Totonac Civilization, Government & Religion

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

When the Spanish arrived in Central America, the Totonac were the first native group the Europeans encountered. Learn more about the Totonac civilization, government, and religion.

The Totonac Civilization

Much is known about the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish leader Hernan Cortes, but did you know another native civilization was involved?

The Totonac occupied Mexico

The Totonac civilization were rivals to the Aztecs who happened to be the first native tribe the Spanish explorers encountered in 1519, in what we now know as Mexico. The Totonac controlled a region nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sierra Madre Mountains from 800 CE through 1100 CE.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Totonac lost control of their empire to the Aztecs who conquered them in 1480. As they became a part of the Aztec's confederation, the Totonac suffered greatly and made human sacrifices of their own to their gods for liberation.

When Cortes arrived, the Totonac seized on the opportunity as an answer to their prayers, and yielded to their new Spanish rulers in hopes of shaking of the Aztecs. Together they defeated the Aztecs with helpful information the Totonac had about their way of life and with Totonac soldiers for their conquistador forces.

Ruins of El Tajin, a Totonac capital
El Tajin

Unfortunately, the Totonac suffered greatly from the diseases the Spanish brought with them like measles and small pox. However, there are still hundreds of thousands of Mexican descendants of the Totonac alive today, mainly around the area of Veracruz.

The Totonac Government

Like many native cultures of the region, the Totonac had a stratified government that placed great importance on religion and warfare. At the top were the royal families that ruled the capital cities and also performed religious rituals.

Most of the important decisions were made by the royal family and the holy men. Priests held a high place within Totonac government as the religious leaders and interpreters of the gods. They performed most of the human sacrifices used in prayer to the sun god, whom they pleaded with for relief from Aztec rule.

Warriors were also of high regard. Warriors who died in battle were venerated in Totonac temples and were thought to become servants of their sun god upon death.

Farmers worked in a mostly hot and humid climate to cultivate honey, grow beans, and also to grow corn (although they didn't eat much of it). The fruits and vegetables they provided included avocados, sapotes, guava and papaya. Food was regularly required by the Aztecs as payment.

On the bottom of Totonac society were the slaves used for labor and human sacrifice. Much of the Totonac religion and culture depended on humans for sacrifice to their deities, who were thought to feed upon blood.

The Totonac Religion

Like many native groups of Central America, the Totonac had many gods centered on the worship of the all-important sun they called Chichini. Daily displays of fealty to Chichini, who was also the progenitor of all Totonac deities, were performed by seven Totonac holy men.

Religious Ceremonies

Every fifth day, all Totonac citizens were required to attend a blood ritual where members of the Totonac royal family would drive straws through their tongues, thighs, and ears as a means of purifying their bodies through pain and blood worship to Chichini.

The Totonac believed that the blood they shed was food for Chichini, and most of their rituals involved blood and human sacrifices.

At midnight on winter solstice, 18 Totonac would be sacrificed and have their hearts ground into the mouths of idols in the form of their deities. This ceremony was also supplication to Chichini to deliver the Totonac from the subjugation of the Aztecs.

Some ceremonies involved Totonac royalty eating their human sacrifices to Chichini, and another where men over the age of 26 would drink the blood of baby hearts mixed with seeds and a form of rubber. This ceremony was called the yoliaimtlaqualoz also known as 'food for the soul'.

Other Gods

Most of the other tribes of the region believed that the moon and sun were married, however, among the Totonac the moon and sun were both male gods. They were worshiped, along with the planet Venus, in their temple called Las Caritas.

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