The Toltecs (or Toltec or Tolteca) were a Pre-Columbian Native American people who dominated much of central Mexico between the 10th and 12th century AD. Their language, Nahuatl, was also spoken by the Aztecs.
They originated as a militaristic nomadic people, and they or their ancestors may have sacked the city of Teotihuacan (ca. 750). After they established a more settled existence, the Toltec fused the many small states in Central Mexico into an empire ruled from their capital, Tula (also known as Tolán). They were accomplished temple builders. Their influence spread through much of Mesoamerica in the post-Classic era. The Toltec influence on the Maya of Yucatán is heavy, especially evident at the city of Chichen Itza. Their pottery has been found as far south as Costa Rica.
Some writers have alleged that the Toltecs introduced the cult of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. This is certainly not so, as this deity was commonly depicted throughout Mesoamerica for centuries earlier, going back to Olmec times. In Toltec (and later Aztec) mythology Quetzalcoatl was a rival of Tezcatlipoca, the first god who is known to have demanded human hearts as sacrifice. Thus the Toltecs seem to have introduced the habit of mass human sacrifice as later practiced by the Aztecs.
The Toltec empire is believed to have been destroyed around 1200 AD by the nomadic warriors of the Chichimecs . The ruling family of the Aztecs claimed to descend from Toltec ancestry via the sacred city of Colhuacán .
In his writings Miguel León Portilla explains that in Nauha legend, the Toltec were the originators of all civilization, so Toltec was synonymous with artist, or artisan, and their city "Tollan" was described as full of wonders. When the Aztecs rewrote their history, they tried to show they were related to the Toltecs. Unfortunately this means that much of the tradition of the Toltecs is legend, and difficult to prove. Stories say that after the fall of Tula some of the Toltec retreated to Cholula, which did not fall until centuries later when it was burned by Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadores.
Most Toltec history is known from writings of later peoples, such as the Aztec, written centuries later after a "dark age" in Central Mexico, together with some references by the Maya. Toltec rulers are said to have included:
- Chalchiuh Tlatonac – first Toltec king, founder of Tula
- Mixcoatl or Mixcoatl Totepeuh
- Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl, son of Mixcoatl, the most famous Toltec ruler
- Tlilcoatzin – died c. 1000 (?)
- Huemac – the last Toltec king, died in exile c. 1100 (?), some 6 years after the fall of Tula
In 1941, the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología confirmed that Tula was the capital of the Toltec, as had long been tradition and suggested by archeologists since the 19th century. Some scholars, including Laurette Séjourné, regret the decision, claiming that several seasons of excavation only revealed a minor city, not enough to justify the legend of the Toltecs. The site of Tula actually shows it to have been a large city in its prime, although the ceremonial art and architecture visible there today is less impressive than that at other Mesoamerican sites. It should be understood, however, that some chronicles from the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores and later confuse the Toltec with other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations and sometimes tend to attribute all achievements of the centuries before the rise of the Aztec to the Toltec.
During the late twentieth century, some Mexican shamans, including Don Miguel Ruiz, who claim to be descendants of the Toltec and inheritors of their spiritual powers, began writing and teaching for a worldwide audience, causing a renewed interest in the Toltec.
For the concept Toltec in the writings of Carlos Castaneda, see: Toltec (Castaneda)
- The Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula by Nigel Davis, University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, ISBN 0-8061-1394-4