Toltec Religion

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TOLTEC RELIGION . In pre-Columbian central Mexico, Tolteca literally meant "people living at a place named Tollan [i.e., among the rushes]." However, even then the name had no single application, and it has none today. Because there was more than one place called Tollan, the word Toltec refers not to a single culture or religion, but rather to at least five specific groups of people, all belonging to Postclassic Mesoamerica: (1) the inhabitants of what is now the archaeological site of Tula de Allende near Mexico City, (2) the inhabitants or, more precisely, the elite, called Toltec-Maya, of Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, (3) the inhabitants of Tollan as it is described in central Mexican historical documents of the sixteenth century, (4) militant leading groups in other parts of Mesoamerica claiming descent from a place called Tollan, (5) members of various, often quite different, ethnic groups, all bearing the typological name Tolteca, that migrated to central Mexico. In addition, the term Toltec was generally applied to any person who exhibited extraordinary skills, arts, or wisdom.

The present article discusses, in turn, each of these five groups, which overlap only to a certain degree. The familiar hybrid picture of "Toltec," resulting from an unsophisticated merging commonly found in overall descriptions, can no longer be supported. Presumably there never existed either a single, homogeneous Toltec culture or, consequently, a single Toltec religion. But many traits are certainly common to various of the above-mentioned "Toltecs," including religious traits. In this article, common features will be stressed, but the reader should be aware that they are not necessarily all elements of one coherent whole.

Toltecs of Tula

The rather extensive archaeological site of Tula de Allende in the modern Mexican state of Hidalgo, 75 kilometers north-northwest of Mexico City, has been excavated professionally since 1940. Its main ceremonial center, Tula Grande, flourished from about 950 to 1200 ce (dates established by ceramic crossties but only very few radiocarbon readings). In its final shape, Tula Grande consisted of some ten hectares of magnificently arranged buildings, surrounded by ten to twelve square kilometers of living quarters. So far, Tula-Toltec religion can be reconstructed only from the archaeological remains of the main ceremonial center. In contrast to buildings of the earlier metropolitan civilization of the region, Teotihuacan, Tula-Toltec religious buildings were designed for the full participation of large groups of people, who gathered in pillared halls, or colonnades, along one side of the huge central square. Different types of benches along the walls of the colonnades suggest that they were intended for groups of people of varying rank, although all participants probably belonged to the social elite. Numerous bas-reliefs show them dressed as warriors and aligned in rows, emphasizing their function in the cult as a homogeneous group: no single person is highlighted.

Archaeological vestiges indicate that the ceremonies of the Tula-Toltecs focused on the strange effigies known as chacmools. These are approximately lifesize sculptures of a reclining male figure dressed in some of the paraphernalia of a warrior, but clearly no warrior himself. He holds an object, perhaps a receptacle, over his belly and glares with sharply turned face at approaching worshipers. Despite recent attempts to interpret the chacmools as the stones on which human sacrifice was made, their specific function is as yet unknown. The practice of human sacrifice, however, was not uncommon among the Tula-Toltecs. The practice seems to be addressed metaphorically in endlessly repeated sculptural reliefs depicting eagles devouring human hearts. There are also frequent allusions in the reliefs to death in the form of skulls and bones.

More difficult to establish from archaeological data is the deity to whom the devotion of the presumed caste of warriors was directed. Most probably it was that highly complex being that in Tula is metaphorically depicted by a combination of reptilian, avian, and human elements: the face of a man with circular, spectacle-like eyes is shown looking out of or emerging from open reptilian jaws. The figure, depicted en face, is surrounded by feathers and supports itself on legs with birdlike claws. Despite clear analogies, this hybrid being is not the famous feathered serpent, which in Tula architecture is represented only as a subordinate element.

Another quite different aspect of Tula-Toltec religious activities centered on a ritual ball game, which is generally believed to have been important as a symbolic reenactment of cosmic movement. In Tula Grande at least three giant ball courts existed, but there is no basis for any extensive interpretation.


Similar to Tula-Toltec culture in its essential expression, Toltec-Maya also seems to have been restricted to a single, extremely important place: Chichén Itzá in north-central Yucatán. The great resemblances between Chichén Itzá and Tula, 850 kilometers away, as the crow flies, are a commonplace in Mesoamerican archaeology, although the site of origin of these particular traits has not been definitively established. Chichén Itzá was always an important center of late Classic Puuc Maya, which toward its final period (c. 900 ce) exhibited an increased extra-Mayan influence. Subsequent development, to be found only at Chichén Itzá, shows a merging of traditional and newly introduced elements, the latter having been found so far only in Tula. The center of the Toltec-Maya city covers some thirty hectares, the general outline very much resembling that of Tula: large courts, colonnades, and ball courts. The more abundant and detailed iconography and a historical tradition, albeit a faint one, give the picture a little more color: the dominant social stratum, that of the warriors, is principally the same as in Tula, but a wider variety of grades is displayed.

The central deity of Toltec-Maya culture at Chichén Itzá is depicted, as in Tula, as the man-reptile-bird combination. The image is omnipresent, but there are practically no variations to provide deeper insight, although sometimes artists misinterpreted the stereotyped picture and made it look like a heavily adorned warrior with his pectoral and feathered headdress. The theme itself is an old Maya one: a man's head emerging from a snake's mouth. It is already known in Classic Maya representations and is frequent in the Puuc-style ruins, where the feathered rattlesnake is also common. Colonial sources call this mythological animal k'uk'ulkan ("quetzal-feathered serpent") and mention a famous leader of Chichén Itzá who bore this name and who is said to have "returned" to central Mexico. A person intimately associated with this feathered serpent serves as the focus of a story with a mythical flavor, the wording of which is unknown but which is depicted with considerable detail in various Chichén Itzá temples. The sculptural narration makes clear that this feathered serpent was the center of devotion for the Toltec-Maya elite.

There is evidence, however, that the feathered serpent did not occupy the paramount place in the Toltec-Maya pantheon. Not infrequently, what seems to be a supreme deity is depicted seated on a low throne-bench in the shape of a jaguar before a giant sun disk designed in the manner of central Mexico. This theme demonstrates the preoccupation of Toltec-Maya religion with the sun, which is presumably also the main concern of the ritual ball game. Based on central Mexican analogies, long rows of reliefs of strangely reclined warriors have been interpreted in relation to the sun cult: the sun that passed beneath the earth during the night had to be revived every morning through rituals executed by the warriors.

To the water deities was directed a special cult peculiar to Chichén Itzá: on certain occasions, human beings were thrown into the sacred cenote (natural well) and drowned to appease the rain gods or to act as intermediaries between them and men. The continuing belief in the old Maya water god Chac is clearly visible in the large masks with elongated noses that adorn the corners and facades of most temples, sometimes together with the bird-snake-man motif.

A great variety of human sacrifice was practiced among the Toltec-Maya, in contrast to earlier Maya times. The sheer quantity of victims, whose skulls were displayed on special racks, is impressive. Striking, too, is the constant presence of the death symbol on buildings, as well as on warriors' clothing. The act of human sacrifice is frequently depicted, not only in the metaphorical form of wild beasts (symbolizing warriors) feeding on human hearts but also in naturalistic representations found on the interior walls of temples and along the field of the ball court. In the latter, the decapitation of the leader of the losing team is depicted. The rubber ball of the game in this scene is a symbol of glorious death, and snakes emerging from the victim's neck symbolize precious blood.

These are examples of the abundant metaphorical motifs, also seen in the chacmools and the images of feathered serpents, whose interpretation is fraught with difficulties. Chichén Itzá clearly presents a syncretic religion in which the veneration of old Maya water gods mingles with foreign solar-astral ideas. Everything points to the martial rituals as being associated with the elite warrior group, or "Toltecs," whereas the cult of the water deities is likely to have been connected with the commoners, the Maya farmers.

Toltecs of Tollan Xicocotitlan

Although identified by Jiménez Moreno with Tula de Allende, the famous Tollan Xicocotitlan referred to in colonial sources is not this town alone. As epithet or name, the word Tollan has been used to designate other famous cities, and the description of this Tollan correspondsif to any place on earth at allmore to Classic Teotihuacan than to Tula de Allende. As described in the written sources, Tollan Xicocotitlan was a sort of paradise. Thanks to their prudence, the inhabitants of Tollan possessed everything they needed in abundance, including maize and cotton, precious stones, and gold.

They worshiped only one god, whom they called Quetzalcoatl ("quetzal-feathered serpent"), a name also given to the highest priest of the deity. This god did not require any sumptuous service and reportedly abhorred human sacrifice (although scholars believe that these accounts were designed to please the Spanish missionaries and divert from historical truth). People were admonished to offer their god only serpents, flowers, and butterflies. They considered their incomparable wisdom, science, skill, and arts as emanating from their god and strictly obeyed the orders given by Quetzalcoatl and voiced by his priest. The god, resembling a monster, lay like a fallen rock, as one source says, in his temple on the top of a tall pyramid. He had a long beard. Heor perhaps his priestrepeatedly made autosacrifice by bleeding himself with sharp thorns, thus becoming a prototype for all later priests in central Mexico.

This account, given to the sixteenth-century Spanish missionary and historian Bernardino de Sahagún by educated Indians, is incompatible in its details not only with the ecological situation of Tula but also with a warrior-dominated society like that of archaeological Tula. It seems to correspond to earlier times, when the idea of a divine feathered serpent was developed or introduced in Teotihuacan iconography and later refined and elaborated in places like Xochicalco and Cacaxtla. On the other hand, Sahagún and other sources tell the story of a famous ruler of Tollan Xicocotitlan, who, confusingly enough, bore the title of Quetzalcoatl in addition to his personal name Topiltzin ("our beloved prince") and the name of the date of his birth, Ce Acatl. Details of his origin, genealogy, and life are contradictory. He may have belonged to the Nonoalca, the culturally (and perhaps politically) dominant group of multiethnic Tollan Xicocotitlan. Scholars assume that the Nonoalca migrated from the southern Veracruz region, where they had been in contact with a more sophisticated civilization, which would explain their opinion of themselves and of Quetzalcoatl as the incarnation of cultural superiority.

One of the more important virtues of the people of Tollan Xicocotitlan was their forthrightness. According to Sahagún, they spoke thus: "It is so, it is true, yes, no." But the very personification of their integrityTopiltzin himself, the Quetzalcoatlwas attacked by three demons, two of them bearing the names of later, Aztec deities (Huitzilopochtli and Titlacahuan, that is, Tezcatlipoca), although they do not seem to have been identical with them. One should refrain from interpreting this incident as the mythic rendering of an antagonistic struggle between divine principles or between two religious factions practicing and opposing human sacrifice. Topiltzin was eventually overthrown, and consequently one disaster after the other befell his city. Finally he had to gather his followers and leave the place. It is generally accepted that part of the story reflects internal dissent in Xicocotitlan between Nonoalca and Tolteca-Chichimeca, another constituent ethnic group.

From here on, history once more becomes legend. On his flight, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl worked miracles in many places. Eventually, on reaching the Veracruz coast, he either burned himself and became the morning star, or, according to other versions, he walked or sailed on a raft, miraculously made by intertwining serpents, to the mythical land Tlapallan, where he may have died. After his departure from Xicocotitlan, Topiltzin was replaced by a more secular ruler, Huemac, perhaps Topiltzin's kinsman, who himself was also persecuted by the demons and who finally fled to a cave where he killed himself or disappearedthe sources are hopelessly contradictory on this point. Huemac, too, assumed divinity, as lord of the underworld.

Conquerors of "Toltec" Affiliation. In various parts of Mesoamerica during early Postclassic times a local population had to submit to small groups of militant immigrants. These usurpers, who showed positive "Toltec" traits, established themselves as ruling elites. In the case of the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya in highland Guatemala, the respective elites claimed descent from a mythical place of origin called Tulán, far to the north, and ethnic affiliation with those they called the Yaqui (Nahuatl-speaking Mexicans). After their initial migration the Quiché settled for a long time near the Laguna de Términos on the Gulf of Mexico and later continued their migration into the Guatemalan highlands. They carried with them a "sacred bundle"in Mesoamerica generally considered the very essence of their god and the sacrosanct symbol of ethnic identitywhich they were given by Nacxitl at Tulán. Nacxitl or Acxitl is one of the names of Quetzalcoatl, according to central Mexican sources.

Quiché tradition of the sixteenth century, amply preserved in their "sacred book," the Popol Vuh, relates that at Tulán their four ethnic subdivisions had each been given tribal deities: Tohil, Avilix, Hacavitz, and Nicacatah. The most powerful, Tohil, who was identified by the Popol Vuh with Quetzalcoatl, was the possessor of fire; he offered this cultural achievement to other starving tribes at the price of using them as victims for human sacrifice, hitherto unknown at Tulán. The other tribes thus came under Quiché dominance, which they unsuccessfully tried to shake off.

The creation myth recorded at length in the Popol Vuh is generally considered an adaptation of central Mexican (Toltec) prototypes: here, the creation of the world in various stages of completion is referred to as the work of Tepeu and Cucumatz (Gucumatz). The name Tepeu recalls the ruler of Tollan, named Totepeuh (to is a Nahuatl possessive prefix), sometimes referred to as the father of Topiltzin or Huemac; the name Cucumatz is a literal translation of Quetzalcoatl into Quiché. The account of the Popol Vuh also gives deep insight into the wide corpus of legends of the Quiché that do not seem to be of Toltec origin.

Tolteca Chichimeca

As a rule, central Mexican ethnic groups have ample traditions regarding their migration to their present homes. Most of these refer to a place of origin at Chicomoztoc (Seven Caves), and they count Tollan among their stopping places during their long migration. This holds true for the inhabitants of Cholula (Cholollan) in the Puebla valley. They report in the monumental Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca that their forefathers, bearing the characteristic name Tolteca-Chichimeca, had to leave the decaying Tollan. Before starting off, their messenger-priest asked the god of Cholollan, then already a famous place of pilgrimage, for permission to settle in his city, which was granted. The god is referred to in the Nahuatl text as Quetzalcoatl Nacxitl Tepeuhqui and is addressed as Tloque' Nahuaque' (Lord of Proximity and Vicinity), the omnipresent deity. The allusion of the source to Quetzalcoatl as already present in Cholollan seems to indicate that well before the fall of Tollan the god's cult had begun to spread, certainly fostered by "Toltec" groups, into wider parts of central Mexico.


Only a few characteristic elements common to various facets of "Toltec" religion can be singled out so far: a supreme deity, Quetzalcoatl, who gave his name to priests and rulers; a cult dominated by eagles and jaguars (i.e., the warriors); a ritual ball game as reenactment of cosmic processes; and the importance of human sacrifice. These traits, whose roots go back far into Classic times, survived, sometimes altered or obscured, into late Postclassic times. For example, Quetzalcoatl ceded his rank to the Aztec Tezcatlipoca, the former being reduced to a mere wind god while the latter assumed titles peculiar to the "Toltec" Quetzalcoatl. Thus many religious descriptions in the colonial sources contain "Toltec" nuclei, although they are often barely recognizable.

See Also



No special treatment of Toltec religion in any form has yet been published. The most comprehensive study of the Toltecs, written from an ethnohistoric point of view but making full use of available archaeological data, is Nigel Davies's The Toltecs (Norman, Okla., 1977). The subsequent period and developments are covered in detail by the same author in The Toltec Heritage (Norman, Okla., 1980), an expanded version of his Los Mexicas, primeros pasos hacia el imperio (Mexico City, 1973). There is no published synthesis yet of archaeological work at Tula de Allende, but Jorge R. Acosta's "Los Toltecs," in Los señoríos y estados militaristas (Mexico City, 1976), can be profitably consulted. The Toltec-Maya period of Chichén Itzá is summarized, although not very satisfactorily, in Román Piña Chan's Chichén Itzá, la ciudad de los brujos del agua (Mexico City, 1980).

The Quiché text of the Popol Vuh has been translated many times. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya, translated by Delia Goetz and Sylvanus G. Morley from the Spanish edition of Adrián Recinos (Norman, Okla., 1950), was the standard English version until it was superseded by the more scholarly work of Munro S. Edmonson in The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya (New Orleans, 1971). A recommendable interpretation of this highly important text is, however, still lacking.

New Sources

Brumfel, Elizabeth M. "Huitzilopochtli's Conquest: Aztec Ideology in the Archeological Record." Cambridge Archaeological Journal 8 (1998): 314.

Davies, Nigel. Aztec Empire: The Toltec Resurgence. Norman, Okla., 1987.

Graulich, Michel. Myths of Ancient Mexico. Translated by Bernard R. Ortiz and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. Norman, Okla., 1997.

Hers, Marie-Areti. Toltecas in tierras chichimecas. Mexico City, 1989.

Rolingson, Martha Ann. Toltec Mounds and Plum Bayou Culture: Mound D Excavations. Fayettville, Ark., 1998.

Rolingson, Martha Ann, ed. Emerging Patterns of Plum Bayou Culture: Preliminary Investigations of Toltec Mounds Research Project. Fayettville, Ark., 1982.

Sánchez, Victor. Toltecs of the New Millennium. Translated by Robert Nelson. Santa Fe, N.M., 1996.

Hanns J. Prem (1987)

Revised Bibliography