remembered as the "Serpent Cloud."
Is it significant, then, that Aztec manuscripts depict a comet as a fiery serpent or dragon-like creature descending from the stars? The priest-astronomers knew the comet as "the star serpent." In his exploration of comet symbolism, Peter Lancaster Brown observed that the natives of Mexico represented comets "by the plumed serpent depicted in various forms." But what does this say about the acknowledged identification of the plumed serpent with the planet Venus, the ascending heart-soul of Quetzalcoatl? "It seems very likely that the white and bearded god who appeared in the east associated with the Quetzalcoatl (Serpent God) legends of pre-Columbian Middle America relates to the apparitions of spectacular comets in the morning sky and not to the planet Venus," Brown writes. Here again we see an author attempting to rationalize a clearly stated Venus-comet connection, offering his own explanation. But in this instance the "explanation" involves nothing less than a rewriting of the Aztec religion: for the identity of the transformed heart-soul of Quetzalcoatl as the planet Venus was an unshakable tenet of the myths and rites.
With respect to the Mesoamerican celestial serpents and dragons, there is also the issue of attached streamers that often look more like long-flowing, spiraling locks of hair than like feathers. This unique feature is particularly significant since the disheveled "mane" of the celestial serpent-dragon is a worldwide motif. And yet, remembering that pre-Columbian astronomy depicted the comet as both a celestial serpent and a "mane-star," should it surprise us that the serpentine form of Venus possesses streamers suggestive of the flowing "hair" of countless celestial serpents and dragons in other lands? Since Venus was itself the "mane" or long-haired star in widely dispersed cultures, the underlying integrity is undeniable.
In fact, no stretch at all is needed to establish the equation of flowing mane and serpent-dragon or chaos monster. The Aztec Tzonte-Mocque, identified with the planet Venus, and whose name Brasseur translated as "mane," was depicted as a dragon-like monster approaching the Earth in periods of eclipse or universal darkness. (As we will discover, every eclipse of the Sun and Moon became a symbol or reminder of the primeval cometary disaster and the arrival of the world-ending night). A counterpart of this chaos- or eclipse-demon is the Aztec Tzitzimitl, with "madly disheveled hair," descending upon a darkened world.
This is, of course, precisely the image of the raging comet in numerous other lands. "A comet was supposed to be a tendril of the Great Mother's hair appearing in the sky as the world was slowly overshadowed by her twilight shadow of doomsday," writes the noted student of world mythology, Barbara Walker.
But the interconnected comet glyphs attached to the chaos monsters range far beyond these instances. A symbolic counterpart of this streaming "hair" is the enigmatic, but frequently depicted beard of the Mesoamerican serpent- dragon. The Aztec Plumed Serpent, the Mayan Great Bearded Dragon and numerous counterparts of these celestial monsters are distinguished by flowing beards that are every bit as preposterous, on the face of it, as their streaming "manes". The reader will recall the celestial beard or bearded star in our short list of comet symbols, as a logical extension of the "long-haired star". (Thus the Greek pogonias, the beard-star, means "comet".) While a bearded serpent is a biological absurdity, the anomalous beard is immediately explained if the Venusian serpent is a long-haired star or comet. If the celestial beard did not mirror a comet-like form in the sky, then the bearded serpent is one more anomaly left unanswered, despite a consistent pattern that seems to cry out for recognition.
To keep all of this in perspective it needs to be remembered that Quetzalcoatl--whose heart-soul became the plumed serpent--was himself the white and bearded god, with many counterparts spread across pre-Columbian America--one more anomaly to add to the equation. Thus Frank Waters, surprised at the prevalence of this unusual figure among the dark-skinned natives of the New World (typified by Quetzalcoatl and the Incan Viracocha), assures us the myth was "so common throughout all of pre-Columbian America that we can regard it as arising from a concept in the unconscious."
A relationship with the planet Venus is clear, though not without wide-ranging interpretations by the specialists. According to Thompson, the Maya described Venus as being "very ugly with a heavy beard," and the Aztecs preserved a similar tradition: of Ehecatl, whom most authorities identify with Venus, it was said that "his beard was exceedingly long."
Lastly, on the matter of the flowing hair, mane, or beard of the celestial serpent or dragon, I should like to register an opinion on one additional oddity--that of the Mesoamerican feline dragon. Here, too, we are dealing with an image begging for a comparative study, since the "outlandish" merging of cat, lion, jaguar, tiger, or lynx with a celestial serpent seems to have occurred in all major cultures. Since noticing the oddity in Mesoamerica, I have noted as well the general disinterest of the specialists in accounting for such an incongruous monster. A cat and a serpent? Here, nature itself provides not a clue as to how anyone (much less skywatchers around the world) could think of the one when confronted with the other. But an analysis of this mythic creature can be advanced dramatically by the Velikovskian methodology. What one looks for is an underlying shared attribute (not of the terrestrial symbols, which offer no shared attribute, but of the celestial reference inspiring the symbols), and in this instance there can be no doubt that it is the mane of the celestial feline figure and the twisting body or tail of the celestial serpent.
While this is not the place to attempt a summary of evidence I shall present in future installments, I will simply mention the Egyptian instance of the goddess Tefnut, the Eye (= heart-soul) of the former sun god Ra. The Eye of Ra, on its departure, becomes the raging Uraeus serpent. But in the account of the goddess Tefnut as departing Eye, the raging goddess (serpent) is also depicted as a lion head with flaming, smoking mane. Of course it is not one instance, but the repeated instances of such motifs that will make the case secure. I register the supposition now to prepare the way for a comparative test.
Throughout Mesoamerica one will find numerous variations on the theme of the celestial serpent and just as many connections with the planet Venus. A particularly fascinating instance is the so-called "Fire Dragon", whose name, translated literally, means Turquoise Dragon.
Significantly, Xiuhcoatl was described as a "heavenly torch". "In mythology he becomes the fiery weapon hurled by the victorious sun at his enemies, the stars," writes Brundage. Perhaps there is more here than the reader will immediately recognize. A torch or flame in the sky, only a minor variation on the "smoking star," belongs to the universal comet myth--item three in our list of the five most common comet glyphs. Moreover, as I intend to demonstrate, one of the repeated themes in the myth of the prototypical comet is that it appears as a divine weapon hurled against rebelling powers. Consider the lines of Shakespeare, in Henry VI--I.I.1:
Comets, importing change of times and states Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky And with them scourge the bad revolting stars. That have consented unto Henry's death.
The motifs are: death of the king, celestial rebellion, and appearance of the comet as both a sign of world change (passing of world ages) and a weapon launched against the rebels. Similarly, the Aztec dragon Xiuhcoatl, the flaming serpent, appears as the "fire stick" wielded by the celestial hero Huitzilopochtli when the heavens were overrun by the demons of darkness.
Was the comet-like Turquoise Dragon, then, linked to the planet Venus? "In Teotihuacan the dragon is plainly portrayed as an overarching sky motif, a path for stellar objects," writes Brundage. "He is a plumed rattlesnake [i.e., a counterpart of the plumed serpent of the Quetzalcoatl myth] ... He can be identified, from the quincunx (the five points that together form the emblem of the morning star) that adorns him, as the planet Venus."