The Toltecs

In studies of Mesoamerican culture, the word Toltec is used in two different ways. On the one hand, it refers to mythical ancestors mentioned in Aztec stories. On the other hand, it also refers to pre-Colombian people of central Mexico. There is much debate over which viewpoint is correct.

Originally, scholars believe the Toltecs to be an ethnic group. The Toltecs were said to have dominated central Mexico between the 10th and 12th centuries. In this view, the Toltecs came from the ancient city of Tula. There, they built buildings, tombs, and ball courts with such skill that later cultures copied them.

The Toltecs were strong influences on other cultures, especially the Aztec peoples. Other cultures copied Toltec art, religion, and buildings. They were so revered that later Mayan and Aztec rulers claimed to be descended from the Toltecs.

For those who see the Toltecs as an Aztec myth, clues can be found in the ancient language of the Aztec civilization. Among the Nahuatl-speaking peoples, the word “Tolteca” meant an artisan or wise man. “Toltecness”, meanwhile, stood for art, culture, and civilization – all those things which savage nomads were not (at least in their eyes). These definitions imply that almost any peoples could have been referred to as Toltec, regardless of their cultural background or ethnicity.

There are challenges inherent in studying Aztec documents to seek clues on Toltec identity. Mythology and historic fact were interwoven in Aztec Society. Further archaeological study is expected to yield interesting results in the future. At the very least, it will confirm or deny whether the Toltec were an ethnic group or an Aztec myth.

Along with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Toltecs loved their ball game. In honor of the game, they built huge ball courts. They may even have sacrificed the losers. They were skilled builders, and their building designs were extensively copied throughout the region.

While the Toltecs were polytheistic, two gods dominated the religious life of the Toltec. Quetzelcoatl, the plumed serpent, was the god of all learning, philosophy, books, culture, gentility, and even fertility. While some believe that the Toltecs introduced this god, in fact he had been worshipped extensively throughout Mesoamerica by earlier cultures. His enemy, Tezcatlipoca, was represented by a smoked mirror. This war god was knownfor his cruelty and tyranny.

To the ancient Toltecs, it was possible to transcend the physical world and attain heightened degrees of awareness. Students worked to master Awareness, Transformation, and Intent. In Awareness, a student would be encouraged to know himself, developing the courage to face what he sees. In Transformation, the knowledge that was gained during the awareness phase is used to effect changes in the student’s life. In essence, students transform themselves.

The Atlantes – columns in the form of Toltec warriors in Tula. Courtesy Wikipedia.
A rather expressive orange-ware clay vessel in the Toltec style. Courtesy Wikipedia.