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Part 4 Part 6

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (5)

5. Mexico Before the Aztecs: The Toltecs

Dramatis Personae

Groups Individuals

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).

photo by DKJ
The statues of armed warriors atop atop Tula's Temple of the Warriors are the focal point of what remains of the old Toltec citadel and have become the most famous example of the military artistic motifs that are found wherever Toltec influence has been found.

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.

3. "Toltec influence" in other regions is usually a matter of artistic or architectural styles, since these are visible through archaeology. Obviously political, cultural, or linguistic influence would be far harder to discover archaeologically.

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]

photo by DKJ
A long row of reliefs of jaguars and eagles eating human hearts, like the two shown here, were discovered behind the Temple of the Warriors at Tula. They vary a great deal and were apparently carved by different people, suggesting that they may have represented military associations similar to those later functioning among the Aztecs.

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. (An Aztec account of the fall of Quetzal-cóatl available on this web site Link.)

photo by DKJ
This modern fountain at the Shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe is copied directly from a sculpture found as a repetitive motif on a shrine at Teotihuacan. Although it would be inaccurate to speak of a "cult" of Quetzal-coatl today, there is no question that images of a feathered serpent remain vibrant in Mexican popular culture.

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. (An Aztec account of the Toltecs is included in the "Aztec Folio." Link.)

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]


4. The role of drought in the migrations of peoples in Mexico and the American Southwest is not entirely clear. Drought was probably a major factor in the abandonment of the great pueblos of the Four Corners region (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet) in about 1300, for example, and in the subsequent movements of Puebloan peoples throughout the region. It is not impossible that drought conditions, interspersed with moister climatic periods, alternately attracted human settlement into the marginal desert regions and then pushed them out again a few centuries later. The collapse of the Toltec polity may have had internal causes or may have grown out of rebellion from subordinate peoples. But nagging doubts arise from later references to events like Huémoc's drought, which may have been part of a larger climate shift pushing human groups out of northern Mexico into the more moist jungles of the tropics.

5. Provocatively, just as Quetzalcoátl —Náhuatl for "feathered serpent"— is described in central Mexican myth as leaving Tóllan, Maya myth tells of Kukulkán —Maya for "feathered serpant"— arriving in Yucatán. The cult of the feathered serpent much predates the Toltec period. One of the most famous buildings at Teotihuácan has representations of him. But could a leader bearing that name have gone with a group of Toltecs to Yucatán when times got tough? It would make a good movie.

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.

6. The two appendices were originally part of the main text at this point. Moving them to the end of the article was done to make the article seem shorter than it really is. Some readers are easily fooled by ploys like that.

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 (Sources). 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 (Pronunciation). [Note 6]

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