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Presione para ir a la versión en español Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Professor Patrick Johansson at the British Museum 2009

The death of Moctezuma (1)

We are hugely indebted to our Experts Panellist and good friend Professor Patrick Johansson - Researcher in Pre-Columbian History, Institute of Historical Research, and Professor of Nahuatl Literature, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, National University of Mexico (UNAM) - for this deeply insightful article written specially for us on the controversy surrounding the tortured question of Moctezuma’s death. We’re delighted to be able to offer it in both Spanish and English versions...

Pic 1: British Museum Moctezuma exhibition curator Colin McEwan introducing teachers to the classic portrait of Moctezuma by 17th century Mexican painter Antonio Rodriguez
Pic 1: British Museum Moctezuma exhibition curator Colin McEwan introducing teachers to the classic portrait of Moctezuma by 17th century Mexican painter Antonio Rodriguez (Click on image to enlarge)

Moctezuma’s personality and the circumstances surrounding his death have, since the first years of Spanish rule in Mexico, been the subject of misinformation and argument amongst both the chroniclers of the time and serious students of pre-Hispanic history. Among other things, people have tried constantly to determine if Moctezuma really was ‘a coward’ or the victim of tragic historical events, and whether he died at the hands of his own people or of the Spanish conquerors. There are plenty of documents and accounts that argue in favour of one or other of these versions but which lack irrefutable proof, leaving researchers confused and open to subjectivity. Everything suggests that we will never establish the truth based solely on controversial historical data, and that our research will have to take into account not just the voices of indigenous people present at the time, but also elements that connect with a deeper perception and mythical reworking of their memories of these events.

Pic 2: Frontispiece of the UNAM 1945 edition of the ‘Codex Chimalpopoca’ containing the Anales de Cuauhtitlan
Pic 2: Frontispiece of the UNAM 1945 edition of the ‘Codex Chimalpopoca’ containing the Anales de Cuauhtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

Essentially, what ‘was’ and what ‘should have been’ have become fused in a mythical melting pot, forging a deep-rooted indigenous version of the truth, nelliztli in Náhuatl, a term that reflects the profound essence of the Náhuatl word for ‘root’ – nel-huayotl (made up the root noun nel(li) or nel(liztli) ‘truth’, the possessive –hua, and the ending that gives the word its abstract character –yotl).
In this mythical alteration of history, actual causes of events change to ‘fit the story’. Some elements are (over) stressed, while others are omitted altogether, until a ‘balance’ is reached between what was and what should have been. In Moctezuma’s case, leaving aside different and contradictory historical accounts, we rely on two mythical texts that are vital in allowing us to catch a glimpse, albeit rather unfocussed, if not of the truth, then at least of a truth – truth being relative to the thoughts and feelings of whoever tries to define the concept. The first myth, found in the Anales de Cuauhtitlan, recounts the death of Huémac and the end of the Toltec empire. The second, in which Moctezuma appears as principal character, is offered as historical fact in the accounts of three chroniclers, Friar Diego Durán, Hernando Alvarado de Tezozomoc, and Francisco Cervantes de Salazar. It in turn refers to and resembles another, Toltec, myth, linking it back to the most profound and thus most authentic aspects of indigenous wisdom.

Pic 3: The ‘tlahtoani’ Moctezuma II, Codex Mendoza (folio 16) with his ‘instruments of war’
Pic 3: The ‘tlahtoani’ Moctezuma II, Codex Mendoza (folio 16) with his ‘instruments of war’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst this last myth expresses, through profound nostalgia and longing, what the Mexica community wanted Moctezuma’s death to have been, it also contains historical threads that can be unraveled from the myth’s complex ‘weave’ and that can help us to understand what really happened, in the Western sense of the phrase.
This article will attempt not only to refer to events that took place and which led to the death of the Mexica tlahtoani [Great Speaker, or leader], but also – in terms that for Westerners are difficult to grasp but which are no less ‘real’ – to the death that he tried to make his own, and that to his people would have been the ‘right’ one...

Pic 4: Detail of Spanish soldiers fighting to escape Tenochtitlan during the ‘Noche Triste’ - from  colonial screen with scenes from the conquest of Mexico, Museo Nacional de Historia,  Mexico City
Pic 4: Detail of Spanish soldiers fighting to escape Tenochtitlan during the ‘Noche Triste’ - from colonial screen with scenes from the conquest of Mexico, Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

1. The ‘historical’ accounts

Provoked by the massacre carried out by Pedro de Alvarado (in Cortés’s absence) as the Mexica performed ritual dances during the festival of Toxcatl, the latter rise up against the Spanish. On his return to Mexico, Cortés asks Moctezuma to stand on a balcony to calm his people down. In return the hapless Aztec governor receives a hail of stones and insults, wounding him in more ways than one. According to Cortés himself, it was one of these stones which led, days later, to the death of Moctezuma.
The chronicler Cervantes de Salazar adds a moral dimension to the physical wound, that leads Moctezuma to reject any kind of medical treatment and to seek his own death:-

He never accepted bandages over the wound, and if placed on him he would remove them in fury, willing himself to die

Pic 5: Detail (Moctezuma addresses and is attacked by his own people), from the Enconchado series of colonial depictions of the Conquest of Mexico, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Pic 5: Detail (Moctezuma addresses and is attacked by his own people), from the Enconchado series of colonial depictions of the Conquest of Mexico, Museo del Prado, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

The Dominican friar Diego Durán adds another version of events, an indigenous account ‘read’ from a pictographic text, according to which the Spanish may well have beaten the tlahtoani and other Mexica leaders before fleeing from the city. The mestizo chronicler Alva Ixtlilxochitl supports this indigenous account of the events:-

The Spaniards say he died from stoning by his own people, and the locals say that Cortés and his men speared him one night through the groin.

A third, also indigenous though less well known, account states that Moctezuma could have been strangled to death before their retreat.

During [the month of] tecuilhuitontli the Spaniards killed Moteuhcçomatzin. They strangled him when they departed, when the Spaniards fled the city at night.

This same source indicates that Cacamatzin, king of Tetzcuco (Texcoco) and Ytzcuauhtzin, governor-general of Tlatelolco, were also strangled by the Spanish.

Pic 6: Detail (Moctezuma addresses his people, with a rope round his neck held by a Spaniard, with a speared Mexica [Moctezuma?] on the ground) from the Codex Moctezuma, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City
Pic 6: Detail (Moctezuma addresses his people, with a rope round his neck held by a Spaniard, with a speared Mexica [Moctezuma?] on the ground) from the Codex Moctezuma, Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The point is that, beyond the question of historical truth, each of these forms of death would have lead to a different fate post mortem. Stoning (whether accompanied by suicidal death wish or not), death inflicted by a sharp weapon, or being strangled all had different implications, in terms of ultimate fate, each relevant in terms of their pre-Hispanic Náhuatl cultural contexts, and which had distinct forms of expression during funeral ceremonies.
In the Codex Moctezuma, one image shows the Mexica king on a palace balcony, appealing to his people to lay down their arms. The tlahtoani is held by a Spaniard with a rope tied tighly round his neck. Whilst the rope in this context is clearly preventing Motecuhzoma from fleeing or jumping to his death from the balcony, it’s worth remembering that in traditional Mexica iconography a rope round the neck definitively means ‘strangulation’.
Opposite Moctezuma lies a Mexica man wearing a loincloth, killed by a sword. The juxtaposition of the two scenes could have led to misinterpretation and to the belief that this character also represented Moctezuma.

Pic 7: Two representations of the comet-in-three-parts omen presaging the fall of the Mexica world in the Florentine Codex (top, Bk 8, bottom, Bk 12)
Pic 7: Two representations of the comet-in-three-parts omen presaging the fall of the Mexica world in the Florentine Codex (top, Bk 8, bottom, Bk 12) (Click on image to enlarge)

2. The ‘myth(o)logical’ reconstruction of events

Whatever the real cause of Moctezuma’s death, during the scarcely fifty years, approximately, separating the event and the writing of these accounts, a truth more in tune with indigenous thought and tradition began to brew up.

2.1 Omens
Many are the portents, omens and auguries linked ‘after the events’ to a climate of fear preceding the death of Moctezuma and the collapse of the Mexica empire. The ‘Black Magic’ king of Texcoco, Nezahualpilli, went one day to visit Moctezuma, and told him:-

You should be warned and prepared, for I have learned truly that, within a few years from now, our great cities will be sacked and razed to the ground; we and our children will be killed and our subjects struck down and destroyed. Of this you should have not the slightest doubt.

Nezahualpilli’s prophecy not only left the Mexica tlahtoani ‘deeply concerned and afraid’ but in large measure influenced his actions from that time on. Some time later a comet appeared in the sky, interpreted by Nezahualpilli once again as a sign pointing to a future catastrophe.

Pic 8: Quetzalcóatl sculpture bearing (on its back) the date 1-Reed (1467), linking the deity symbolically to Moctezuma’s birth year - making him 52 by 1519. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 8: Quetzalcóatl sculpture bearing (on its back) the date 1-Reed (1467), linking the deity symbolically to Moctezuma’s birth year - making him 52 by 1519. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

2.2 ‘The facts’ fall in line with the original story
As part of the retrospective alignment of what was with what should have been, a stack of historical details are altered to fit the mythological plot which is slowly maturing. Take, for example, the - uncertain - date of Moctezuma’s birth, which now becomes, in some indigenous sources, 1467, or 1-Reed in the Xiuhpohualli or calendar of the years. This date refers to the birth of Quetzalcoatl and to his death 52 years later, in Tlillan Tlapallan. It also establishes Moctezuma’s age as being the fateful 52 at the time of his (actual) death in 1519.
Moctezuma’s ‘pride’, which may well have been a real feature of his character, also fits in neatly with the facts as recounted mythologically. It resembles the pride displayed by the Toltec leader Huémac and his scorn for the tonacayotl foods offered him following his victory over the gods of water in a ballgame (tlachtli).

Pic 9: Moctezuma debates whether to flee to the underworld, and faces (below) the cave of Cincalco, together with the three other ‘options’, Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 9: Moctezuma debates whether to flee to the underworld, and faces (below) the cave of Cincalco, together with the three other ‘options’, Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Moctezuma’s (historically established) desire to travel to Cincalco in the afterlife is shrouded similarly in mythological ‘mist’. In Book XII of the Florentine Codex, Sahagún’s Mexica informants refer to the tlahtoani’s goal of fleeing to the afterlife in the face of the Spanish invasion. His advisers remind him of the four destinations reserved for the dead, determined by the manner of their death in Náhuatl mythology: Mictlan, for those who die of old age or some non-hallowed illness; Tlalocan, ruled by the rain god Tláloc, for victims of drowning or of certain skin diseases; Tonatiuh ichan (the House of the Sun), reserved for warriors who die in combat or sacrifice and who bear the sun from dawn in the East to its zenith at noon, and for women who die giving birth and who carry the sun down from its zenith to set in the West. Finally there is Cincalco, ‘place of the house of maize’, and the resting place apparently ‘chosen’ by Moctezuma.
Moctezuma’s fleeing to the afterlife, faced with the imminent arrival of Cortés/Quetzalcóatl – Moctezuma still believes they are one and the same – to (re)claim the throne, constitutes a kind of death, a voluntary death and so a suicide.

For the continuation of this article follow the link below...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 24th 2010

The death of Moctezuma (2)

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