Fifty years after Cortés’s infamous encounter with the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II, Bernardino de Sahagún recorded Moctezuma’s words to Cortés in the Florentine Codex as follows:
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.
-Moctezuma to Cortés
This is the beginning of the legend that Cortés was being confused with the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. It has also been suggested that Cortés’s initial military victories, particularly the conquest of Tenochtitlan, were partially because of the fatalism surrounding the prophecy and its impact on the Aztec soldiers’ morale.
At the time of Cortés’s arrival, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the largest urban center in the Americas and one of the largest cities in the world. It was estimated to have an average daily population of 60,000 while some historians have estimated it to have had a population of 200,000 at times. It was built in the middle of Lake Texcoco, a shallow lake near modern day Mexico City.
The city was legendarily founded when a roaming group of Aztec warriors set out to find a new capital, the location of which was given to them by prophecy. It was said that they would find their new home to the South, led by Huitzilopochtli who represented the Southern direction and was their god of war. In the “land of seven caves”, they would see a sign leading them to found their new city. While on the shores of Lake Texcoco, looking out at an island, they saw an eagle holding a rattlesnake on a Nopal cactus, and they commenced to build their new city on the island.
The city was so astonishing to the Spaniards that some suspected it to be an illusion:
When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (…) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (…) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.
-Bernal Díaz del Castillo
During the time Cortés was trying to at least feign diplomatic solutions, there were a number of confusing interactions between he and Moctezuma, leading to suspicion on both side. Ironically, the city was celebrating the festival of Huitzilopochtli (see above). Because of all the bellicose activity and human sacrifice, some believed that there was a plot against the Spanish. Led by Pedro de Alvarado, several Aztecs were detained and tortured until they confessed that there was a plot. Not understanding that torture does not lead to good information, Cortés’s men sealed off the main courtyard and began laying siege to the city. The city was under siege for over 90 days, causing mass starvation. Smallpox and other diseases were also ravaging the indigenous population who had no immunity to Old World diseases.
Although the Aztecs did not have a sophisticated written record, like the Mayans to the South, we do have quite a bit of detail about their history and mythology due to the chronicles of Spanish missionaries. Obviously, these chronicles are often inaccurate and do not represent the viewpoints of the Aztecs. Regardless, Quetzalcoatl was an incredibly important deity and much is known about their beliefs about him.
Much like ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, many of the deities in close civilizations are shared in common. Quetzalcoatl is also a deity, by another name, in the older Mayan civilization, for example. In nearly every version of the creation story of Quetzalcoatl, he was born of a virgin named Chimalman. Sometimes, Chimalman was pregnant because a god appeared to her in a dream and told her she would bear a son. In others she becomes pregnant by swallowing an emerald or being shot with an arrow.
In either case, Quetzalcoatl is considered to represent the direction of the West and was associated with the qualities of light, favorable winds, mercy and justice. He was also known as the Lord of the Morning Star and was often linked with death and resurrection. According to Aztec legend, he invented the calendar and gave mankind maize (corn).
Most important of all, both to the Aztecs and to the story, Quetzalcoatl was considered to be creator of mankind, at least mankind in the current age (the Fifth sun, according to Aztec legend). To create mankind, he descended into the underworld and used his own blood, drained from various parts of his body, mixed with the bones of the four previous races of mankind which had been destroyed by flood and fire. Unlike the previous ages, which were idyllic, our current age is neither living nor dead but something in between, being sustained by continual human sacrifice. In the process of restoring the human race, every god was sacrificed and became a star. As a result, perpetual human sacrifice was the only way to sustain reality. In fact, if the Aztecs stopped sacrificing people, the sun would instantly go black and the world would end in a tremendous series of earthquakes. The end of the fifth age, then, was when they got to stop killing people either due to an earthquake apocalypse or, perhaps, if the gods returned.
If this sounds a lot like the story of Jesus, you are not alone in seeing the similarities. The story is so similar that some early Mormons, including a president of the Mormon church named John Taylor, actually believed Quetzalcoatl was Jesus and had come to preach the gospel to the Native Americans.
Was it Foretold in Prophecy?
The role of prophecy in Aztec religion is obviously important, both in their foundation myths and in the general culture. However, since nearly every written source from the Americas was burned by zealous Catholic priests, we know very little about specific prophecies. In fact, the only reason we believe that Cortés was being connected with Quetzalcoatl is because of the record of the speech given by Moctezuma. This is where the terminology is interesting.
Teotl means god, sort of. In reality, it is more like the Polynesian term Mana, which means something more like mysterious force which could inhabit any aspect of reality, from people to rocks. If the term sounds familiar, it may be because it is part of the indigenous term teōnanācatl (mushroom of teotl), used for the psychedelic mushrooms found in Central Mexico and made famous during the sixties, which were a popular sacrament among many Central American civilizations.
Teotl is the word that Moctezuma used most when referring to Cortés. As a result, we are not sure if Moctezuma is saying “welcome you mysterious coalescence of divine energy” or “welcome incarnation of Quetzalcoatl”. The Spanish had an inherent interest in portraying Cortés’s mission as divinely oriented and connecting it to an indigenous prophecy is certainly one way to do that. Until we have more information, the question as to whether or not the Aztecs saw the Spanish coming is up in the air.