Toltec Histories

Extracted from “THE NATIVE RACES OF THE PACIFIC STATES.” By Hubert Howe Bancroft

From Project Gutenberg

A very important Nahua record, written in Aztec with Spanish letters by an anonymous native author, and copied by Ixtlilxochitl, which belonged to the famous Boturini collection, is the Codex Chimalpopoca. Unfortunately it has never been published, and its contents are only known by occasional references in the works of Brasseur de Bourbourg, who had a copy of the document. From the passages quoted by the abbé I take the following brief account, which seems of some importance in connection with the preceding:

“This is the beginning of the history of things which came to pass long ago, of the division of the earth, the property of all, its origin and its foundation, as well as the manner in which the sun divided it six times four hundred plus one hundred plus thirteen years ago to-day, the twenty-second of May, 1558.” “Earth and the heavens were formed in the year Ce Tochtli; but man had already been created four times. God formed him of ashes, but Quetzalcoatl had perfected him.” After the flood men were changed into dogs. After a new and successful attempt at creation, all began to serve the gods, called Apantecutli, ‘master of the rivers,’ Huictlollinqui, ‘he who causes the earth to shake,’ Tlallamanac, ‘he who presides on the earth,’ and Tzontemoc, ‘he whose hair descends.’ Quetzalcoatl remained alone. Then they said, “the vassals of the gods are born; they have already begun to serve us,” but they added, “what will you eat, O gods?” and Quetzalcoatl went to search for means of subsistence. At that time Azcatl, the ‘ant,’ going to Tonacatepetl, ‘mount of our subsistence,’ for maize, was met by Quetzalcoatl, who said, “where hast thou been to obtain that thing? Tell me.” At first the Ant would not tell, but the Plumed Serpent insisted, and repeated, “whither shall I go?” Then they went there together, Quetzalcoatl metamorphosing himself into a ‘black ant.’ Tlaltlauhqui Azcatl, the ‘yellow ant,’ accompanied Quetzalcoatl respectfully, as they went to seek maize and brought it to Tamoanchan. Then the gods began to eat, and put some of the maize in our mouths that we might become strong. The same record implies that Quetzalcoatl afterwards became obnoxious to his companions and abandoned them.

In this document we have evidently an account of substantially the same events that are recorded in the Tzendal and Quiché records:—the division of the earth by the Sun in the year 955 B.C., or as Ordoñez interprets the Tzendal tradition, by Votan ‘about 1000 B.C.’; the formation of the earth by the supreme being, and the successive creations of man, or attempts to introduce civilization among savages through the agency of Quetzalcoatl,—acts ascribed by the Quiché tradition to the same person under the name of Gucumatz; the flood and resulting transformation of men into dogs, instead of monkeys as in the Popol Vuh, symbolizing perhaps the relapse into savagism of partially civilized tribes;—the adoption of agriculture represented in both traditions as an expedition by Quetzalcoatl, or Gucumatz, in search of maize. According to the Popol Vuh he sought the maize in Paxil and Cayala, ‘divided and stagnant waters,’ by the aid of Utïu, ‘the coyote;’ while in the Nahua tradition, aided by Azcatl, ‘the ant,’ he finds the desired food in Tonacatepetl, ‘mount of our subsistence.’ Finally, the Codex Chimalpopoca identifies the home of the Nahua nations, whence the search for maize was made, with Tamoanchan, which Sahagun has clearly located in Tabasco.

Before considering the traditions that relate the migration of the Toltecs proper to Tollan in Anáhuac, it will be most convenient to give the little that is known of those nations that are supposed to have preceded the Toltecs in Mexico. The chief of these are the Quinames, Olmecs, Xicalancas, Totonacs, Huastecs, Miztecs, Zapotecs, and Otomís. The Olmecs and Xicalancas, who are sometimes represented as two nations, sometimes as divisions of the same nation, are regarded by all the authorities as Nahuas, speaking the same language as the Toltecs, but settled in Anáhuac long before the establishment of the Toltec Empire at Tollan. As nations they both became extinct before the Spanish Conquest, as did the Toltecs, but there is little doubt that their descendants under new names and in new national combinations still lived in Puebla, southern Vera Cruz, and Tabasco—the region traditionally settled by them—down to the coming of the Spaniards. They are regarded as the first of the Nahua nations in this region and are first noticed by tradition on the south-eastern coasts, whither they had come in ships from the east. Sahagun, as we have seen, identifies them with certain families of the Nahuas who set out from Tamoanchan to settle in the northern coast region. Ixtlilxochitl tells us they occupied the land in the third age of the world, landing on the east coast as  far as the land of Papuha, ‘muddy water,’ or in the region about the Laguna de Terminos. Veytia names Pánuco as their landing-place, and gives the date as a few years after the regulation of the calendar, already noticed in Sahagun’s record. Their national names are derived from that of their first rulers Olmecatl and Xicalancatl. Two ancient cities called Xicalanco are reported on the gulf coast; one of them, which flourished nearly or quite down to the time of the Conquest, and whose ruins are still said to be visible, was just below Vera Cruz; the other, probably the more ancient, stood at the point which still bears the name of Xicalanco at the entrance to the Laguna de Terminos. This whole region is also said to have borne the name of Anáhuac Xicalanco. Mendieta and Torquemada relate that the followers of Xicalancatl peopled the region towards the Goazacoalco, where stood the two cities referred to. The people of that part of the country were generally known at the time of the Conquest as Nonohualcas. The chief development of this people, or of its Olmec branch, was, so far as recorded in tradition, in the state of Puebla further north and inland.

This tradition of the arrival of strangers on the eastern coast, and the growth of the Olmec and Xicalanca powers on and north of the isthmus, in view of the facts that these nations are universally regarded as Nahuas and as the first of the race to settle in Anáhuac, cannot be considered as distinct from that given by Sahagun respecting the Nahua race, especially as the latter author speaks of the departure of certain families from Tamoanchan to settle in the provinces of Olmeca Vixtoti. It is most natural to suppose that the new power extended gradually northward to Puebla as well as inland into Chiapas, where it came more directly in contact with its great rival. This view of the matter is likewise supported by the fact that Quetzalcoatl, the culture-hero, is said to have wrought his great works in the time of the Olmecs and Xicalancas—according to some traditions to have been their leader when they arrived on the coast. Sahagun also applies the name Tlalocan, ‘land of riches,’ or ‘terrestrial paradise,’ to this south-eastern region, implying its identity with Tamoanchan.


I now come to what may be termed the regular annals of that branch of the Nahua nations which finally established a kingdom in Anáhuac with Tollan for a capital, and which acquired the name of Toltec. These annals will be found not more satisfactory or less mythical than the traditions that have been given in the preceding pages, although in their more salient points they seem to agree with those traditions. They were recorded in a most careless and confused manner by the native writer Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who derived his information from the documents which survived the destruction by the Spanish priests. The comments of later writers, and their attempts to reconcile this author’s statements one with another and all with scriptural traditions and with the favorite theory of a general migration from the north, have still further confused the subject. I have no hope of being able to reduce Ixtlilxochitl’s statements to perfect order, or to explain the exact historical meaning of each statement; still, by the omission of a large amount of profitless conjecture, scriptural comparison, and hopelessly entangled chronology, the tradition may be somewhat simplified so as to yield, as other traditions have done, some items of general information respecting the primitive Nahua period.

At the end of the first age of the world or the ‘sun of waters,’ as we are told by Ixtlilxochitl, the earth was visited by a flood which covered even the most lofty mountains. After the repeopling of the earth by the descendants of a few families who escaped destruction, the building of a tower as a protection against a possible future catastrophe of similar nature, and the confusion of tongues and consequent scattering of the population—for all these things were found in the native traditions, as we are informed—seven families speaking the same language kept together in their wanderings for many years; and after crossing broad lands and seas, enduring great hardships, they reached the country of Huehue Tlapallan, or ‘Old’ Tlapallan; which they found to be fertile and desirable to dwell in. The second age, the ‘sun of air,’ terminated with a great hurricane which swept away trees, rocks, houses, and people, although many men and women escaped, chiefly such as took refuge in caves which the hurricane could not reach. After several days the survivors came out to find a multitude of apes living in the land; and all this time they were in darkness, seeing neither the sun nor moon. The next event recorded, although Veytia makes it precede the hurricane, is the stopping of the sun for a whole day in his course, as at the command of Joshua as recorded in the Old Testament. “When the mosquito, however, saw the sun thus suspended and pensive, he addressed him saying, ‘Lord of the world, why art thou thus motionless, and doest not thy duty as is commanded thee? Dost thou wish to destroy the world as is thy wont?’ Then seeing that he was yet silent and made no response, the insect went up and stung him in the leg, whereupon he, feeling himself stung, started anew on his accustomed course.”

Next occurred an earthquake which swallowed up and destroyed all the Quinames, or giants—at least all those who lived in the coast regions—together with many of the Toltecs and of their neighbors the Chichimecs. After the destruction of these Philistines, “being at peace with all this new world, all the wise Toltecs, both the astrologers and those of other arts, assembled in Huehue Tlapallan, the chief city of their dominion, where they treated of many things, the calamities they had suffered and the movements of the heavens since the creation of the world, and of many other things, which on account of their histories having been burned, have not been ascertained further than what has been written here, among which they added the bissextile to regulate the solar year with the equinox, and many other curiosities as will be seen in their tables and arrangement of years, months, weeks, days, signs, and planets as they understood them.”

One hundred and sixteen years after this regulation or invention of the Toltec calendar, “the sun and moon were eclipsed, the earth shook, and the rocks were rent asunder, and many other things and signs happened, though there was no loss of life. This was in the year Ce Calli, which, the chronology being reduced to our systems, proves to be the same date when Christ our Lord suffered” (33 A.D.)

Three hundred and five years later, when the empire had been long at peace, Chalcatzin and Tlacamihtzin, chief descendants of the royal house of the Toltecs, raised a revolt for the purpose of deposing the legitimate successor to the throne. The rebellious chiefs were after long wars driven out of their city Tlachicatzin in Huehue Tlapallan, with all their numerous families and allies. They were pursued by their kindred of the city or country of Tlaxicoluican for sixty leagues, to a place discovered by Cecatzin, which they named Tlapallanconco or ‘little’ Tlapallan. The struggle by which the rebels were conquered lasted eight years,—or thirteen, according to Veytia—and they were accompanied on their forced migration by five other chiefs. The departure from Huehue Tlapallan seems to have taken place in the fifth or sixth century.


We have seen the Olmec tribes established for several centuries on the eastern plateaux, or in the territory now constituting the states of Puebla and Tlascala. Cholula was the Olmec capital, a flourishing city celebrated particularly for its lofty pyramid crowned with a magnificent temple built in honor of Quetzalcoatl. Teotihuacan within the valley of Anáhuac had long been as it long continued to be the religious centre of all the Nahua nations. Here kings and priests were elected, ordained, and buried. Hither flocked pilgrims from every direction to consult the oracles, to worship in the temples of the sun and moon, and to place sacrificial offerings on the altars of their deities. The sacred city was ruled by the long-haired priests of the Sun, famous for their austerity and for their wisdom. Through the hands of these priests, as the Spanish writers tell us, yearly offerings were made of the first fruits of all their fields; and each year at harvest-time a solemn festival was celebrated, not unattended by human sacrifice. It is true that the Spanish authorities in their descriptions of Teotihuacan and the ceremonies there performed, refer for the most part to the Toltec rather than the pre-Toltec period; but it has been seen in the preceding chapter that this city rose to its position as the religious centre of the Nahuas in Mexico long before the appearance of the Toltecs, and there is no evidence of any essential change in its priesthood, or the nature of its theocratic rule. No national name is applied in tradition to the people that dwelt in Teotihuacan at this period, although the Totonacs claim to have built the pyramids before they were driven eastward by Chichimec tribes. Tabasco, Vera Cruz, and Tamaulipas were occupied by Xicalancas, Totonacs, and Huastecs, respecting whom little more than their names is known. Southward in Oajaca were already settled the Miztecs and Zapotecs. The Otomís, a very numerous people, whose primitive history is altogether unknown, occupied a large part of the valley of Mexico, and the surrounding mountains, particularly toward the north and north-west. There were doubtless many other tribes in Mexico when the later Nahua nations came, particularly in the north and west, which tribes were driven out, at least from the most desirable locations, subjected, or converted and partially civilized by the new-comers; but such tribes have left no traces in history.


During the first six years of their stay in the valley of the Quetzalatl, the Toltecs gave their attention to the building of the new city, and the careful cultivation of the surrounding lands; at least such is the account given by Ixtlilxochitl and those who have followed him; but, according to Brasseur’s interpretation, they spent the six years in the conquest of the province and siege of the ancient city which they re-named Tollan. Up to this time the exiles from Huehue Tlapallan had lived under the command of the rebel princes Chalcaltzin and Tlacamihtzin with their five companions acting as chiefs of the different families, but all acting under the directions of Hueman the prophet. The great age attributed to both prophet and chiefs, who for over a century at the least had directed the wanderings of their people, does not, of course merit serious discussion, since it cannot be literally accepted. The most natural, yet a purely conjectural, interpretation of the tradition is that a line or family of chieftains is represented by its founder or by its most famous member; and that by Hueman is to be understood the powerful priesthood that ruled the destinies of the Toltecs, from the earliest days to the fall of their empire. The government was a theocratic republic, each chief directing the movements of his band in war and, so far as such direction was needed, in peace, but all yielding, through fear of the gods or veneration for their representatives, implicit obedience to the counsels of their spiritual leader in all matters of national import. But in the seventh year after their arrival in Tollan, when the republic was yet in a state of peace and prosperity, undisturbed by foreign or internal foes, the chiefs convened an assembly of the heads of families and the leading men. The object of the meeting was to effect a change in the form of their government, and to establish a monarchy. The motive of the leaders, as represented by the tradition, was a fear of future disturbances in a commonwealth governed by so many independent chieftains. They recommended the election of an absolute monarch, offering to surrender their own power and submit to the rule of whatever king the people might choose. The members of the convention acquiesced in the views of the chieftains, and approved the proposed change in their form of government. An election being next in order, a majority expressed their preference for one of the seven chiefs to occupy the new throne.

As to the exact order in which occurred the subsequent disasters by which the Toltec empire was overthrown, the authorities differ somewhat, although agreeing tolerably well respecting their nature. Many events ascribed by Brasseur to Huemac’s reign are by Veytia and others described as having happened in that of his successor. There can, however, be but little hesitation in following the chronology of the Nahua documents often referred to, in preference to that of the Spanish writers. The latter is certainly erroneous; the former at the worst is only probably so. With his returning prosperity the king seems to have returned to his evil ways while the partizans of Tezcatlipoca resumed their intrigues against him. The sorcerer assembled a mighty crowd near Tollan, and kept them dancing to the music of his drum until midnight, when by reason of the darkness and their intoxication they crowded each other off a precipice into a deep ravine, where they were turned to stone. A stone bridge was also broken by the necromancer and crowds precipitated into the river. Other wonderful acts of the sorcerer against the well-being of the Toltecs as related by Sahagun have been given in another volume. From one of the neighboring volcanoes a flood of glowing lava poured, and in its lurid light appeared frightful spectres threatening the capital. A sacrifice of captives in honor of Tezcatlipoca, was decided upon to appease the angry gods, a sacrifice which Huemac was forced to sanction. But when a young boy, chosen by lot as the first victim, was placed upon the altar and the obsidian knife plunged into his breast, no heart was found in his body, and his veins were without blood. The fetid odor exhaled from the corpse caused a pestilence involving thousands of deaths. The struggles of the Toltecs to get rid of the body have been elsewhere related. Next the Tlaloc divinities appeared to Huemac as he walked in the forest, and were implored by him not to take from him his wealth and his royal splendor. The gods were wroth at this petition, his apparent selfishness, and want of penitence for past sins, and they departed announcing their purpose to bring plagues and suffering upon the proud Toltecs for six years. The winter of 1018 was so cold that all plants and seeds were killed by frost, and was followed by a hot summer, which parched the whole surface of the country, dried up the streams, and even calcined the solid rocks.

Here seem to belong the series of plagues described by the Spanish writers, although attributed by them to the following reign. The plagues began with heavy storms of rain, destroying the ripening crops, flooding the streets of towns, continuing for a hundred days, and causing great fear of a universal deluge. Heavy gales followed, which leveled the finest buildings to the ground; and toads in immense numbers covered the ground, consuming everything edible and even penetrating the dwellings of the people. The next year unprecedented heat and drought prevailed, rendering useless all agricultural labor, and causing much starvation. Next heavy frosts destroyed what little the heat had spared, not even the hardy maguey surviving; and then came upon the land great swarms of birds and locusts and various insects. Lightning and hail completed the work of devastation, and as a result of all their afflictions Ixtlilxochitl informs us that nine hundred of every thousand Toltecs perished. Huemac and his followers were held responsible for disasters that had come upon the people; a hungry mob of citizens and strangers crowded the street of Tollan and even invaded the palace of the nobles, instigated and headed by the partizans of Tezcatlipoca; and the king was even forced at one time to abandon the city for a time. The Codex Chimalpopoca represented the long rain already referred to as having occurred at the end of six years’ drought and famine, and to have inaugurated a new season of plenty. Ixtlilxochitl refers to bloody wars as among the evils of the time. All we may learn from the confused accounts, is that the Toltec empire at that period was afflicted with war, famine, and pestilence; and that these afflictions were attributed to the sins of Huemac II., by his enemies and such of the people as they could influence….

Nahua and Quetzalcoatl

Extracted from “THE NATIVE RACES OF THE PACIFIC STATES.” By Hubert Howe Bancroft

From Project Gutenberg

During the Olmec period, that is, the earliest period of Nahua power, the great Quetzalcoatl appeared. We have seen that in the Popol Vuh and Codex Chimalpopoca this being is represented as the half-divinity, half-hero, who came at the head of the first Nahuas to America from across the sea. Other authorities imply rather that he came later from the east or north, in the period of the greatest Olmec prosperity, after the rival Quinames had been defeated. To such differences in detail no great importance is to be attached; since all that can be definitely learned from these traditions is the facts that Quetzalcoatl, or Gucumatz, was the most prominent of the Nahua heroes, and that his existence is to be attributed to this earliest period, known in Mexico as Olmec, but without a distinctive name in the south. Quetzalcoatl was a white, bearded man, venerable, just, and holy, who taught by precept and example the paths of virtue in all the Nahua cities, particularly in Cholula. His teachings, according to the traditions, had much in common with those of Christ in the Old World, and most of the Spanish writers firmly believed him to be identical with one of the Christian apostles, probably St Thomas. During his stay in this region his doctrines do not seem to have met with a satisfactory reception, and he left disheartened. He predicted before his departure great calamities, and promised to return in a future year Ce Acatl, at which time his doctrines were to be fully accepted, and his descendants were to possess the land. Montezuma is known to have regarded the coming of Cortés and the Spaniards as a fulfillment of this prediction, and in his speech to the new-comers states further that after his first visit Quetzalcoatl had already once returned,and attempted unsuccessfully to induce his followers to go back with him across the sea. The first part of the prophet’s prediction actually came to pass, as traditions tell us, for only a few days after his departure occurred the earthquake which destroyed the pyramid at Cholula, the American Babel, and ushered in the new or fourth age of fire, according to Ixtlilxochitl. On the ruins of the pyramid was built a temple to Quetzalcoatl, who was afterwards worshiped as a god.

We shall find very similar traditions of another Quetzalcoatl who appeared much later, during the Toltec period, and who also made Cholula a centre of his reform. As we shall see, the evidence is tolerably conclusive that the two are not the same, yet it is more than likely that the traditions respecting them have been considerably mixed both in native and European hands. After the time of Quetzalcoatl we know nothing of Olmec or Xicalanca history down to the establishment of the Toltec empire, when these nations were still in possession of the country of Puebla and Tlascala. Boturini conjectures that, being driven from Mexico, they migrated to the Antilles and to South America. There is not, however, the slightest necessity to suppose that the Olmecs ever left the country at all. Their institutions and language were the same as that of the Toltec peoples that nominally succeeded them, and although like the Toltecs they became extinct as a nation, yet there is no reason to doubt that their descendants lived long in the land, and took part in the new political combinations that make up Nahua history down to the Conquest.


Of the Nahua hieroglyphic system and its capabilities enough has been said elsewhere. By its aid, from the beginning of the Toltec period at least, all historical events were recorded that were deemed worthy of being preserved. The popular knowledge of these events was perpetuated by means of poems, songs, and plays, and this knowledge was naturally faulty in dates. The numerous discrepancies which students of the present day meet at every step in the investigation of aboriginal annals, result chiefly from the almost total destruction of the painted records, the carelessness of those who attempted to interpret the few surviving documents at a time when such a task by native aid ought to have been feasible, the neglect of the Spanish priesthood in allowing the art of interpretation to be well-nigh lost, their necessary reliance for historical information on the popular knowledge above referred to, and to a certain degree doubtless from their failure to properly record information thus obtained.

But few native manuscripts have been preserved to the present time, and only a small part of those few are historical in their nature, two of the most important having been given in my second volume. Most of the events indicated in such picture-writings as have been interpreted are also narrated by the early writers from traditional sources. Thus we see that our knowledge of aboriginal history depends chiefly on the hieroglyphic records destroyed by the Spaniards, rather than on the few fragments that escaped such destruction. To documents that may be found in the future, and to a more careful study of those now existing, we may look perhaps for much corrective information respecting dates and other details, but it is not probable that newly discovered picture-writings or new readings of old ones will extend the aboriginal annals much farther back into the past. These remarks apply of course only to the Aztec documents; the Maya records painted on skin and paper, or inscribed on stone, are yet sealed books, respecting the nature of whose contents conjecture is vain, but from which the future may evolve revelations of the greatest importance.