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The Quetzal

The Quetzal, a beloved symbol of Guatemala, is a bird so breath-taking in its beauty that once upon a time, its tail feathers were traded alongside jade. They say the Quetzal values freedom so highly, that it will commit suicide rather than live in captivity.Visually stunning, the bird captured the imaginations of the ancient Mayas, with its iridescent green body that shimmers gold or violet in changing lights.


In mating season, the male grows twin tail feathers three feet long so that instead of flying, it seems to undulate in waves through its home, the cloud forest. To the Mayas, this was the movement of creation. Thus, tail feathers adorned the headdresses of priests and rulers in a symbolic link to Quetzalcoatl, the creator God. For Tecún Umán, a Mayan Warrior Chief, the Quetzal served as protector and spiritual guide.


During battle with the Spanish, the conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, overpowered Tecún Umán, spearing him in the chest. Legend says that the Quetzal dropped from the sky and bathed its chest in the pool of blood. At dawn, the sacred Quetzal arose, its breast no longer green, but a vivid crimson, a testament to the death of a ruler and an empire.


The rulers have changed but the symbolism has not. A line in the Guatemala national anthem entreats “rather choose death than slavery,” and the quetzal and his red chest furthermore adorn both the Guatemalan flag and the coat-of-arms. Given that the bird is also symbol of wealth, the government even named their money after this historic bird.


Guatemalans are proud of their national bird, though seeing as it is on the threatened list, many have never seen one. Its significance, however, is unparalleled. A status near mythical—a symbol of freedom and wealth, a protector and a guide—the Quetzal is a bridge that ties the past to the present. A subtle reminder that the heart of the Mayas is still alive today, even in modern Guatemala.

By Kathryn
Independent and optimistic, I believe in following your dreams and have been doing just that, traveling the world for the last 9 years. British by...
02 Sep 2009

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