1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Toltecs

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TOLTECS (Mexican Tolteca), or dwellers in Tollan (the place of reeds), the name of a people that if partly mythical is also partly historical. Traces of this people can unquestionably be detected in historic times; and many cities, particularly those which carried on traffic with the coast, claimed to be of Toltec origin. The conception of Toltecs, like that of Chichimecs, acquired in time so general and vague a significance that in vocabularies such a word as “ toltecatl ” is interpreted as meaning merely an expert artist. So that in some cases the name “ Toltecs ” denotes no more than some race of Nahua affinities possessed of a certain degree of culture. In others, however, there is a substantial reason for believing in the existence of a specific tribe or people called Toltecs, though the genuine historical background has been obscured by the legends which the priests embroidered upon it to glorify their hero and god Quetzalcoatl.

Our ignorance as to the distribution and movements of the native peoples before the time of the Spanish invasion forbids any positive statement as to the original home of the Toltecs. It is certain, however, that they, as well as their god and their ancient city of Tollan, were known to those who lived in the Maya countries far beyond the confines of Mexico proper. Their migration-myths point to the eastern districts known as the “ tierras calientes,” famous for such valuable products as feathers and cacao, with which the Mexicans from the earliest times carried on a vigorous commerce. It is possible that the legendary wanderings of Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), who was said to have committed himself to the flames in Tlillan-Tlapallan (the land of the black and red, i.e. the land of picture-writing), the region of Tabasco and Campeche, are mainly a mythological description of the moon's periodic course. But even in that case there can be no doubt that the nature-myth has been embellished with details derived from an actual race movement which took place in prehistoric times.

The Historia de Colhuacaa y de Mexico is a most valuable manuscript written by an anonymous author in the Mexican language. In this work it is stated that Quetzalcoatl died in A.D. 895, and was followed by four kings in succession, after whom the wise Huemac ascended the throne in A.D. 994 under the name of Atecpanecatl. In the reign of this sovereign there broke out a great famine, which occasioned the institution of the custom of human sacrifice. From the same source we learn that it was in A.D. 1064 (a date which is assigned to the beginning of a half-mythical history by various other documents and MSS.) that the Toltecs left their homes and migrated eastward to Tabasco and Soconusco. At the same time Huemac killed himself in the cave of Cincalco. Tradition ascribes to him the authorship of an encyclopedic picture-writing called “ teoamoxtli ” dealing with the history of his people, with astronomy, the calendar system, &c. According to the Historia de Colhuacan y de Mexico, which is confirmed in spite of some slight variations of detail by Ixtlilxochitl, the duration of the “ Toltec Empire ” was not more than 318 years.

Archaeologists are justified in claiming as indubitable monuments of the Toltecs the serpent-pillars which have been found in situ at Tula, close to the City of Mexico. The historian Sahagun states that Tula was an old centre of the Toltecs and explicitly mentions these pillars as their work. It is interesting therefore to note that the only other place where such pillars occur is Chichenitza in Yucatan (see Central America: Archaeology), a site which exhibits most strikingly Mexican features, so that archaeology fully confirms the assertion of the historians that Chichenitza, though in Mayan territory, was subject to the domination of some Nahua people. Chichenitza and Mayapan are the only sites in Mayan territory at which are found those round temples, which are attributable exclusively to Quetzalcoatl, the principal god and national hero of the Toltecs.  (W. L.*)