A Brief History of the Toltecs

Many cultures and societies have come and gone throughout the Americas over the past millennium. The Toltec culture of central Mexico has burst into the public awareness in recent years. Many books and teachers have shared the wisdom of these ancient peoples, from various perspectives and often with contradictory information (see Appendix B for a list of authors, teachers, and their books).

There are very few factual details about the Toltec civilization that have survived and are available today. The Toltecs had no written language, and had disappeared from their cities 200 years before the Aztecs settled nearby at what is now Mexico City.

The Aztecs did record what they knew and assumed about the Toltecs' history, including legends and spiritual mythologies they adopted for themselves. Most of the Aztec codices were burned by the Spanish in an effort to erase their culture and convert the Aztecs to the Spaniards' religious beliefs. The Mesoamerican cultures of the period worshiped the god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, among others, said to be the gentle god of philosophy and learning.

Standing warriors in Tula.

The Spaniards' chroniclers continued the confusion, frequently calling every early civilization in central Mexico before the Aztecs “Toltec.” In the Nahuatl legends of that time, the Toltecs were said to be the origin of all civilization.

Dates and Places

The culture now called Toltec was the first of three major groups that came into central Mexico from the north. In the eighth century A.D. they settled in Tula (also called Tollan), “the Place of the Reeds,” in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, north of what is now Mexico City. In Tula the Toltecs were familiar with smelting metal and were master stone carvers.

The Aztecs and many cultures before them spoke the Nahuatl language. It is still the native language of more than a million people throughout central Mexico and beyond. There are many dialects and variations, some unintelligible to each other, and many Spanish words have entered the vocabularies. Nahuatl is recognized as an official national language of Mexico.

Some believe that the Toltecs were strong warriors; others connect them with the pyramids at Teotihuacán, which show no signs of fortification or war. Their culture disappeared in the twelfth century, for unknown reasons, possibly overrun by a second wave of people, the Chichimecas. The Chichimecas' culture slowly disappeared, and central Mexico entered a chaotic dark age until the Aztecs rose to power in Tenochtitlán at what is now Mexico City, in the early 1300s. Their extensive civilization lasted until the Spaniards arrived 200 years later.

What's in a Name?

The Aztecs respected the Toltecs as “men of knowledge,” and rewrote some of their own history to show they were related to the Toltecs. The word Toltec is said to come from the Nahuatl language of that area, and means “master builder” or “artist.” There is no way of knowing what these ancient people called themselves, or what language they spoke.

The Toltecs were artists in stone.

The founders of the great pyramids at Teotihuacán, northeast of Mexico City, have also been called Toltec by many researchers and teachers. It is important to note that the names and history of these early people have been distorted throughout the centuries to suit the needs of the time. It is significant to recognize that there were cultures of people in central Mexico who possessed deep spiritual understanding and considerable knowledge of astronomy, along with sophisticated systems of government, agriculture, and building.

The ancient people of Mexico and much of Latin America were master artists in stone, gold, silver, and other metals, and used their art to celebrate life and their gods. Although the Toltecs did not leave many clues about their origins, language, religion, or other facts of their daily lives, their art survives as a small window into a time and way of life that will probably remain a mystery forever. Perhaps it is appropriate to call all of the unknown ancients of central Mexico Toltecs — artists of stone and building, and “artists of the spirit.”

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