Tula: The Ancient Mexican City Of The Warlike Toltec People & The Feathered Serpent God

The Toltecs were a nomadic people who, in the 8th century AD, may have been behind the destruction of the civilization based at Teotihuacan. Their own capital was established at Tula, but this in turn was destroyed by enemies, and for a long time its location was in doubt.

The huge stone columns at Tula, Mexico
The huge stone columns at Tula, Mexico

The Toltecs held sway over Mexico for only about 200 years - from the mid-10th to the mid-12th century A.D. - but their legendary skills and achievements survived them, and it has become very difficult to separate myth from fact.

The god Quetzalcoatl - the Feathered Serpent - seems to have been of supreme importance at Tula, and the Toltec rulers sometimes identified themselves with him. His image recurs again and again in the art and architecture of this Toltec capital, snaking up columns and staring out of pyramid walls. One striking feature of Tula is the serpent wall, 130 feet (40m) long and decorated with snakes swallowing skeletons. At the centre of the site (where some monuments have been restored, and much excavation remains to be done) stands a pyramid supporting a temple of Quetzalcoatl, who was honored here as a god associated with the morning star.

On top of the pyramid, at the approach to the temple, there are two columns known as the Atlantes. (The name is taken from classical art and is generally used to describe a human figure supporting part of a building.) At Tula, the Atlantes are in the form of Quetzalcoatl as the morning star. Standing 15 feet (4.6m) tall, wearing feathered headdresses, and carrying spears, they originally supported part of the temple roof, but this no longer survives. Much of the temple sculpture has also disappeared, but some favorite motifs, like the jaguar, can still be seen. In front of the temple, there was once a large, covered assembly space, and some of its supporting columns are still in position. Such colonnades are a distinctive feature of Toltec architecture and one of several Toltec hallmarks that reappear at the Chichen Itza site in the Mexican State of Yucatan.

Tula Mexico

Ball courts are another element of Toltec design. In common with other Mesoamerican peoples, they played a game with a rubber ball in a rectangular, high-walled court, and the activity may well have had some religious significance. The remains of the two ball courts can be seen at Tula, and one bears a striking resemblance to a ball court at Chichen Itza.

All the evidence provided by Toltec art suggests that theirs was a warlike race that believed in the power of human sacrifice to placate the gods. A ruler known as Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl apparently tried to reform the Toltecs and end the practice of human sacrifice; he also introduced another race, known as the Nonoalca, to Tula. Whether the city was destroyed as a result of a civil war between rival factions, or whether it was attacked by outsiders, is not clear, but Tula did suffer sudden destruction in which the Serpent Wall was knocked down and a large building at the centre was burned. Much still lies buried, awaiting the investigation that could reveal more about the city, its people, and their fate.

Quetzalcoatl and Cortes

According to one story - part history, part legend - the god Quetzalcoatl, or a ruler-god of the same name, disappeared from view after teaching his philosophy to some disciples and promised that he would return from the direction of the sunrise on a specific date. The date he announced was very close to that on which the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, Hernan Cortes, arrived from the east. The Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II, fearful that he might be launching an attack on a god, is said to have hesitated before fighting. Similarly apprehensive, the Aztec people were uncertain whether to resist the new arrival or welcome him with the respect due to a god.

Toltec Art and Influence

Toltec art, dismissed by some as crude, is full of representations of warriors who seem to have won a considerable empire, with power over at least 20 towns and apparently spreading as far as Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. In addition to portraying warriors wielding weapons, Toltec artists often depicted eagles eating what could be a human heart, large feline animals wearing bells on collars, and hybrid creatures that were part serpent, part bird, and part jaguar. Circular temples are associated with the wind god, Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl, and curious reclining stone figures, called chac-mools, are another distinctive motif. Each figure supports a plate on its stomach, the purpose apparently being to hold sacrificial offerings.

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