The RQ has been a major presence in poetry, both pre-Hispanic and in Western languages. The Texcocan poet-king Nezahualcoyotl of the Triple Alliance (conventionally called the Aztec Empire) refers to it frequently as in the following excerpt from “The Flower Tree.”
The Flower Tree grows and shakes, already it scatters.
The quetzal breathes honey, the golden quéchol breathes honey.
The quetzal appears in “A Song,” an important anonymous poem traditionally thought to precede the conquest, but which we believe was modified to reflect the monotheism of the conquistadors and the friars who sought to convert the indigenous peoples.
The sweet-voiced quetzal there, ruling the earth, has intoxicated my soul.
I am like the quetzal bird, I am created in the one and only God.
I sing sweet songs among the flowers.
I chant songs and rejoice in my heart.
Elements of RQ culture enter Spanish and Latin American literature beginning with the historical accounts of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés in his Cartas de relación (1519-1526) to Carlos I of Spain (also Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), the highly valued Verdadera historia de la Conquista de Nueva España (1568), by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Bernadino de Sahagún’s Historía general de las cosas de Nueva España. Códice florentino (ca. 1577), and other primary documents. The RQ and the deity Quetzalcoatl occupy places of significance in these documents. Both Cortés and Díaz del Castillo describe the vast grounds that Moctecusoma II (referred to in English as Montezuma) kept, a prominent part of which was the aviaries in which quetzals lived and where their tail feathers, which normally fall off each year during the nurturing of their young, were harvested.
The bird, as well as the deities that integrate it as a primary component, appear not only in the narratives of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Guatemala, but also in the surviving major codices that were written just before or during the very early colonial period.
The RQ is the central icon of the Mayan master text about the fall of their empire at the hands of the Spaniards in a battle at Quetzaltenango (the gathering places of quetzals), now Guatemala's second-largest city. According to the story, recounted by Miguel Ángel Asturias (Nobel Prize, literature, 1967), when Pedro de Alvarado slew Mayan and subsequently Guatemalan national hero Tecún Umán, the RQ plunged from the sky like an arrow, its tail feathers erect, and shielded the Mayan king and warrior in his death rattle. The Mayan empire fell under the broadsword and the cavalry of the conquistadors, and the quetzal, allegedly green until the battle, suddenly displayed a crimson chest.
The quetzal, Quetzalcoatl, and Xochiquetzal have inspired many Western works of literature. Examples of twentieth century novels include D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent (1926) and Quetzalcoatl (1998), and Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace's The Feathered Serpent (1927).