Nezahualcoyotl (April 28, 1402–June 4, 1472), one of the most notable pre-Hispanic sages and poets, wrote some of the most famous poems about the quetzal. He was the ruler (or tlatoani) of the city-state of Texcoco, which together with the city-states of Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan constituted the Aztec Triple Alliance or the Aztec Empire. The Alliance ruled the Valley of Mexico from 1428 to 1521, when it was defeated by Hernán Cortés's Spanish conquistadores and his native allies. At the height of the empire, the Aztecs ruled almost all of central Mexico with the notable exception of the Tlaxcalteca kingdom.
Nezahualcoyotl's descendents and biographers, including Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl and Juan Bautista de Pomar, who lived a century after the poet, describe him as something of a monotheist who honored his god in a ten-level pyramid temple, a shrine that was gem-encrusted and where no human sacrifices were permitted. Only flowers and incense were offered. Some researchers, however, believe that Ixtlilxochitl and Pomar were attempting to cast Nezahualcoyotl in a light more favorable to the Spanish colonial authorities.
Nezahualcoyotl is best known for his poetry, and among his famous poems are several that use quetzal imagery. In the poem below, which is analogous to the sic transit Gloria of the Western world, the poet-prince bears witness to the transient world. He contends that the most precious substances of the Aztec Empire—jade, gold, and quetzal feathers—pale before the ravages of time.
I, Nezahualcoyotl, ask this:
By any chance is it true that one
Lives rooted in the earth?
Not always in the earth:
Here for only just a while;
Though it be made of jade, it breaks;
Though it be made of gold, it breaks;
Though it be made of
It shreds apart.
Not forever here on earth;
Here for only just a while.
Birds, butterflies and other creatures of the natural world were central to pre-Hispanic philosophy and religion. Nezhualcoyotl refers to the quetzal in an excerpt from “The Flower Tree,” one of his most stirring poems. In these verses the quetzal and the quechol are aligned.
All the flower bracelets, your flowers, are dancing.
Our songs are strewn in this jewel house, this golden house.
The Flower Tree grows and shakes, already it scatters.
The quetzal breathes honey, the golden quechol breathes honey.
In his poem “I Begin to Sing,” Nezahualcoyotl affiliates the “warbling quetzal” with the deities and depicts quetzal feathers as beautifying, ennobling, and endowing the wearers of those feathers with valor.
Examples of Nezahualcoyotl's poetry can be found in Ancient American Poets, by John Curl.