Tollan and Quetzalcoatl in the Ancient City of Tula

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in human history. Religion compels people, saves people, condemns people, and halts people. Records of religious beliefs have been found in almost every civilization in recorded history. Despite the fact that many of these civilizations had no contact with one another, their recorded beliefs share many similarities. The Mesoamericans had a very complex system of beliefs, comparable to other ancient civilizations in other parts of the world. This complexity is evident through the study of Tollan and Quetzalcoatl in the ancient city of Tula.

Tula was the capital city of the Toltec Empire. The city was at its height from AD 900 to 1100. The people of Tula, like others throughout Mesoamerica, believed in many different gods. The term “Tollan” refers to both cities and deities. Teotihuacan was believed to be the first Tollan.[1] In fact, “Tula” is a derivative of the word “Tollan,” meaning “Place of Reeds,” which is believed to have been a figure of speech implying that the number of people living in the city were like the number of reeds surrounding a source of water.[2] Tollan also appears as a deity alongside Quetzalcoatl, the most well-known of the Mesoamerican deities.[3] Although Quetzalcoatl tends to receive most of the recognition and publicity, Tollan, as a deity, was also very powerful and was intensely worshiped by the people of Mesoamerica.

The City of Tula has had many names throughout history. The Aztecs called it Tollan and later historians referred to it as the City of Quetzalcoatl.[4] Tula became the center of the Toltec Empire after the decline of Teotihuacan. Quetzalcoatl Ce Acatl Toplitzin founded the city in the central highlands area of present-day Mexico in the ninth century AD.[5] The word “Tollan” meant “Place of Reeds,” but over time the meaning of the name changed to signify “Great City.”[6] The original meaning, “Place of Reeds” is believed to have been a figure of speech to indicate a densely populated area.[7] The history of the Toltecs is somewhat unorganized as those who lived in Teotihuacan did not leave written records behind. What we do know, however, is that their religious beliefs were very important to them.

Although Ce Acatl Toplitzin had earned the title of “Quetzalcoatl,” it is important to note that the priestly rank of Quetzalcoatl and the deity called Quetzalcoatl were very different; one being a man and one being a myth. The Toltec had many gods and deities that they worshiped, however, the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl was the heart of the city and remains the main attraction for tourists and historians alike. The Toltecs, and later the Aztecs, built very ornate temples to honor their gods. The Temple of Tlahulzcalpantechuti is decorated with carved pillars depicting warriors with plumed serpents on their sandals.[8] The Coatepantli, or “Wall of Snakes,” was also very intricately carved.[9] These intricate carvings and detailed decorations give insight into the importance of religion to the people of Tula. It was the center of their lives and their society, just as the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl was the center of their city.

The religion of the Toltecs did not die with the fall of their empire. The Aztecs continued the beliefs of the Toltec. They continued to worship Quetzalcoatl as a god, as their ancestors in Tula had done.[10] The Aztecs looked upon the Toltec almost as a mythically perfect society. The Aztecs wrote that the Toltecs “were wise. Their works were all good, all perfect, all wonderful, all miraculous…very marvelous.”[11] The Aztecs described Tollan as the original city-state where religious practice and myth were integrated.[12] David Carrasco, one of the leading experts in Mesoamerican culture and history suggests in his book The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction that the Aztecs perhaps were “recalling traditions of urban greatness” of Teotihuacan, but instead called it Tollan or Tula.[13] Historians will most likely never know for sure, but it is believed that “Tollan” refers not only to the tenth century city of Tula, but also to the idyllic city and society of Teotihuacan.[14]

Tollan played a huge role in the religious beliefs of the Toltecs. In addition to being their capital city, Tollan and Quetzalcoatl together were religious symbols; Quetzalcoatl representing sacred authority and Tollan representing sacred space.[15] Quetzalcoatl and Tollan are almost inseparable in Mesoamerican culture. Quetzalcoatl is the god-king and Tollan his scared city.[16] Tollan had other meanings besides “sacred city.” It also described the political order of the Toltecs as well as the Aztecs later on. [17]

Tollan and Quetzalcoatl are connected to each other throughout Mesoamerican myth and legend. The stories and legends begin with the birth of Quetzalcoatl, his childhood, and conflict between Quetzalcoatl and his uncles. [18] There are two different stories concerning Quetzalcoatl and Tollan. The first is that Quetzalcoatl created Tollan and constructed all of the structures there.[19] The second is that he traveled there and was asked to become king.[20] Regardless of which myth one chooses to believe, it is evident that Quetzalcoatl and Tollan are inseparable from one another. As one Tollan fell, another arose to take its place. To the Aztecs, Tollan was more than a physical place, it was a vision of how their capital cities should be. This vision inspired many capital cities during the Classic and Post-Classic periods.[21]

There have been many people throughout the twentieth century who contributed to the knowledge gained of Tula-Tollan and Quetzalcoatl. In his article Tula, Stephen Castillo Bernal discusses the research and discoveries of Desire Charnay, the French explorer, and also Robert Cobean and Alba Guadalupe Mastache, professors at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, as it relates to the mythical city of Tollan versus the ancient city of Tollan.[22] This led to debate over whether Teotihuacan was the mythical Tollan of the Toltec legends, or whether Tula was the Tollan in the legends and myths.[23] Bernal goes on to say that the myth and reality of Quetzalcoatl is also of great importance in discovering the myth and reality of Tollan. He argues that myth or reality, religion was clearly important to the Toltecs, as is evident by the pillars of Pyramid B at Tula. These pillars were decorated with symbols of three important Mesoamerican deities; Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl, as well as many warriors. [24] Bernal suggests that these images could depict either a mythical or historical event, but states it is unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure.[25]

In his book Tula of the Toltecs: Excavations and Survey, Professor Dan Healan of Tulane University describes in detail, the excavations that took place at Tula that helped historians and anthropologists establish that Tula was, in fact, one of the Tollan cities of Toltec and Aztec legend.[26] Healan states that there were three main characteristics of the ruins at Tula that allowed historians to draw this conclusion; the discovery of warrior columns and serpent columns, the frequent depiction of Quetzalcoatl, and the chronological time period of the city occurring between the Toltecs and the Aztecs.[27] Through his work, and the work of other historians and anthropologists, we can ascertain that Tula was one of the ancient cities referred to as “Tollan.”

Tollan provides an interesting conundrum for those studying Mesoamerican religion. Tollan and Quetzalcoatl are all but inseparable; the God-King and his Sacred City. But unlike some other modern and ancient religions, Tollan is not just one city. Tollan has described many capital cities of both the Toltecs and Aztecs.[28] The blurring of the lines between myth and reality is much more evident in Mesoamerican religion than, say, in Christianity, the religion introduced to Latin America by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. The sacred city of the Christians is Jerusalem. It was their sacred city two thousand years ago, and it is still their sacred city. But Tollan was many cities. Teotihuacan was Tollan. Then Tula was Tollan. Then, later on, Tenochtitlan was Tollan.[29] This fluidity of the Aztec and Toltec myths allowed the legends to remain shrouded for so long, even after the Spanish began colonizing the area.[30]

The conundrum students of Mesoamerican religions face is determining the chronology of religion from city to city, civilization to civilization, and empire to empire. There are many similarities between the religion of the Toltecs and the religion of the Aztecs, although there was a considerable amount of time between the two empires.[31] In addition, the creation of temples and pyramids in various Tollans has caused an uncertainty in the myth of Quetzalcoatl and his Tollan. Although Quetzalcoatl appears in all of the Tollans, which is one of the ways historians and anthropologists are able to determine that Teotihuacan and Tula, among others, were, in fact, the Tollans of legend, the depictions do not always tell the same story.[32] As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine myth from reality.

Tollan was the most important city in Mesoamerica. Many cities were given the name Tollan as empires grew, fell, and moved on. Quetzalcoatl and Tollan are forever connected through the ruins of the cities of these empires. Tollan was a real place, but it was also a mythical city. Quetzalcoatl was a title given to real people, but he was also a mythical god. Ancient civilizations do not always leave behind the best records of their history and beliefs. So students of Mesoamerican history, anthropology, and religious studies are left to sort through the ruins of ancient cities from great empires and determine the truth behind Quetzalcoatl and Tollan – the man, the myth, and the legend.