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In Neil Baldwin’s Legends of the Plumed Serpent, history bleeds into myth and demands to be read not as a simple sequence of events, but cyclically, as circles of repetition and ritual that push across the centuries. Documenting the birth and life of a god, Quetzalcóatl, and the development of a country, proto-Mexico, Legends borrows from the conventions of both biography—collecting facts, offering analysis—and travelogue—describing sites, explaining how to get there—but is, in fact, neither. Rather, it is an anthropological profile of a place and a being of shifting characteristics. Just as Quetzalcóatl was a deity with multiple manifestations, preconquest Mexico was a fluid territory, a disparate collection of peoples and city-states with no fixed, single identity. Baldwin looks at these two entities, forever linked, as they evolved up into the 20th century, indulging his fascination not just with the snake god, but with early Mexico’s mysterious, often bloodthirsty, tribes. The Lord of the Dawn and the Phoenix of the West, Quetzalcóatl—also called Plumed Serpent—is both a god and an hombre-dios (“god-man”). Baldwin ties his origins to agriculture: Plumed Serpent sprang like corn from the earth (where snakes, coatl, live) after rain has fallen from the heavens (where birds, quetzal, rule). He assumed many shapes—a flying snake with feathers instead of scales, a were-jaguar, wind, an eagle, the planet Venus (the “sign of his transfiguration in the cosmic cycle”), a man wearing a plumed headdress—and surfaced, in one form or other, in most of Mexico’s early civilizations. Along the Gulf Coast, for instance, the “Mother Culture,” the Olmec, marked their domain with enormous stone heads, many of them birdlike. In the city of Teotihuacán, “the dwelling place of the gods,” a temple honoring Plumed Serpent stands in counterpoint to pyramids celebrating two of Quetzalcóatl’s faces: the sun and the moon. The structures, represented throughout Legends in full-color photographs, are enormous, literally stone skyscrapers, because—Baldwin explains—”[r]eligious man has always desired and attempted to live close to his gods.” In Tula, home of the “chosen people of the sun,” Plumed Serpent’s likeness is carved in stone masks that show him weeping. The site of Quetzalcóatl’s downfall, Tula is where the god walked as a man, teaching the Tulans science and art, before his evil twin Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”) cruelly betrayed him. Giddy on poisoned pulque (spiked punch) and full of lust, Plumed Serpent—at his brother’s urging—slept with his sister. Shamed, tears streaming down his face “like two torrents of hail,” he exiled himself to the heavens, setting in motion a cycle of death and rebirth that positioned Quetzalcóatl for a return to his people every 52 years from the anniversary of his birth, the year named Ce Acatl (“One Reed”) by the Tulans. Baldwin’s survey of these and other early peoples, as well his documentation of the various Quetzalcóatl origin myths, is organized by location, date, and chapter. But in compartmentalizing them so efficiently for his readers, Baldwin has largely drained these ancient stories of the “Quality X” that ensured their survival through the millennia. There is a rawness and potency to the figure of Quetzalcóatl that the author, at least in earlier sections of his book, fails to capture and exploit. After all, this is the being—as anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday writes in Divine Hunger, her excellent study of “primitive” religions—who “avenges his father’s murder at the hands of his paternal uncles by torturing and killing them and cutting open their breasts.” Because Baldwin introduces many versions of Plumed Serpent in this “Biography of a Mexican God,” no single figure emerges from his text as particularly charismatic or powerful.

Other characters from Quetzalcóatl’s live(s), too, deities and demons like Cocijo (Plumed Serpent’s close ally, the god of rain), are introduced almost casually, as if they were bit players in a Univision telenovella and not sacred members of Mexico’s ancient religious order. Although their participation in Plumed Serpent’s life, death, and regeneration is, for the most part, melodramatic—mainly, they are back-stabbers, seducers, or supportive best friends—and very often there is little directly linking them to Plumed Serpent, it seems a gross injustice to identify and then dispatch someone like the “formidable” goddess Aguila Sangrienta (“bloody eagle”) in one sentence. Likewise, Baldwin sketches out entire cultures, religions, and settlements in shorthand, condensing and causing them to blur into an impenetrable murk. For someone without extensive knowledge of Mexico’s history, these pyramid-dominated cities don’t ever become real places. Only when Baldwin allows himself the breathing space to fill in detail, to color his travels with personal experience, does a location visited begin to expand into three dimensions. While describing a trip to Loltun in the Yucatán, for instance, Baldwin writes beautifully of exploring the enormous underground caves Las Grutas (“the rock of flowers”), descending through passages whose stone walls are carved with fields of flowers. Upon entering the final chamber, Baldwin remarks that it “opened up more than two stories high, and sunlight filtered down, lighting dust motes swimming aimlessly around a huge tree bursting upward from the cave floor.” This passage, and the few others like it that actually manage to evoke images and emotions in the reader, are the reasons to stumble over the dry and occasionally confusing narrative that dominates Legends’ early landscape.

There is also the payoff that comes in the second half of the book, when Baldwin turns to the Mayans and Aztecs—who offered their enemies’ ripped-out, steaming hearts to Quetzalcóatl and his bellicose counterpart Huitzilopochtli—enlivening the proceedings with graphic descriptions of ritual sacrifice. Mexico’s self-appointed “chosen people,” the imperialistic Aztecs collected, streamlined, and codified the Quetzalcóatl myths of other Mesoamerican cultures, inventing for themselves a more permanent history and religion. Seeking legitimacy and determined never to be forgotten by their descendants, they wrote down these appropriated laws and beliefs, revising as they went along, firmly establishing Plumed Serpent’s importance in their pantheon. Baldwin proposes that this historical and cultural revisionism helps account for why in 1519, 11 cycles of 52 years after Ce Acatl, the Aztecs—fanatically anticipating Plumed Serpent’s rebirth—mistook Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés’ coming with the feathered god’s long-awaited return. Baldwin’s account of the 36-year-old conqueror’s assault on Mexico begins with a series of omens witnessed in the years leading up to Cortés’ arrival: A comet shaped like a giant ear of corn streaks across the night sky; inexplicably, Huitzilopochtli’s temple bursts into flames; the Aztec King, Moctezuma II, looks into a mirror and sees an immense army encroaching on his territories. The narrative continues with the first sighting of the Spaniards’ ships, described by witnesses as “white, billowy ‘mountains,’” the meetings between Moctezuma and Cortés, the Spanish slaughter of Cholula’s Indian inhabitants to prove their might, the outbreak of smallpox that decimated the Aztecs, and Cortés’ merciless manipulations and maneuverings. It ends, of course, with Mexico and its gods succumbing to Spain and its one true God and religion, Christianity. At this point in Mexico’s history, Baldwin writes, “[t]he next incarnation of the Quetzalcóatl story was refracted through a Catholic prism.” As Cortés and his priests set up crosses and churches across “New Spain,” Plumed Serpent went underground but did not die. Phoenixlike, he arose in other incarnations, giving up his godhood and reappearing as the serpent beneath the Virgin of Guadalupe’s feet. One particularly sympathetic priest, the Dominican Diego Durán, even allowed that Quetzalcóatl truly existed—not just as a real, breathing person, but as an emissary of Christ: “Had not the apostles been sent forth to preach to all nations? Then one of the twelve surely must have reached these shores,” Baldwin writes, explaining Durán’s reasoning, “St. Thomas therefore was the true Plumed Serpent.” As befits his nature, Quetzalcóatl continued to emerge at various points throughout Mexico’s development. Baldwin suggests, for example, that during the Mexican revolution, Emiliano Zapata, who fought bravely against the oppression of his fellow campesinos, emerged as a charismatic inheritor of Plumed Serpent’s will and energy. His assassination in 1919 transformed him from a mortal man to an almost supernatural creature, a (in the words of Octavio Paz) “translation of Quetzalcóatl”: “[F]our hundred years after the Conquest,” Baldwin writes, “the people still tell you that when the wind blows, they hear the mournful cry of the soul of Zapata.” More obviously, Baldwin continues, Quetzalcóatl became one of the great subjects of 20th-century Mexican art, appearing first in José Guadalupe Posada’s politically motivated engravings, and later in the sprawling, colorful murals of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco. Even foreign artists were drawn to Quetzalcóatl, including novelist D.H. Lawrence, who found inspiration in “‘this animal of all animals, this snake of all snakes, this creature part snake and part bird, Mexico’s natural god and in many ways his own.’”

In the concluding paragraphs of Legends of the Plumed Serpent, Baldwin confesses: “Although the complicated legends and mysteries of Plumed Serpent, with their twists and turns and variations, at times confused me, I kept the faith. Constructing this mosaic, working as an open-minded ‘good traveller,’ I believed I would eventually find a way in.” Baldwin’s form follows from his subject, however, and rather than hewing to a straight-line narrative, he has found a way around, over, and under his topic. His portrait of Quetzalcóatl, beginning with his “origins in murky waters,” and his history of proto-Mexico, starting in the “time before time,” are incomplete pictures. The book is a collage of snapshots taken throughout time, a collection of parts—some good, many tedious—that allows Plumed Serpent, like all the best gods, to remain something that cannot be contained, dissected, or truly known. CP