Worshipped by Mayas and Aztecs, the Quetzal is the symbol of Guatemala. This symbolism is not accidental: the local tradition considers it a symbol of freedom because it was believed that it preferred to die of hunger rather than to live as a prisoner.
The resplendent quetzal is an aptly named bird that many consider among the world's most beautiful. These vibrantly colored animals live in the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America where they eat fruit, insects, lizards, and other small creatures.
Shining quetzals have a green body (showing iridescence from green-gold to blue-purple) and a red breast. Depending on the light, quetzal feathers can glow in a variation of colors: from green, to cobalt, to lime, from yellow to ultramarine blue. The male has a helmet-like crest.Their iridescent feathers, which make them appear shiny and green like the leaves of the trees, are a camouflage adaptation to hide within the forest during rainy weather.
During mating season, male quetzals grow twin tail feathers that form an amazing train up to three feet (one meter) long. Females do not have long trains, but they do share the brilliant blue, green, and red coloring of their mates. In any case, males' colors tend to be more vibrant because they are used to attract females during the mating period.
The Quetzal or, as also known, the Splendid Trogon, was taken as a symbol of freedom since Mayan times because of a popular belief according to which it would let itself die of hunger, rather than living in captivity.
The beautiful green feathers of the Quetzal were used by the ancient Maya to make diadems that only the most important people had the privilege to wear on their heads. These feathers were considered so precious that they were even used as a currency of exchange.
For many centuries, the Quetzal played a very important role among the indigenous peoples of Central America, and was associated with the wind god Quetzalcoatl. The long green feathers of the tail were considered by indigenous people a characteristic derived from reptiles and therefore the Quetzal represented a sort of link between a bird and a snake and, consequently, a sort of link between heaven and earth. In many Mayan languages, for this reason, the term quetzal also took on the meaning of “sacred”or “consecrated by the gods”.
According to a Mayan legend, the warrior prince Tecún Umán, the last ruler of the Quiche Maya during the Spanish conquest, had one of the birds as a spiritual guide. Legend has it that when he died, the bird swooped down and landed on his bleeding body, leaving him with distinctive red feathers on his chest.
Another legend states that the quetzal sang beautifully before the Spanish conquest, but has been silent ever since; it will only sing again when the land is truly free.
During the struggles against the Spanish, the quetzal became a symbol of freedom and independence, and it still retains this official meaning in Guatemala, where it appears on the flag and on postage stamps. Because in ancient Mayan culture the quetzal's tail feathers were used as currency, and the bird always had a very important value for all Guatemalans, they chose this denomination for the national currency. The quetzal (code GTQ) has been the monetary unit of Guatemala since 1925.
A reproduction of the bird sacred to the Maya is even present on the flag of Guatemala.
This devotion to freedom is also evoked in the Guatemalan national anthem, which contains the lyrics “antes muerto que esclavo sera" ("rather death than slavery") in reference to the bird.
The quetzal is also one of the most important textile symbols. The huipiles, the traditional blouses, and other clothes of the Mayan textile tradition, are often decorated with representations of these sacred birds, naturally dyed in bright and cheerful colors just like the real ones, as a wish for freedom and good luck.
Last but not least, our beloved city, which the inhabitants like to commonly call by its ancient name Xela, is also officially named Quetzaltenango, meaning "city of the Quetzal".