by Bruce Scofield
(Note: an edited version of this article appeared in the Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001 issue of The Mountain Astrologer)
In ancient Mesoamerican astrology the planet Venus was perceived differently, at least on the surface, as it has been in Western astrology. For starters, Venus was male. The mythological traditions of the Toltec and Aztec peoples tell us of the great Quetzalcoatl (Ket'-zel-kwat'-l), both an ancient god and a historical figure, who was linked with this planet. The name Quetzalcoatl translates literally as feathered serpent, the quetzal being a bird of extremely bright plumage native to Central American and coatl being the Nahuatl (the indigenous language of highland Mexico) word for snake. This combination of air creature and earth creature is found in the oldest creation myths of Mesoamerica.(1) In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl was one of the first four gods to be created by the male/female creator god, Tonacatecutli. The myth of Quetzalcoatl was not limited to the cultures of highland Mexico. In the southern regions of Mesoamerica the Maya knew of Kukulcan, their name for the "feathered serpent."
While the idea of a feathered serpent has mythical origins, there was also a legendary figure of that name. In reconstructing the elements of this legend, we must rely heavily on the words of the Spanish friars who came to Mexico after the Conquest. Although they functioned in some ways as early anthopologists, they were there to re-program the natives, i.e. convert them to the Spanish version of reality. Due to this bias, these primary sources are not always consistent and the legend of Quetzalcoatl is open to interpretation.
As the story goes, Quetzalcoatl was the ruler of Tollan during its golden age. Tollan, thought to be the ancient city called Tula that now lies in ruins north of Mexico City, was remembered as a place of worldly perfection. During his reign, Quetzalcoatl became increasingly immersed in his own spiritual perfection. This involved ritual bathing, praying, fasting, self-punishment, and all the other routines that go along with the priestly life. Over time, this obsession with his inner reality caused him to lose sight of what was happening in the outside world. To my mind, this speaks of Venusian self-aborption, rationalized under the banner of spirituality.
Meanwhile, disturbing events were occuring elsewhere in the city. In an account recorded by friar Bernardino de Sahagun, a series of bizzare events occurred in Tollan that disrupted the high community standards of the kingdom.(2) These events, some of which were shockingly sexual and others completely demoralizing, were thought to be caused by the dark god Tezcatlipoca who was associated with the planet Mars. In one tale the dark god took the form of an ugly chile vendor who managed to woo the secular King's daughter by exposing his magnificent penis to her. In this way he gained access to power and prestige as the King's son-in-law.
Eventually, Tezcatlipoca and his gang of dark gods gained access to Quetzalcoatl's spiritual palace. Using all sorts of trickery, these gods played to Quetzalcoatl's vanity by revealing his image, and his mortality, in a mirror. (Mirrors are from Venus). The shock of seeing himself was overwhelming, even horrifying, and the dark gods immediately offered Quetzalcoatl a make-over, which he agreed to. (More Venus tricks - decorate it and no one will know). Next, they offered him a way to forget his ugliness, five cups of the intoxicating beverage pulque. Now this drink makes tequila seem like water. Quetzalcoatl got smashed and began to party. In his extremely intoxicated state, Quetzalcoatl actually wound up having illicit sex with his sister, Quetzalpetlatl.(Venus is a sucker for sexual indulgence). This shocking, dishonorable event ended his role as official spiritual leader. It was this fall from grace, due to his loss of control over his passions, that led to his resignation as leader and, consequently, the end of Tollan's golden age. His first act of atonement was to place himself in a stone coffin. Four days later he arose and left town.
The story continues by following Quetzalcoatl's route east from Tollan to the sea. He passed through many towns and sacred sites, leaving a trail through Mexico that is still recognizable today in the form of rock formations and place names. Finally he arrived at the seacoast where, according to Sahagun, he built a raft of serpents and sailed out to sea. According to the Anales de Cuauhtitlan, a chronical of Aztec myths, Quetzalcoatl immolated himself at the seacoast, transforming himself after four days into a quetzal bird who flew up into the sky to become the planet Venus.(3)
As was previously mentioned, many Pre-columbian manuscripts and inscriptions of the god Quetzalcoatl portray him literally as the feathered serpent that figured in the actual creation of the universe of humanity. Most of these primary sources also associate him with the planet Venus and its special number, five (Venus cycles five times for every eight solar years-see below). Other names that were used interchangeably with Quetzalcoatl, including 1-Reed and 9-Wind, link him with the astrological calendar of Mesoamerica. He was said to have been born in the year named 1-Reed and to have departed for parts unknown the next time this year came up - 52 years later. The Aztecs believed that he would return in the year 1-Reed and they were constantly looking for signs that this might happen every 52 years. Wouldn't you know it, Cortes arrived at the Mexican coast in 1519, the Aztec year 1-Reed!
Many authors have attempted to understand the enigmatic Quetzalcoatl and much has been written about him. David Carrasco, in his book Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, argues that he symbolized not only the flowering of culture and civilization, but also its inevitable decay.(4) Others say he was merely a historical king during the Toltec period some 800 years ago whose life has been elaborated on. A number of authors have raised the possibility that Quetzalcoatl was actually a foreign visitor, presumably from the Mediterranean, who arrived on the shores of Mexico 2,000 years ago and consequently influenced Mesoamerican culture in profound ways. The fact that Quetzalcoatl is always portrayed as being bearded, a feature very rare among Native Americans, and that he came from the east and left Mexico heading east, supports this idea.
Regardless of who he really was, I'm inclined to view the Quetzalcoatl legend as a classic model of the perils of rulership for Mesoamerican leaders to ponder. There may have been a real character named Quetzalcoatl, or perhaps several leaders lived out the myth during the long history of this cultural region. Quetzalcoatl, however, is the protagonist in a kind of hero myth peculiar to Mesoamerica. He is the hero who fails as a leader due to lack of control over his sexual urges. In his self-indulgence he commits a sexual sin, an act that transgresses the moral boundaries that he has been entrusted to maintain. Quetzalcoatl is a lesson in how culture and morality allow humanity to rise above the animal in us - and how we mere humans can ruin it all by losing control of our inner animal.
There is another side to the Quetzalcoatl myth that speaks of his twin, the deformed, dog-like god called Xolotl (Show-lot-l). Considering the extent of the literary destruction performed by the Spanish friars, we don't really know exactly how these two functioned together, but we do know that Quetzalcoatl was linked to the morning star and Xolotl to the evening star. I suspect that these fragments of myth might be the highland Mexican (Toltec, Aztec) version of the Mayan creation story, the Popol Vuh. Some researchers believe that it is the Sun and Venus, obviously important pairs, and not the Sun and Moon, that are the hero twins of the Popol Vuh.(5)
Astronomically, Venus has two main cycles. Its sidereal period of 225 days is the time it takes Venus to make one complete orbit around the Sun. But that's not how we see it from Earth. We see a morning star for about 263 days and an evening star for the same amount. In between are two invisible conjunctions with the Sun, one of about 8 days and the other lasting about two months. The Mesoamerican astrologers used this 584-day (on average) synodic cycle of Venus and the Sun as the framework on which the Quetzalcoatl myth was hung. They began the cycle with Venus' 8-day inferior conjunction with the Sun, called inferior because Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun at this time. Contrast this with the superior conjunction when the Sun is located between Venus and the Earth.
The conjunctions of Venus and the Sun, both inferior and superior, occur in only five places of the zodiac. At the present time they are at about 10 Aries, 20 Gemini, 27 Leo, 6 Scorpio, and 24 Capricorn. Note that these five points roughly define a grand quintile in the zodiac. Each inferior conjunction will occur at one of these points every eight years. In between, the superior conjunctions fall on these same degrees. Over time, these points move backwards against the zodiac, completing a full revolution in approximately 1,231 years.
The above astronomical facts did not escape the sharp eyes and minds of the Mesoamerican astronomer/astrologers, especially those of the ancient Maya. The 5:8 year ratio, that is 5 cycles of Venus (5 x 584 days) being equal to 8 solar years (8 x 365 days), was used in ephemerides, astrological readings, and religious rituals. The few surviving written works of the Maya, especially the Dresden Codex, contain detailed tables of the Venus cycle, usually divided into 5 main sections. Each section corresponded to one of the five major "stations" of Venus, and each of these had its own specific "fate" or astrological delineation. Linkages of the Venus cycle with the 260-day astrological calendar were noted as well. Venus was clearly an extremely important planet in ancient Mesoamerican astrology.
An interesting connection between the Quetzalcoatl myth and the cycle of Venus is suggested by an inscription found in the ruins of El Tajin, an archaeological site found near the eastern Gulf coast of Mexico.(6) On four panels of a ball-court, a ritual game which may have been played in synch with the actual cycle of Venus, images depict a sequence of events corresponding to the phases of that planet. The panel of the morning star shows a figure, probably representing Quetzalcoatl, indulging in love and music. The result of this hedonistic behavior is depicted as a monstrous offspring. The superior conjunction panel, which is next, depicts the playing of the ball game with the gods. The figure, now reduced to a mere mortal, loses the game and accepts the judgment of the gods. The next panel, which corresponds to evening star and inferior conjunction, shows sacrifice and transformation into a god. My interpretation of this scheme is that it depicts symbolically 1: the rebirth and descent of Venus as a morning star followed by a loss of self-control, 2: the judgement of social transgressions by the gods at superior conjunction, 3: the loss of god-status and acceptance of mortality during the evening star period, and 4: sacrifice leading to rebirth as a god once again at the inferior conjunction.
In their written records the Maya also arranged the synodic cycle of Venus into four major periods, with specific day counts for each period. There are outlined below.(7)
1. Inferior Conjunction: This is when Venus ends its evening star phase and begins its period as a morning star. In terms of zodiacal longiture, Venus is moving retrograde at this point and passes in front of the direct-moving Sun very quickly. Mesoamerican astrologers regarded this short period, which they held to be 8 days, as a time of great danger. It was believed that Venus, when it first appears as a morning star, has the power to strike down those in high places. It was also believed to be the force behind impulsive actions and errors on the part of leaders. This is the point in the cycle when the god Quetzalcoatl descends to earth and commits a sexual sin. I've noticed that people born under this conjunction are are a bit wild. Jack Nicholson and Tonya Harding are good examples. I will have more to say about this interesting phase later.
2. Morning Star, especially the greatest eastern elongation: As a morning star Venus rises before the Sun and can only be seen before sunrise. Greatest elongation occurs when the distance between morning star Venus and Sun reaches its maximum, which is about 46 degrees longitude on average. Symbolically speaking, at this point in the cycle any conflict or trend that began at the inferior conjunction intensifies and becomes clear and objectified. People born at greatest eastern elongation are often people who push the boundaries of social morality. Hugh Hefner, Isadora Duncan, Ken Kesey, Princess Diana, and Woody Allen are examples.
3. Superior Conjunction: The Sun stands between Earth and Venus at this conjunction and Venus ends its term as a morning star a month before. Because Venus and the Sun are now moving at nearly the same speed, this conjunction lasts for about two months. Symbolically, this long conjunction marked the time when the gods judged Quetzalcoatl. People born during this period are deep thinkers and are driven to grapple with morality in one way or another. Larry Flynt, Emily Dickinson, Howard Stern, John Travolta, Diane Keaton, and Charles Manson are examples. About a month after the superior conjunction Venus begins its evening star phase.
4. Evening Star, and greatest western elongation: As an evening star, Venus travels behind the Sun and is visible after sunset. Greatest western elongation occurs when the distance between the Sun and Venus reaches its maximum, again about 46 degrees on average. Mythologically, this is the period when Quetzalcoatl walks the earth as a mortal. He has been judged by the gods and is humbled. The rules of the world prevail over individual urges in this phase and people born under it are often upholders of social norms and morality. Examples are Augustus Caesar, Mia Farrow, and Walt Disney. As the inferior conjunction recurs, Quetzalcoatl is sacrificed by the gods, is re-deified, then immediately (in roughly 4 days) descends to earth to begin the cycle again.
Of the four main sections of the 584-day synodic cycle, it was the inferior conjunction of Venus and the Sun that got the most attention in ancient Mesoamerica. But because the inferior conjunction itself is invisible, it was the helical rising, the actual first visibility of Venus that counted. After the conjunction, as Venus and the Sun rapidly move away from each other (remember Venus is retrograde at this conjunction), there comes a point where it is visible for only a brief moment in the dawn light. The next day it shines a little longer, and on suceeding days its period of visibility grows. Here's a quote from friar Sahagun that should give you a good idea of what the people of ancient Mexico expected from this event.
"Of the morning star, the great star, it was said that when it first emerged and came forth, four times it vanished and disappeared quickly. And afterwards it burst forth completely, took its place in full light, became brilliant, and shone white. Like the moon's rays, so did it shine. An when it newly emerged, much fear came over them; all were frightened. Everywhere the outlets and openings [of houses] were closed up. It was said that perchance [the light] might bring a cause of sickness, something evil, when it came to emerge. But sometimes it was regarded as benevolent." (8)
The Maya were even more specific about this "newly emerging" Venus. They regarded it as a spearing god, one who struck down certain social groups depending on the astrological 13-day sign that was in effect at the time of its appearance.
"If the heliacal rising fell in 1-Crocodile and 1-Ocelot, Venus shot
at old men and women equally. When in 1-Deer and 1-Flower, it shot the
little children. If in 1-Death or 1-Reed, it shot important lords. If in
1-Rain, it shot the rain so it would not rain. If in 1-Movement, it shot
youths and maidens, and in 1-Water all was dry." (9)
Over the years I've correlated news events with the Venus cycle. In
particular, it's the inferior conjunction and the first appearance of Venus
as a morning star that I've found to be particularly "striking." In numerous
articles I've pointed out the regular coincidence of this portion of the
Sun-Venus synodic cycle with major news-making events such as the downfall
of leaders, plane crashes, and embarrassing situations in high places.
In nearly all cases the cause of such events can be traced to impulsiveness,
insufficient patience, and bad judgement. Typically, leaders make mistakes,
governments get overthrown, riots erupt, planes crash, and storms break
out, and the Earth quakes, all of which creates chaos for society. The
following short list should serve to at least suggest that something very
real is happening when Venus is "reborn."
Date of Inferior Conjunction Event
6.17.1972 Watergate burglary - leads to downfall of Nixon
8.27.1975 Assassination attempt on President Ford. Portugal's government resigns.
11.7.1978 Focal point of the Shah of Iran's fall from power.
6.15.1980 Arrests made for Abscam scandal. Riots in South Africa.
1.21.1982 Reagan's New Federalism policy - a major blow to state governments.
8.25.1983 Korean airliner 007 shot down by Russians
11.5.1986 Iran-Contragate scandal makes news - bad news for Reagan
1.18.1990 Mayor of Washington D.C. arrested for drugs
8.22.1991 Mikhail Gorbachev deposed by conservatives
4.1.1993 Waco, Texas: Dravidian cult standoff intensifies. Disaster 3 weeks later.
11.2.1994 Republicans win "reactive" election, Democrats lose power. Lightning strike in Egypt kills hundreds.
1.16.1998 Lewinski-Clinton scandal breaks.
8.20.1999 Earthquake in Turkey, East Timor votes for independence
3.30.2001 Milosevic taken down, China spy plane fiasco
Other impulsive and controversial events typical of a new morning star Venus have followed the dates on which inferior conjunctions occurred by only a few weeks. On the day of the Waco, Texas, Dravidian cult disaster, the Moon transited the place where the inferior conjunction had occurred just three weeks before. In 1998 the U.S. Navy accidently shot down an Iranian airliner near the time when Mars squared the position of the Sun-Venus inferior conjunction that occurred two weeks earlier. There is another side to the inferior conjunction that I've observed, however. It seems that it marks a time that is very favorable for recognizing mistakes, and atoning for them.
Easily the most striking inferior conjunction of the past decade, and one that brought the Quetzalcoatl myth to life in a most dramatic way, was the one of January 16, 1998. Just a few days later all the world heard about Kenneth Starr's accusations that President Bill Clinton had had a number of illicit sexual escapades with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Quetzalcoatl's association with the planet Venus and it's 4-fold cycle is the key to understanding how President Clinton's "year from hell" unfolded.
When the scandal came to light, just as Venus became a morning star, the President denied that he had sexual relations with "that woman." Near March 28th, the date when Venus reached its eastern greatest elongation, other allegations of sexual misconduct made the news. First, on March 13th Paula Jones filed a lawsuit against the president that included 700 pages of documents. On March 15th Kathy Willey appeared on 60 minutes and presented her case against the president. Then, on April 1st, a judge threw the Paula Jones case out of court, essentially blocking further momentum of a seemingly endless string of social sin revelations for the time. The accusations against the President peaked around the time that the Venus reached its greatest elongation from the Sun and diminished thereafter.
Venus continued to be a morning star until the 19th of September when it moved too close to the Sun to be visible. This began its long period of invisibility before, during, and after the superior conjunction. At the inferior conjunction Venus is retrograde and moving very rapidly in the opposite direction of the Sun. The two bodies pass each other at a rate of over 2 degrees per day. Contrast this with the superior conjunction when Venus and the Sun are moving together at nearly the same speed. This conjuction lasts for about two months. Notice that this is why so many people have Sun-Venus conjunctions in their charts when Venus is direct, and so few when Venus is retrograde. What happened with the President when Venus was ending its morning star phase? He publicly confessed to having had sexual interactions with Monica Lewinsky on August 17th. A few weeks later, in September and very near the end of the morning star phase, the video tapes of the presidents interrogation were aired all day on television.
On October 30th Venus and the Sun finally met in superior conjunction. In Mesoamerican astrology, this event symbolized the judging of Quetzalcoatl by the gods. In 1998, just four days after this conjunction, the November election was held. Many Republicans thought this event would turn out to be the public's vindication of their attack on the president. The Democrats held their breath. When the polls closed it was clear that the public did not view Clinton's sexual indiscretions as something so important that they would vote against his party. In fact, the public voted, to some extent, against the accusatory Republicans. In a democracy, the people, not the gods or the self-appointed moralists, decide the fate of public officials, or in this case, the Quetzalcoatl on the hot seat.
On December 12th Venus finally emerged from out of the Sun's brilliance, making its first appearance as an evening star. Allegorically, this marked the beginning of the period when Quetzalcoatl/Clinton would have to walk the Earth as a humbled mortal. In 1998 this was when the Republicans and their impeachment hearings, and, of course, more presidential discrediting, were headlines in the news every single night. The House voted for impeachment on December 19th. This vote, occurring at the very end of the superior conjunction phase, turned out to be, in the final analysis, pretty much the worst of it for the president. Between January 11th and February 19th the Senate trial took place, a process that finally finished off, on a legal level at least, the case to impeach the president. By this time the public and the politicians were getting sick of the whole affair. The official judgment could go no further. The president was not thrown out of office.
On June 11th, 1999, Venus reached its greatest western elongation. Symbolically, this would represent Quetzalcoatl, now fully mortal, beginning the final descent toward sacrifice at the next inferior conjunction, just 2 months away. What happened then is very interesting in this regard. First, on June 4th, Hillary Clinton announced her intention to run for the New York senate. Then, on June 12th, George Bush, Jr. announced his candidacy for president. Four days later, vice president Al Gore announced his bid for the highest office. In the space of 12 days, centered on the exact point of the greatest western elongation, Bill Clinton's marriage partner and second in command moved out ahead of him. And another possible replacement made himself known.
Finally, on August 20th, 1999, Venus once again entered into inferior
conjunction with the Sun. Here was the end of the 584-day Venus-Sun synodic
cycle that began on January 16th, 1998, with the news about Monica. The
priest-king had committed a sexual sin and had fallen from grace. He had
been judged by those who would be gods and forced to walk as a mortal.
Now the cycle was over and a new one was beginning. Besides the news about
the devastating earthquake in Turkey and the vote in East Timor to separate
from Indonesia, which precipitated riots, two other, and far less important,
items made the news. On August 18th, Gennifer Flowers, the woman who originally
brought Bill's sexual sins to the public, said that he used cocaine and
had once offered her some. The very next day presidential candidate George
Bush, Jr. responded to allegations that he used drugs by making a public
announcement that he hadn't done drugs in 25 years. Nothing came of the
Gennifer Flowers remark because no one cared anymore. As for Bush, we shall
see if this announcement incriminates him in some way at the superior conjunction
on June 11th of 2000.
Quetzalcoatl lives. As I've suggested, the myth describes an archetypal drama of leadership, self-control, morality, and the decline of civilization. This ancient Mesoamerican god returned to Earth in 1998, a year when life was imitated myth to a degree that hasn't been seen for some time. From the heliacal rising of Venus, President Clinton found himself in a web of sexual intrigue that was so closely synchronized with that planet's cycle and the myth of Quetzalcoatl that it boggles the imagination.
And what does all this say about Venus? My interpretation is that Venus symbolizes the biological realities of life, especially the sex drive, and consequently society's methods to channel it in ways that preserve and enhance cultural stability. Civilization (as we know it) is possible when sex is expressed according to a set of moral rules. But there is also much more than this. The distinction between Venus as a morning star or an evening star, a distinction also made in Classical Western astrology and more recently by Dane Rudhyar (10), offers a way to understand both individual and collective needs in cyclic terms. I believe that the distinction between inferior and superior conjunction made in Mesoamerican astrology is far superior to that made by any other astrological tradition. From ancient Mexico we learn that Venus is much more than a fat babe on a recliner snacking on chocolates. Venus is the challenge to rise above bodily appetites, using them to shape a world that can accomodate many, many unrelated people. Culture and civilization are the products of this quest. Quetzalcoatl may have messed up, but he has given us insights into the process.
(1) Interestingly, the idea of a flying serpent is not unlike the dragon that is found in the myths and legends many other ancient cultures worldwide.
(2) Sahagun, Bernardino de, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. The Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book 3: The Origins of the Gods. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah, 1952., pages 13-36.
(3) A translation of this document appears in Markman, Roberta H. and Peter T. Markman. The Flayed God. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1992. p. 376.
(4) Carrasco, David. Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1982.
(5) The Popol Vuh is the creation story of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala. There are many translations available including one by Denis Tedlock, Popol Vuh. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
(6) See Cook de Lenoard, Carmen. "A New Astronomical Interpretation of the Four Ballcourt Panels at Tajin, Mexico." In Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America. ed. A. Aveni. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1975.
(7) Tables for the Sun-Venus synodic cycle, and those of the other planets, are found in the NASA Reference Publication 1349: Twelve-Year Planetary Ephemeris - 1995-2006, by Fred Espenak. This publication is available from the NASA Center for AeroSpace Information, 800 Elkridge Landing Road, Linthicum Heights, MD 21090-2934, (301) 621-2934. Michael Munkasey has also published tables that are more astrologer-friendly. These are available from NCGR. Visit www.geocosmic.org for more information.
(8) See Sahagun, Bernardino de. The Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain. Book 7. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah, 1952. p. 11.
(9) Codice Chimalpopoca. Mexico: Universidad Nacional. 1975. p. 11 (my translation)
(10) See Rudhyar, Dane. An Astrological Study of Psychological Complexes.
Berkeley, CA: Shambhala, 1976.