Toltec Gods and Religion

Deities and Religion at the Ancient City of Tula

Atalantes of Tula. Photo by Christopher Minster

The Ancient Toltec civilization dominated Central Mexico during the post-classic period, from approximately 900-1150 A.D. from their home in the city of Tollan (Tula). They had a rich religious life and the apogee of their civilization is marked by the spread of the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent. Toltec society was dominated by warrior cults and they practiced human sacrifice as a means of gaining favor with their gods.

The Toltec Civilization

The Toltecs were a major Mesoamerican culture who rose to prominence after the fall of Teotihuacán in approximately 750 A.D.. Even before Teotihuacan fell, Chichimec tribes in central Mexico and the remnants of the mighty Teotihuacan civilization had begun coalescing into the city of Tula. There they founded a powerful civilization which would eventually extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific through networks of trade, vassal states and war. Their influence reached as far as the Yucatan Peninsula, where the descendants of the ancient Maya civilization emulated Tula art and religion. The Toltecs were a warlike society ruled by priest-kings. By 1150, their civilization went into decline and Tula was eventually destroyed and abandoned. The Mexica (Aztec) culture considered ancient Tollan (Tula) the high point of civilization and claimed to be descendants of the mighty Toltec kings.

Religious Life at Tula

Toltec society was highly militaristic, with religion playing an equal or secondary role to the military. In this, it was similar to later Aztec culture. Still, religion was extremely important to the Toltecs. The kings and rulers of the Toltecs often served as priests of Tlaloc as well, erasing the line between civil and religious rule.

Most of the buildings in the center of Tula had religious functions.

The Sacred Precinct of Tula

Religion and gods were important to the Toltecs. Their mighty city of Tula is dominated by the sacred precinct, a compound of pyramids, temples, ballcourts and other structures around an airy plaza.

Pyramid C: The largest pyramid at Tula, Pyramid C has not been completely excavated and was extensively looted even before the Spanish arrived. It shares certain characteristics with the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, including its east-west orientation. It was once covered with relief panels like Pyramid B, but most of these were looted or destroyed. The little evidence that remains suggests that Pyramid C might have been dedicated to Quetzalcoatl.

Pyramid B: located at a right angle across the plaza from the larger Pyramid C, Pyramid B is home to the four tall warrior statues for which the site of Tula is so famous. Four smaller pillars contain relief sculptures of gods and Toltec kings. A carving on the temple is thought by some archaeologists to represent Quetzalcoatl in his aspect as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the warlike god of the morning star. Archaeologist Robert Cobean believes that Pyramid B was a private religious sanctuary for the ruling dynasty.

The Ball Courts: There are at least three Ball courts at Tula. Two of them are strategically located: Ballcourt One is aligned to Pyramid B on the other side of the main plaza, and the larger Ballcourt Two makes up the western edge of the sacred precinct. The Mesoamerican ball game had important symbolic and religious meaning for the Toltecs and other ancient Mesoamerican cultures.

Other Religious Structures in the Sacred Precinct: In addition to the pyramids and ballcourts, there are other structures in Tula which had religious significance. The so-called "Burned Palace," once thought to be where the royal family lived, is now believed to have served a more religious purpose. The "Palace of Quetzalcoatl," situated between the two major pyramids, was also once thought to be residential, but is now believed to have been a temple of sorts, possibly for the royal family.

There is a small altar in the middle of the main plaza as well as the remains of a tzompantli, or skull rack for the heads of sacrificial victims.

The Toltecs and Human Sacrifice

Ample evidence at Tula shows that the Toltecs were dedicated practitioners of human sacrifice. On the western side of the main plaza, there is a tzompantli, or skull rack. It is not far from Ballcourt Two (which is probably not a coincidence). The heads and skulls of sacrificed victims were placed here for display. It is one of the earliest known tzompantlis, and probably the one that the Aztecs would later model theirs upon. Inside the Burned Palace, three Chac Mool statues were found: these reclining figures hold bowls where human hearts were placed. Pieces of another Chac Mool were found near Pyramid C, and historians believe that a Chac Mool statue probably was placed on top of the small altar in the center of the main plaza. There are depictions at Tula of several cuauhxicalli, or large eagle vessels which were used to hold human sacrifices. The historical record agrees with the archaeology: post-conquest sources recounting Aztec legends of Tollan claim that Ce Atl Topiltzín, the legendary founder of Tula, was forced to leave because the followers of Tezcatlipoca wanted him to increase the number of human sacrifices.

The Gods of the Toltecs

The ancient Toltec civilization had many gods, chief among them Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca and Tlaloc. Quetzalcoatl was the most important of these, and representations of his abound at Tula. During the apogee of the Toltec civilization, the cult of Quetzalcoatl spread throughout Mesoamerica. It even reached as far as the ancestral lands of the Maya, where similarities between Tula and Chichen Itza include the majestic Temple to Kukulcán, the Maya word for Quetzalcoatl. At major sites contemporary with Tula, such as El Tajin and Xochicalco, there are important temples dedicated to the Feathered Serpent. The mythical founder of the Toltec civilization, Ce Atl Topiltzín Quetzalcoatl, may have been a real person who was later deified into Quetzalcoatl.

Tlaloc, the rain god, was worshiped at Teotihuacan. As the successors of the great Teotihuacan culture, it is no surprise that the Toltecs venerated Tlaloc as well. A warrior statue dressed in Tlaloc garb was discovered at Tula, indicating the probable presence of a Tlaloc warrior cult there.

Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, was considered a sort of brother god to Quetzalcoatl, and some surviving legends from the Toltec culture include both of them. There is only one representation of Tezcatlipoca at Tula, on one of the columns atop Pyramid B, but the site was heavily looted even before the arrival of the Spanish and other carvings and images may have been carried off long ago.

There are depictions of other gods at Tula, including Xochiquetzal and Centeotl, but their worship was clearly less widespread than that of Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca.

New Age Toltec Beliefs

Some practitioners of "New Age" Spiritualism have adopted the term "Toltec" to refer to their beliefs. Chief among them is the writer Miguel Angel Ruiz, whose 1997 book has sold millions of copies. Very loosely stated, this new "Toltec" spiritual belief system focuses on the self and one's relationship to things one cannot change. This modern spirituality has little or nothing to do with religion from the ancient Toltec civilization and should not be confused with it.


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Gamboa Cabezas, Luis Manuel. "El Palacio Quemado, Tula: Seis Decadas de Investigaciones." Arqueologia Mexicana XV-85 (May-June 2007). 43-47