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Professor Gordon Brotherston

Question for April 2005

How long did it take the Aztecs to realise that Cortés was not a god? Asked by Applecroft Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Gordon Brotherston.

Part of a folding screen mural showing the meeting of two worlds in 1519, completed in 1976 by Roberto Cueva del Río, who died in 1988; notice Malintzin’s key position!
Part of a folding screen mural showing the meeting of two worlds in 1519, completed in 1976 by Roberto Cueva del Río, who died in 1988; notice Malintzin’s key position! (Click on image to enlarge)

A cunning question (worthy of a barrister!), since it presupposes that the Aztecs thought Cortés was a god in the first place. In answering it we need always to bear in mind that attributing this belief to the Aztecs carries a very heavy ideological charge. From the start, the Christians liked the idea, since according to them Europe had crossed the Atlantic in the name of a god superior to any known in America. We need also to recognize that the term “god” itself has no ready match in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. While “teo-tl” may sound surprisingly close to the Greek theos and the Latin deus and was indeed applied to the Spaniards, it could mean big or great in general, and enhance metals, stones, and featherwork, as in gold (teocuitlatl), jet (teotetl) and fine plumage (teoquechol), or water, as in ocean (teoatl), or disease, as in leprosy (teococoliztli).
Conversely, when attempting to translate Dios (God) into Nahuatl, the friars had recourse to various Nahuatl words besides teo-tl, none of which was ever applied to the Spaniards. Our best authorities in the matter are the Aztecs themselves. They are the authors of a large corpus of texts, which they wrote down in the alphabet during and after the invasion and, before that, in the script known as tlacuilolli. Widespread and ancient, tlacuilolli was used in the Mesoamerican books known as codices and is a subject in itself. In these Aztec sources, Europeans make their first appearance in the year 3 Flint 1508, at the start of the 52-year calendar cycle inaugurated by Moctezuma the year before (2 Reed 1507). In the tlacuilolli annals recorded in the Aubin Codex (now in London, in the British Museum), the new arrivals are anticipated in that year in the form of tlaca-uillome, pigeon-creatures, who have human faces and white wings that attach to boat-like bodies.

Pic 1: The entry for 3 Flint 1508 from Codex Aubin
Pic 1: The entry for 3 Flint 1508 from Codex Aubin (Click on image to enlarge)

As such, they readily suggest the migrant European sailing ships which by that date were becoming a less unusual sight in the Caribbean. The newcomers were known to have approached from the east, that is, in local terms, the beginning of the sky in time, by day and by night. Aztec intelligence of them intensified as they approached the mainland and were driven off repeatedly. Cortés was repulsed at Cozumel by the Maya (as well as by Europeans who as captives had come to prefer the Maya way of life).
Moctezuma had covertly sent agents to inspect the ships of Cortés’s predecessor Grijalva, when they put in along the empire’s northern coast (at those latitudes, Atlantic is to the north as the Pacific is to the south, as is confirmed by the Spanish words then used for those oceans, “mar del norte” and “mar del sur”). Moctezuma’s thirst for information equipped him well, and what he learned about European behaviour filled him with terrible foreboding.

Pic1a: Spanish landing at Veracruz, from the Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic1a: Spanish landing at Veracruz, from the Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

By the time Cortés finally landed at Chalchicueycan (Veracruz) at Easter 1519, Moctezuma knew a great deal about him and the newcomers, enough to have arranged for gifts to be presented to them by officials of the northern tribute province Cuauhtocho, precisely on the morning of that great Christian festival.Aztec reports on this first official encounter at Veracruz highlight such details as the penny-pinching Spanish response to Moctezuma’s valuable gifts, and the incoherence implicit in holding Christ’s Cross in one hand and a steel sword in the other. Needless to say, these are not perceptions found in European accounts. Nor do they they exactly reinforce the general idea that the Aztecs believed Cortés to be a god.

Pic 1b: from Tizatlan Codex
Pic 1b: from Tizatlan Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Thereafter, the plot thickens, mainly because of Cortés’s relationship with Malintzin (La Malinche) and with the Tlaxcalans, who hated the Aztecs and adopted him as an ally. The codex record reveals Malintzin active from the moment of landing, in key roles hardly if at all mentioned in Spanish reports. She leads the way, discusses strategy with emissaries, and gives orders, while Cortés looks on, or even is absent.

Pic 2: from Tepetlan Codex; see if you can count the gifts!
Pic 2: from Tepetlan Codex; see if you can count the gifts! (Click on image to enlarge)

The Codex of Tepetlan, where the Spaniards made a second landing, confirms Malintzin’s sway over Cortés. They are both honoured with gifts, yet she is deemed worthy of more than he is, the additional item being a blanket (tilmatli).

Pic 2a: from Tizatlan Codex
Pic 2a: from Tizatlan Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Having resisted Cortés at first, the Tlaxcalans were persuaded by Malintzin to work with him. Again, she is given no fewer gifts than he and precedes him along the road. The subsequent battle scenes in the Tlaxcala Lienzo show her holding a shield and actually giving orders, heading the attack, with Cortés trailing behind.

Pic 3: Malintzin holds a shield (Tlaxcala Lienzo)
Pic 3: Malintzin holds a shield (Tlaxcala Lienzo) (Click on image to enlarge)

This text strongly implicates her in the massacre at Cholula, the “Rome” of Mesoamerica as it has been called. She stands there directing events while defenceless worshippers are hacked to pieces.

Pic 3a: from the Tlaxcala Lienzo
Pic 3a: from the Tlaxcala Lienzo

Interesting enough in herself, this dominant Malintzin is likewise acknowledged in the texts of the Aztecs, even though they had a far poorer opinion of her. Shortly after the Spaniards had been allowed into the capital Tenochtitlan in November, she loudly commandeered supplies from the rooftop on their behalf, an act satirized in the “Water-pouring song” (Cantares Mexicanos).

Pic 4: From the Florentine Codex, Book 12
Pic 4: From the Florentine Codex, Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

The same display is tellingly depicted in the Florentine Codex, where Cortés looks meek and diminished beside her. In a text from Coyoacan, where they both went to live, it is she who arranges for the massacre of local leaders.

Pic 5: from the Coyoacan Codex
Pic 5: from the Coyoacan Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

She holds up a rosary, cynically proposing Christian instruction, while Cortés calls them together so that mastiffs may tear them apart (the Spaniards had widely indulged in the practice of aperreamiento, or “dogging”, in the Caribbean.

Pic 6a: from Codex Rios
Pic 6a: from Codex Rios (Click on image to enlarge)

Clearly, evidence of this order does little to bolster the idea of a god-like Cortés. Among the Aztecs and Tlaxcalans alike, he was perceived as powerful and cruel maybe, but not very noble, still less divine, and (unlike all Mexican gods) limited in his perceptions of time and the origins of life.

Pic 5a: the entry for 1 Reed 1519, from Codex Aubin
Pic 5a: the entry for 1 Reed 1519, from Codex Aubin (Click on image to enlarge)

In his dependence on Malintzin, he was seen as her “captain”, that is, her subordinate. In bearing the device of the snake - coatl -, the banner that identifies him at the siege of 1521 puns his name and character with a particularly poisonous-looking version of that reptile.

Pic 6: from Codex Rios
Pic 6: from Codex Rios (Click on image to enlarge)

At the same time, it has been claimed that the Aztecs believed Cortés to be a god because of the moment he landed in their territory. In the Aztec calendar, the equivalent to 1519 was the year 1 Reed. This calendar name had enormous resonance, thanks in part to the figure known as Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl One Reed (Ce Acatl), one of several calendrically-named quetzalcoatls or “plumed serpents” featured in the creation story and histories of Mesoamerica. This Quetzalcoatl One Reed was born in the year 1 Reed 843 AD (thirteen calendar cycles before Cortés appeared); he ruled the highland city Tula, which Tenochtitlan emulated, and which in its turn was modelled on the first city of Mesoamerica, the original Tula. He was famed for resisting militarism and for sacrificing his own blood rather than that of others. On being exiled from highland Tula, he is said to have journeyed to the Gulf Coast, where he burned himself. His heart became Venus, and rose in the east on the day of his name, privileging it in that planet’s astronomical cycle, which throughout North America had for millennia been paradigmatic for ritual and the epic journey through the underworld. Equating 5 Venus periods with 8 solar years and 99 moons, the cycle as such is the subject of codices from various parts Mesoamerica, including Cholula, and the Maya lowlands.
To this extent, Cortés’s landing was indeed well timed. The Aztec emperor Moctezuma in particular was impressed by how it coincided with the shift from year 13 Rabbit to 1 Reed. “Thus he thought - thus it was thought - that this was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl come to land” (Florentine Codex XII, 4). Others were more sceptical and before Cortés reached Tlaxcala the emperor himself had ordered sorcerers to work their arts on the new arrivals “so that they might take sick, might die, or else because of it turn back”. Though at first he had been prepared to believe that they were gods from the sky (teteu ilhuicac uitze), he was disconcerted, among other things, by their taste in food and their barbarous speech (ipopolochcopa. Florentine XII, 8-16).

Pic 6a: from Codex Rios
Pic 6a: from Codex Rios (Click on image to enlarge)

The notion that Cortés might have been Quetzalcoatl, in one of his cyclic reappearances, was further challenged by his massacre of Quetzalcoatl’s devotees at Cholula, while still on his way to Tenochtitlan. Indeed, this particular butchery led some to warn against letting Cortés enter the capital, foreseeing the massacre that was indeed repeated in Toxcatl (May) 1520.

Pic 7: from Codex Aubin
Pic 7: from Codex Aubin (Click on image to enlarge)

Any last illusion of Cortés’s god-like nature was dispelled at that point. The whole city rose up against these murderous guests, imprisoned them, and stripped the emperor, who died shortly afterwards, of all power.
A most revealing comment on the year One Reed is made by the Franciscan Diego Durán, who as a Christian initially favoured the hypothesis of Cortés representing the god Quetzalcoatl for the Aztecs. For he says that because of Quetzalcoatl One Reed, the return of that year had always been greeted with joy, - until the Spaniards came and behaved as they did, that is. Although he insists that the Aztecs had the benefit of receiving “our faith”, he also asks: “whenever have they suffered worse ills than that year?” (en qué tiempo experimentaron mayores males que en aquel año? Historia de las Indias vol.2, ch. 1).
A quite specific denial not just of the newcomers as gods but of their ideas of God followed not long afterwards. In 1524, the Aztec priests rejected the attempts by the first Christian mission to convert them. They welcomed the Franciscan friars, to whom this task had been entrusted, no less courteously than Moctezuma had welcomed Cortés. They appealed moreover to the friars as fellow professionals who likewise encoded their belief system in tlacuilolli-like scriptures and who also felt responsibility for the welfare of the community:

Detail from folding screen mural by Roberto Cueva
Detail from folding screen mural by Roberto Cueva (Click on image to enlarge)

“If you want peace”, they said, “don’t force the people to see that we are put aside”. They resolutely defended their own gods according to a philosophy that was long-standing in Mesoamerica and that left little room for the idea of godly newcomers. “You say that our gods are not original. That’s news to us and it drives us crazy. It’s a shock and it’s a scandal, for our ancestors came to earth and the spoke quite differently”. To this we may add the satirical poems in the Cantares mexicanos of subsequent decades. These ingeniously juxtapose the more brutal facts of the invasion - murder, pillage, rape, the siege and the razing of the island city - with the finer tenets of Christian doctrine, like brotherly love, forgiveness, the transubstantiation of the flesh and the entry to paradise

In other words, they ponder just the radical contradiction we noted at the start, in the emblems borne by the “gods” from the east, Cross in one hand and sword in the other. As you can see, a lot is implied in the question you ask. For the invasion and the moment of encounter brought together very different world-views, beliefs and understandings of the divine. In studying the Aztecs, it is always instructive, even if challenging, to try to balance the well-worn western account with what they had to say about themselves and their experience.

Applecroft Primary School
Applecroft Primary School

Here is a reply from the original questioner: ‘Thank you for going through all the research for my question. The answer you gave was very detailed. I liked the way you gave both the spanish and aztec version of how each side viewed each other and the realisation that cortes was not a god. Thank you again for answering my question’ (Kyran, Yr 5 pupil)

Click here for a version of Gordon Brotherston’s answer - specially written for younger children

Professor Gordon Brotherston has answered 2 questions altogether:

How long did it take the Aztecs to realise that Cortés was not a god?

On the Sunstone, if the two big snakes are male and female, morning and afternoon, do they represent the first man and woman [to be created]?

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Mexicolore replies: We recommend the edition of Cantares Mexicanos by John Bierhorst (Stanford University Press, 1985, still widely available as far as we know...