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The Tradition of the Descending God

Written by Jack S. Marshall September 7, 2016

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Teotihuacán sized

The tradition of the Descending God is found throughout Mexico and Central America. Among the Mayans this god was known as Kukulcan, the Feathered Serpent. Among the Aztecs he was known as Quetzalcoatl.

Legends about Quetzalcoatl from Mexico and Central America bring forward tantalizing resemblances to aspects of the life and New World ministry of Jesus Christ. In the past, some leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints occasionally drew attention to certain of those similarities. Among those mentioned in post-Spanish conquest manuscripts were that Quetzalcoatl was the Creator, that he was born of a virgin, that he was a god of the air and earth (in his manifestation as the Feathered Serpent), that he was white and bearded, that he came from heaven and was associated with the planet Venus, that he raised the dead, and that he promised to return.  (Diane Wirth, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol.11 issue 1, Pages: 4-15, Maxwell Institute, 2002)

The Mayan image of a feathered serpent may have evolved through the Book of Mormon account of Moses commanding the Israelites to look to the serpent on a staff to survive after having been bitten by serpents. In 2 Nephi 25:20 it reads: “And now, my brethren, I have spoken plainly that ye cannot err. And as the Lord God liveth that brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt, and gave unto Moses power that he should heal the nations after they had been bitten by the poisonous serpents, if they would cast their eyes unto the serpent which he did raise up before them,…behold I say unto you, that as these things are true, and as the Lord God liveth, there is none other name given under heaven save it be this Jesus Christ, of which I have spoken, whereby man can be saved.”

One of the most impressive Mayan temples located outside of Mexico City is found at the archeological site in Teotihuacan and was called by the Mayans the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.

Other traditions of this bearded white god have strong similarities with Book of Mormon events. One such speaks of an event that parallels the appearance of Christ in the Americas.  A Catholic friar named Juan de Cordova wrote the following account while working among the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico. Quoting them, he recorded:  “In the date we call Tecpatl a great light came from the northeastern sky. It glowed for four days in the sky, then lowered itself to the rock . . . in the Valle [Valley] in Oaxaca. From the light there came a great, very powerful being, who stood on the very top of the rock and glowed like the sun in the sky. . . . Then he spoke, his voice was like thunder, booming across the valley.”(Ibid.)

At the archeological site at Tulum in the Yucatan, the main temple is called in Spanish, “Templo del Dios Descendente” ,”The Temple of the Descending God”. At this site there are numerous carvings illustrating this god descending from the sky.

Another  ancient  Central American tradition speaks of a possible parallel to the doctrine of resurrection. Quetzalcoatl goes to the underworld to retrieve human bones after a great flood destroyed his world and its people, people who were subsequently transformed into fish but were considered “the ancestors.” An old goddess grinds the bones of these ancestors like maize and places the flourlike meal in a container. Quetzalcoatl performs a bloodletting ritual in which he drips the sacrificial blood onto the ground bones, giving them the potential for life. The present race of human beings is believed to be descended from those who were reborn from their deceased state. (Ibid.)

One more interesting source pertaining to the Feathered Serpent is found in the Popol  Vuh. The Popol  Vuh contains religious writings of the early Mayans. In it “the Feathered Serpent is one of the creator gods in the view of the Quiché Maya. This supernatural deity is known as Gucumatz (Quetzal Bird Serpent). The Popol Vuh mentions this supernatural personality briefly, although his role is crucial in the creation. His creative actions, however, are not performed alone—he is one of several gods who are involved in the emergence of the earth from the primordial waters, sowing seeds of plants, and populating the earth with people. This matches the ancient teaching that the Savior participated with the Father and others in the creative process (see Moses 2:1, 26; Abraham 4:1).” (Ibid.)

President John Taylor speaking of Quetzalcoatl said, “The story of the life of the Mexican divinity, Quetzalcoatl, closely resembles that of the Savior; so closely, indeed, that we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being. But the history of the former has been handed down to us through an impure Lamanitish source, which has sadly disfigured and perverted the original incidents and teachings of the Savior’s life and ministry.“ (Taylor, John (1992 (1882)). Mediation and Atonement. Grandin Book co.)

These wonderful traditions and ruins testifying of a God who descended and ministered to the people can be heard and seen while traveling through Book of Mormon candidate sites in Mexico and Central America.The Tradition of the Descending God.

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Teotihuacán Quetzalcoatl