The Quincunx. Toltecayotl

Lino Ramírez Tizáa

If we could define in a single word the meaning of Toltecayotl, a term that sums up such a complex and profound system of thought and action, it would be “balance”. Indeed, the ancient Toltecs sought, through different paths, “the art of living in harmony”. It was a harmony that they achieved through balance. What is balanced and harmonious is beautiful. Because of this belief, the weapons of the “Warrior of the Blossoming Death” are “Flower” and “Song”, a metaphor that refers to the flower as beauty and the song as wisdom.

With flower and song, warriors seek to balance “the four directions of existence”. This is why the Toltecs symbolically divide the human body into four sections:

  • The first section, from the waist to the head, symbolizes heaven. This part, in turn, is represented by the Quetzal, the bird with the most beautiful plumage. These symbols are associated with the Spirit.
  • The second section, from the waist to the feet, symbolizes the Earth. This part, in turn, is represented by the serpent that slithers over Mother Earth, which is referred to as Cóatl in the Nahuatl tongue.

As a whole, both symbols are associated with matter. From them the philosophical principle of the Quetzal-cóatl emerges, which represents the idea of balance between the spiritual and material aspects of the world and life. This equilibrium manifests as clear understanding, which is embodied through the “Battle of Flowers”. It is the internal struggle of the Warrior to find balance and harmony in life.

At the same time, the human body is divided into two vertical halves:

  • The third section, the right half, which is called Tonal, is associated with the solar, masculine, active, dry, visible part, and above all with the use of reason to perceive the world.
  • The fourth, the left half, which is called Nahual, is associated with the lunar, passive, humid, invisible part, and above all with the use of intuition.

The world and life are perceived as a double pair of complementary opposites: Quetzal-cóatl and Tonal-Nahual, which require a powerful “intent” in order to balance the divine fourfold duality, which is resolved with “equilibrium”.

The outcome of the “Battle of Flowers” is the full attainment of this difficult equilibrium. The battlefield is our daily life, the interplay between our own strengths and weaknesses. This interplay creates the gravitational pull that attracts matter towards the abyss of human foolishness. In this way, the “Battle of Flowers” gives meaning and significance to life.

The attainment of the equilibrium of these “Four Paths of Existence” is resolved in a “Fifth Direction” in a positive way, that is, attaining an exact equilibrium among “the two complementary pairs”, Quetzal-Cóatl and Tonal-Nahual, from the result of longed-for elevation or existential transcendence. In a negative way, when consistency and equilibrium don’t exist, from the predominance of any of “the directions”, this causes the fall of the individual into a deep abyss of human degradation and existential insignificance.

The ancient Toltecs referred to this “Fifth Direction” in diverse ways, for example: Macuilxochitl (Five Flower) or “The Cross of Quetzalcóatl”. Teacher Laurrete Séjurne named it the Quincunce in her famous work, Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico. The symbol is a cross with a balancing center. It can be depicted as a circle and four petals, representing a flower.

It can be found as a cross bordered by a bigger cross with four segments on the side, or a square annexed on each side by a trapezoid.

Anahuacan iconography represents this philosophical symbol in multiple and diverse ways, as it is the axis and foundation of Toltecan thought. It is present on codices, steles, and chiefly in their architecture, holding a perfect balance between human wisdom and celestial mechanics.

However, there is one symbol that clearly communicates the metaphor of the balance between the four directions better than the others: a butterfly, which all of the warriors wore on their chests. One can appreciate this classic symbol in the wonderful sculptures known as “Los Atlantes” (The Atlases), which are found in the pyramid of the city of Tula, Hidalgo, or in the various sculptures known as “Chac Mool”.

The butterfly takes flight in search of luminous heights when the spirit of the warrior frees itself from its earthly cocoon. The butterfly flies toward the first maker, in search of the Light. Matter has completed its mission and is reintegrated with Mother Earth and the butterfly searches for the Father, the Sun.

With this philosophical poetic thought the holy ancient Toltecs symbolized the Toltecayotl with four butterflies directed towards the four cardinal points or directions of existence. If a black butterfly looks to the north (Mictlampa), it is drawn over a white background, and to create balance its white counterpart looks to the south (Huitztlampa) over a black background. In the same way, the black butterfly that points to the east (Tlahuiztlampa) is drawn over a white background and its counterpart―the white butterfly looking to the west (Cihuatlampa)―is drawn on a black surface.

The amazing thing about this Toltec philosophical symbol is that in the center, where the four butterflies part towards the four cardinal points, a fifth symbol is formed with a deep spiritual significance. In effect, the “harmonic encounter” in the center of the four butterflies produces―thanks to the wisdom of the Toltecs and the talent and creativity of the Anahuacan Tlacuilos―a stylized snail cut longitudinally, an emblem of Quetzalcóatl and of its “divine breath” that gives consciousness to matter.

The symbol that the “Warriors of the Blossoming Death” aspired to communicate is thus represented with marvelous aesthetics and simplicity in the allegory of the butterflies, the snail and the cross of Quetzalcóatl, a spiritual message of profound human transcendence and meaning. As we know, the Anahuac civilization was only one, but it was manifested through multiple and diverse cultures in time and space. For that reason, this symbol is present in all Anahuac cultures, with its cultural variants that depend on aesthetic language, especially among the cultures of the Altiplano and Oaxaca, with the Mayan culture located on the Yucatán Peninsula and part of Central America.

The symbol of the Toltecayotl, as our kind reader will appreciate, is very similar to the Yin Yang symbol of the Eastern civilization. The two tell us about four complementary oppositions, but ours is deeper and more complex, for it includes the snail and the Cross of Quetzalcóatl. However, Descartes said that “There is only one light, no matter how many objects it illuminates. Human wisdom is, consequently, only one, no matter the multiple forms in which cultures express it.”

The problem we face as Mexicans is that we have been educated “as ignorant strangers in our own land”. We are familiar with the cliches of the Greco-Latin culture and a little with those of other cultures as well; however, we are completely unfamiliar with the wealth of human wisdom that our own millennial Mother Culture possesses. It is one of the six oldest cultures, whose origin began autonomously.

As a result, our poverty derives from our ignorance and our desolation in being lost for five hundred years in the “labyrinth of loneliness”; copying and praising the foreign and systematically despising and ignoring our own. The future of the Earth belongs to our children, and they are no different from our grandparents of a past millennium.


I would like to extend my profound thanks to Pina Saucedo, from “Bandera de la Paz” (Peace Flag) in Durango. Also to Red ArcoIris 13, to Uuc Kan and to Guillermo Marín, for their great support and for supplying information since with that support it is possible to share with our readers the significance of the Quincunce, the Mayan symbol of the Hunab Ku, and the pilgrimage of the Warrior through the Anahuac lands.

Translated by: David Harriman.

Revised by: Marc Torra