What makes the headdress so amazing is that it has four hundred quetzal feathers!
The resplendent quetzal, considered the western hemisphere’s most beautiful bird, is about the size of a small owl. Like an owl it can sit on a branch and turn its head almost 360 degrees without turning its body. Unlike an owl, which is quite drab in color, the quetzal is emerald green with a ruby red chest. Adult males have three emerald green tail feathers two to three feet long (60-100 centimeters). In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica they were the most prized feathers in high-ranking peoples’ headdresses. Priests and nobles were limited to three or four. Emperor Moctezuma’s headdress was made from twenty bunches of twenty feathers.
The quetzal lives in the cloud forests of Chiapas, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Mesoamerican merchants from central Mexico would make the trip to those distant places to purchase the tail feathers and leave a down payment for next year’s feather harvest.
In central Mexico quetzal feathers were worth more than their weight in gold. The word quetzal became synonymous with precious or valuable. In fact, quetzal is the currency in present-day Guatemala. Guatemalans earn quetzals in their salary, carry them in their wallets and spend them whenever they make a purchase. Printed on every quetzal bill is a quetzal bird in flight with its tail feathers streaming out behind.
Besides its stunning beauty, the quetzal has an unusual diet. Although omnivorous, its preferred source of protein is avocados. The ideal place to spot quetzals is near a wild avocado tree in a Central American cloud forest. Quetzal birds swoop in and quickly swallow three avocados. Wild avocados are much smaller, about the size of a walnut, than commercially available avocados. Nevertheless, three avocados in its belly is a burden for the bird. It makes its way to a nearby branch where it sits for about half an hour. Its digestion process separates the seed from the pulp and skin of the fruit; it regurgitates the three seeds and flies away. Birdwatchers set up their spotting scopes and watch the bird for thirty minutes. I’ve stood under quetzals perched on branches, catching the warm seeds as they fall.
In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica hunters stunned the birds with blunt darts. When they fell to the ground they would pluck the three tail feathers and then stand watch over the birds until they recovered consciousness and flew away. Quetzals do grow new tail feathers every year so, though traumatic to the quetzal, it was a sustainable, valuable, harvest. Perks of being emperor were not limited to the sumptuous quetzal-feather headdress. Relay runners from Popocatepetl brought snow with which to make flavored sherbet – perhaps that’s why Mexicans call water-based sherbet ‘nieve’. Runners from the Gulf coast arrived with fresh fish.
In 1519 some of the runners from the coast arrived with messages about strange visitors traveling in houses that floated on water from which they brought ashore huge deer they rode on the backs of, all the while carrying pipes that spit fire. Faced with the possibility that these strange visitors were emissaries from a god – perhaps from Quetzalcoatl himself – Emperor Moctezuma sent them sumptuous gifts. Was it with the hope they’d be satiated and return to where they came from? Did the emperor fear that Quetzalcoatl, a friend of humanity, would be offended by the state of affairs in the Aztec Empire where conquered peoples were subjected through military might to paying onerous tribute?
Instead the gifts intrigued their recipient, Hernán Cortéz. He wanted to see their source. One of the many gifts Cortéz received was Moctezuma’s headdress. Reportedly, the feathers were attached to a gold helmet Cortéz removed and melted into a gold bar. He sent the feathered portion of the headdress to his sovereign Charles I of Spain, who was also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles in turn sent it home to Austria.
I’ve visited it in a dimly lit room in Vienna’s Ethnography Museum. Outside the museum I saw Mexican Aztec dancers dancing near a table on which they had a petition to be signed by Austrians requesting the return of the ‘Penacho de Moctezuma’ to Mexico.
Much like other countries with ancient cultural history whose archeological treasures have been looted by first-world countries, Mexico has been engaged in a decades-long request to return the headdress. A complicating factor is that the headdress was a gift to Cortéz – one of the few things he didn’t loot.
Recent news reports say Austria is willing to lend the headdress to Mexico. Mexican legislators have expressed willingness to amend Mexican law to allow this. Without this change owners of foreign collections of pre-Hispanic art will not allow their pieces to be transported to Mexico since they would be subject to seizure.
Hopefully Emperor Moctezuma’s splendorous gift will soon be on display where it was once worn.
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