The Toltecs - Semi-Mythical Legend of the Aztecs

Who Were the Toltecs - and Have Archaeologists Found Their Capital?

Atlantean warriors, Temple of Quetzalcoatl, archaeological site of Tula, Mexico, Toltec Civilization
Atlantean warriors, Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, archaeological site of Tula, Mexico. Toltec Civilisation. De Agostini / C. Novara / Getty Images

The Toltecs and the Toltec Empire is a semi-mythical legend reported by the Aztecs that appears to have had some reality in prehispanic Mesoamerica. But the evidence for its existence as a cultural entity is conflicting and contradictory. The "empire," if that's what it was (and it probably was not), has been at the heart of a long-standing debate in archaeology: where is the ancient city of Tollan, a city described by the Aztecs in oral and pictorial histories as the center of all art and wisdom? And who were the Toltecs, the legendary rulers of this glorious city?

Fast Facts: Toltec Empire

  • The "Toltec Empire" was a semi-mythical origin story told by the Aztecs. 
  • Aztec oral histories described the Toltec capital Tollan as having buildings made of jade and gold. 
  • The Toltecs were said to have invented all the arts and sciences of the Aztecs, and their leaders were the noblest and wisest of people. 
  • Archaeologists associated Tula with Tollan, but the Aztecs were ambivalent about where the capital was. 

The Aztec Myth of the Toltecs

Aztec oral histories and their surviving codexes describe the Toltecs as wise, civilized, wealthy urban people who lived in Tollan, a city filled with buildings made of jade and gold. The Toltecs, said the historians, invented all the arts and sciences of Mesoamerica, including the Mesoamerican calendar; they were led by their wise king Quetzalcoatl.

For the Aztecs, the Toltec leader was the ideal ruler, a noble warrior who was learned in the history and priestly duties of Tollan and had the qualities of military and commercial leadership. The Toltec rulers led a warrior society that included a storm god (Aztec Tlaloc or Maya Chaac), with Quetzalcoatl at the heart of the origin myth. The Aztec leaders claimed they were descendants of the Toltec leaders, establishing a semi-divine right to rule.

The Myth of Quetzalcoatl

The Aztec accounts of the Toltec myth say that Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was a wise, old humble king who taught his people to write and measure time, to work gold, jade, and feathers, to grow cotton, dye it and weave it into fabulous mantles, and to raise maize and cacao. In the 15th century, the Aztecs said he was born in the year 1 Reed (equivalent to the year 843 CE) and died 52 years later in the year 1 Reed (895 CE).

He built four houses for fasting and prayer and a temple with beautiful columns carved with serpent reliefs. But his piety excited anger among the sorcerers of Tollan, who were intent on destroying his people. The sorcerers tricked Quetzalcoatl into drunken behavior that shamed him so he fled east, reaching the edge of the sea. There, dressed in divine feathers and a turquoise mask, he burned himself up and rose into the sky, becoming the morning star.

Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec and Aztec god; the plumed serpent, god of the wind, learning and the priesthood, master of life, creator and civiliser, patron of every art and inventor of metallurgy (manuscript)
Quetzalcoatl, the Toltec and Aztec god; the plumed serpent, god of the wind, learning and the priesthood, master of life, creator and civiliser, patron of every art and inventor of metallurgy (manuscript). Bridgeman Art Library / Getty Images

Aztec accounts don't all agree: at least one says that Quetzalcoatl destroyed Tollan as he left, burying all the marvelous things and burning everything else. He changed the cacao trees to mesquite and sent the birds to Anahuac, another legendary land at the edge of the water. The story as recounted by Bernardino Sahagún (1499–1590)—who certainly had his own agenda—says that Quetzalcoatl fashioned a raft of serpents and sailed across the sea. Sahagún was a Spanish Franciscan friar, and he and other chroniclers are today believed to have created the myth associating Quetzalcoatl with the conquistador Cortes-—but that's another story.

Toltecs and Desirée Charnay

The site of Tula in Hidalgo state was first equated with Tollan in the archaeological sense in the late 19th century—the Aztecs were ambivalent about which set of ruins was Tollan, although Tula was certainly known to them. French expeditionary photographer Desirée Charnay (1828–1915) raised money to follow the legendary journey of Quetzalcoatl from Tula eastward to the Yucatan peninsula. When he arrived at the Maya capital of Chichén Itzá, he noticed serpent columns and a ball court ring that reminded him of those he had seen at Tula, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) northwest of Chichen.

Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico
The ruins of the Toltec site Tula were one of the ancient archaeological sites in the Basin of Mexico that awed the arriving Mexica and inspired their growth into the Aztec Empire. Travel Ink / Getty Images

Charnay had read the 16th century Aztec accounts and noted that the Toltec were thought by the Aztecs to have created civilization, and he interpreted the architectural and stylistic similarities to mean that the capital city of the Toltecs was Tula, with Chichen Itza its remote and conquered colony; and by the 1940s, a majority of archaeologists did too. But since that time, archaeological and historical evidence has shown that to be problematic.

Problems, and a Trait List

There are lots of problems trying to associate Tula or any other specific set of ruins as Tollan. Tula was fairly large but it didn't have much control over its close neighbors, let alone long distances. Teotihuacan, which definitely was large enough to be reckoned an empire, was long gone by the 9th century. There are lots of places throughout Mesoamerica with linguistic references to Tula or Tollan or Tullin or Tulan: Tollan Chollolan is the full name for Cholula, for example, which has some Toltec aspects. The word seems to mean something like "place of reeds". And even though the traits identified as "Toltec" appear at many sites along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, there isn't much evidence for military conquest; the adoption of Toltec traits appears to have been selective, rather than imposed.

Traits identified as "Toltec" include temples with colonnaded galleries; tablud-tablero architecture; chacmools and ball courts; relief sculptures with various versions of the mythical Quetzalcoatl "jaguar-serpent-bird" icon; and relief images of predatory animals and raptorial birds holding human hearts. There are also "Atlantean" pillars with images of men in the "Toltec military outfit" (also seen in chacmools): wearing pillbox helmets and butterfly-shaped pectorals and carrying atlatls. There is also a form of government that is part of the Toltec package, a council-based government rather than a centralized kingship, but where that arose is anybody's guess. Some of the "Toltec" traits can be traced to the Early Classic period, of 4th century AD or even earlier.

Atlantean warriors, Temple of Quetzalcoatl, archaeological site of Tula, Mexico, Toltec Civilization
Atlantean warriors, Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, archaeological site of Tula, Mexico. Toltec Civilisation. De Agostini / C. Novara / Getty Images

Current Thinking

It seems clear that although there is no real consensus among the archaeological community about the existence of a single Tollan or a specific Toltec Empire that can be identified, there was some sort of inter-regional flow of ideas throughout Mesoamerica that archaeologists have named Toltec. It's possible, perhaps likely, that much of that flow of ideas came about as a byproduct of the establishment of inter-regional trade networks, trade networks including such materials as obsidian and salt which were established by the 4th century CE (and probably much earlier) but really kicked into gear after the fall of Teotihuacan in 750 CE.

So, the word Toltec should be removed from the word "empire," certainly: and perhaps the best way to look at the concept is as a Toltec ideal, an art style, philosophy and form of government that acted as the "exemplary center" of all that was perfect and longed for by the Aztecs, an ideal echoed at other sites and cultures throughout Mesoamerica.

Selected Sources

  • Berdan, Frances F. "Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory." New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 
  • Iverson, Shannon Dugan. "The Enduring Toltecs: History and Truth During the Aztec-to-Colonial Transition at Tula, Hidalgo." Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 24.1 (2017): 90–116. Print.
  • Kowalski, Jeff Karl, and Cynthia Kristan-Graham, eds. "Twin Tollans: Chichén Itzá, Tula and the Epiclassic to Early Postclassic Mesoamerican World." Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2011. 
  • Ringle, William M., Tomas Gallareta Negron, and George J. Bey. "The Return of Quetzalcoatl: Evidence for the Spread of a World Religion During the Epiclassic Period." Ancient Mesoamerica 9 (1998): 183-–232. 
  • Smith, Michael E. "The Aztecs." 3rd ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 
  • ---. "Toltec Empire." The Encyclopedia of Empire. Ed. MacKenzie, John M. London: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2016. 
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Hirst, K. Kris. "The Toltecs - Semi-Mythical Legend of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). The Toltecs - Semi-Mythical Legend of the Aztecs. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Toltecs - Semi-Mythical Legend of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).

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