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The Myth of Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Arjun Ravindra: I’m planning to do a presentation basically dealing with the myth of Quetzalcoatl, about his life and about who he actually was. But I can’t find suitable resources and detailed information on the internet. Since I live in India, I don’t have access to any of those books in libraries - kindly suggest some good resources. (Answered by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl lets his own blood in self-sacrifice; Florentine Codex
Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl lets his own blood in self-sacrifice; Florentine Codex

The Myth of Ce Ácatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl: a Summary.
Ce Ácatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl, or “1 Reed, Our Prince Plumed Serpent”, was a holy man and patron of the post-classic Toltec city of Tollan which is now thought to be modern day Tula, situated in the state of Hidalgo, North of Mexico City.
The Toltecs were a Nahua group that populated much of the Central Highlands around the 10th to 12th centuries AD. Their contribution to Mesoamerican history included the spreading of the post-classic cult of the Plumed Serpent into Mayan Yucatán. They also helped develop arts such as writing and painting in central Mexico.

“When talking about the Toltecs, both history and myth become one” (Miguel Leon Portilla:1983).
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Toltecs did indeed exist as a people but solid information on their roots and history is scarce. For a rounded view on how important the Toltecs were to Mesoamerica, we must rely on 16th century Nahua texts to shed more light on their identity and actions. These books mingled myth and reality together. An example of this can be found in the detail surrounding the battle between the priest, Topiltzin, and his nemesis, Tezcatlipoca.
The Aztecs and other Nahua peoples living in Mexico around the time of the conquest greatly admired their Toltec predecessors. Codices describe Tollan to be an earthly paradise bursting with huge crops that could be harvested all year round. Described as skilled healers and pious citizens, the Toltecs never felt hunger nor feared the wrath of the gods. Portrayed as a refined and gentle priest, Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl apparently preferred to appease the gods’ thirst for blood by performing self sacrifice and animal offerings than to spill the blood of his beloved Toltec followers.
He was the jewel in Tollan’s crown and passed on skills such as stonework, featherwork and metallurgy to his people who, for generations to come would be known to be inventive, intelligent and capable. For this very reason, Nahua nobles strove to claim Toltec lineage, proclaiming themselves civilized, honourable and talented up until Mexico’s conquest.

The incredible Atlante statues at the archaeological site of Tula
The incredible Atlante statues at the archaeological site of Tula

Who was Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl?
The son of King Mixcóatl (Cloud Serpent), Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl was born in Culhuacan on the day 1Reed, around the mid 10th century AD. He probably received the name of Quetzacóatl on becoming high priest of the god Quetzalcóatl’s temple. Myth has it that he eventually settled in Tollan and lived to a great old age. Nevertheless, old age did not prevent him and his people from being destroyed by the mischievous lord of darkness, the deity called Tezcatlipoca.
By way of deceit and tricks, Tezcatlipoca lured the aged and decrepit Topiltzin from his rituals, abstention and fasting and cheated him into a state of drunkenness in which he committed incest with his sister. Topiltzin’s shame at being led astray from his duties provoked him to leave Tollan and make his way east. According to legend, the city was then destroyed by Tezcatlipoca who also hampered Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl throughout his self-imposed exile.
On reaching Tlapallan, on the gulf coast, Topiltzin set himself on fire in an act of self sacrifice to the gods, and rose into the sky as the morning star. Other accounts say he boarded a raft of serpents and sailed into the east, vowing to return again on the date of 1 Reed, or Ce Ácatl.
To the south, Mayan stories of a northern warrior called Kukulcan (the Maya name for Quetzalcóatl), who conquered the region of Yucatán, are reported to have coincided with Topiltzin’s wanderings. Murals depicting his victory in Yucatán can be found in the Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá.

A sculpture of Quetzalcóatl in the British Museum
A sculpture of Quetzalcóatl in the British Museum

Codices tell us that after they lost their priest, the Toltecs were thwarted by the evil deity, Tezcatlipoca. However, archaeologists tell us that around the 12th century AD the city of Tollan, being a centre of commerce and inhabited by diverse ethnic groups, was subject to fractioning and uprisings between citizens. This provoked an internal crisis that was personified by the mythical struggle between Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca. This rupture might also have brought about the fall of the Toltec civilization.

Important sources for reading about the life and times of
Ce Ácatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl... Primary Sources

• Codex Chimalpopoca (John Bierhorst, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1992)
• Florentine Codex (Arthur Anderson, Santa Fe School of American Research, USA, 1982)
• General History of the things of New Spain (Fray Bernadino de Sahagun, Comments by Angel María Garibay, 6th ed., Editorial Porrúa, 1985, Mexico City, Mexico)
• Toltec Chichimec History (Heinrich Berlin, Mexico, 1947)

Secondary sources
• The Aztec Empire: the Toltec Resurgence (Nigel Davies, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1987)
• From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs (Miguel León Portilla, University Press of Colorado, USA, 1963)

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Howard, for sharing this information - it certainly broadens the horizon regarding this legend...
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Laura, for this intriguing comment. At some point we plan to run a feature on the similarities between ancient Mexican and ancient Chinese art. Perhaps from there to India...
Mexicolore replies: You’ve raised some fascinating points here, Arjun - something we’d like very much to explore on our website. Maybe you (or someone you know) would like to offer an article on one or more of the parallels you’ve mentioned? All the best!