The word Toltec in Mesoamerican studies has been used in different ways by different scholars to refer to actual populations and polities of pre-Columbian central Mexico or to the mythical ancestors mentioned in the mythical/historical narratives of the Aztecs. It is an ongoing debate whether the Toltecs can be understood to have formed an actual ethnic group at any point in Mesoamerican history or if they are mostly or only a product of Aztec myth.

The scholars who have understood the Toltecs to have been an actual ethnic group often connect them to the archeological site of Tula, which is then supposed as the Tollan of Aztec myth. [Scholars working in his tradition include Pedro Carrasco and Miguel Leon Portilla.] This tradition assumes the "Toltec empire" to have dominated much of central Mexico between the 10th and 12th century AD. Other Mexican cities such as Teotihuacán [Enrique Florescano has argued that the "original" Tollan was Teotihuacán.] have also been proposed to have been the historical Tollan "Place of Reeds", the city from which the name Tolteca "inhabitant of Tollan" is derived in the Nahuatl language. The term "Toltec" has also been associated with the arrival of certain Central Mexican cultural traits into the Mayan sphere of dominance that took place in the late classic and early postclassic periods, and the Postclassic Mayan civilizations of Chichén Itzá, Mayapán and the Guatemalan highlands have been referred to as "toltecized" or "mexicanized" Mayas. For example the striking similarities between the city of Tula, Hidalgo and Chichén Itzá have often been cited as direct evidence for Toltec dominance of the Postclassic Maya. That line of scholarship was popular in the first half of the twentieth century, but has largely been abandoned in recent decades in favour of a more critical and interpretive approach to the historicity of the Aztec mythical accounts. It is this more current perspective which applies a different understanding of the word Toltec. [This approach has been advocated by Davíd Carrasco, Michael E Smith, J. B. Nicholson, and others.]

This tradition has interpreted the concept of Toltecs largely as an Aztec or generally Mesoamerican mythical and philosophical construct that has served to symbolize the civility and might of several different cultures of the Mesoamerican Postclassic period. Among the Nahuan peoples the word "Tolteca" was synonymous with artist, artisan or wise man, and "toltecayotl" "Toltecness" meant art, culture and civilization and urbanism - and was seen as the opposite of "Chichimecayotl" "chichimecness" which symbolized the savage, nomadic state of peoples who had not yet become urbanized. This interpretation argues that any large urban center in Mesoamerica could be referred to as "Tollan" and its inhabitants as Toltecs - and that any ruling lineage in postclassic Mesoamerica would strengthen their claims to power by claiming Toltec ancestry. Often Mesoamerican migration accounts state that Tollan was ruled by Quetzalcoatl (or "Kukulcan" in Yucatec and "Gukumatz" in K'iche') a godlike mythical figure who was later sent into exile from Tollan and went on to found a new city somewhere else in Mesoamerica. Such claims of Toltec ancestry and a ruling dynasty founded by Quetzalcoatl have been made by such diverse civilizations as the Aztec, the Quiché and the Itza' Mayas. While the skeptical tradition does not deny that cultural traits of a seemingly central Mexican origin have diffused into a larger area of Mesoamerica they tend to ascribe this to the dominance of Teotihuacán in the Classic period and the general diffusion of Cultural traits within the region. Recent scholarship thus do not see Tula, Hidalgo as a "Toltec" site but rather tries to find clues of the ethnicity of the people who built it. Lately it has been suggested that they were in fact Huastecs.

The historical tradition of scholarship tries to take the Mesoamerican ethnohistorical accounts at face value and discern between a historical Toltec civilization and the way it has become integrated in Postclassic Mesoamerican mythology. It also tries to discern between the deity Quetzalcoatl and the Toltec ruler by the same name. In the view of the skeptic tradition such a distinction is impossible or extremely difficult to make exactly because the Mesoamerican peoples themselves did not discern between historical fact and mythical and metaphorical representations of these. The early tradition read the ethnohistorical sources and tried to find confirmation of these stories through archeology, but the skeptical tradition does not accept this method as fruitful because basing the understanding of Mesoamerican history on mythical accounts that were not meant to reflect actual history may lead to biased interpretations of archeological findings. Instead they prefer to let archeology speak for itself and interpret the ethnohistorical sources in a way that corroborates rather than defines the archeological findings.

During the late 20th century, the word Toltec acquired a new meaning within certain New Age circles, largely because of the use of the word by Carlos Castaneda and others inspired by him such as Victor Sanchez. For the concept "Toltec" as used in the writings of Carlos Castaneda, see: Toltec (Castaneda).



: cite book |author=aut|Davies, Nigel |year=1980 |title=The Toltec Heritage: From the Fall of Tula to the Rise of Tenochtitlan |series=Civilization of the American Indian series, nowrap|Vol. 153 |location=Norman |publisher=University of Oklahoma Press |isbn=0-8061-1505-X |oclc=5103377 : cite book |author=aut|Miller, Mary |authorlink=Mary Miller |coauthors=and aut|Karl Taube |year=1993 |title=The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion |publisher=Thames & Hudson |location=London |isbn=0-500-05068-6 |oclc=27667317 : cite journal |author=aut|Smith, Michael E. |authorlink=Michael E. Smith |year=1984 |title=The Aztlan Migrations of Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History? |url= |format=PDF online facsimile |journal=Ethnohistory |volume=31 |issue=3 |pages=pp.153–186 |location=Columbus, OH |publisher=American Society for Ethnohistory|issn=0014-1801 |oclc=145142543: Ancient America Rediscovered. As recorded by Mariano Veytia (1720-1778), and compiled by Donald W. Hemingway and W. David Hemingway. 2000. Bonneville Books. ISBN 1-55517-479-5

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  • Toltec — [täl′tek΄, tōl′tek΄] n. [MexSp Tolteca < Nahuatl to∶lte∶kaλ, lit., person from to∶lla∶n, Tula (ancient Toltec city) < to∶lin, cattail] a member of an ancient Amerindian people that lived in Mexico before the Aztecs adj. of the Toltecs or… …   English World dictionary

  • Toltec — Tol tec, n. (Ethnol.) One of a race which formerly occupied Mexico. {Tol te*can}, a. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Toltec — /tohl tek, tol /, n., pl. Toltecs, (esp. collectively) Toltec, adj. n. 1. a member of an Indian people living in central Mexico before the advent of the Aztecs and traditionally credited with laying the foundation of Aztec culture. adj. 2. Also,… …   Universalium

  • Toltec — [ tɒltɛk] noun a member of an American Indian people that flourished in Mexico before the Aztecs. Derivatives Toltecan adjective Origin via Sp. from Nahuatl toltecatl, lit. a person from Tula (a town and former Toltec site in central Mexico) …   English new terms dictionary

  • Toltec — /ˈtɒltɛk/ (say toltek) noun 1. a people who flourished in central Mexico before the advent of the Aztecs, and who, according to tradition, laid the foundation of Aztec culture. 2. (plural Toltecs or Toltec) a member of this people. –adjective… …   Australian English dictionary

  • Toltec — noun Etymology: Spanish tolteca, from Nahuatl tōltēcah, plural of tōltēcatl, literally, person from Tōllān (now Tula de Allende, Mexico) Date: 1787 a member of a people that dominated central and southern Mexico prior to the Aztecs • Toltecan… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • Toltec — noun A member of a Pre Columbian Native American people who dominated much of central Mexico between the 10th and 12th centuries AD. Syn: Tolteca See Also: Tollan, Tula …   Wiktionary

  • toltec — tol·tec …   English syllables

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