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The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (5)

5. Mexico Before the Aztecs: The Toltecs

We know only a little more about another great urban center that arose about two hundred and some years after Teotihuácan fell. Sometime in the 800s —tradition says in 856— people later known as the Toltecs (or Toltécah), almost certainly a group of Nahua, founded the settlement of Tóllan (modern Tula, due north of Mexico City in the state of Hidalgo). The archaeological site of Tóllan, far smaller than Teotihuácan, is dominated by artistic representations of warriors, a motif found throughout much of Mexico as the Toltecs spread their influence and probably some level of military control. The most striking pyramid visible at the site today, said to be devoted to a figure called Tlahuizcalpan-téuctli ("the lord of the morning star") is crowned by columns carved as armed warriors. At its base one sees a series of panels, clearly carved by different hands (hence different clans or clubs?), representing fierce jaguars and eagles, eating human hearts. These are the same animals that were to become the totemic emblems of Aztec warrior orders, and it is tempting to imagine such military associations already functioning in a similar way among the Toltecs at Tóllan.

By the year 1000, the Toltecs seem to have dominated all of central Mexico, and Toltec influence can be detected well into the northern states of Zacatecas, Durango, and Sinaloa, as well as down to the far southern areas. [Note 3]

Later Aztec accounts identified the site of Tóllan as the home of the god Quetzal-cóatl (or, we can more easily imagine, of a king with the same name), and the Aztec accounts have it that he was deposed by a cabal of enemies who hated him, possibly for opposing human sacrifice. He traveled to the coast and set fire to himself, rising from the ashes and ascending to the heavens as a butterfly, promising to return some day. A linked myth tells of Quetzal-cóatl's successor as king of the Toltecs, a certain King Huémac, who bargained with the gods for jades and feathers and won them, but at the cost of a four-year drought that drove him to leave Tóllan in quest of better land. He was said to have died on the wooded hill of Chapoltépec ("hill of the grasshoppers," modern Chapultépec), where the presidential palace now stands, possibly in 1156.

The Aztecs adored the Toltec heritage, which they associated with skilled artisanship and all the arts of civilization. Therefore, they sought to present themselves as the successors to the Toltec royal house.

But that does not mean their legends should be taken as history. What does seem to have happened is that Tóllan was destroyed, probably somewhere about 1168, or possibly as late as 1200 or so. It looks as though the destroyers either were or had associations with the Chichimecs from the north, perhaps driven south by the drought that the Aztecs incorporated into the story of King Huémac. [Note 4] Not impossibly the communities the Toltecs had conquered may also have participated in the destruction of the city that oppressed them. In any case, in the chaos that seems to have occurred after the Toltec collapse, it appears that groups of Toltecs took off to other regions. By AD 1200 or so the site of Cholóllan (modern Cholula) seems to have been founded by displaced Toltecs. Heavy and obvious Toltec influence at the site of Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatán is sometimes also taken as evidence of colonization by displaced Toltecs. [Note 5]

Like the fall of Teotihuácan, the fall of Tóllan would have precipitated a rush of squabbling among newly liberated successor states, each eager to become the "new Tóllan." The period of such warlord-based conflict lasted about 200 years, and it was into this world that the Mexica would have marched when, as their annals recount, they moved southward out of the territory of the Chichimecs and into the Valley of Mexico.

At this point you should probably turn to the two "critical appendices" at the end of this article. One contains information about the sources of our information about Aztec life (link). The other contains information about Náhuatl, the Aztec language. If you do not read that information now, you will probably have a great deal of difficulty pronouncing the many Náhuatl names that are inevitable in the following account (link). [Note 6]


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