Guatemala: the Quetzal bird & the Ring of Fire

The quetzal birds are extremely frightened of being imprisoned, they would rather end their own lives than being locked in cages or being chained. Therefore, they have become a symbol of freedom, indomitableness in Central America and is also a embodiment of a powerful god in ancient Mayan mythology.

Physical location map of Guatemala.

Theme song:

1. History of Guatemala

Guatemala is the most populous contry in Central America. Along with a part of other surrounding countries such as Costa Rica, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, it used to be inhabited by many aboriginal tribes of the Maya civilization – one of the oldest civilization in the world. Maya civilization reached a very high level not only in terms of state organization but also in mathematics, art, astronomy, calendar and especially architecture with multiple massive pyramid-shaped temples which are still standing today.

Mayan pyramid in Tikal city (

The Mayans lived as early as 2000BC. In the early stage, they built many cities in Guatemala, Belize and the southern Yucatán, Mexico for each city is a seperate city-state as in ancient Greece. From 300 to 800, Maya civilization entered its Golden age. Many new cities were built, including Tikal (Guatemala today) as the most important city. Most of the Mayan states perished for various reasons between the 9th and 10th centuries. Only the urbanized country on the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico continued to exist until Spanish colonists under the leadership of Hernán Cortés came to take over this area in the 16th century. As a result, the invasion completely destroyed countless Mayan heritages.

Maya civilization (

The entire Central American region was then put under the Spanish rule until September 15th 1821, when Kingdom of Guatemala (including territories of 5 central American countries today: Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras) declared independence and then the Federal Republic of Central America was established with these 5 member countries. After a period, the federation fell into chaotic civil wars and each country in turn seperated from the federation, proclaimed the establishment of an independent state.

Flag of Federal Republic of Central America (

2. The ring of fire

Nowadays on the national emblem of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras as well as the old national emblem of Guatemala is an image of the old Central American Federation, with the 5 volcanoes :

The image of 5 towering volcanoes covered by green color in the vast Pacific Ocean depicts a majestic and characterized landscape of Central America as well as solidarity and friendship of these 5 countries. Volcanoes appear very densely in Central America because this area is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where most of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur in the world.

The Pacific Ring of Fire (

In Central America today, there are nearly 90 volcanoes and at least 10 of which are still active :
Guatemala : 30 volcanoes, the most famous ones are Pacaya and Fuego which are still active today

Fuego volcano, Guatemala  (

Costa Rica : 14 volcanoes, the Arenal is one of the most active volcanoes in the world

Arenal volcano, Costa Rica  (

Honduras : 4 volcanoes – Isla el Tigre, Isla Zacate Grande, Lake Yojoa and Utila Island all are inactive.
El Salvador : 22 volcanoes, the San Miguel has the strongest activity.

San Miguel volcano, El Salvador (

Nicaragua : 19 volcanoes, with many notorious names of active volcanoes such as Momotombo, San Cristóbal, Telica

Momotombo volcano, Nicaragua (

3. Queztal bird in nature

In 1871, Guatemala changed its national emblem to represent a national symbol carrying its cultural identity which is the quetzal bird, particularly the Resplendent quetzal. This bird is not only the beloved and preserved bird in Guatemala, but is also closely associated with ancient Mayan legends and myths.

Coat of arms of Guatemala (

Resplendent quetzal (Pharamachrus mocinno) is one of the most beautiful birds in the world. They belong to order Trogoniformes, only weighs about 210g and about 40cm long but the males have an additonal long tail streamer of about 65cm with bright green color and an outstanding red breast. Quetzal bird’s iridescent green feathers make it well-camouflage under the canopy of the tropical rainforest.

The male Quetzal bird has absolutely colorful feathers (
A male quetzal in incubation (

A pair of Resplendent quetzal often nest in a hollow tree trunk and take turn to incubate. But because of its long tail, when it comes to his turn to incubate, the male must often bend the tail forward, looping over his head and sticking out of the nest. Therefore, at the end of the breeding season, this beautiful tail will be badly damaged and fall off. However, these peculiar long feathers will grow back after a while. On the male’s head, there is also a helmet-like crest.

Quetzal bird in flight (

Quetzal birds usually live in cloud forests at an altitude of about 1-3km above sea level. They live in the lower levels of forest, usually fly from branch to branch to feed on fruits, insects, frogs and lizards. This special bird species is distributed from Southern Mexico to Panama. They are now strictly protected by law throughout Central America.

4. Quetzal bird in culture

Kukulkan god in the game “Smite” (

Both Mayans and Aztecs considered Quetzal to be a sacred bird and worshipped them. For these people, this bird has a close relationship with the serpent god Kukulkan. Their green iridescent tail feathers symbolize the blossoming spring, the embodiment of the wind god, and symbolizing goodluck and light. Kukulkan is one of the most important gods in Mayan mythology system, described as a feathered snake, a flying reptile (like a dragon), which establishes the boundary and connection between Earth and Heaven. The Kukulkan god was originated in American cultures which were even more ancient than the Maya civilization such as Olmec and Toltec. Later, in turn, the image of Kukulkan in Mayan mythology heavily influenced the image of Quetzalcoatl god in Aztec civilization. This god is known for his main role as master of death and reincarnation, but also governs over 4 main elements of the universe: fire, water, earth and especially wind.

In ancient times, only shamans and aristocrats were allowed to wear the feathers of this majestic bird, because they want to show their divine connection with Kukulkan god. Catching and killing quetzal bird is a serious crime at that time, so the birds are only captured, then their tail feathers were plucked out and then would be released again. Any civilian who was found hiding these feathers would be sentenced to death. The tail feathers of this bird are very precious, even more precious than gold, so that is why quetzal bird also symbolizes wealth and high social status

Symbol of wealth and freedom (

Specially, quetzal birds are extremely frightened of being imprisoned, they would rather end their own lives than being locked in cages or being chained. Hence, by the time of the Spanish colonization, the quetzal bird became a symbol of freedom, indomitableness for Central American people. In many American languages, the word “quetzal” also means rare, sacred and resilient.

Hero Tecún Uman (

Quetzal bird is also very much related to a particular character in Mayan legends – the hero Tecún Uman, a prince and warrior of Quiché (K’iche’) tribes during the final stages of war with the Spaniards. A quetzal bird played the role of his nahual (a spirit guide). The Quiché tribes had repulsed many attacks from the Spanish army, although their weapons were completely inferior (spears and arrows against guns, armor and horses).

Legend has it that on the day Tecún Uman was fighitng against conquistador Pedro de Alvarado, a quetzal bird flew above his head. With the first blow, Tecún Uman on his bare feet managed to knock out Pedro de Alvarado’s war horse. Alvarado was then rescued by another horse and turned back to insert a spear through Tecún Uman’s chest. The quetzal bird tragically swooped down to Tecún Uman’s warm body, soaked its chest into the brave prince/warrior’s blood stream, and that is why they have the red chest like today.

The battle between Pedro de Alvarado and Tecún Uman (

These legends may or may not actually happen, it is only known that the Mayans fought incredibly hard and bravely to protect their homeland and gain freedom during the Spanish invasion. Another Mayan legend said that the quetzal birds used to sing very beautiful songs before the Spaniards arrived, but after that they were just silent and would only sing again when their lands regain freedom. Today, this is the national bird, the ultimate national symbol of Guatemala. It is also used to name the Guatemalan quetzal (GTQ) currency and still spread their free wings on this money bill.

Guatemalan quetzal (GTQ) currency (


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Evans, S. T. & David L. W. (2000). Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia. New Zealand: Kahurangi Press

Grolier. (1996). Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Inc.

Johnsgard, P. A. (2001). Trogons and Quetzals of the World. Smithsonian

Jordan, M. (1993). Encyclopedia of gods: over 2,500 deities of the world. New York: Facts on File

Kingfisher. (2014). Bách khoa thư lịch sử. Hà Nội: Nhã Nam

Nozedar, A. (2006). The secret language of birds: A treasury of myths, folklore & inspirational true stories. London: Harper Element

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