23 - Pre Columbian Narratives
It is said that the Toltec culture fell when the king and high priest Quetzalcoatl left the city of Tula. In the afterword, we explore the reasons for his departure, the Chichimec origin of the Toltecs, and we introduced the Nonoalcas.
1. In the Language of Kings. An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature – Pre-Columbian to the Present. Miguel Leon-Portilla & Earl Shorris. New York: Norton, 2001. (First story based on the version found in the book The Flayed God by Roberta H. and Peter T. Markman. Translated by Willard Gingerich. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992. 2. Legends of the Plumed Serpent. A biography of a Mexican God. Neil Baldwin, New York: Public Affairs,1998. 3. Tula-Teotihuacán, Quetzalcóatl y la Toltecayótl. Enrique Florescano. El Colegio de México. URL: http://aleph.academica.mx/jspui/bitstream/56789/29621/1/13-050-1963-0193.pdf 4. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca in Cuauhquechollan. Avis Dalene Mysyk. Estudios de Cultural Nahuatl No.43. Enero-Junio, 2012. P.115-138. 5. The Hungry Woman. Myths and Legends of the Aztecs. John Bierhorst. Quill, 1984. 6. Quetzalcoatl de Tula. Mitogenesis de un aLeyenda Poscortesiana. Werner Stenzel.Cuadernos de Unicornio No.13. Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo León. 1991
1 Reed: It is recounted, it is said that in this year was born Quetzalcoatl, the one called Our Honored Prince High Priest One Reed Quetzalcoatl.
It was he who revealed the grandeur of wealth: jadestone, turquoise, gold – yellow and white, coral, mother-of-pearl; the plumage of the quetzal, the cotinga, the roseate spoonbill, the troupial, the trogon, and the heron.
It was he who revealed the multicolored cacao as well as colorful cotton. He was a great Toltec, a grand artisan.
In the time that he lived, he founded his temple and set its serpent columns. In the time that he lived, he did not show his face before the people. Deep within his house, he lived where he was protected.
It is recounted, it has been said that his House of Fasting was built in four parts. And it is recounted, it is said, how many times in vain the Human Owl sorcerers sought to humiliate Quetzalcoatl so that he would make his offering of humans, that he would sacrifice men.
But he never desired it nor consented. For much did he love his people, his Toltecs, and his offerings, the sacrifices he made continually, were but serpents, birds and butterflies.
It is recounted, it is said, that the owl sorcerers became greatly angered and began tormenting, mocking and humiliating him, saying they wanted in this way to make him miserable. And thus would they drive him out, and truly it was done.
Adapted by Carolina Quiroga-Stultz
One day, the owl sorcerers counseled together. Tezcatlipoca, Ihuimecatl, and Toltecatl said:
He must leave the city.
We must take over!
We must corrupt him!
We must disgrace him!
And so, they schemed an evil plan.
Tezcatlipoca crafted a small double-sided mirror and wrapped it. Next, he disguised himself as a white-haired older man and set out to the coral house where Quetzalcoatl was staying.
At the door, Tezcatlipoca said to the heralds who protected Quetzalcoatl: Please do the honor of reporting to the High Priest that Telpochtli has come, and wishes most humbly to show before him his own body.
Quetzalcoatl's helpers delivered the message, but he was intrigued:
What is this thing? What is this body of mine that he has brought here? Examine it; then, he may enter!
However, Tezcatlipoca did not wish them to see it, so he replied:
Truly, I must show it to him.
Upon hearing the refusal, Quetzalcoatl agreed to let him in. Once Tezcatlipoca was in the presence of Quetzalcoatl, he said:
My beloved Prince and High Priest One Reed Quetzalcoatl. I salute your grace, and I arrive to set before you your precious body.
From where did you come, grandfather? What is this thing you call my body? Show it to me!
Tezcatlipoca passed to Quetzalcoatl the mirror and said:
My beloved Prince and High Priest, I am your humble subject. I come from the lower slopes of Mt. Nonohualca. May it please you to know, to look upon yourself, for you will appear there in the mirror.
Quetzalcoatl did so, but he was overcome with horror.
Oh! I am a monstrosity. My people must never see me again!
After completing part of his mission, Tezcatlipoca left, while Quetzalcoatl hid from the world.
Nonetheless, the High Priest grew lonely for his people. Knowing that this would happen, the sorcerer Ihuimecatl arranged for a feather-artist to visit the priest, and offer his services to him.
My beloved Prince, I come to say to your grace in all reverence, come out, your subjects miss you. Permit me to prepare, and arrange you so that they might look upon you!
And so the feather-artist fashioned Quetzalcoatl an impressive plumed headdress, and an inlay turquoise mask with serpent teeth. The High Priest was very pleased with what he saw. He wore it and came out of his coral house, walked among his people, but deep inside; he wished he did not need to hide behind that mask.
Next the third sorcerer, Toltecatl went to the place called Xonacapacoyan, where he met a farmer who guarded the Toltec Mountain, and asked him to brew him the pulque beverage and mix it with honeycomb.
Then the three sorcerers Tezcatlipoca, Ihuimecatl, and Toltecatl, went to Tollan, the home of Quetzalcoatl, and brought that special drink, along with herbs, chili, and other vegetables.
At first, Quetzalcoatl refused to receive them, but they insisted so much that at last, he agreed to let them in. Once they were in, they humbly offered to the High Priest the food, which he ate, but he refused to drink the pulque.
So Tezcatlipoca said:
My beloved Prince, your subjects have noticed the troubles that obscure your gracious heart! Taste a drop of this drink; it will bring you joy, at last.
Quetzalcoatl thought a drop could not hurt. He tasted it with his finger, and found it enjoyable. He drank more, and the more he drank it, the more thirsty he felt. The sorcerers had come prepared and offered him much more.
A second glass will quench your thirst, my lord! My beloved Prince! Don't let the responsibilities overwhelm you; free yourself!
Quetzalcoatl and his heralds drank and drank until they were clapping their hands and dancing foolishly around.
The sorcerer Ihuimecatl then raised a song for Quetzalcoatl to remember:
My house of quetzal, quetzal,
my house of troupial
my house of red shell
I must already lose them
for my carelessness
Five times Quetzalcoatl drank from that intoxicating drink of pulque, and at the peak of his joy, the High Priest called upon his sister and invited her to drink together. And she drank not once but five times. And as she did, Tezcatlipoca raised another song:
My beloved Prince, here is a verse that you may want to repeat!
My sister, where now will you live?
O Quetzalpetlatl, let's make ourselves drunk!
Ay, ya, ya, yn, ye, an
At dawn, Quetzalcoatl and his heralds did not go down to the water to pray and perform the sacraments. But as soon as the sun appeared, they were stricken with anguish; their hearts were heavy in remorse.
O! How unfortunate I am!
No longer is even a single day-sign counted in my house;
Let it be here, let it already be; let it happen!
He who owns the body of earth can be but miserable and afflicted.
All that is precious is no more;
Certainly, I return to sober virtue.
As he raised his lament, his heralds wept with him, and repeated his sad words. They felt dishonored.
At last, Quetzalcoatl decided to abandon the city. He sent his helpers to hide his earthly possessions and later departed in search of Tlillan, Tlapallan, Tlatlayan "The black, the red land, place of the burning."
He traveled everywhere until he found the place he sought, and wept in bitter contrition.
And it was again in the day 1 Reed, it is recounted, it is said, when he arrived at Teoapan Ilhuicaatenco, "Along the divine water, at the shore of heavenly water." Then he halted and stood weeping. Took off his vestments but holding onto his turquoise mask, he offered himself to the flames.
This place, where Quetzalcoatl immolated himself, came to be known as Tlatlayan, "Place of the burning."
And it is said that even as he burned, his ashes emerged and rose. And there appeared all the birds of great value, and rose into the sky: the roseate spoonbill, the cotinga, the trogon, the heron, the yellow parrot, the scarlet macaw, the white-bellied parrot, and every other bird of precious plumage.
And when the ashes where extinguished, then arose his heart, the quetzal bird itself. And so the heralds knew he had entered the sky within the sky.
The old ones used to say he was transformed to the dawn star; thus, it is said that when Quetzalcoatl died, this star appeared, and so he is named Tlahuizcalpanteuctli, "Lord of the Dawn House."
And this story has been told and retold to describe the end of a marvelous world.
Very well, dear listener, as usual, it is time to talk about the story. This time I hope my findings will surprise you as much as they surprised me. Let's start with the idea that until recently, I honestly thought that the Toltecs had been a tremendous, and very accomplished peaceful civilization. Still, perhaps there is another approach to that assumption.
Do you remember that in our last episode, I mentioned that different missionaries had collected numerous versions of the stories of the people they had recently encountered in the so-called New World? Well, one of them, Don Bernardino de Sahagún, is in part responsible for the idea that the Toltecs were great, peaceful, and crafty!
However, such rumors began even before Don Bernardino. It was a type of political propaganda that the Aztecs and others tried. Thus, the assumption of the greatness of the Toltecs was questioned only until recently. Because throughout history, some stories, especially the ones that were printed in paper, became gospels to those who sought for an opportunity.
Here is some of what Bernardino de Sahagún said: those Toltecs were very knowledgeable in Natural Astrology. They were the first ones that counted the days, nights, and hours. These Toltecs were good men, virtuous, and never lied. They worshiped only one lord, Quetzalcoatl, whose priest had the same name. They obeyed him and followed him in whatever he commanded. Those Toltecs believed him and were very devoted to their god.
Along with Bernardino's retelling, other stories assured that the story of Quetzalcoatl leaving their beloved people behind aligned with a prophecy of the fall of the city of the Toltecs, the Mythic Tula. That Quetzalcoatl was a god incarnated as a human; that the civilization of the Toltec had always been advanced, wise, and legendary. Over time, their name was associated with the myth of Atlantis.
Then in this episode, we will address what happened to the Toltecs? Who they indeed were; Was there another agent of progress in the story? And who was that guy Quetzalcoatl? Brace yourself for a tale of political ambitions, trickery, and ancient conspiracy.
In the book Legends of the Plumed Serpent a biography of a Mexican God by Neil Baldwin, we are told that "One of the destructive factors within Tula -the capital of the Toltecs - was a simmering division between theocratic powers in the culture and more militaristic groups that eventually erupted into open conflict."
A man born around the year of 935 to 945 C.E, rose to power as Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, and was one of the last representatives of the Toltec culture; a culture that appeared to have gone through a massive diaspora under his rule.
In Baldwin's words, "The exile of the legendary Plumed Serpent – as Quetzalcoatl was commonly known - may be a dramatic metaphor, passed down through the ages, for the movement of an entire culture." A forced migration attributed to the invasions of hordes of nomadic groups that is the Chichimec.
I propose then to take a closer look at the seeming culprit, and their apparent victims.
In the article “Tula-Teotihuacán, Quetzalcóatl y la Toltecayótl” by Enrique Florescano, we learn that the Toltecs had more humble origins and perhaps did not build that impressive civilization by themselves from bare ground.
Here’s the story Florescano says: "In the dawn of the X century, a semi-barbaric horde erupted violently in the Valley of México, executing their dominance and subduing the people. Those were the Toltecs, led by their leader Mixcoatl. In a few years, this fearful warrior conquered the entire valley and established their culture in Culhuacán."
The author continues explaining that the Toltec-Chichimec were warriors from the highlands led by lords that practice their dominion through a complicated religious apparatus. These fierce fighters became the new political, social, cultural, and religious order in the region. Their expansion was based on a militaristic approach, whose backbone class were the soldiers.
Their social hierarchy was conditioned to the number of prisoners that a warrior caught in battle, and the highest honor was to die fighting -that sounds very Aztec-. As a matter of fact, the Toltec nobility titles were based on those type of victories. This socio-political, military, and imperialist structure, ended up influencing their culture and religion, and those who later called themselves their inheritors.
The Toltec religion, for instance, had a mystical, and providential aspect; an aspect that was foreign to the people of the valley of Mexico. In this manner, their religion, (Toltec Religion) became a political instrument in the expansion of these semi-nomadic groups.
However the occupation was not going to be as easy as they expected. The main obstacle these Toltecs had was the culture, and religion of the people of the valley Mexico. Their faith was rooted in an ancient, and complex tradition that had produced several deities, and symbols that had spread all across Mesoamerica.
In other words, the conquered people were not as docile as the invaders would have wanted. Thus, the Toltecs, as the Aztecs did later, focused their conquering efforts on the religious aspect.
So let's connect the dots. The Toltecs arrived with the sole intention of conquering and imposing their ideas, but the conquest did not go as smoothly as expected. Their new subjects were no dummies. They had ancient, rooted traditions and ways, which could indicate that these people of the valley of Mexico had been there for a while or their culture was much older than the one of the newcomers.
Florescano clarifies the issue. He says that even when the great ceremonial centers where the classic culture of Teotihuacan once flourished were abandoned, there was a cultural continuation of those centers in the people who made possible the rise of the cities of Cholula, Xochilcalco, and others.
At this point dear listener, you could be bit lost. I just threw into the mix another culture, the Teotihuacan, and on top of that, I mentioned some weird city names. Don't panic, we will get to those cities in a moment, but let's take a short detour to talk about Teotihuacan. Then, let's go back further in time.
In the book 1491 by Charles C Mann, a must-read book, we learn that around the time of Christ, Teotihuacan rose as a military power. And for four centuries, the Teotihuacans directly expanded their scope and influenced over much of central Mexico; and indirectly as far south as Guatemala. Besides the ruins and that there is a Feathered Serpent temple, archaeologist, haven't figured it out much more about them.
We do not know what language they spoke or if they called themselves Teotihuacans. They had some sort of writing, but no Rosetta stone has appeared to help decipher it.
The Teotihuacans lasted for about eight centuries, and their collapse is a mystery. But when you last for so long in the same place, you get to leave a long-lasting mark, right? Such an impressive one that whoever came after you wanted to be just like you.
And guess who wanted to do that, yeah, the Toltecs. But as we learned the Toltecs were new in the neighborhood and not that savvy in terms of arts and literature. So, how did the Toltecs managed to learn the Teotihuacan culture that had disappeared a while back?
Well, Florescano again comes to the rescue. He says that it was through the old ceremonial centers, through the priestly cults, and the oral, and written traditions, that the Teotihuacan culture was preserved.
Nonetheless, the Teotihuacan culture did no pass to the Toltecs through osmosis.
Do you remember, that I mentioned that when the Toltecs showed up, there were some people living already in the valley of Mexico? The ones the Toltecs ran into in their conquest. Well, it looks like these people of valley of Mexico were the cultural descendants of the Teotihuacans. Then, by assimilating these people, is that the Toltecs came in possession of such vast knowledge.
Florescano argues that if it wasn't for this, we couldn't explain the rapid ascension of the Toltecs, and later the Aztecs, in such a short time.
I mean things could have gone quite differently had these semi-nomadic groups, that is the Toltec-Chichimec had arrived at an inhabited territory; or chosen to ignore the knowledge that the other people had, and simply wiped them out. Admittedly, if would have taken them more time to put up the show.
Then, who were these other people that the Toltecs ran into? Florescano cites that before the Toltecs settle in Tula, another group had previously arrived. A group that brought along the knowledge of different essential professions. They were the nonoalca-chichimec.
However, although both groups where chichimec, Toltecs, and Nonoalcas, they were not related. They were both immigrants to the region of the Valley of Mexico.
Florescano points out that in an old text, it is mentioned how little the Toltecs knew. "In the year 10-House, Huactli, -Toltec- king of Cuautitlan died. This king did not know how to sow the land to grow corn. His subjects did not know how to make mantles. They dressed with animal skin. They did not inhabit houses; they just wandered." These Toltec-Chichimec were like the Huns were to the Romans.
In comparison the Nonoalcas, despite of being of foreign origin too, were very crafty and seemed to know lots of useful stuff, like agriculture and arts. They were devoted to the god Quetzalcoatl and had a very peculiar way to shave their heads.
Thus, Florescano says that the Nonoalcas should be the ones given the proper cultural recognition and credit for what the Toltecs and his political descendants, the Aztecs, attributed to themselves.
So, how did these two groups, the Toltec-Chichimec, and the Nonoalca-Chichimec came to be part of the same story?
Well, long ago there was a Toltec chief called Mixcóatl leader of the Toltec invaders. In one of his incursions, in what is today the state of Morelos, Mixcóatl, and met the lady Chimalma, and with her, he had a son. And that lady seemed to have had nonoalca-teotihuacan lineage.
Have you guessed who the lucky child that came from Mixcoatl and Chimalma is?
Indeed it was Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, our protagonist. The guy became such legend overtime that his origins, just like other messianic figures, were adorned with lots of mysticism.
The Anales de Cuahtitlan tells how Topiltzin was miraculously conceived after the death of his father when his mother swallowed an emerald. In contrast, The Histoire du Mechique claims that Topiltzin's father was the god Camaxtli and his mother, the goddess Chimalma. However, most sources agree that Chimalma died giving birth.
Continuing with the legendary account found in the Anales de Cuahtitlan, we find that Topiltzin was brought to Tollan or Tula as their king and priest, where he ruled from the year 1153 to 1175 C.E. That this man, although born into a world of conquests and trained as a warrior, for some reason chose to oppose human sacrifice.
Enrique Florescano, explains that the reason for Topiltzin to go against his paternal culture was that he had been raised by his maternal grandparents in the religion that was professed in Xochicalco, where his elders lived. By the way, Xochilcalco, was one of those centers in which some Teotihuacan traditions had been preserved.
Thus, when Topiltizin came to Tula, the capital of the Toltecs, to inherit his father's position, the young man's world view ignited a battle for the souls of the people. Around him two major groups came in opposition, those who supported the way of the Toltec-Chichimec, and those who supported the Nonoalca's ways.
In the Anales de Cuauhtitlan, it is said that "When Quetzalcoatl-Topiltzin did not obey them -regarding human sacrifices,- the demons gathered. The ones named Tezcatlipoca, Ihuimecatl, and Toltecatl said,: it is imperative that he leaves, where we shall live."
Here, Florescano points out that the so-called demons could had represented the interest of three of the Toltec-Chichimec tribes. During Ce Acatl Topiltzin's rule, the differences among the factions around him reached an unsustainable point. Then, let's take a look at other factors that contributed to such a tragic end.
Florescano says that Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl's religion was new in the Valley of Mexico, that it did not seem to have any relationship with the old ones.
He built four houses of fasting and lived like a hermit inside a protective dark chamber. There he would meditate, inflict self-punishment, and lived in compliance under severe discipline. He had a humanistic perspective of life in which the old custom of human sacrifices was unnecessary.
All this came in opposition to the way other priests lived. In other words, he was making them look bad. He came to represent a radical shift in the moral progress of Mesoamerica.
This guy came to preach a new way of living when Mesoamerica was going through what we can call now a crisis of faith. As Florescano would put it "The old gods had left the people. The palaces, temples, crops, and lands were lost. The people were wandering throughout a fruitless land, reduced to steal and kill in order to eat. These actions were spreading the seeds of hate and destruction. The old customs, the old laws and ways were no longer protecting the people. Wars and calamities were the new order of the day. Man is asking if the gods had forgotten him, if his sins that had led to this disaster, are so grave that cannot be forgiven."
Parallel to this notion of possible salvation, also appeared the idea of a Golden Age. The longing for the good old days! That biased feeling that whatever happened in the past was always better, noble; a past where there was a sense of innocence, wisdom, and simplicity. An era when all the people where content, satisfied, where there was plenty for all. Does it sound familiar? Every old generation tends to say that.
Likely, the Nonoalcas were longing for those good times in which the founding fathers were titans and built a majestic city - referring to Teotihuacan-. Where the gods had been born and had sacrificed themselves. A perfect city where arts, science, and literature reigned. By all means, they needed to go back to that.
It was preached that in order to avert the crisis or survive it, the people must straighten up their habits. That an ethical and virtuous life should overcome war and human sacrifices. That against destruction, laziness, and abandonment, a doctrine of culture and civilization should be preached. Undoubtedly the Nonoalcas somewhat tried to convince the Toltecs.
But imposing onto the new war-like people, the sense of austerity and peace was not going to work. These warriors and their priests had their own agendas, and were comfortable with the way things were.
In addition, and although the Nonoalcas possessed the knowledge of different professions and arts, they were a minority. Still they felt that their privileged position was secured. Thus, this sense of worthiness led them to aspire to govern the city of Tula. They thought they had the upper hand. After all, one of their own had given birth to the future ruler, Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl.
However, as we have learned from history, the intellectuals rarely make it that far. Today, like in the old times, people don't choose their leader based on their resume but on the promises they make.
Back to the struggle of power between the Nonoalcas and Toltecs, Floriscano tells us that when Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl took control, after a period of wars, and conflict, he did it not only as a ruler but as their high priest. And from then on, he tried to become the people's spiritual leader, and tried to impose a peaceful way of living onto a majority of war-like lords.
Well, of course, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl’s preaching did not sit well with the militaristic, and imperialist perspective the Toltecs were used to. So, the guy had to go.
After the last political clash between the followers of Topiltzin, and his opponents, is that the Nonoalcas realized their defeat, and left. The idea of reestablishing a glorious past of wisdom was not possible. It never is. Every person, every culture should always work on creating their own glories, and never try to emulate those of the past.
When Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and his followers left, the Toltecs began to reorganize the house. First, they reinstalled their god Tezcatlipoca, the eye that sees at night; god of the warriors, judge, and avenger, all-knowing and omnipresent.
However, soon after, the Toltecs realized that they had been left without something valuable, and important for the progress and legitimization of their young culture.
The Nonoalcas, as I said before, knew the secret of agriculture, the art of the painted books, the construction of impressive houses and palaces. They knew the art of designing with feathers and carve precious stones. What were Toltecs going to do now? The art of war will not be sufficient to impose themselves onto the people of the valley.
Apparently, the Toltecs tried to dissuade Topiltzin from leaving. Bernardino de Sahagún tells us:
"After leaving Tula, Quetzalcatl arrived at another place a place called Coahuapan, where the necromancers – that is the sorcerers – ran into him, and tried not to let him continue by asking him:
Where are you going? Who will you entrust your people to? Where are you heading to? Why do you leave everything to oblivion? Who will pray to the gods?
And he responded: I cannot return, I must go, to the land of red color, where I will acquire knowledge. They replied: very well leave, but leave us the Toltec culture .”
Sahagún ends up saying: The necromancers took over all that. And he, Quetzalcoatl, tossed his necklaces made of precious stones in the waters, and they sank.
From this last part, we can infer that Quetzalcoatl might have instructed some of his followers to stay with the Toltecs, work for them , or teach them the Nonoalca's arts. And in return, the Toltecs swiftly erased from their history the contribution of the Nonoalcas, and gave themselves full credit for their greatness.
Soon after, the Aztecs reinforced the lie, despite the contradictory evidence. The irony here is that the Aztecs spread the lie not only by repeating it, but by burning in 1428 old codices and books of the history of the Tepaneca, a former Toltec city. Because what was in those books contradicted the slogan of greatness that they were now claiming they had inherited, from the Toltecs
In consequence, the more the victors told, and retold their own version. the Toltecs made sure to grant for themselves a halo of wisdom and greatness. Instead the Nonoalcas should have been given the credit for being the ones who led the city of Tula to its artistic peak.
Last, we will finalize our program with a poem composed by the poet-king of Tezcoco, the legendary Nezahualcóyotl, who is the protagonist of our last episode on Precolumbian Narratives of Mesoamerica.
My Flowers will not Perish by Nezahualcóyotl
My flowers will not perish.
My songs will never cease
I, the poet, raise them up.
Fragrant golden blooms,
they will scatter, they will spread.
But one day,nonetheless,
they will wither
and ascend to the heart of God.
And with this poem we give a farewell to the story of Quetzalcoatl.
Until the next Cuento, adiós, adiós.
The songs: A_Singular_Perversion_Darkness, Double_Drift, All_This_Scoring_Action, Inexorable, Danse_Macabre - Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Camaguey – Silent Partner
Wild_Fires - Doug Maxwell
Falling_Rain - Myuu
Waking_to_Reality - Unicorn Heads
Jungle - Aakash Gandhi
Apocalypse - SYBS
Bittersweet - SYBS