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The Ascent of The Plumed Heart

An ethnographic mural: A 21st Century Interpretation of the Mythology of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl


The University of the State of Morelos, Mexico, 2001  


Preparatory Drawings


In the mural The Ascent of the Plumed Heart I have chosen to paint about the psychological, spiritual and mythic significance of the Plumed Serpent, known to pre-Hispanic peoples variously as Gucumatz, Kukulkán, Náexit, and finally as Quetzalcóatl, having incorporated the wind god 9 Wind, Ehécatl and the rich mythology of the planet Venus. The náhuatl word quetzalli means precious green feather and is associated with the famous resplendent quetzal bird, the sky and the heavens, as well as tender shoots of corn emerging from the earth. Cóatl means serpent, partner, twin, and is associated with rain, the regenerative earth and the netherworld (inframundo). The combination of the two, therefore, invokes a synthesis of opposites. I have chosen to not paint a narrative about the life of Ce Acatl Topiltzín Quetzalcóatl, the legendary Toltec cultural hero, though it must be acknowledged that the myth, the legend and history are not easily separated. Nor have I sought to paint about temporal events, political values or cult interests in the myth. I also chose not to paint a didactic mural, per se, but rather an interpretive meditation on issues and images associated with my reading of the underlying content of the myth. 


My interests in approaching this mural project have therefore been intellectual, insofar as understanding, per se, assists in plumbing the depths of such matters, plastic in the sense that the associated images have induced in me an imagistic reverie, and spiritual to the extent that I have been able to experience the states of consciousness and psychological cycles implied by the poetic language of the myth; which is to say my intention has been to intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically penetrate the subject to a point of experiential understanding sufficient to escape the mere appropriation, manipulation, and regurgitation of the archeological record. 


As a North American guest artist of the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Morelos, I have approached this project with a sense of humility. I am of course not Mexican, much less indigenous Mesoamerican. I have great respect for the Mexican muralists, and so in the course of this work have sometimes felt a bit presumptuous attempting to add to the rich artistic heritage of the country. However, my sense of the universal significance of the myth—as it may be extracted from the poetic imagery—may offer some value to those whose sensibilities are less nationalistic than spiritual. In this I am resolutely in accord with those such as Campbell, Jung and Eliade, believing in the "deep" mythologies of the psyche, the notion that basic myths surge forth and are invented again and again, and that they form, however varied, our common spiritual inheritance. Finally, since Quetzalcóatl is the very emblem of the UAEM's commitment to extending human knowledge and excellence, I feel an added sense of responsibility to do justice to this very rich subject. Like all myths, this one is not easily or summarily solved, but rather may be interpreted and clothed anew. 



The composition or the mural was largely determined by the architecture of the vestibule of Biblioteca Central Universitaría. The vertical nature of the site easily facilitated the inclusion of a central axis and related transformational images. Central among them is the image of the bleeding and plumed heart, referring to the heart of Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzacóatl ascending to eventually become one with the planet Venus. The main entrance and the mezzanine afford the viewer two distinct vantage points. The imagery in the upper tier is the more dynamic, flowing horizontally as a generative wind, the jaws of Quetzalcóatl (I preferred to fashion out of pairs of spirals) issuing ecstatic figures flowing in an endless current. The lower tier seeks to invoke images of nascent life (chalchihuites), a place of embryonic union and "living water" (agua viva), understood to be, psychologically speaking, preconsciousness. The painting of the yellow ochre fields provided an unexpected and blissful opportunity to improvise nascent creatures and cellular passages. The upper and lower tiers are connected by a luminous column containing the plumed heart, shells and feathers, webs, filaments, rivulets, branches and veins, all against and within a luminous golden terrestrial atmosphere welling upward into the horizontal Ehécatl "wind". The resulting luminous "T" formation refers to the ancient cosmic tree, an eje central,or axis mundi around which all things are coiled and through which all things communicate.



I read a great deal as I began working on the mural. I dreamed, conjured and drew many images, combining and recombining the related spirals, conches, snakes, fetuses, hearts, feathers and so on, all frequently subject to flurries of markmaking, moving from the abstract to the figurative and back again, letting images coalesce and dissolve, reforming and transforming beneath my hand. The result is a parallel body of work, a portfolio of charcoal drawings and several canvas studies. In the process, I discovered an underlying visual language, a series of image correspondences, if you will, that made moving from drawing, for example, a spiral to a serpent to a conch to a heart to rivulets of turbulent water a deep pleasure that demystified much of trepidation I initially felt in working toward such a mural.


The underlying significance of the Quetzalcóatl myth is not entirely new to me. With Jorge Acevedo, a Costa Rican ethnomusicologist colleague, I have worked for over 15 years among Costa Rican tribal groups as an ethno-aesthetic field researcher, attending to indigenous art forms, many of them shamanic in nature. I have also painted other murals, of which two are in Costa Rica. In 1996 I engaged the issue of nahualism in a mural entitled El otro yo (The Other Me, Alter Ego) at the University of Costa Rica at San Ramón. That work bears certain similarities to the present set of issues, namely creation, transcendence, auto-transformation, and the separation and reunification of opposites.


Among the many names and poetic phrases associated with Quetzalcóatl, the following have been of particular inspirational help to me: Precious Twins, The Wind Before the Rain, Burning Water, Morning and Evening Star, Lord of Wisdom. I have also been inspired by the mythic image of the bleeding and feathered heart,the conch shell (the cross-section of which is related to the heart and its chambers), quetzal feathers as shoots of corn, the undulating body of Quetzalcóatl associated with the earth as it is formed and continually renewed, the umbilical cord tying the underworld to the earth and eventually to the celestial realm forming a cosmic tree, human figures issuing from the jaws of the serpent, and the Ehécatl's bird-beaked attribute.


Certain aspects of nahuatl numerology I have found fascinating as well. I couldn't resist incorporating aspects of this rich language in the mural. The one-divided-into-two and the two-reintegrated-as-one most effects my intellect concerning what the Lord of Wisdom is trying to say. Sets, symbols and images of five is historically related to Venus, which is itself richly associated with Quetzalcóatl as Lord of the Evening and the Dawn, six is related to Ehécatl, god of wind. Indeed the upper portion of the mural contains six humanoid figures, two with bird beaks. The twenty-six "stars" along the vault at the top of the mural (the graphic form of which is borrowed from the Vienna Codex) relates to celestial cycles (2 x 26=52), etc. There is more. 


Universal Significance

Mexican scholar Enrique Florescano writes: "Quetzalcóatl is a great mythical figure evoking wisdom and civilization and is also one of the most ubiquitous and changeable of characters. One of his qualities is to be reborn during each period of history, but with a different face each time around. He always retains the halo of the ancestral aura but also possesses new meanings and a psychic charge that intermingles present yearnings with reverberations from the past". Comparative mythology illuminates broad patterns of human need and spiritual solutions, known in depth psychology as archetypes. The myth of Quetzalcóatl certainly must be counted as one of the most subtle, beautiful and persistent archetypes of the soul's yearning for comprehension and the transcendence of dualisms. The myth contains the universal themes of resurrection, cycles of eternal return, the role of penitence in the development of consciousness, the synthesis and transcendence of opposites, and the notion of spiritual "breath" and "living water" of which we are but a part. Beyond intellectual, archeological and art historical appreciation, the images and ideas remain accessible even today. To us in the modern world, I believe the myth speaks of psychological wholeness and the creative process itself. For example, at the base of the luminous column there are two intertwined figures in an embryonic orb or womb. They are intended as the Precious Twins, an image of nascent duality. One has a spiral emanating from the head symbolizing what in náhuatl is known as the tonalli, the intelligence and spiritual force of the mind; the other figure has an emanating spiral in the chest signifying the teyolia, the spiritual intelligence and vital force of the heart. Each figure is touching what is missing in the other. 


A slightly more esoteric reading of the myth, though still in keeping with Toltec nahualism and consistent with patterns of global shamanism, is that beyond the notion that Quetzalcóatl was essentially a corn god (as Florescano suggests), one may conclude that consciousness, clothed in images, is the central issue; that "feathers" are a metaphor for light emanating from the enlightened; that being "plumed" means that such beings are aware of their constitution; that our mundane bodily "blood" is transformed into "feathers" at the moment we realize the true nature of our existence; that as beings we are made of an extensive web of energy, flowing like a river, striking like lightening; that being a "Quetzalcóatl" is to be awakened, to be enlightened beyond the trap of dualism, symbolized by the Precious Twins. Our "twin" is our other, a separate and "precious" mode of consciousness. It is our source of heightened awareness, our otro yo, our náhual, offering a silent way of knowing a unifying wisdom (teyolia) which integrates the partitions of our reason (tonalli). That we are "born" spiritually from the mouth/womb of the earth/twin/serpent; and finally, that the spiral conch is like a womb; interminably deep, winding out of sight, a vortex of beginnings from which one hears the sound of creation's original "breath", of which we as bearers of individual consciousness contain but a whisper.


What must be "sacrificed" for the sake of wisdom? My understanding, having mediated on the matter for many hours in the process of creating this mural, is that the "opening" of our hearts is about putting aside our rigidity, our sense of self-importance, our resentments, and our foolishness in thinking we are separate from the "living waters" from which we come and the ever-present winds of transformation propelling us into the future. The myth seems to say, at least to me, that whereas intelligence is about making distinctions (one-into-two), wisdom, per se, is about remembering how such came apart and how it may be made whole again (two-into-one).



I wish to acknowledge the material support and encouragement of Dr. René Santoveña Arredondo, Rector, UAEM; Dr. Arturo Ornelas Lizardi, Secretario de la Rectoría, UAEM; Dr. Vivian Bull, President of Linfield College; Dr. Marvin Henberg, Dean of Faculty, Linfield College and Dr. Ellen Summerfield, Director of International Programs of Linfield College. I also wish to acknowledge the day to day moral, practical and intellectual support afforded me by Dr. Jesús Nieto Sotelo, Director de la Facultad de Escuela de las Artes, UAEM; Architecto Jorge Salizar Díaz, Director del Sistema Bibliotecario Universitario, UAEM. I further wish to acknowledge and thank Pacho Lane, Professor of Anthropology, UAEM; Professor Lázaro Sandoval Mendoza, project photographer; Dr. Violeta Ramsay, Linfield College; Lic. Alejandro Manzanares Cortés, UAEM, and Nicanor Rivas, maestro de obras in charge of the preparation of the wall upon which I painted.


Of particular intellectual help to me have been the writings of scholars Enrique Florescano, Davíd Carrasco, Laurette Séjourné, Román Piña Chan and Miguel León-Portilla. I am also grateful for the many informative and provocative lectures given to Professor Lane's and my Quetzalcóatl Seminar at UAEM under the guise of a dipolmado offered by the Sociedad para el conociemiento de Quetzalcóatland Casa Meshico entitled Toltecayotl, Teoría and Práctica, coordinated by Sergio Goméz with lectures by Frank Díaz, Carlos Jiménez Hidalgo, Luís Yáñez Trujillo, Geraldo Saíd Sandova and Antonio Gómez Miranda. Finally, I wish acknowledge the contributions of the Mexican and North American students in our shared struggle to understand this most subtle and illuminating myth.



May all who meditate on this mural gain more luminous "feathered" hearts and minds. This work is hereby given to Universidad Autónoma del Estado Morelos as a gesture of a shared commitment to education and the deepening of cultural understanding.

It is dedicated to all who view it, especially the Mexican and North American students benefiting now and in the future from the UAEM-Linfield College faculty and student exchange program, part of which I have had the privilege of directing while in residence in Cuernavaca.


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