Perhaps the most startling thing revealed by the Aztec account of the Conquest of Mexico, is that unknowingly, the Conquistadors had invaded the country at a perfect time. Superstition had produced self-doubt and smallpox was already in the incubation stage. In a sense, the victory of the Spaniards was a self-fulfilling prophecy based on omens and legends. Additionally, the bad omens had resulted in an increase in human sacrifice by the Aztecs in an effort to forestall these predictions of their doom. Thus, both the Cempoalans and the Tlaxcalans, tribes from whom they obtained victims, became willing allies of the Spaniards.
Largely responsible for this was the reigning monarch. Named Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, he has gone down in history as Moctezuma II. The Aztec monarchy was hereditary only in the sense that the ruler was selected from descendants of their very first King, Acamapichtli. A Toltec nobleman, they had elected him when proclaiming their false descent from the highly civilized Toltec rulers of the Valley of Mexico. Moctezuma had succeeded an uncle, Ahuitzol, who had become king after the death of his brother, Moctezuma’s father. Elected monarch in 1502, Moctezuma II had been a warrior but then became a priest, an unusual background for the leader of a warlike people. When the Spaniards arrived, he was about 40 years old. Bernal Diaz describes him as “being of good height, well proportioned, slender and spare of flesh. He was not very dark, wore his hair just over his ears and had a short black beard, well shaped but thin.”
Although the Conquistadors and Prescott describe him as an absolute monarch, the Aztec account of the Conquest reveals that he was more a chief executive, responsible to an Executive Council made up of clan chiefs, soothsayers and high priests. This description of his powers is confirmed because, after being imprisoned by the Spaniards, he was removed from office by this same Council. This was to have dire consequences for both the Emperor and the Conquistadors.
Moctezuma’s first news of the invasion came from a common man, who took it upon himself to report directly to the emperor. As reported by the Aztecs, he said:
“Our lord and king, forgive my boldness. When I went to the shores of the great sea, there was a mountain range or small mountain floating in the midst of the water, moving here and there without touching the shore.”
Moctezuma immediately sent a trusted envoy, who returned and reported that there were indeed two towers or mountains floating on the waves. Here is an abridged version of his report to the emperor:
“It is true that strange people have come to the shores of the great sea. They were fishing from a small boat. They fished until late and then went back to their two great towers and climbed up into them. There were about fifteen of these people, some with blue jackets, others with red, some with black or green. They have very light skin, much lighter than ours. They all have beards, and their hair is fair and comes only to their ears.”
The Codice continues. ‘Moctezuma hung his head and did not speak a word.’ He appeared terrified. Surely these were Gods. The legend of Quetzalcoatl filled his mind and the bad omens of the past few years seemed about to be fulfilled.
We have two slightly different versions of these omens. Perhaps some may have been natural phenomena but others can only be attributed to superstition. They come from reports dictated to Bernardino de Sahagun and collected by Diego Munoz Camargo, a Conquistador who had married into the nobility of Tlaxcala. I quote the Aztec words.
“The first omen was a great light that appeared each night at about midnight and moved across the sky, shooting flames. This lasted almost a year.”
Second omen: “A temple of Huitzilopochtli burst into flames. Water poured on the blaze did not put it out and the temple burned to the ground.”
Third bad omen: “A bolt of lightning that came with neither flash nor thunder in only a light rain and destroyed a temple.”
Fourth bad omen: A stream of comets, visible in the daytime, that raced from west to east, shooting off sparks of fire with such long tails, they filled the sky.”
Fifth: “The lake that surrounded Tenochtitlan rose when there was no wind. It boiled and rose to great heights and destroyed almost half the houses in the city.”
Sixth: Every night people heard the voice of a weeping woman who cried, “Oh my sons, we are lost ” and at other times, “Oh my sons, where can I hide you.”
Finally, reports circulated about “two headed men roaming the city, who appeared and disappeared at will.”
The people were terrified and grief stricken, thinking that these omens signified that the end of the world was coming.
Moctezuma himself had looked into a mirror and seen people moving across a plain, armed for war, and riding on what looked like strange deer.
Having had confirmation that strangers were indeed invading his kingdom, Moctezuma now decided that this was indeed the return of Quetzalcoatl. According to the Aztec documents, he said, “He has appeared. He has come back. He will come here, to the place of his throne and canopy, for that is what he promised when he departed.”
Now, the Emperor had valuable gifts of turquoise and gold prepared and sent a delegation to pay homage to the returning Gods. His final words to his messengers were, “Go now without delay. Do reverence to our lord the god. Say to him, “Your deputy Moctezuma, has sent us to you. Here are the presents with which he welcomes you home to Mexico.”
These words are a combination of fear and hope. It appears that Moctezuma thinks that Quetzalcoatl will replace him on the throne. While he accepts this possibility, his statement that he is the deputy of the returning God indicates hope that he may be able to retain some power. Throughout the Conquest, this ambivalence becomes more and more apparent. Once Cortes realized that he was being welcomed as a god, he went out of his way to frighten the messengers by firing off a cannon and ordering them to engage each other in hand to hand combat to prove their bravery. Here are some of the words in which they reported to the emperor when they finally returned to the court:
“The cannon roared. It caused us to faint and grow deaf. A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire. If it is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. It can cause a tree to shatter into splinters as if it had exploded from within.” Then follows another description of the “gods.”
“Their trappings and arms are all made of iron. They dress in iron and wear iron casques on their heads. Their swords are of iron, their bows are of iron, their shields are of iron, their spears are iron: their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our Lord, are as tall as the roof of a house. Their skin is white like lime, they have yellow hair, though some have black. Their beards are long and yellow and their mustaches are also yellow. Their hair is fine and curly.” The Aztecs were further terrified by the messenger’s description of the dogs the Spaniards had brought with them.
“Their dogs are enormous with flat ears and long, dangling tongues. The color of their eyes is a burning yellow; their eyes flash fire and shoot off sparks. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, with their tongues hanging out.”
Though exaggerated, the Aztecs almost always combined accuracy with imagination reporting new things they did not understand. Now they describe the effects of the reports on Moctezuma.:
“He was filled with terror. It was as if his heart had fainted: as if it had shriveled. It was as if he were conquered by despair.” His subsequent actions prove their accuracy.
As the Spaniards advanced toward his capital, Moctezuma was informed that the “gods” wished to see him face to face. Now Aztec documents reveal that he thought of escaping, hiding. They also reveal that he had many counselors who were not faint hearted but in their own words, still “firm and resolute.” The final description of their emperor at this stage of the invasion gives us a preview of coming events. It recognizes Moctezuma’s weakness and foreshadows the loss of respect and power that ultimately led to his death. Immobilized by the Quetzalcoatl legend, his failures led to the destruction of his empire.
“He had lost his strength and spirit and could do nothing. He was too weak and listless and too uncertain to make a decision. He did nothing but resign himself and wait for them to come.”
The fact that the Spaniards did not recognize any of this, led directly to the “Sorrowful Night.” They concentrated all their attention on trying to influence the emperor to persuade his people to give up human sacrifice and accept Christianity, not realizing that he had lost his authority.
Here is the Aztec version of what happened. It had started when Moctezuma met with his nephew Cacama, his brother Cuitlahuac and other lords to decide how to welcome the Christians when they arrived. They had learned that in nearby Texcoco, Prince Ixtlilxochitl, the brother of Cacama, had welcomed the invaders and had accepted Christianity. Cuitlahuac recommended that they not be welcomed in any manner. Cacama disagreed saying they should be welcomed.
“If their demands displease Moctezuma,” he said, ” he can punish them by sending his hosts of brave warriors against them.”
Moctezuma immediately announced that he agreed with his nephew.
Aztec documents report these final words from Cuitlahuac. “I pray to our gods that you will not let the strangers into your house. They will cast you out of it and overthrow your rule. When you try to recover what you have lost, it will be too late.” Although the rest of those present agreed with those words, Moctezuma had decided to welcome the Conquistadors as friends. With this decision, the fate of the Aztecs was sealed.
In part three we will examine the last act of this tragedy.