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The Mysterious Toltec

Updated on January 27, 2014

Indisputable Traces of the Toltec

The temple-pyramid of the warriors in Tula Hildalgo is the centerpiece of distinct Toltec culture as it was at its height.
The temple-pyramid of the warriors in Tula Hildalgo is the centerpiece of distinct Toltec culture as it was at its height. | Source
This is considered to be the territory of the Toltec during the height of its civilization.
This is considered to be the territory of the Toltec during the height of its civilization. | Source
This may be a drawing of the Toltec version of the sun stone calendar, but there is dispute as to its origins.
This may be a drawing of the Toltec version of the sun stone calendar, but there is dispute as to its origins. | Source
These are the Tula warrior sculptures that adorn the plaza around the temple-pyramid. They are distinct from anything else in Mesoamerica and give credence to the existence of the Toltec.
These are the Tula warrior sculptures that adorn the plaza around the temple-pyramid. They are distinct from anything else in Mesoamerica and give credence to the existence of the Toltec. | Source
This distinctive tile work is another unique feature found in Tula Hildalgo.
This distinctive tile work is another unique feature found in Tula Hildalgo. | Source

Even now, plenty of confusion exists about the Toltec

The Toltec were around when the Aztecs were just getting started. The Aztecs called the Toltec “The Wise Ones” who laid down artistry and civilization. The Toltec like the Aztec and Maya were pyramid temple builders that thrived in Mesoamerica from 800 to 1000 AD, the early post classic period of Mesoamerica. They were contemporary to the Maya and share a lot in their design principles for temples and carving. The Toltec were centered in what is now called Tula Hildago. During this time, the Aztec were still in the hunter-gathering state of living. They attribute the Toltec as giving them the inspiration for civilization building, especially after they settled in what is now Mexico city. The Aztec eventually gave an account of the Toltec to the conquerors as they did not have a well evolved writing system such as the Maya had. The Maya did not comment on the Toltec, adding to the mystery. What the Aztecs stated was eventually recorded and handed down to modern times.

The Spanish recorded the account in the Florentine Codex which describes the Aztec view of the Toltecs like this:

"The Tolteca were wise. Their works were all good, all perfect, all wonderful, all marvelous... They invented the art of medicine... And these Tolteca were very wise; they were thinkers, for they originated the year count... These Tolteca were righteous. They were not deceivers. Their words [were] clear words . . . They were tall; they were larger [than the people today]... They were very devout... They were rich. (Sahagún, 1950–1982: book 10, 165–170)"

The foregoing is quite a eulogy of a people. But we must consider that the Inca and to a lesser extent, the Maya lived in a collectivist life style where the necessities of life were distributed in such a manner that there was no such thing as poverty or want. During famines, all were rationed equally, sharing the burden of hard times. Apparently according to the Aztec, so did the Toltec as theft and dishonesty were virtually unknown. Another difference surfaces when we consider that it was the Olmec from whence the day count originated and that this was passed on to the Maya and Aztec. The Olmec preceded all of them and it was the Maya that had the closest contact. The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica's formative period, dating approximately from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. They were the first great Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for all the Central and South American civilizations that followed. There is evidence that the Olmec practiced ritual bloodletting, played the Mesoamerican ballgame, which are hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies, among other firsts. Thus, as we have the Aztec account second hand via the Spanish and the Maya account first hand, we have to consider the Maya account plus the archeological evidence as support for the Olmec. This does not lessen the Toltec influence, but restricts it to the relationship with the Aztecs.

The Aztecs; Successros to the Toltec

There is some debate about the Toltec conquest of Chichen Itza; a Maya city state that was already established. There is further debate about the extent of the Toltec beyond Tula Hidalgo to those of the in Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. The range of territory was small, but not without influence. The Toltec are noted for well crafted pottery in the form of “orange ware”. They also traded in obsidian, highly regarded and prized by both the Aztecs and Maya. For the Aztecs, obsidian was used in the temple sacrifices. The Maya used obsidian for blood letting by piercing their tongues or in the case of men, their penises. The highland Maya controlled obsidian resources of their own, so the Toltec contribution was limited by region and time. Other than this, there are similarities in the carving of friezes and stellae in Tula and Chichén Itza. At least in this region there was some apparent mixing of culture especially in the late and post classic periods. One account has Chichen Itza taken over as a result of a violent military invasion by the Toltec led by Kukulcan. The influence is thought by some to have extended to Mayapán and the Guatemalan highlands. This is not so far fetched as the Maya and Aztecs also shared a lot of traits, the chief of which was their unique system of time keeping based on the skies. In any case that can be hypothesized, we have to take the unique evidence found in Tula, Hildalgo where unique Toltec sculpture and art is found that differs from all the surrounding territories. Though influences can be seen as far south as the Guatemalan highlands, we can find influences going in the opposite direction too as there was an active trade between territories and cultures during time of peace. During war, victors would loot the conquered territories taking all that was useful including captives for slaves and sacrifices. Claims of Toltec ancestry with a ruling dynasty founded by Quetzalcoatl/Kukulcan have been made by such civilizations as the Aztec, the Quiché and the Itza' Maya.

During the classic period, Teotihuacán dominated and influenced many surrounding territories. Little wonder when we marvel at the wonderful abandoned city today with its huge pyramids and causeway. The mostly intact city rivaled other great civilizations around the world in its monumental construction. The sun pyramid alone is spectacular in size. Teotihuacán was not conquered, but abandoned as a result of what is considered to be the influence of a long standing drought. The knowledge of pyramid building oriented to the sky likely spread out from their to surrounding later cultures in all directions including what we know as the Toltecs. Teotihuacán can be thus considered in part as a pre-Toltec city and culture, but it can be argued that Teotihuacán can be early forms of Aztec and Maya.

Teotihuacán itself was established some time around 200 BCE and flourished until about 250 AD. The city lasted until about the 7th century AD when a prolonged drought finally caused the surviving inhabitants to flee to the country in a bid to survive. It was so large and opulent that at its height, it was thought to have 200,000 inhabitants, rivaling the size of the later Tikal. The population was so large, that the city boasted multi-floored apartment complexes to house its population. The confusion as to the Toltec being the builders comes from the fact that the Nahuatl word Toltec itself means builder or craftsman of the highest skill and this can apply to anyone with such skills such as the Aztec, the Maya and Inca; all of whom had undisputed skills in many areas of life. Even in Tula, Hildago that is indisputably “Toltec” in the distinct cultural sense we see a high level of skill in sculpture, pottery and building.

Much mystery surround the Toltec to this day and the fact that they did not survive to the time of the European conquests leaves much of their history inaccessible.

There is only limited information on the Toltec

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Toltec Wisdom
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Toltec Wisdom

Aside from untranslated works by Spanish authors, this is what is available to us as far as Toltec wisdom is concerned. The problem with this is that it is a tale told over at least four translations from the Toltec to Aztec, to Spanish and finally English. Under such circumstances, inaccuracies creep in due to differences in culture and language that are non translatable. Nevertheless, the book is an interesting read for what it is and purports to be.



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    • syzygyastro profile imageAUTHOR

      William J. Prest 

      8 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

      The Toltec left their cities behind and the tales of war, especially in Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan. So we know indirectly that they were a warrior society through accounts of the Maya and Aztecs. There is a lot of modern day speculation and we have to cut through that to get to the truth.

      Considering their time of arrival in a post cataclysmic world, we find the reason why they became a warrior society. Many of the Maya city states were also very much involved with war at the same time. In this context, there is little wonder that there were clashes and conquests. It may well be the Tula Hildago was crushed in a war or that the people were driven out and/or assimilated. It's hard to say with any clarity beyond hypotheses at this time.

      When the hidden books of the Maya surface, we may get some fresh views and input. Why do I say hidden? It took the book burning Spanish almost a century and a half to completely conquer the Maya; plenty of time for written works to be hidden when the word got out that they were burning libraries. Unfortunately, the periodic damp climate is not friendly to such endeavors unless stringent precautions are taken. No one has uncovered any such cache to this day as far as I know. But then again, these Caches may be secreted and entrusted to a lineage of people from that day to this. Time will tell!

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      8 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      That was fascinating. Thank you.

      I'm glad when you do your history hubs. It gives me something to get my teeth into.

    • Robwrite profile image


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Very interesting and informative, as usual. I find reading about these early civilizations fascinating. Thanks for the information.


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