Huemac Eric Rosenfield
The Legendary Fall of Tollan
by Eric Rosenfield
Art and Mythology of Mexico
Instructor: Jaime Arredondo
The Legendary Fall of Tollan
by Eric Rosenfield
This essay began while reading H. B. Nicholson's excellent analysis of the Quetzalcoatl legend, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs. In it, Nicholson discusses each primary source of the legend, one by one, describing the source's context, history and summarizing the content. At the end he puts together an interpretation of the basic storyline, as he thinks it may have been told in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. This is no small feat, considering how divergent and disparate the many stories of the great Toltec ruler are. Nicholson draws on the common themes and structural elements of the stories in order to make his interpretation.
In The Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula by Nigel Davies, Davies expands the Topiltzen Quetzalcoatl story into a larger epic he calls the Mixcoatl Saga, which encompasses the story of three Toltec rulers: Mixcoatl, Topiltzin, and Huemac. The initial idea for this paper was to give a very minor version of the Nicholson treatment to the Huemac Legend, and the story of the fall of the Toltecs that's associated with him.
However, problems quickly emerged. Nicholson lists 7 primary sources that have versions of the Toltec epic. Davies expands the list to 14. Of these 14 sources, and drawing on the libraries of the college consortium and the New York Public Library system, three were able to be found.
These three sixteenth-century documents are the Annals of Cuauhtitlan and the Legend of the Suns,which are both gathered in a volume called the Codex Chimalpopoca, and the General History of Things in New Spain by Spanish monk Fray Bernandino de Sahagun.
In this paper, then, I intend to discus, in the style of Nicholson's Topiltzen Quetzalcoatl, the story of Huemac as related in these three works, including my own analysis and interpretation.
The Annals of Cuauhtitlan
Completed by about 1570 AD, the Annals' anonymous authors attempt to compile a “large number of local histories”1 into one framework, going year by year like in a chronicle. The authors of the work correlated the native date “1 Reed” with the year 1519 AD (the year of Cortez' arrival), and from this the translator has put correlating dates in brackets next to the native calendrical dates2.
The Huemac Material
After Queztzalcoatl dies (by self-immolation), Matlacxochitzin becomes the ruler of Tollan, followed by Nauhyotzin, Matlacoatzin, and Tlilcoatzin. In 994 AD, Tlilcoatzin dies and Huemac is inaugurated. Huemac marries a woman named Coacueye.
Then "female sorcerers set out to make fun of Huemac and mock him" and he "cohabitates with them". The sorcerers Yaotl and Tezcatlipoca transform themselves into women and cohabitate with Huemac (assumably, these are the same female sorcerers who mock Huemac in the preceding sentence). Huemac steps down.
24 years later (1018) there is a great famine, which lasts 7 years. The sorcerers (Yaotl and Tezcatlipoca) "requisition" Huemac's children and sacrifice them, leaving their bodies in lakes. It says this is the first time the sacrifice of human "streamers" occurs, and a footnote says that "streamers" refers to children sacrificed on mountaintops as offerings to the rain gods (the tlalocs or tlaloque).
In 1058, earth goddesses called the Ixcuinanme arrive, and they take captives and use them in a sacrifice with arrows. This becomes a regularly occurring type of sacrifice in the name of the Ixcuinanme- as the text says, "that was when the arrow shoot was founded".
In 1063, Yaotl returns and starts a war between the Toltecs and an unnamed opponent. The Toltecs take prisoners and Yaotl incites them to use the prisoners as human sacrifices. This is how this type of human sacrifice "got started". At this time he also sings songs at Texcalapan, and then he grabs a woman and flays her skin, and he makes one of the Toltecs wear the skin, and this was the origin of that kind of sacrifice.
As an aside, the text reinforces that during the reign of Quetzalcoatl no sacrifices were allowed, and it wasn't until the time of Huemac that human sacrifices started.
In 1064, the Toltecs disband. Huemac leads them as they travel to Cincoc and there Huemac sacrifices a human streamer. They travel to Cuauhnenec, where Huemac's wife gives birth. They travel to Teocompan, and there, standing on a cactus, is the sorcerer Yaotl. Yaotl calls out a number of the Toltecs to him, to settle under him in Xaltocan. The rest of the Toltecs travel on.
By 1070, the Toltecs have been wandering for 7 years, and have dispersed throughout the lands of Anahuac (the world). Huamac ends up in the cave called Cincalco, near Chapoltepec, and, seeing no more Toltecs behind him, he hangs himself.
1) Huemac is made leader of the Toltecs; 2) Two sorcerers, Yaotl and Tezcatlipoca, come to mock and make fun of Huemac; 3) they turn themselves into women and seduce Huemac; 4) Huemac is deprived of his position; 5) there is a long, terrible famine; 6) the sorcerers kidnap and sacrifice Huemac's children, 7) earth spirits capture people and shoot them with arrows; 8) Yaotl starts a war and then incites ritual sacrifice of the captured prisoners; 9) Yaotl flays a woman's skin and put it on a Toltec warrior; 10) the Toltecs are forced out of Tula, and begin wandering; 11) The Toltecs disperse over 7 years of wondering; 12) Huemac is alone, abandoned or left behind, and he hangs himself at Cincalco.
What separates this narrative from the other two discussed in this essay is its emphasis on human sacrifice. No other source paints the series of plagues that lead to the fall of Tollan so specifically as being the origins of forms of sacrifice. Nicholson describes this as “the introduction of new cults involving novel methods of human sacrifice”3.
The Legend of the Suns
The Nahua picture books that constituted the literature of the Aztecs and pre-Columbian Northern Mexicans had no words, other than glyphs representing names and dates. The “reader” of the book would be someone well versed in lore, who would tell the story using the the book as accompaniment. Completed in 1558, the Legend of the Suns is one of these oral narratives written down using Spanish phonetics by an Aztec native “free of priestly direction”4
The Huemac Material
After Topiltzin leaves Tollan, Huemac becomes the ruler. A giant enters Tollan and begins eating people. Toltecs manage to snare and capture it, and they kill it, but when they look inside of it it has no heart, no innards, and no blood.
The giants body emits a smell that is so horrible that anyone who smells it dies, and people just walking by, who don't smell it start to die. And they try to move it but it is extremely heavy and immobile, and the ropes they try to pull it with break and whoever is holding onto a broken rope falls and dies. Finally, when it moves, anyone who comes in contact with it dies. The Toltecs manage to drag it out of the city, but when they do it starts to float into the sky, floating away along with anyone who didn't let go of their rope in time.
Meanwhile, Huemac plays the ball game with the rain gods (the tlolocs or tloloque), wagering jade and quetzal plumes. Huemac wins. The rain gods try to fool Huemac by giving him green ears of corn and corn shucks instead of jades and quetzal plumes, but Huemac can't be fooled. So the rain gods give him their jades and plumes, but they say the Toltecs will have to suffer, and curse them for 4 years.
All around the city, where the farmers are, it snows knee deep in the middle of the summer and kills all the crops. However, in the city itself it is incredibly hot, and all the trees, prickly pears, maguay (Mexican agave) cactuses dry up and the stones themselves shatter from the heat.
A little old woman appears in the marketplace selling banners, and anyone who buys the banners falls dead on the sacrificial stone.
And after 4 years of hunger, the food and water begins to come back. A rain god appears to a wandering Toltec. The rain god gives the Toltec an armload of green corn and tells him to give it to Huemac, and to tell him that the Toltecs are going to be destroyed. Further, the rain god says that Huemac is to give a message to the leader of the Mexica (the Aztecs) - Tozcuecuex - that he is to sacrifice his daughter.
The message is brought to Huemac who "was sad" and "wept". He sends the message to Tozcuecuex as he was told to. Tozcuecuex sacrifices his daughter, and then the rain gods appear to him. They tell him to open his tobacco flask, put the daughter's heart in it, and then put in "all the different foods". The gods tell him, "here is what the Mexica eat, for the Toltecs are to be destroyed".
Then, (a few months after the Toltecs have abandoned their lands) it rains, day and night, for 4 days straight. All the herbs and plants and corn that the Toltecs planted spout up for the Aztecs to eat.
In 1 Flint (1064) the Toltecs were “destroyed” and "Huemac went into Cincalco".
1) Huemac succeeds Topiltzin; 2) a monster appears and begins eating people; 3) the monster is killed, but it can not be moved, and attempts to do so result in death; 4) eventually the monster is able to be moved, and when they drag it out to a safe distance it floats away taking some of the draggers with it; 5) Huemac plays ball with the rain gods, and wins; 6) the rain gods try to trick Huemac, but fail, and then they curse the Toltecs; 7) there is unnatural cold in the farm lands and unnatural heat in the city, lasting for 4 years; 8) there is a woman selling fatal banners; 9) a rain god appears to a Toltec and tells him their nation is to be destroyed; 10) the Aztec leader is told to sacrifice his daughter; 11) the Aztec leader does sacrifice his daughter, and a rain god appears to him and tells him how he can sustain the Aztecs during this time of trouble; 12) The Toltecs abandon Tollan and their civilization; 13) Huemac goes into Cincalco.
This story is the only one of the three that has no mention of evil sorcerers bringing about the Toltecs downfall. This text also has the interesting feature of positioning the Aztecs as being preferred by the gods and inheritors of the Toltec legacy, which is not so surprising when considering that the authors were Aztec.
The General History of Things in New Spain by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun
Sahagun has been called the “first modern ethnographer”5. He was a Spanish monk who spent most of his life in colonial Mexico; while there he composed the General History to be an encyclopedia of information about the native people, encompassing their language, religion, mythology, food, customs, daily life, and more. The 12 volumes that resulted, completed in 1569, remain among the most important works on the native American world ever created. Sahagun's version of the Topiltzin/Huemac saga in contained in volume 3 (the Mixcoatl portion of the epic is conspicuously absent).
The Huemac Material
There are three sorcerers who plague Quetzalcoatl and Huemac: Titlacaoan, Tlacabepan and Huitzilopochtli.
Huemac is a secular, civic chief of the Toltecs. He is contemporaneous to Quetzalcoatl, who functions as a chaste, priestly religious leader.
First the necromancers plague Quetzalcoatl, causing him to become drunk with an agave wine (pulque) that they tell him is medicine.
Then Titlacaoan disguises himself as a "chile" salesman calling himself Tobeyo, who sells green chilies in the marketplace while stark naked. Huemac's beautiful daughter sees Tobeyo in the marketplace, "liked him and wanted to have him" and on account of this her "whole body began to swell".
The portion of the story containing this last paragraph, according to a footnote, was censored by a translator named Bustamante, and was originally more graphic.
Huemac discovers his daughter sick, and asks her attendants what's wrong with her. The attendants tell him she is "love-sick" and that the cause is the naked chili-pepper salesman named Tobeyo. Huemac orders the Toltec people to find Tobeyo and bring him forward, but he is nowhere to be found.
"Later", Tobeyo appears in the same place in the marketplace, once again selling chilies. He is discovered and brought to Huemac. Huemac asks him why he is naked, and he says "we have this custom in my country". Huemac says to him, "By force you are to cure my daughter", and Tobeyo is washed, has his hair cut and is dressed in a Maxtli girdle and blanket, and is sent in to sleep with Huemac's daughter. This cures her of her ailment, and the two are married.
The Toltecs become angry because Tobeyo allowed his daughter to marry "a Tobeyo" (the text says earlier that the daughter is "greatly coveted by the Toltecs", and that Huemac would not let any of them marry her) (Bustamante says Tobeyo means "plebeian", one of low birth). Huemac contrives to start a war with the Cacatepecs and the Coatepecs, and then send Tobeyo into battle to be killed. The Toltec army hides Tobeyo among the "pages, dwarves and the lame", and then, as the Coatepecs advance the army pulls away, so that Tobeyo is left to fight with only the pages, dwarves and lame to help him.
The Toltec army returns to Huemac, telling him the deed has been done, and Huemac is pleased. Meanwhile, Tobeyo and his group have "sallied forth" against the enemy and "slew a great number of them".
When Tobeyo returns victorious, Huemac is afraid, and it "caused him great regret", so he receives Tobeyo as a war hero, with a crown of feathers and yellow body paint. There is great rivalry and dancing. Tobeyo says that they should have a crier proclaim the festivities, and when one does, people without number come to Tollan to participate in the party.
Tobeyo takes up a drum and starts singing, and each verse he sings, the crowd repeats the verse back to him, even though they don't know the song by heart.
The singing and drumming cause the Toltecs to act "like drunkards without brains", and they push each other off the cliff called Texcaltlauhco, where they fall and turn into stones. There is a bridge, but Tobeyo causes the bridge to break apart, and the people trying to cross fall in and turn into stones.
This is the beginning of a series of "tricks" the necromancer plays on the Toltecs, like a series of plagues.
Next, Titlacaoan disguises himself as a "courageous man" named Tequioa. He has a crier go off and gather the people together to work in a garden that belongs to Quetzelcoatl. "All the Toltecs" come to work in the garden, at which point Tequioa starts killing them by hitting them with a hoe. He kills a great number, and another great number dies pushing and shoving to get away from him.
Next, the sorcerer sits in the marketplace calling himself Tlacavepan. He makes a tiny boy dance in his hand (“they say it was Huitzilopochtli”), and in the crush to see it the Toltecs smother and kill each other. Then the sorcerer (apparently projecting himself into the crowd?) says that the man with the boy dancing is an "impostor", a "fraud", and that the Toltecs should kill him. Which they do, by throwing stones at him. After Tlacavepan dies, his body begins to stink and the smell kills people all around. And so they try to move the corpse, but the can't and they tie it with ropes to drag it, but it's no use and whenever one of the ropes breaks the person holding it falls to the ground and dies. And the sorcerer says "the corpse wants a song", and he sings a song, and after he does the corpse moves. They manage to drag the corpse out into the woods, and after the draggers return home they don't remember any of what happened, because "they were like intoxicated men".
The conjurer lets fly a white bird pierced with an arrow, that the Toltecs can see in the sky. He makes it so that the Toltecs see a mountain range in the distance that looks like it's in flames. The Toltecs say to one another that this is a bad omen, and that they are doomed.
Then it rains stones instead of water. A particularly large stone called a techcatl falls. Then an old woman appears in the market place selling banners and anyone willing to die immediately takes one of the banners and dies on top of the Techcatl stone. The text tells us that none of the Toltecs say "what is happening to us", because they were all like crazy people.
All the food mysteriously goes sour and can not be eaten. The the sorcerer disguises himself as an old woman, and settles in Xochitla toasting corn. The smell of the corn travels far and wide and hungry people arrive in large numbers. They were then "killed by the old woman and not one of them returned home".
From there the narrative turns to the flight of Quetzalcoatl.
1) The sorcerer Titlacaoan disguises himself as a naked chile salesman named Tobeyo; 2) Huemac's daughter sees Tobeyo and falls lovesick for him; 3) Tobeyo disappears and can not be found; 4) Tobeyo reappears, is brought before Huemac, and sent to sleep with the daughter in order to cure her – they are married; 5) The Toltecs become angry with Huemac, and Huemac contrives a war in order to get rid of Tobeyo; 6) Tobeyo is abandoned on the battlefield with no one but pages, the lame and dwarves to help him; 7) Tobeyo is victorious anyway, and Huemac is forced to receive him as a war hero; 8) A great victory party is started with people brought in from all around; 9) Tobeyo plays a drum and sings, which causes the people to dance themselves to death; 11) the sorcerer disguises himself as Tequioa, and sets to work in Quetzalcoatl's garden, calling people to help him; 12) when they do he starts killing them with his hoe; 10) the sorcerer disguises himself as Tlacavepan, and makes a tiny boy dance on his hand, causing many to be killed in the rush to see it; 9) Tlacavepan is killed by the mob; 10) his corpse stinks and the smell kills people; 11) his corpse can not be moved, and they use ropes, but they break and whomever is holding a broken rope falls to the ground dead; 12) the sorcerer (who is now not the corpse) sings a song, and then the corpse can be moved; 13) there are bad omens; 14) it rains stones; 15) a women sells fatal banners in the marketplace; 15) all the food goes sour; 16) the sorcerer disguises himself as an old woman, roasts some corn, and the roasting brings people from all around, who the sorcerer kills.
The fall of Tollan is not explicitly described in the General History; indeed the Huemac material is placed directly in the middle of the Quetzalcoatl story. The narrative of the daughter is unique and interesting, though seems to get cut off without resolution after the party where Tobeyo plays his drum and sings. Indeed, it is not the only unfinished narrative in this telling of the story – after all, we don't even find out what becomes of Huemac.
Some Interpretations of the Basic Data Presented
The unifying theme in these three stories is that of the Toltecs being beset with plagues. In all of them Huemac is a leader of the Toltecs. In all three Huemac and his people are tormented by supernatural entities, either in the form of sorcerers or rain gods. All of them have in common inexplicable natural (or supernatural) disasters, such as famine, heat, cold, and raining stones.
In the Sahagun narrative it is the plagues that cause Quetzalcoatl to leave Tollan, but in the other two texts they are the reason for the destruction of the Toltecs and abandonment of Tollan by them, lead by Huemac. Other elements of the story also occur in two narratives, but not the third: the stinking corpse that can not be moved appears in both the Legend and the General History; sorcerers as the primary villains appear in the Annals and the General History; in both the Legend and the General History, there is a woman in the marketplace who shows up selling banners that cause death; Huemac ends up in Cincalco in both the Annals and the Legend. Even the deathly singing at Texcaltlauhco in History is echoed in the Annals, with the singing at Texcalapan (which Bierhorst says is the same as Texcaltlauhco).
In other sources there is apparently further confusion of the narrative. According to Davies, in the Memorial Brave of Chimalpahin, the Obras Historicas by Alva Ixtlilxochitl, and the Monarquia Indiana by Torquemada, Huemac is the enemy of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, either as a contemporary ruler or as one of the evil sorcerers (!). Davies gives much credit to this idea, and posits that the fundamental Topiltzin/Huemac story was a story of religious conflict between Topiltzin, representing a newer Chichimeca-Toltec dynasty, and Huemac, who represented a traditional Toltec dynasty. However, all three of these sources are of much later date than the three used in this essay, and are accordingly listed as “secondary sources” by Nicholson. Comparing a chart provided by Davis (pgs. 372-373) to the dates provided by Nicholson, we find that all of the earliest accounts of the epic place Huemac as a leader after the time of Topiltzin, who provides over the fall of Tollan (with the notable exception of Sahagun). The idea of Huemac as an enemy of Topiltzin appears to be of later, colonial, origin, and not part of the traditional narrative.
While without, at the very least, access to the other four of Nicholson's “primary sources”, a definitive analysis of the Huemac saga can not be made. However, given these sources and their abundance of story, it is possible to come to some general conclusions about how the Huemac of Tollan story was constructed and told in pre-Columbian Mexico. While this story may not have the elegant, seven-act arc that Nicholson assigns Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, it still has some amount of basic structure:
Enthronement: Huemac is placed on the throne of Tollan following the death/leaving of a previous leader, either Tlilcoatzin or Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.
Rulership: Huemac, either as priest-leader or secular leader, is not described doing anything notable – eg., he does not win any great wars, he does not introduce technologies or craft (as Topiltzin does). Whereas Topiltzin is often described as being chaste, Huemac clearly isn't, having a wife and sometimes a daughter, even when he's described as a priest (as he is in the Annals – he's a priest with wife).
Mistake: In each story, Huemac makes a mistake that spells ruin for the Toltecs: he sleeps with sorcerers; he upsets the rain gods; he gives his daughter to an evil sorcerer. In none of these stories is he seen as malevolent, he's simply someone doesn't understand what's really happening.
The Downfall: The Toltecs march, abandoning Tollan. They settle all over the known world.
Death or Disappearance: Huemac either disappears into the cave of Cincalco, near Chapoltepec, or commits suicide there. In either case, his city and civilization are gone, and he has no one left to rule.
This story, then, becomes a tragedy of Grecian proportions, with even the requisite “tragic flaw” of Aristotle. Huemac's tragic flaw is that he is blind to the nature of the people he's around or dealing with: that his daughter has been bewitched and summoning the bewitcher will only exacerbate the problem; that if you call gods on their cheating, they might be bad losers; that the various women whom he's sleeping around with are actually evil sorcerers who mock him and plot his downfall.
His story is also much more human than Topiltzin's is: Topiltzin brings craft and art and technology into the world. Topiltzin is a chaste priest who sticks maguey spines through his shines in penance. Topiltzin either immolates himself to become Venus, or sails out across the water on a raft of snakes, promising to return.
Huemac, in contrast, is not a bringer of great things into the world. He is a man with a wife and daughter. He makes mistakes. He ends up hanging himself in a cave or simply disappearing into it.
Huemac, then, is a much more identifiable character, not just for us in the 21st century, but also, I think, simply for the common people of pre-Columbian Mexico, to whom this story would have been told. If Topiltzin is like Hercules, which is the comparison Sahagun makes, then Huemac is like Oedipus. In fact, I would argue that there are many parallels between Huemac and Oedipus: they are both plagued, beleaguered rulers who don't understand the consequences of their own actions until it's far too late.
John Bierhorst (translator), History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca, University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, AZ, 1992 (includes the Annals of Cuauhtitlan and the Legend of the Suns)
Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, Fanny R. Bandelier (translator), Carlos Maria de Bustamante (translator), History of Ancient Mexico, Fisk University Press, Nashville, TN, 1932 (A translation of a translation of the first 4 volumns of the General History of Things in New Spain)
H. B. Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, CO, 2001
Nigel Davies, Toltecs Until the Fall of Tula, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1987
David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, CO, 2000
There are many, many books about the Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl story. The best by far, in my opinion, is the Nicholson book listed above, which deconstructs the original texts and then reconstructs them into a workable narrative.
2Bierhorst, p. 4
3Nicholson, pg. 47
4Carrasco, p. 35
5Nicholson, p. 23