The Bone Flower Throne takes place in the mythical-historical world of 10th century Mexico, at the beginning of the Toltec Period. In the south, the mighty Maya Empire was in sharp decline, and the major civic and religious center in the Valley of Mexico–Teotihuacan–had been abandoned for at least a hundred years, leaving a handful of small city-states around the valley to vying for supremacy. Eventually, the city of Tollan (Tula) would emerge as the powerhouse, lead by her priest-king ruler named Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl; a man shrouded in mystery and controversy.
Who was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl?
England had King Arthur, Mesoamerica had Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. He was a legendary ruler who united all the city-states under his rule in Tollan and infuriated the gods when he outlawed human sacrifice. There are numerous stories about his life, where he came from, and how he died (or in some cases became the Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl), each one as different as the next, but his importance as a cultural hero is irrefutable; the Mexica emperors of Tenochtitlan claimed to be his blood descendents, holding his throne in anticipation of his promised return, and some sources even claim (erroneously) that the Emperor Moctezuma thought Cortes and his men were Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and his followers returning from exile.
Not much is known–historically-speaking–about the Toltecs and their famous king, for much of what we know was passed down orally by the Mexica, and like many before them, they likely twisted and changed the tellings to benefit their own interests. Tollan is an actual place though, with magnificient ruins that include Atlantean warrior statues and numerous temples decorated with reliefs of eagles and coyotes. The word “Toltec” means “artisan” in Nahuatl, and all the archeological evidence found in pottery and sculpture supports that attribute. It’s unknown if Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was ever a real, historical figure but the Mexica and many other tribes treated him as such.
My favorite source for the myths of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl is the book Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs by H. B. Nicholson. It is the single most comprehensive collection of the stories about the legendary priest-king, drawn straight from the original Nahuatl sources. If you have an interest in Topiltzin, I highly recommend it, to get you started. Below are some of the myths that informed my own vision of the world portrayed in The Bone Flower Throne.
Juan Caños Relaciones
This source is a mixture of two known sources which were thought to derive from a third unknown source of some antiquity. It takes its name for Juan Cano, who petitioned a Franciscan monk to prepare the account, in an attempt to trace the true lineage of Doña Isabel, or Lady Tecuichpo, daughter of Emperor Moctezuma. Below are the parts that relate to Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.
After the gods created mankind at Teotihuacan, the Chichimeca group moved to a town called Teocolhuacan and elected their first ever leader, Lord Totepeuh, who has a son he named Topiltzin. Totepeuh though is soon after assassinated by his brother-in-law, who steals Teocolhuacan’s throne for himself.
To properly honor his departed father, Topiltzin buries his father’s bones and builds a temple atop them. This move angers his uncle, but when the man comes to kill him, Topiltzin shoves him down the temple steps, killing him. With his father avenged, Topiltzin takes back the throne of Teocolhuacan and rules there for a number of years.
Inspired by the gods, eventually Topiltzin gathers his followers and takes them on a fourteen year journey that ends when they finally reach Tollan, which is only then a small Chichimec settlement. Topiltzin and his men build it into a grand city, and he rules prosperously for twelve years.
But trouble is brewing; during those twelve years, he’s forbidden anyone to perform human sacrifices in Tollan, and the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca have taken note of this blasphemy. They demand he start offering human sacrifices again, or get out. Mysteriously, instead of dealing with them as he did with his uncle, he decides to abandon Tollan without any kind of fight. He goes to Tlapala and within two years, he’s dead and everyone mourns for him. Except Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, who are still angry and so don’t allow anyone to rule Tollan for almost a hundred years. Eventually, they permit a blood relative of Topiltzin, a man named Huemac, to take the throne, but his reign ends in disaster when a monster attacks and drives most people from the city.
Histoyre du Mechique
This is a french copy of a famous lost manuscript once written by Fray Andrés de Olmos.
Topiltzin is born under the name Quetzalcoatl, to the god Camaxtli and the goddess Chimalma, but as the gods are prone to do, Chimalma dies giving birth and so Quetzalcoatl is raised by his grandparents. When he’s reunited with his father and brothers, the latter–in a fit of jealousy–plot to kill him, first by trying to set him on fire, then shooting arrows at him.
He escapes both murder attempts but refuses to burden his father with the knowledge that his own brothers are trying to kill him. However, when their father confronts the brothers about it, they kill him, and this time, Quetzalcoatl gathers his friends and together they kill his treacherous brothers. To celebrate their victory, they get intoxicated drinking liquor from cups made from his brothers’ skulls.
Once they recover from their revelry, they head for Tollan. Once there, Quetzalcoatl becomes a celibate priest and instructs them in the proper methods of ritual sacrifice, and, in turn, they worship him as a god for the next 160 years.
But then the god Tezcatlipoca arrives to liven things up. He can’t stand Quetzalcoatl (whom he’s adamant isn’t a god at all), so he steals Quetzalcoatl’s rain-making mirror and vandalizes the temple. He then torments the people by transforming into various monsters, showing off how much more powerful he is than Quetzalcoatl. But after he beats up the temple attendants, Quetzalcoatl flees Tollan.Tezcatlipoca follows him though, taunting and attacking him everywhere he tries to settle.
Eventually, Quetzalcoatl can’t take it anymore. He flees into the desert and commits suicide by shooting himself with an arrow. Beside themselves with grief, his followers cremate him, and the smoke gathers in the sky to create the planet Venus.
Anales de Cuauhtitlan
This is a complication of various stories from different sources within the Basin of Mexico and Pueblo, with the details often conflicting with each other. Below are the aspects of these tellings that influenced the story in The Bone Flower throne.
The woman Chimalman becomes pregnant with Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl after swallowing a turquoise or jade stone. His uncle Ihuitimal rules Tollan while Topiltzin is young, but once he dies, Topiltzin takes the throne. He grew up a very religious young man and carries this over into his rule, building all kinds of temples and penance houses, and offering only sacrifices of butterflies, snakes, and birds. He keeps himself out of the public eye during his reign, remaining sequestered away to live the proper life of a celibate priest.
Angry about the lack of human sacrifices going on, Tezcatlipoca, Ihuimecatl and Toltecatl plot to drive him from Tollan. Tezcatlipoca sneaks past the guards into Topiltzin’s private sanctuary and shows him his own reflection in an obsidian mirror. Topiltzin is shocked to see how old and ugly he’s become with the years. Claiming to help him feel better about himself, the gods dress him in feathers, to make him beautiful again, and they prepare a magnificent feast. After much effort, they convince him to sample the octli (pulque) and he finds it so delicious that he puts away four cups and insists all his attendants try it as well. With everyone drunk and having a good time, Topiltzin calls for his “sister”, the priestess Quetzalpetatl, and takes her away from her ritual fasting so she too can try the octli. They spend the night neglecting their religious duties, drinking and making merry (and possibly doing other things he’d sworn off as a celibate priest….).
Once dawn comes though, Topiltzin is beside himself with guilt and, having failed at his religious duties, he decides he can’t be ruler of Tollan anymore. Taking his attendants with him, he leaves, but he fails to find anywhere that gives him the joy and love he felt in Tollan. Grieving all he’s lost, he dresses himself in his finest clothes and jewelry, then he sets himself on fire. His burnt heart rises into the heavens as the Morning Star.
Stay tuned in the weeks to come for more of the myths of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl and the various gods.
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