Sometime around 450 A.D. (at the beginning of what is called the Jornada Mogollon Tradition), a strong religious influence diffused to this region from Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), possibly through merchant traders searching for precious turquoise. They were followers of the cult of Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl took the form of a plumed serpent and incorporated the characteristics of a bird, serpent and jaguar, all of which were associated with the priesthood and ruling class as far back as 1500 B.C. in Mesoamerica.  The plumed and horned serpent appeared in southwest New Mexico at 1000–1150 CE, hen in the Jornada Mogollon (southern New Mexico) and the Casas Grandes region (Chihuahua) between ad 1200–1450, and finally along the upper Rio Grande (New Mexico) by ad 1325 (Schaafsma 2001: 142–143; figures 2a, 2b). The horned and feathered serpent of the Southwest is also closely tied to Venus, stars, and warfare.    

All these attributes of horned and feathered serpents are characteristic of the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl, a being who is of much greater antiquity in Mesoamerica. For example, portrayals of feathered serpents date from the Formative-period Olmec culture through the present day (Taube 2001). A number of scholars generally accept the historical connection between the horned and feathered serpent of the Southwest and northern Mexico and the Mesoamerican feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl (for example, Crown 1994: 166; McGuire 2011: 43; Mills and Ferguson 2008; Taube 2001). The identification of imagery of the feathered serpent and Quetzalcoatl-related motifs in the art of the earlier and then largely contemporaneous Aztatlán culture (ad 900–1350) of west Mexico, where southwestern people likely obtained these ideas, has helped substantiate the Mesoamerican origins of this southwestern being (Mathiowetz 2011: 365–76; figure 2c). . In Mesoamerica the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl is closely linked to breath, clouds, the return of the rains, gusts of wind accompanying oncoming rainstorms, and the rain deity Tlaloc (Taube 2001). Art from Classic-period Teotihuacan shows the maw of the feathered serpent conveying Tlaloc. Similar scenes involving the analogous Maya rain deity Chaak and the feathered serpent are present at the Classic period Maya site of Uxmal. Even among the Contact-period Aztec, the winds of the feathered serpent ushered in the rain god Tlaloc (Taube 2001: 110–111). 

Rock art depicting a Horned Serpent, at Pony Hills and Cook’s Peak, New Mexico

Tie-snakes on a Mississippiansandstone plate from the Moundville Archaeological Site

Jay Sharpe writes about the Plumed Serpent in Rock Art

The Plumed Serpent The plumed serpent, portrayed with a feathered crest and sometimes with either a wolf-like or a hooked nose, symbolized Quetzalcoatl, a deity who emerged among the great city states of Mesoamerica in southern Mexico and northern Central America some 2,000 years ago. His depictions, names, character, religious roles and spiritual associations evolved and changed among cultures and through time. In many incarnations, however, Quetzalcoatl was a benevolent god born of a virgin mother. He rescued humankind from the netherworld by dripping his blood onto the bones of men, women and children, giving them renewed life. According to the Aztec Gods & Goddesses Internet site, “He taught men science and the calendar and devised ceremonies. He discovered corn, and all good aspects of civilization. Quetzalcoatl is a perfect representation of saintliness.” Lord of hope, healing and the planet Venus, he glorified learning, arts, poetry and thought—“all things good and beautiful.”  Presided over by the planet Venus – the sacred evening and morning star – Quetzalcoatl’s priests beat their drums at twilight and dawn to separate daylight and darkness. His plumed serpent symbol represents a visualization of the name, Quetzalcoatl, which combines the terms for the quetzal bird, and the coatl, the mythical serpent of storm clouds and lightning. His symbol and its derivatives, which appear on the rock art and ceramics of the prehistoric Southwestern desert, signify the extent of his spiritual reach outward from Mesoamerica. As it moved northward, his imprint varied with time, distance and cultural differences, apparently evolving from images of true plumed serpents to plumed and horned serpents to horned serpents (some with the horn pointing forwards over the head, others with the horn pointing backwards away from the head). 

As suggested by Dr. Kay Sutherland, an authority on Mesoamerican and Southwestern art, his image’s evolution from plumed to horned serpent may have represented his transformation from a deity of Mesoamerican city states to a deity of desert hunting peoples.

Plumed Serpent Rock Art


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