Toltec Weapons, Armor and Warfare

The Toltecs at War

Tula.JPG
Atalantes of Tula. Photo by Christopher Minster

From their mighty city of Tollan (Tula), the Toltec civilization dominated Central Mexico from the fall of Teotihuacán to the rise of the Aztec Empire (approximately 900-1150 A.D.). The Toltecs were a warrior culture and fought frequent battles of conquest and subjugation against their neighbors. They warred in order to take victims for sacrifice, expand their empire and spread the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the greatest of their gods.

Toltec Arms and Armor

Although the site has been heavily looted over the centuries, there are enough surviving statues, friezes and stelae at Tula to indicate what sort of weapons and armor the Toltecs favored. Toltec warriors would wear decorative chestplates and elaborate feather headdresses into battle. They wrapped one arm from the shoulder down in padding and favored small shields which could be quickly used in close combat. A beautiful armored tunic made of seashells was found in an offering in the Burned Palace at Tula: this armor may have been used by a high-ranking soldier or king in battle. For ranged combat, they had long darts which could be launched with lethal force and accuracy by their atlatls, or javelin throwers. For close combat, they had swords, maces, knives and a special curved club-like weapon inlaid with blades which could be used to batter or slash.

Warrior Cults

For the Toltecs, wars and conquest were closely linked to their religion.

The large and formidable army was likely composed of religious warrior orders, including but not limited to coyote and jaguar warriors. A small statue of a Tlaloc-warrior was unearthed at Ballcourt One, indicating the presence of a Tlaloc warrior cult at Tula, much like the one that was present at Teotihuacán, predecessor of the Toltec culture.

The columns on top of Pyramid B are four-sided: on them they show gods including Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl in full battle gear, providing further evidence for the presence of warrior-cults at Tula. The Toltecs aggressively spread the worship of Quetzalcoatl and military conquest was one way to do so.

The Toltecs and Human Sacrifice

There is ample evidence at Tula and in the historical record that the Toltecs were avid practitioners of human sacrifice. The most obvious indication of human sacrifice is the presence of a tzompantli, or skull rack. Archaeologists have unearthed no fewer than seven Chac Mool statues at Tula (some of which are complete and some of which are only pieces). Chac Mool statues depict a reclining man, belly-up, holding a recipient or bowl on his abdomen. The recipients were used for offerings, including human sacrifices. In ancient legends still told to this day by locals, Ce Atl Quetzalcoatl, the god-king who founded the city, had a dispute with the followers of Tezcatlipoca, mostly about how much human sacrifice was needed to appease the gods: the followers of Tezcatlipoca (who favored more sacrifices) won the conflict and were able to drive Ce Atl Quetzalcoatl out.

Military Iconography at Tula

It seems that nearly all of the surviving art at the ruined city of Tula has a military or warlike theme to it. The most iconic pieces at Tula are by far the four Atalantes, or mighty statues which grace the top of Pyramid B. These statues, which tower over visitors at 17 ft. (4.6 m) high, are of warriors armed and dressed for battle. They bear typical armor, headdresses and weapons including the curved, bladed club and dart launcher. Nearby, four pillars depict gods and high-ranking soldiers in battle dress. Reliefs carved into benches show processions of chieftains in battle gear. A six-foot stela of a governor dressed as a priest of Tlaloc bears a curved mace and dart launcher.

Conquest and Subject States

Although historical data is scarce, it is likely that the Toltecs of Tula conquered several nearby states and held them as vassals, demanding tribute such as food, goods, weapons and even soldiers.

Historians are divided concerning the scope of the Toltec Empire. There is some evidence that it may have reached as far as the Gulf Coast, but there is no conclusive proof that it extended more than a hundred kilometers in any direction from Tula. The post-Maya city of Chichen Itza shows clear architectural and thematic influence from Tula, but historians generally agree that this influence came from trade or Tula nobles in exile, not from military conquest.

Conclusions

The Toltecs were mighty warriors who must have been greatly feared and respected in central Mesoamerica during their heyday from about 900-1150 A.D. They used advanced weapons and armor for the time, and were organized into fervent warrior clans serving different ruthless gods.

Sources:

Charles River Editors. The History and Culture of the Toltec. Lexington: Charles River Editors, 2014.

Cobean, Robert H., Elizabeth Jiménez García and Alba Guadalupe Mastache. Tula. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2012.

Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Davies, Nigel. The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

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

Hassig, Ross. War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica. University of California Press, 1992.

Jimenez Garcia, Esperanza Elizabeth. "Iconografía guerrera en la escultura de Tula, Hidalgo." Arqueologia Mexicana XIV-84 (March-April 2007). 54-59