Echoes of Pyramid B: Understanding Toltec Inspiration at Chichén Itzá

Along the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, there was once a mighty city described by Father Diego de Landa as “as great as gold and silver”[1]. It was a center of trade and religion for the Mayas of Northern Yucatán and was a jewel in the crown of those people. It remains the most famous city of the Maya, with millions of visitors seeing this great city each year. It is named Chichén Itzá or “At the mouth the well of the Itza”. However, one temple, “the temple of the warriors”, bears a striking resemblance to a site hundreds of miles away from Chichén Itzá in what is now the state of Hidalgo. There, a site called “Pyramid B” has more than a passing resemblance to the “Temple of the Warriors”, one of the great city’s masterpieces. This site belonged to the Toltecs, an enigmatic empire that had a profound influence on the surrounding civilizations. How did a central Mexican empire that is hardly remembered in the present influence one of the greatest cities of the Yucatán? What kind of influence did the Toltecs exert on the Maya? Was this an example of hard or soft power? Were the Mayas of Chichén Itzá conquered by a mighty warrior named after the Feathered Serpent or did they take inspiration from a great foreign power miles away from them? The Toltec influence on Chichén Itzá is a bizarre study in art history. Though the Toltecs are still shrouded in mystery, archeologists have been working hard to unravel this conundrum. It is through architecture and art that archeologists can craft theories and hopefully understand the world in which this strange period existed.

Chichén Itzá was founded between the Late-Classic period (550-830 CE) and the Post-Classic period (950-1539 CE). By the 10th century CE, the city began to resemble the way it does in the present day. It was likely the city developed around the underground water sources found in caves across the Yucatán[2]. The Yucatán Peninsula is a limestone shelf that protrudes into the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. Getting water to run agricultural civilizations in the peninsula is a challenge due to rainfall seeping into salty caves. It was from the ingenuity of Maya infrastructure and limestone filtering that the people of Yucatán were able to use fresh water to grow maize and other crops. In the Post-Classical period, Chichén Itzá grew to a massive size of nearly 2 miles across. Some of the most famous sites at Chichén Itzá include the Temple of Kukulkan, a temple dedicated to the Mesoamerican feathered serpent deity, and thirteen courts dedicated to the Mesoamerican Ball Game. Despite its grey-stone appearance today, the city in its height would have been a kaleidoscope of beautiful painted stone buildings, bustling with urban residents. The city was both an economic, artistic and religious hub for the Mayas living in that area. Hundreds of miles away, there was a modest but powerful city called Tula, the Capital of the Toltec State. The Toltecs are spoken with absolute reverence by the Mexica (Aztecs). According to mythical historical accounts, a man named after the god, Quetzalcoatl, conquered a large range in Mexico, even going as far as the Yucatán Peninsula [3] . This has been disputed by historians and archeologists due to the inconsistent and fragmentary records. However, what is not disputed is that the Toltecs had a profound effect on peoples around them. The Mexica looted Toltec ruins for sacred objects and many Mexica leaders married into families that had Toltec blood. Many believed that Quetzalcoatl would return to the world as a man, which was possibly what Montezuma believed the Spaniards were related to. It was believed by the Mexica that the Maya were also conquered by the Toltecs. There is not a lot of evidence to corroborate this theory. The Mexica were notorious propagandists, often revising history to fit their agendas. The Maya do not have references that are known about the conquest specifically. Maya manuscripts did exist, but due to the religious fervor of Catholic clergy like Diego de Landa, many of them were burnt by priests. It is now the job of the historian and the archaeologist to study the stone remains of the Toltec impact.

One of the most famous sites at Chichén Itzá is the Temple of the Warriors. At around forty feet tall, this temple is a stone structure full of stone carved reliefs of various subjects. There are Toltec warriors, great eagles, and jaguars devouring hearts that make up some of the beautifully carved art. Below them, there are a row of columns that probably held some sort of roof structure to the entrance of the temple. There are also fresco murals within parts of the temple. The murals in the temple depict canoe-bound warriors [4] entering a village. There are many depictions of great battles won and warriors surrendering to these great fighters. Various theories abound about whom these warriors are. They range from the reasonable, with Toltec warriors under Quetzalcoatl invading the Yucatán, to the baffling, with Norse Vikings besieging a Maya village. One of the other interesting depictions of the mural involve clay and stone huts, which were often residential areas for Maya. These were much more modest than the great religious structures. Animals like fish and storks were also painted beautifully in these murals. In both the mural and the bas reliefs throughout the temple, the feathered serpent appears. Though the temple is far from what it used to look like now, at the time of its construction it was likely a brightly painted and ornate temple. It was both a testament to the beauty of Maya architecture and the region’s great warriors.

In Tula, “Pyramid B” has more than a passing resemblance to the Temple of the Warriors. It’s foundational structure is nearly the same as the temple of the warriors on a much smaller scale. Both temples contained colonnaded roofs and held warrior iconography. The warriors of Pyramid B were carved “Atlantean” statues that would have been utilized to hold the building’s roof up. It must be stated that “Atlantean” does not refer to the theoretical city of Plato’s writings. This term actually refers to the Greek Titan Atlas. These decorative and practical statuary have parallel examples around the world. It is plain to see that the Toltecs saw these verities of statues as a method to aggrandize their temple. This temple was used to honor the militarism of the Toltecs, which many wanted to imitate. The Mexica propaganda of a strong warrior culture that they inherited from the Toltecs could be expected due to the great focus on militarism. However, the Maya contain more nuance in their culture. In fact, there was no Maya “state”, rather there were multiple city states throughout Mesoamerica of the Maya language group. The Maya was also not as militaristic as the Mexica, though some Maya cultures did participate in war. It is possible that the Maya at Chichén Itzá were not necessarily attempting to portray the exact same military might as the Toltecs when they chose not to depict the “Atlantean” figures. However, the Maya at Chichén Itzá were still dazzled by the design of “Pyramid B”. It appears that the Maya attempted to craft a temple in that same style that surpassed the original. The Temple of the Warriors is far larger than “Pyramid B” and was much more ornately decorated, including the aforementioned reliefs and murals, as well as statuary depictions of the Feathered Serpent.

Staying in the temple of the warriors, another motif of Chichén Itzá visual art is the chacmool. The sculpture is quite simple, depicting a reclined individual looking forward. This individual is covered in regalia called “cihaucotl” [5] on his head, limbs and body, which are similar clothes worn on statues and reliefs found in both Tula and Chichén Itzá. The man appears to be hold some sort of bowl. This type of statuary is not unique to the Maya nor Mexico as some chacmool have been found in places all over Central America. What their exact use is subject to debate, but it seems that they weren’t entirely used for aesthetic purposes. One purpose could have been for sacrifices of food such as maize products, beverages like pulque, or tobacco, which was commonly smoked throughout Mesoamerica. Other believe that people were ritualistically executed over these statues for blood sacrifices, which was not nearly as common amongst the Maya as it was amongst the Mexica. However, it should be not surprising that chacmools were found over a wide range of cultures across Mesoamerican world and they probably had different cultural uses. This is important to understand as Tula also possesses its own chacmool statuary.

What does the chacmool tell us about the cross-cultural influence of the Toltecs? It tells us that while the chacmool motif appears to be universal item across Mesoamerica. Both the Toltecs at Tula and the Maya at Chichén Itzá possess around a dozen of these statues. Neither civilization were the first of the Mesoamerican American civilizations to create these motifs. The first statues were probably created some time in the 9th century CE. The fact that the Toltecs possessed this cultural item, and that item was copied by the Mayas is proof of the soft power of the Toltecs, rather than hard power. If the Toltecs conquered Chichén Itzá, why are their chacmool statues in places as far as Costa Rica and why are there chacmool statues appearing prior to the foundation of the Toltec civilization? The Toltecs, like many nations throughout the world, noticed an artistic motif they found to be aesthetically pleasing and began to adapt their art into their own buildings [6]. The Maya of Chichén Itzá saw that a powerful civilization in central Mexico had a city of great prestige and their art seemed as something they could have adapted in their cities.

One of the more interesting sites at Chichén Itzá is a long wall covered with carven skulls. It is called a tzompantli and it was nearly 200 feet long. It is possible that these stone racks were used to hang actual decapitated heads, possibly the losing team from the Mesoamerican ball game that was played throughout the city. Tzompantli structures were not unique to Chichén Itzá, as a newer version of this structure was found in Tenochtitlan. This example of cranial art was probably as brightly painted as most of the other structures in the city would have been. This example of macabre and violent art is not something typical of the Mayas. Unlike the Mexica, who executed thousands of prisoners for their blood, most Maya blood sacrifice simply required self-injury and bleeding upon sacred places. The place could have been used for ritual blood sacrifices, but it was probably for enemy nobles and would have required some sort of fanfare as many Mayas valued rich blood over the poor. It is likely the Maya also sacrificed the losing team from one the ball game courts. The Maya would have those heads prominently displayed next to the colorfully painted wall of skulls, adding a dash of blood red to the Maya artist’s palette.

Around the same time, 1200 CE, the Toltecs erected their own tzompantli. This version is slightly different as rather than the skull being carved into the stone, actual skulls would have been placed within the holes of the tzompantli. Much like the Mayas at Chichén Itzá, the skulls
probably came from prisoners of war. According to Mexica records, the Toltec were great warriors. It would be understandable that the Mexica military machine would wish to simulate these warriors considering that the Mexica themselves were proud warriors and often placed bellicose motifs throughout their buildings. However, why would the Mayas, who were much more nuanced on the topic of war and ritual execution, erect an architectural motif of militaristic violence? However, it must be noted that the tzompantli in Chichén Itzá does not require actual skulls in its design compared to both the Toltec and the Mexica, which both had places to place actual human cranium. David Carasco states that “The leitmotif of Maya-Toltec architecture is war and death ... features related to war or warriors” [7] . The Toltecs could be viewed as a great warrior class and perhaps the Maya of Chichén Itzá wanted to emulate the Toltecs, while keeping their nuanced culture.

When it comes to Chichén Itzá, the most famous landmark of the site is without a doubt El Castillo or more properly, the Temple of Kukulkan and “It was designed as the axis mundi of the city-state.”[8]. As the name suggest, this legendary temple was created for an equally legendary figure, Kukulkan the Feathered serpent. Kukulkan was famous for being both a deity associated with the ground and the air, as it both slithers and flies. This deity is a common subject of worship throughout Mesoamerica and this temple honors the god. The temple possesses a massive carved snake that starts as a massive figure head at the foot of the artificial mountain temple and terminates at the top of the temple. The most interesting aspect of this sculpture is that it can produce an optical illusion. When the sun hits the relief on the spring or Autumn equinox, the light gives Kukulkan the illusion of slinking down the temple staircase. This shows that the residents of Chichén Itzá believed in the supernatural powers of the gods and coupled with the superiority of Maya astronomy, could calculate the exact time to perform this illusion.

A possible theory for both the soft and hard power of Toltec Influences at the site involve the feathered serpent. The hard power theory is that the human Toltec ruler, Quetzalcoatl, conquered Chichén Itzá. After the conquest, the temple was built in his honor and named after Kukulkan to fit in with the local culture. In fact, “Pyramid B” probably was created to revere the Feathered Serpent. The warriors could have been some sort of representative of the human Quetzalcoatl, a symbol of a god made flesh. The soft power theory is that the Maya noticed a great power in Central Mexico. This power was led by a man named after the feathered serpent. At that point, the Maya would have been aware and influenced by Pyramid B, possibly due to architects visiting the city. In Europe, motifs of Greek deities can be seen throughout the continent and elsewhere, even in places where there was very little Greek influence. The Feathered serpent in Chichén Itzá has been recontextualized for the Maya, while still containing the Toltec influence.

The Toltec influence of Chichén Itzá is not exaggerated and can be plainly seen by both laymen and archeologists. However, the details of the influence are subject to great debate. One idea is of military hard power, that militaristic Toltecs conquered the more intellectual Maya[9] . There is much doubt in this hypothesis, but this idea was not only believed by Colonial and Modern scholars prior to the 70s [10], but the Mexica writers of Tenochtitlan. However, it must be understood that these writers are extremely biased. The Mexica were master propagandists. They always strove to ensure that the rule of the Mexica and justify their conquests. They also rewrote their own history to fit their own agenda. The idea of inheriting the greatness of the Toltecs for the Mexica was probably like the idea of inheriting “The light of Rome” or “Rule by the right of God” found in European Culture. Since historians know little of the Toltecs own opinion on what they did during the time when the conquest took place, researchers must rely on the biased Mexica sources. However, chronologically, most of the events of the conquest could not have happened at the time described. What also casts doubt on the Hard Power hypothesis, is the fact that while Tula was undoubtably powerful, it was relatively small, much smaller than Chichén Itzá. How could a relatively tiny kingdom, quickly conquered several civilizations, including several powerful cities states of the Maya?

The idea of soft power influenced by trade and international exchange is becoming more believable for historians as time goes on. What must be understood is the concept of a Tollan. This term is often named after the reed mats sat upon by the rulers of the Toltecs. It is possible that the Mayas of Chichén Itzá viewed themselves as a second Tolan, a great city emanating out of the Yucatan, just like Tollan. Much like how both the renaissance masters of Italy and the builders of the various monuments of Washington DC modeled their buildings after previous Greek and Roman works, the Maya wish to honor the Toltecs in their own way. This is not a Eurocentric comparison either, with places like the Hindu-Buddhist Angkor Wat, various Japanese pagodas in the Chinese style, and mosques influenced by Hagia Sofia in Istanbul wanting to take inspiration from previous cultures to honor them. By doing this, the Mayas of Chichen Itza believed they were enriching themselves by studying the works of the Toltecs, and by importing their architecture to their great city, they would be on the level of another great city and culture in Central Mexico. Its core, the main idea of this theory is that the Mayas living in Chichén Itzá were adding to a broader Mesoamerican sphere of architectural influence. They were building off trends throughout Mesoamerica, while also keeping a unique Yucatan identity. This trend in artistic expression will continue into the times of the Triple Alliance. The Mexica had plenty of motifs of the Toltecs that were also expressed by the Maya such as the chacmool and the tzompantili. These influences continued in Mesoamerica until the colonial era.

When a person visits Chichén Itzá, they may not notice the echoes of a civilization miles away from the Maya city. They may then go to Washington DC and clearly see that the buildings there were modeled after Rome, but they may not understand that buildings erected by the Mayas of Chichén Itzá were modeled after the Toltecs. The Toltec influence is heavily documented not in writing, but in stone carvings. There may or may not have been a man believed to be a deity that conquered the city, but undoubtably the great Tollan of the Toltecs gave Mayas of Chichén Itzá enriching inspiration, Great attention is now being placed on the Toltec influence and in the future, perhaps the popular consciousness will notice this strange period in architectural history in the Americas. [11]