Monday, December 6, 2010

TULA: Messengers of the Sun

  • TULA: Messengers of the SunVisual and Critical Studies of Small Towns in MexicoIllustrations and Type by Wesley Ryan Clapp
    TULA, OR TOLLAN AS IT WAS CALLED BY THE NATIVES, MEANS "PLACE NEAR THE TULES." It is located in the state of Hidalgo in Central Mexico. Tula is an important archaeological site, especially because the city existed many centuries before its formal founding in A.D. 900. According to great interpreter of Mexican culture Laurette Sejourne, Tula was the final city in the great Toltec tradition. This civilization was based on the cult of Quetzalcoatl, who was unlike other gods and fundamental to all ancient-Mexican religions.
    While the other gods incarnated natural forces such as earth, the sun, and the rain, Quetzalcoatl was an extremely human deity. Contradictory myths surround him- from being a creator of the universe to a Christlike figure and benefactor of humanity who gave us the gift of corn. According to another myth, Quetzalcoatl was a white man with a beard who came from the east as a victor over his enemies and who, after leaving his land, promised to return. During the colonial era, certain Christian clerics tried to link him with the apostle Thomas who had come to preach the gospel, but the archaeological evidence does not support this theory. Astronomically, Quetzalcoatl is identified with the planet Venus, the morning star.
    His name meant the "plumed serpent," a symbol of the union between spirit and matter: the beautiful quetzal bird represented the former and the serpent the latter. A deity who was a great teacher of the arts and of civilization, he was also the founder of the ancient Tollan, which some compare to Teotihuacan. There is a beautiful temple in his honor at the site. Quetzalcoatl is the god of the spirit and a great civilizer who confronted his rival, the malevolent Tezcatlipoca, a capricious god of chance and a devil-like spirit.
    While Tezcatlipoca was in favor of human sacrifice, Quetzalcoatl rejected this practice and in its place preached spiritual perfection through artistic creation. This is why "Toltec" also came to mean a good artist who was following the directives of Quetzalcoatl. Even though he was primarily venerated in central Mexico, the cult of Quetzalcoatl was later integrated into Mayan culture. The Mayans called him Kukulcan; his presence transformed Mayan art, as can be seen at Chichen Itza.
    At a less mythic level, the conflict between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca could symbolize the eternal fight in Mexico between the agricultural tribes who civilized central Mexico and the constant invasions by the savage tribes who came from the north. It was a fight between civilization and barbarity, between knowledge and ignorance.

Tula was the capital of a large and extensive empire. Toplitzin, its founder, was a priest of Quetzalcoatl. There are a number of buildings that date from Tula's high point: the Templo de los Atlantes, or the "House of the Lord of the Morning Star," which consists of a five-level temple with beautiful sculptures. At the upper section of Quetzalcoatl's building was a covered temple whose columns have survived and were similar to the famous atlantes or caryatids. Representations of the god Tlahuizcalpantecutli, these columns are nearly sixteen feet high and are adorned as celestial warriors. Their arms hang down straight at their sides, holding their weapons, including dart throwers and arrows. They are ornamented with breastplates in the form of stylized butterflies, as if they were messengers of the sun with crowns; on their backs are solar discs.

The Palace of the Columns

Tula's Palacio de las Columnas and the Palacio Quemado were not used as residences but had an administrative function or were markets. It is noteworthy that there were two ball courts, an atypical feature among ancient Mexican cities, which usually had only one. This indicates the importance of this game in Tula. The players represented the "Lord of the Night" who challenged the sun to play. He was victorious and beheaded his victim, interring the head at the west. The sun, represented by a rubber ball, had to pass through a vertical ring that represented the devouring mouth of the earth. There was also a Tzompantli, or alter, on which victims were to be sacrificed. This Tzompantli revealed the decadence inherent when human sacrifice triumphed over Quetzalcoatl's doctrine.