John Daniel Davidson
On any given day outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, you’ll see a curious sight: dozens of men and women adorned in full ceremonial Aztec dress, elaborate combinations of feathers, animal bones, and body paint—everything, it seems, but actual jaguar headdresses festooned with human skulls. They gather a stone’s throw from the ruins of Templo Mayor, once the center of Aztec religious and political life, where at least 4,000 people—and possibly many more—were sacrificed every year, many of them ritualistically cannibalized.
Here, between the ruins of the old temple and the spires of the cathedral, crowds of tourists and Mexicans line up waiting their turn for a limpia, or spiritual cleansing. A supplicant stands with arms outstretched and eyes closed while a play-acting Aztec, burning incense in one hand and a bundle of herbs in the other, performs a brief ritual, passing the herbs over the person’s head, torso, and limbs as the incense smoke wafts over him. Meanwhile, men and women in Aztec garb work the lines collecting money.
But this isn’t some kind of gimmicky street sideshow, it’s a ceremony that both the tourists and Mexicans waiting in line appear to take seriously.
And it’s loud. Inside the cathedral during Mass you can hear the faint, incessant thump of the Aztec drums in the street, even behind the 500-year-old stone walls—walls built with stone taken from Templo Mayor after the conquest of the Aztec empire by Hernán Cortés in 1521.
This week marks the 500th anniversary of the first meeting of Cortés and the Aztec emperor Montezuma II at the entrance to Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). Less than two years after that historic meeting, Montezuma II would be dead, Tenochtitlan would lie in ruins, and Cortés would accept the surrender of the defeated Aztecs, whose empire was gone forever.
After Cortés, the way lay open to European conquest of the American continent. For that, the conquistador is loathed by Mexican nationalists, who view him as the first Spaniard to lord over the indigenous population. Outside Mexico, he’s reviled by the modern left as an imperial despoiler of indigenous peoples, a greedy butcherer who destroyed an entire culture in search of gold and glory. In this view, Cortés is the near-perfect embodiment of European barbarity visited upon the unsuspecting peoples of the New World.
It’s a reputation that’s entirely undeserved and largely ahistorical. Granting that Cortés was no saint, even that he was a cruel and violent man, it’s hard to overstate the difficulty and importance of what he achieved.
Cortés and his men overcame what seemed to be impossible odds to conquer Tenochtitlan, which by 1519 was comparable in size to Paris, Venice, and Constantinople, and was the center of one of the greatest military empires the western hemisphere had ever seen. By defeating Montezuma II and forcing the Aztecs to surrender, Cortés ended a religious and political system whose basic imperative was ritual human sacrifice on a grand, almost industrial scale. Whatever evils Cortés brought to the New World, they pale in comparison to the evil he stamped out.
But you won’t read any paeans to Cortés in the Mexican press, see any museum exhibitions chronicling his exploits, or hear of any public lectures, commemorations, or celebrations to mark the quincentenary of his arrival in Mexico. Indeed, Cortés is strangely absent amid the impending anniversary.
At the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which houses an enormous collection of pre-Columbian artifacts, the Aztec collection forms the centerpiece of the museum—a cavernous hall of stone sculptures, vessels, masks, friezes, and altars of every shape and size. Perusing the collection, one is struck by how much of it was part of Tenochtitlan’s vast machinery of human sacrifice.
There is little in the exhibit to indicate why it all ended, or how, except a small display next to one of the exits that mentions Cortés and the arrival of the Spanish. Across town at the National Museum of History, which chronicles Mexico’s history from the Spanish conquest to the twentieth century, Cortés is barely mentioned.
Hence Cortés, arguably the hinge on which all of Mexico’s history turns, is strangely absent from the story that modern-day Mexico tells about itself. To the extent there’s been any official recognition of Cortés connected to the 500th anniversary of the conquest, it’s been to demand his cancellation. Earlier this year, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sent a letter to King Felipe VI of Spain and Pope Francis requesting an apology for the Spanish conquest, calling it an “invasion” in which “one culture, one civilization was imposed upon another.”
The letter received a frigid reception in Spain, whose foreign minister flatly rejected an apology. In Mexico, some balked at the idea of an apology, with one critic noting that Cortés defeated the Aztecs with a force that included thousands of allied Tlaxcalan warriors and other indigenous groups rebelling against Tenochtitlan, thus complicating the question of “us” and “them.”
Still, the episode highlights a centuries-old tension in Mexico between Spanish-born peninsulares and native-born Mexicans. One of the major causes of the Mexican War of Independence was Spain’s insistence on legal distinctions between the two groups, which turned Spaniards into a hated class in Mexico. Cortés, for obvious reasons, came to be seen as the archetype of Spanish chauvinism.
Cortés Is Long Overdue For A Reconsideration
Today, the notion that the Spanish conquest was a massive crime coincides with a renewed interest in Aztec culture as somehow more “authentic” than what displaced it. In this, Mexico’s attitude toward Cortés largely mirrors the attitude of the progressive left toward American history writ large, in which the arrival of slaves in 1619 has, at least in the New York Times’ telling, replaced 1776 as the United States’ true founding.
But reframing the American Founding around slavery is as ahistorical and reductive as dismissing Cortés as a mere bloodthirsty pirate. As the epitome of the imperial conquistador, Cortés has been reviled far longer than America’s Founding Fathers, whose wickedness is just now coming into vogue.
Cortés is therefore long overdue for a reconsideration—not just of his exploits but also his motives. It’s common enough nowadays to dismiss the Catholic faith of the Spanish conquistadors under the assumption that their religious beliefs could not have been sincere given their actions. But not all their actions were nakedly self-serving. Writing about the legacy of Cortés earlier this year in Canada’s National Post, Peter Shawn Taylor argued that the entirety of Cortés’ behavior in Mexico cannot be explained by a simple desire for gold and glory:
When Cortés’ party entered Tenochtitlan for the first time, they reported seeing racks displaying tens of thousands of skulls from sacrificial victims, claims recently backed up by archeological evidence. A single festival during the reign of Moctezuma’s predecessor consumed an estimated 80,000 lives. The ritualized killing and cannibalism of its subject peoples appears to have been the central pre-occupation of Aztec leadership. And Cortés went to great lengths to stamp out these horrors — even when doing so ran counter to the demands of glory and gold. He outraged crucial native allies, for example, by destroying their altars and interrupting sacrificial ceremonies when a lesser and greedier man might have looked the other way.
(It isn’t hard to imagine today what a greedier man might have done, given the legions of western businessmen willing to look the other way to make a fortune in communist China.)
Indeed, it’s difficult to overstate the brutality of the Aztec regime that Cortés encountered. The empire Moctezuma II ruled was based on military subjugation and tribute exacted from client states scattered across most of present-day central Mexico. Payments came in the form of gold and living sacrificial victims.
Indeed, Moctezuma II’s authority was tied to an official state religion that required constant human sacrifice to a terrifying and cruel pantheon. So great was the need for sacrificial victims in Tenochtitlan that Aztec military tactics were devised to allow the live capture of enemies—an oddity Cortés exploited to considerable advantage on the battlefield.
Put bluntly, the violence of Aztec civilization was based on a cosmology that demanded ritualized violence on a mass scale. The two shrines atop the main pyramid in Tenochtitlan were dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of water and rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun. Idols of each deity were housed inside the shrines, shrouded from outside view by curtains. Before sacrifices could be offered to Tlaloc, the ground had to be wetted with human tears, usually the tears of children, whose fingernails would be pulled off by Aztec priests to make them cry before they were slaughtered.
The idol of Huitzilopochtli, the god of both the war and the sun, which the Aztecs considered the source of life and were perpetually afraid would go out, was gruesome. It was made from amaranth seeds and held together with honey and human blood, and inside were bags of jade, human bones, and amulets, which were thought to give life to the god.
The idol was built every year and decorated with rich garments and a golden mask during the festival of Panquetzaliztli, which was held on the winter solstice in honor of the birth of Huitzilopochtli. At the end of the festival, the idol was broken apart and eaten, and sacrificial victims, covered in blue body paint and arrayed in the costume of the god, had their hearts cut out.
Horrifying as all this was, there was a certain macabre logic to it. Not unlike the modern cults of abortion and assisted suicide, Aztecs practiced human sacrifice in the belief it was an absolute necessity that would bring about practical goods. After all, the gods Nanahuatzin and Tecucistecatl set themselves on fire to become the sun and the moon, and the Aztecs, by spilling their own blood and that of their children and enemies, were only repaying the gods what was owed to them, thereby ensuring the continuance and prosperity of their people.
Cortés looked upon all this and concluded, with an iron resolve, that it must be destroyed. After an 80-day siege of Tenochtitlan in the summer of 1521, he ordered the city razed. His men pulled down buildings and walls, and reduced the place to rubble.
Cortés no doubt left a trail of death and destruction in Mexico, but if we concede that what he destroyed was profoundly evil, even demonic, then perhaps we should at least temper our judgement of him and consider that his moral imagination, informed by his Catholic faith, helped him see Tenochtitlan exactly for what it was.