General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Oct 2020/4 Flower
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Resumee of Gordon Brotherston’s contribution, for younger children

This is a great question: you may not have realised it when you asked it, but it opens up a whole area of doubt and debate, because no-one knows for sure if the Aztecs DID think Cortés was a god in the first place! This whole idea suited the Spanish down to the ground, so they could justify conquering the Aztecs and introducing them to the Christian god (who they fanatically thought was superior to any local gods). When one people conquer another, we usually only hear the side of the conquerors, not that of the conquered. When we look at what the Aztecs themselves wrote and said - before the Conquest and after it - we find that the evidence points the other way:-

Interestingly, Aztec records of the Spanish date from the year 3 Flint 1508, in the form of bird-creatures with human faces and white wings attached to boat-like bodies (click on picture 1, from the Aubin Codex). Several times the Spanish were driven off as they approached the mainland; each time Moctezuma learned more and more about the newcomers with the help of his well trained agents/spies. What he learned certainly filled him with fear and anxiety. By the time Cortés finally landed at Veracruz at Easter 1519, Moctezuma already knew a great deal about him, enough to have arranged for lavish gifts to be presented to him immediately on his arrival. Aztec reports of this first encounter stress things like the mean response of the Spanish to Moctezuma’s valuable gifts, and the contrast between the Cross the intruders held in one hand and the steel sword they held in the other.

From then on the plot thickens, mainly because of Cortés’s relationship with Malinche (a local woman who spoke Náhuatl, Maya and later Spanish, becoming a crucial interpreter for Cortés), and with the Tlaxcalans, who hated the Aztecs and adopted him as an ally. The codices show Malinche playing a key part from the moment of landing, leading the way, discussing tactics with messengers, giving orders and even heading brutal attacks, while Cortés looks on, or even is absent (click on picture 2, where you can see Malinche receiving one more gift - a fine blanket - than Cortés gets, and on pictures 1b, 2a, 3, 3a, 4 and 5): none of this is mentioned in the Spanish accounts!

Among both Aztecs and Tlaxcalans Cortés was seen as powerful and cruel maybe, but not very noble and even less godlike, and (unlike all Mexican gods) rather ignorant of calendars, distant time and the origins of life. 100% dependant on Malinche, he was seen as her lieutenant (and she more of a general). They even pictured him as a rather nasty poisonous-looking snake (click on picture 6a and see the snake in Cortés’s banner).

Many people claim that the Aztecs believed Cortés to be a god because of the moment he landed in their territory. In the Aztec calendar, 1519 equalled the year 1 Reed. This calendar name meant a huge amount to the Aztecs, who gave names to people and even gods according to key dates in their calendar, combined usually with nicknames or titles. Leaders and great high priests were often given the title of the god they represented (such as Quetzalcoatl or ‘Plumed Serpent’): one such figure was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl One Reed, a great leader born in the year 1 Reed, 843 CE, who ruled the ancient highland city of Tula. He was famous for sacrificing his own blood rather than that of others, and according to legend he was exiled from Tula and died on the Gulf Coast. His heart became Venus and rose in the east on the day of his name.

In this sense Cortés’s landing was indeed well timed. According to the Florentine Codex, Moctezuma thought Cortés ‘was Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl come to land’. But others had serious doubts and before Cortés reached Tlaxcala the emperor himself 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’. If at first he was prepared to believe the Spanish were all ‘gods from the sky’, apparently he was very soon put off by their taste in food and ‘barbarous speech’ (among other things).

Any last illusion that Cortés might be a god vanished when Cortés massacred followers of Quetzalcoatl at Cholula, while still on his way to Tenochtitlan, and when his men massacred the Aztecs later in Toxcatl in May 1519.

And after the conquest, the Aztec priests flatly refused to accept that the Christian god was in any way better than their own gods: ‘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 they spoke quite differently’.

So, as you can see, the Aztecs’ version of the conquest (that we hardly ever hear about) tells a very different story from that told by the Spanish.

Back to Gordon Brotherston’s main answer

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