Chichen Itza: The Tollan of the Yucatan

Chichen Itza’s timeline from the classical and post-classical period is shrouded in mystery from the surrounding Mayan civilization. The city-state of Chichen Itza itself has many features in architecture and imagery that are similar to the likes of Tula and Tenochtitlan, Mesoamerican structures that are hundreds of miles away and bare the title of Tollan. The question then arises from this is how does Chichen Itza resemble a Tollan? Chichen Itza embodies the likeness of a Tollan by the incorporation of the cult of Kukulkan into the life and organization of the city state. To understand the evidence of this it imperative to look at the origins of the Chichen Itza and how this site acquired the influence of the Tollan.

The beginning of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan came from the demise and eventual collapse of Mayan society at the end Classic period. Out of the Mayan collapse emerged the Itza, who originated from Peten Itza. Under the leadership of Itzamna, the Itza discovered the numerous wells and the great cenote below the surface. Itzamna and his people settled this location as Chichen Itza. Overtime the Itza built a growing trade hub in the peninsula at Chichen Itza.[1] At this site the Itza people produced a network of trade relations that stretched throughout the peninsula at Isla Cerritos and into the lowlands where they exchanged numerous items such as gold, obsidian, and jade. In the Post-classic period, a new group had come to the Yucatan region to expand its influence and employed its power on the location’s resources and people, these invaders were the Putun Maya. The Putun Mayan’s incursion on the Itza resulted in a capture of the city bringing forth military rule and the introduction of their chief deities. Numerous scholars on Chichen Itza would consider changes came from the invasion of the Toltecs with their leader, Topilitzin. Topilitzin would leave Tula in search Tlillan Tlapallan. From their search Topilitizin and the Toltecs came to Conquer Chichen Itza and set up their next great Tollan. At their defeat, the people of Chichen Itza were assimilated into the cult of the plumed serpent, Quetzalcoatl. To the members of the city state, they would refer to Quetzalcoatl as Kukulkan.

There has however come recent contention on if the Toltec myth is a sufficient account of the rise Quetzalcoatl’s influence on Chichen Itza.[2] Earlier scholars found the invasion to be a necessary interpretation of Topilitzin’s influence on Yucatan Maya. Critics of the origins would point out that influence also came from central Mexico into the Yucatan peninsula by trade and ideas. While this is a well-made reason for shifting focus on the origins, the architecture of Chichen Itza and the organization of this state holds numerous similarities to the Tollan at Tula, especially since the attributes of the cult of Quetzalcoatl are present at both sites.[3] It can then be understood that by analyzing the art and architecture of Chichen Itza, one can see the similarities it has with other Tollans.

The influence of the Toltec civilization on the people Chichen Itza is most notable in the form of their chief deity, Kukulkan who’s resemblance is not too far removed from that of Quetzalcoatl. From the Toltec myth, Topilitzin Quetzalcoatl travelled east to Tlillan Tlapallan. There he conquered the people of Chichen Itza who then refer to him as Kukulkan. It is then noted that Kukulkan instructs the people to build a temple in his honor. The sacred mountain of Kukulkan, also known as “El Castillo”, stands in the center of Chichen Itza as a testament to worship and to signify the Axis Mundi or center of the universe.[4]

The architecture of the great El Castillo reigns over Chichen Itza casting its view over the city state. The temple of Kukulkan stands 98 feet tall and 181 feet wide at its base. The structure consists of a series of square terraces with a temple on top, the temple is accessed by stairways leading up the four sides. At the base of the site sits twin serpents which are images of Quetzalcoatl. Inside the temple is a jaguar throne made of jade, symbolizing a place of power and authority. On the other end sits a Chacmool sculpture. The Chacmool is in the form of a reclining stone figure, with a spot to place items on its abdomen. This figure held the sacrificial items as offering to the ruler and deities. From these images of worship and power, one could suggest that El Castillo signified a location of authority, where Mayan and Toltec culture came together to worship the cult of Kukulkan.[5] To further add authority to the temple of Kukulkan being a site of worship is the innate construction of the temple so rays of the setting sun would produce a serpent of light. The serpent of light has roots from the “Talud-Tablero” architectural design; this style of steps and slopes is similar to ones found in Tula, an ancient Toltec site north of modern-day Mexico City, a counterpart to Chichen Itza.[6] As can be observed at El Castillo, the imagery and organization of the temple is a place of divine authority and worship of Kukulkan, which had taken root from similar Tollans as an influence on the structure’s inception.

To the east of El Castillo lies the Temple of the Warriors, a place filled with iconography and symbolism of the transplanting of Toltec society. If El Castillo represented a central place of leadership and power of the Chichen Itza city-state, then the Temple of the Warriors was where worship of Kukulkan was present through sacrifice and remembrance. The Temple of the Warriors is surrounded by hundreds of standing square columns in front of, and to the side of the temple. These square columns are not exclusive to the Mayans at Chichen Itza, in fact, at the Tula site contains similar columns are sprawled throughout the area as the importance of warriors in their society. Archeological scholars conclude that the sites of these colonnades were developed after El Castillo was finished, supporting a post-Toltec invasion.[7] Ascending the steps past the stone columns one is greeted by two feathered serpents at the top of the structure. This entrance is known as the Warrior’s Portal, which highlights the sacred grounds of sacrifice. Past these serpents is a table and another Chacmool dedicated sacrifice. Surrounding the sacrificial altar are murals depicting the life of warriors. From the organization at the top of the Temple scholars have observed the sacrificial importance and the high value of the warrior within Chichen Itza society.

The Temple of the Warriors highlights two very important aspects of life in a Tollan: military leadership through power, and necessity of sacrifice to the gods in order to bring prosperity. Warriors were not the highest-ranking caste in society, their appearance in the murals throughout the temple embody the militaristic life and class rank within Chichen Itza. The Archeologist Claude- François Baudez noted the importance of warriors in life saying, “The warriors considered their mission to be a sacred one and felt honored to belong to the most important class of citizens.”[8] At the top of the site sits two murals. in both murals there is an image of invasion on a coastline with the likes of people garbed in black with white hands and yellow hair while the people on the land are plain clothed and being detained. Quetzalcoatl sits in the top right corner above the image, possibly shown as divine authority for the events that transpired. In the second image, the captives are seized and are about to be sacrificed by the warriors in black, in worship of Quetzalcoatl.[9] Historian Donald E. Wray explains the accounts shown on the murals fall in line with the previous archeologist interpretations; the Toltecs, dressed in black and having the likeness of eagles and jaguars displayed their military power which the Toltec and the cult of Quetzalcoatl had on the city-state.[10] Wray concludes that, “If these interpretations are correct, we have in the murals from the Temple of the Warriors a pictorial record of the political and military subjugation of the Maya by the Toltec.”[11] The inclusion of the murals at a place of sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl might have noted the permanence of Toltec culture on the recently captured Itza people, as well, their bloodshed in conflict with the Toltecs could resemble a sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl.