(Roughly) Daily

“Men create gods after their own image”*…

 

cortes_moctezuma

The Meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma (detail), from the Conquest of México series, Mexico, second half of seventeenth century

 

It would become an accepted fact that the indigenous people of Mexico believed Hernando Cortés to be a god, arriving in their land in the year 1519 to satisfy an ancient prophecy. It was understood that Moctezuma (also known as Montezuma II), at heart a coward, trembled in his sandals and quickly despaired of victory. He immediately asked to turn his kingdom over to the divine newcomers, and naturally, the Spaniards happily acquiesced. Eventually, this story was repeated so many times, in so many reputable sources, that the whole world came to believe it.

What really happened when the messengers returned with their report was that Moctezuma sent scouts out to every important town between Tenochtitlan and the coast, and then set up a veritable war room. This is exactly what one would expect him to have done, given his history as a ferociously successful tlatoani who believed wholeheartedly in order, discipline, and information. Years later, a man who had been young at the time remembered: “A report of everything that was happening was given and relayed to Moctezuma. Some of the messengers would be arriving as others were leaving. There was no time when they weren’t listening, when reports weren’t being given.” The scouts even repeated a summary of the religious instruction that was being regularly offered by the Spanish priest and translated by Jerónimo de Aguilar and Marina. When the Spaniards later got to Tenochtitlan and tried to deliver a sermon to Moctezuma, he cut them off, explaining that he was already familiar with their little speech, his messengers having presented it to him in full.

Only one European recorded the events in writing as they were unfolding—or at least, only one account from that time has survived. Hernando Cortés himself penned a series of letters that he sent back to the king of Spain between 1519 and 1525. These are our only existing direct source, all other commentaries having been written years later when their authors were older men and the events deep in the past. And in his letters, written on the spot, Cortés never claimed that he was perceived as a god.

The idea first appeared, albeit in somewhat incoherent form, in some writings by Europeans in the 1540s…

In retrospect, the story of Cortés being mistaken for a god seems so obviously self-serving and even predictable that one has to wonder why it was believed for so long. In a fascinating turn of events, by the 1560s and ’70s, some of the Indians themselves were beginning to offer up the story as fact. The first ones to do so were the students of the very Franciscan friars who had originally touted the idea. The young indigenous writers were from elite families, the same ones who, forty or fifty years earlier had lost everything with the arrival of the Spaniards. And they were longing for an explanation. How had their once all-powerful fathers and grandfathers sunk so low? They were intimately acquainted with both sets of people—their Mexica families and their European teachers. They knew them both too well to believe that their own people were simply inferior, necessarily weaker or less intelligent than Europeans. Their own personal experience taught them that this was definitely not the case.

Here, however, was an explanation. God had been on the side of the Christians, of course; their own immediate ancestors had been trapped by their own loyalty to a blinding faith, tragically imprisoned in their own religiosity…

Camilla Townsend explains why it was believed that the Aztecs greeted Cortés as a deity: “Inventing a God.”

* Aristotle

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As we muse on memes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1533 that Francisco Pizarro completed his conquest of Peru and the Inca, entering their capital, Cuzco.

220px-Portrait_of_Francisco_Pizarro source

 

Written by LW

November 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

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