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Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Question for November 2008

Why did Moctezuma think that Cortés looked like Quetzalcóatl? Asked by Longshaw Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto.

Cortés with the image of Quetzalcóatl hovering behind him
Cortés with the image of Quetzalcóatl hovering behind him (Click on image to enlarge)

He didn’t. At least, there’s no evidence that he did and lots of reasons to think he didn’t. No contemporary document or account mentions Quetzalcoatl or suggests that Moctezuma or any other indigenous person thought Cortés was in any sense divine.

Cortés’s account of his meeting with the Aztec paramount includes a speech the conquistador made up and put into Moctezuma’s mouth. We can be sure Moctezuma never said what Cortés claimed, since Cortés’s version of the speech contains allusions to the bible and to Spanish legal traditions - sources inaccessible at the time to the Aztecs. Cortés did make Moctezuma say that he and his people awaited the return of the descendants or representatives of an unnamed past ruler. This sort of legend is common, especially among coastal peoples, but it is unlikely that it existed among the highlanders of central Mexico. Cortés may have picked it up on the coast or made it up. In any case, his purpose was not to give a true account of what Moctezuma said, but to bolster his claim that the Aztec ruler had voluntarily surrendered sovereignty to the Spaniards. This would obviate or answer awkward questions (which people back in Spain really did ask) about what right the Spaniards had to dispossess the indigenous rulers.

The claim that Aztecs mistook Cortés for a supernatural being arose in the 1530s, and became associated with Quetzalcoatl in particular in the 1540s, when people in New Spain were looking back and trying to explain what had happened to them. The idea that native morale or will to resist was undermined by awe at Spaniards’ divine powers was one of many competing and probably false ‘solutions’ to the problem of how a newly arrived elite from Spain had come to exercise so much power in the region.

Scenes from the Florentine Codex, Book XII, showing Moctezuma’s envoys meeting the Spanish between the mountains of Iztactépetl and Popocatépetl and reporting back to the Aztec Emperor
Scenes from the Florentine Codex, Book XII, showing Moctezuma’s envoys meeting the Spanish between the mountains of Iztactépetl and Popocatépetl and reporting back to the Aztec Emperor (Click on image to enlarge)

The idea that the natives mistook the intruders for gods may have arisen simply because stories about people being mistaken for gods are commonplace in literature (which is also a good reason not to believe them - literature warps the way people interpret experiences and colours the way they remember or misremember the past). Moreover, one of the words the natives used to designate the Spaniards resembled European words for ‘god’ (Spanish Dios, Latin deus) and could be used to mean ‘god’. But it was also a general, polite term of honour - rather as people in English used to say ‘Your worship’ when addressing those to whom they wished to show or pretend to show deference.

Why Quetzalcoatl in particular? According to a conquistador’s memory, recorded when he was an old man, one of his comrades in arms had a helmet emblazoned with an image that reminded some natives, including Motecozuma, of the deity Huitzilopochtli - but that fact, for what it is worth, hardly helps explain the confusion with Quetzalcoatl. According to an equally untrustworthy account, which Franciscan friars recorded in the 1540s, on the basis of information they gathered in Tlatelolco (the community next to Tenochtitlan), Mexican ambassadors gave Cortés a costume representing Quetzalcoatl when he first arrived on the coast. This may help to explain how the confusion with Quetzalcoatl arose in historians’ minds in the early colonial period, but even if true, the story would not mean that natives mistook Cortés for the god: Aztec priests and nobles exchanged divine disguises for many ceremonial purposes and in war, as well as to mark certain festivals in the calendar: indeed many cultures use such costumes in similar circumstances, without thinking that the wearer is really divine.

Cortés and Quetzalcóatl - any resemblance?
Cortés and Quetzalcóatl - any resemblance? (Click on image to enlarge)

It is wise, in general, to be sceptical about stories that represent
non-European peoples, in conflicts with Westerners, as superstitious or cowed by the white man’s apparent superiority. Such stories are often attempts to justify conquests and empires by making subject-peoples look feeble-minded or self-condemned to subordination by their own convictions of inferiority.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: detail from a screen mural showing the Spanish Conquest of Mexico painted by Roberto Cueva del Río in 1976 (photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)
• Images from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Portrait of Cortés from Wikipedia
• Stone sculpture of Quetzalcóatl in the British Museum - photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto has answered 3 questions altogether:

Why did Moctezuma think that Cortés looked like Quetzalcóatl?

How did the Spanish translate what the Aztecs wrote?

What did the Spanish do after the native population collapsed [in the century after the Conquest]?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Coming from someone who’s supposed to have undergone a rigorous academic training, we are singularly NOT impressed by your aggressive, intolerant tone, and rather feeble attempts to damn this piece by Professor Fernández-Armesto (a leading historian of the Spanish Conquest) as ‘biased’, ‘intensely nationalistic’ and lacking ‘real research’. FYI, he isn’t even Mexican, he’s British!!
You should know perfectly well that ‘Moctezuma’ is one of several recognised modern spellings of his name, part of the standard lexicon in English. Remember this is an educational website, and our Experts make every effort to keep the language style simple and straight-forward.
You should also know perfectly well that there is, to say the least, widespread debate and disagreement surrounding the death of Moctezuma; many scholars now believe that it was the Spanish who finished him off. You can learn more about this in the Moctezuma section of our website. You’re being a little naughty suggesting it was the Aztecs without acknowledging the evidence of Spanish involvement.