Dec 8, 2011 by Rosarie Salerno

It is a well know fact that after the conquest, the victor writes the history.  The accounts of the initial meeting between Hernan Cortez and Montezuma II, in 1519 CE, are based upon the writings of the Spanish; most of the written history on their first meeting by the Aztecs, if any, was more than likely destroyed during the conquest.  The contention that Montezuma thought that Cortez was the god Quetzalcoatl is based upon the writings of Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagun, who was present with Cortez in 1519, and a document, the Florentine Codex, that was written more than 50 years after the fact.

Father Sahagun quoted a speech addressing Cortez at their meeting:

“You have graciously come on earth, you have graciously approached your water, your high place of Mexico, you have come down to your mat, your throne, which I have briefly kept for you, I who used to keep it for you. You have graciously arrived, you have known pain, you have known weariness, now come on earth, take your rest, enter into your palace, rest your limbs; may our lords come on earth.

So, the conjecture written 50 years later was based upon that quote and some remarks by Cortez to the Spanish Crown as to the naiveté of the Aztecs.

Some arguments in favor of Montezuma’s belief that Cortez was the god Quetzalcoatl begin with the god’s promise to return after he died in a pyre or sailed off in a boat traveling east.  Physically, Quetzalcoatl was described in two forms; one a flying feathered serpent and the other a white -skinned man with a beard.  Cortez fit into two of the four descriptions; he sailed from the east and was white-skinned with a beard.

Quetzalcoatl had a Jesus Christ persona; a loving and beneficent god. He was considered the creator of the 5th world, the present one, and the organizer of the cosmos.  He is associated with the planet Venus, the wind and the rain, knowledge and learning.  He was also believed to have created civilization.  He taught the Mesoamericans how to farm corn.  He was believed to have invented writing, books, astronomy and calendars.  He forbade human sacrifice, promoting the sacrifice of birds, butterflies, snakes and grasshoppers instead.  He warned the Amerindians that he would return to punish them if they continued to sacrifice humans.

Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, beginning in 1509, Montezuma believed that there were eight omens predicting the end of the Aztec civilization, the end of the world.  The last of the eight omens in 1517 reported to Montezuma, was the sighting of “men with two heads”.   They were the horse-back riding men of Juan de Grijalva’s expedition.  Coinciding with the arrival of Cortez, which was on the traditional birthday of Quetzalcoatl and during the year of the end of the 52 year cycle of the Aztec calendar, could have added to the legend.   Montezuma may have been confused by all these events.  Then again, there may have been confusion on the part of the Spanish; the possibility of the misinterpretation of the Nahuatl language for the greeting and/or the fact that the meaning of politeness to the Aztecs represented superiority to whoever was being polite.

The question remains: was Montezuma II weak and fearful of Cortez, knowing that he may have returned to punish them or was he the strong leader of the Aztec Empire, extending a welcome to these strange men?  I suppose we will never know for sure what was going on in the mind of Montezuma.

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  1. Erik

    Liked your post.  Decided to look up information after a professor and the rest of the students in class yesterday accepted this account as fact and didn’t think to question it.  Seemed strange since it was a Chicano/Latino studies class.  The reason I felt compelled to look up some info was the fact that I got different information from another professor whose area of expertise was cartography and the colonial eras of Europe especially those pertaining to Portugal and Spain.  She gave a different perspective that contradicted this well-known account that made me curious to look for other accounts that might reveal more truth.

  2. Joshua Carson

    The truth is probably a combination of many factors.

    People with “pro-Mexican/anti-colonialist history” perspectives tend to utterly dismiss the impact the appearance of the Conquistadors had on the initial fearful reverence the Azrecs showed them. They like to write this off as “politeness”, but the Aztecs were not known as a polite people to their enemies, nor would they tolerate any such disrespect as showing up in their capital and demanding literally ALL their gold. Yet, they did it, and tolerated a variety of massacre/robberies as well. As Cortes himself notes, they outnumbered his troops by over 500:1 and could have squashed them with little effort at any point. Do you really think the great and powerful Aztec Empire would have tolerated such impudence if they were not at least SOMEWHAT scared out of their minds that the Gods were up to something?

    My take is that the utter strangeness and technological superiority of the gunpowder-age Conquistadors worked in their favor at first, but only until they started demanding gold and talking about Catholicism. Then the jig was up, they lost all their “shine” (since Quetzacoatl would never demand gold or do any of the other mundane things the Spaniards did) and the Aztecs rapidly realized these guys weren’t divine, just greedy and very advanced. So I guess it WAS a kind of “end times”, but not in the way they expected.

  3. COCo

    1. Montezuma was not stupid to believe the white men were gods. Cortez already had some time in the Americas when Montezuma heard of this white men who had come, he sent spies to study these white men and see if they were really divine.

    2. When Cortez and Montezuma met for the first time, Cortez tried to get close to Montezuma to shake his hand. One of Montezuma’s guards quickly stepped in and told him No ONE gets close to the emperor. This lets you know that already Montezuma knew Cortez was no god.

    3. Other natives helped bring the Mexica empire down, Cortez alone would have had no chance.

  4. justme

    then why did Montezuma hesitate so much to attack? He easily outnumbered Cortes


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