I shall begin with two sets of facts and dates. On or about August 8 of 1519 Hernán Cortés, a hidalgo, a knight, from Medellin in the Estremadura region of Spain, having sailed his expeditionary fleet from Cuba to win “vast and wealthy lands,” set out from a city he called Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico to march inland, west toward the capital of Anahuac, the empire of the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs. The city was called Tenochtitlan and its lord, the emperor, was Montezuma Ñ. Cortés knew of the place from the emperor’s coastal vassals and from delegations Montezuma had sent loaded with presents to welcome—and to forestall—the invaders. The presents included many works of well-crafted gold.
Cortés had with him some 300 Spaniards, including about forty crossbowmen and twenty arquebusiers, that is, men carrying heavy matchlock rifles. He probably had three frontloading cannons. His officers wore metal armor. There were fifteen horses for the captains and a pack of hunting dogs. (I might mention here that the Aztec dogs were a hairless type bred for food.) The band was accompanied by Indian porters and allies, a group that grew to about 1000 as they marched inland. Early in November they passed at 13,000 feet between the two volcanoes that guard the high Valley of Mexico. Some Spanish captains astounded the Indians by venturing to climb to the crater rim of the ominously smoking Popocarepétl. On November 8, Cortés was on the causeway to Tenochtitlan. On November 14, Montezuma, the ruler of a realm of 125,000 square miles, capable of putting in the field an army of 200,000 men with a highly trained officer corps, quietly surrendered his person to the custody of Cortés, declared himself a vassal of Emperor Charles V, and transferred his administration to the palace assigned to the Spaniards. He soon made them a present of the state treasure which they had discovered behind a plastered-over door in the palace aviary. Cortés’s surmise that just to enter Tenochtitlan was to take Anahuac captive seemed to be justified.
On June 30, 1520, Cortés being absent, Montezuma was either murdered by the Spaniards or stoned to death by his own people as he appeared on the palace wall attempting to contain a rebellion. The latter account seems more plausible, since he appears to have been shielded by Spaniards to whom he was a valuable pawn and since some of his nobles were growing disgusted with his submissiveness. The uprising had been induced by the young captain whom Cortés had left in charge, who had massacred unarmed celebrants of the feast of Huitzilopóchtli, the city’s chief god; this god both was and stood for the Sun.
The Mexican uprising culminated in the noche triste, the Sad Night, when the Spaniards were driven from the city with enormous loss of life. In June 1521 the Spanish situation looked desperate to them, as a vigorous, indomitable, eighteen-year-old emperor, Cuauhtémoc, Montezuma’s second successor (the first having died of smallpox, probably brought to New Spain by one of Cortés’s black porters), assumed the leadership of an Aztec army now better acquainted with these once apparently invincible invaders.
On August 15, 1521, just two years after his landing, Cortés’s band, augmented by some new arrivals and an allied Indian army from Tenochtitlan’s old enemy, Tlaxcala, fought its way, foot by foot, back into the city, with frightful losses on both sides. The Spaniards were supported by a flotilla of forty brigantines, light square-rigged sailing vessels that Cortés had ordered built and dragged overland to Lake Texcoco, the complex shallow water on which Tenochtitlan stood.—It was the first fleet of sailing ships to float on the lake.
I am still in the realm of fact when I say that within a few days this city, surpassing all cities then on earth in the beauty of its situation and the magic of its aspect, was completely razed. Within four years it was overlaid, under Cortés’s supervision, by a complete Spanish city, whose cathedral, the Cathedral of Mexico City, was eventually built hard by the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan. In this total catastrophe the Spaniards had lost fewer than 100 men, the Aztecs or Mexica about 100,000.
I have, of course, omitted myriads of gripping details, such as a novelist might hesitate to invent. But I shall now abbreviate an abbreviation: In August 1519 there was a large, powerful, highly civilized empire called Anahuac. By August 1521 it was gone; instead there was a new realm, a colony called New Spain; Spanish was replacing the native Nahuatl.
Now the second set of facts, even more curtailed. On May 13, 1532, Francisco Pizarro (like Cortés from the Estremadura and his distant relation) arrived at Tumbez, a port at the northern end of the Inca empire and of modern Peru. This empire was called by its people Tahuantinsúyu, meaning the Realm of the Four Quarters. Pizarro had 130 troopers, 40 cavalry and one small cannon. The Inca Atahualpa—Inca means Lord—had an army of 50,000 men. On November 16, 1533, the Inca came, at Pizarro’s invitation, to meet him in the town plaza of Cajamara. There he was unintelligibly harangued by the chaplain of the expedition and given a breviary: the Inca scornfully threw the scribbles to the ground. Within 33 minutes, he having been seized, 4000 of his men had been massacred. Resistance and the empire itself fell apart with his capture. Atahualpa offered to fill his prison, a cell 22 x 10 feet, with gold to the height of his reach in exchange for his freedom. While the temples which were encrusted with gold were being denuded and the condition was being fulfilled, the Inca was condemned to death by burning. This sentence was commuted to strangulation when he agreed to be baptized. Pizarro soon took Cuzco, the capital, and installed a puppet Inca, Mane° Cipac, who mounted a rebellion; it was put down with great loss of life on the Inca’s side in 1534. There followed a period of civil war among the conquerors. Again to summarize the summary: A tiny band of Spanish ruffians brought down, within two years, the most efficiently administered polity of its time. Quechua, the native language, was replaced by Spanish as the chief language.
It is thought that this second scenario was, on Pizarro’s part, a reprise of Cortés’s conquest. If so, it is a demonstration of the inferiority of imitations.
The kind of facts I have listed here are spectacular yet uncontested discontinuities in the stream of life. The dates, which tell us both the temporal order of these facts and their distance from us, serve to dramatize the discontinuity: About half a millennium ago there occurred, not very far south of us and close to each other in space and time, two mind-boggling events—the destruction by a very few Spaniards of two great civilizations.
We at this college have read or will read in Herodotus’s Persian Wars how in July of 480 B.C. a band of 299 Spartans, the same in number as Cortés’s original companions, died in holding the pass of Thermopylae against an Asian army of who knows how many hundreds of thousands, led by Xerxes, king of Persia. Their object was to give the Greeks time and courage to repel the invader. But the Spartans were defending their own land from a self-debilitating behemoth. The Spaniards’ situation in Mesoamerica is just the inverse, except that in each case the few were the free. What, we may wonder, would our world be like if the Asians had prevailed in 480 B.C. or the Nahua in 1519 A.D.?
How could it happen? How did these American empires fall? Just as Herodotus drew conclusions about the nature of the Greeks from the Persian defeat, so one might wonder if illumination about the nature of our West might not be found in these catastrophes that mark the beginning of modern life. To put it straightforwardly: In reading about Mexico and Peru I began to wonder if there might be a clue in these events to the apparently irresistible potency of the West when it touches, be it insidiously or catastrophically, other worlds, be they receptive or resistant.
Let me explain the not altogether appropriate use of the term “the West” in my title, “The Empires of the Sun and the West.” Our tradition—I mean the one whose works we study at this college—is usually called the “Western” tradition. It is thereby revealed as defining itself against the East, Near and Far, the Orient, the place where the sun rises. Our North American republic is in this sense the West’s very West and its currently culminating expression. But, of course, the Aztecs—let me interrupt myself to say that the people of the imperial city of México-Tenochtitlan did not call themselves Aztecs but Méxica and that they called those who spoke their language the Nahua and that the term Aztec was introduced to the English-speaking world by the aforementioned Prescott—these Mexica, then, of course thought of the invaders as being from the quarter of the rising sun, from the east. This turns out to be a significant fact. Columbus thought that he was “sailing not the usual way” but west—sailing west to reach the East, Japan, China, India. It was for quite a while a very unwelcome discovery that the people whom the adventurers so hopefully called “Indians” (as I will continue to do here) inhabited a long continent which, although it contracted into a narrow isthmus in the middle, blocked the ocean route to the fabulous Orient. Thus Prescott calls Tenochtitlan “the great capital of the western world.” So “West” is, strictly speaking, nonsense as used in this context, but I cling to it because it is the available shorthand for ourselves, for those living in the tradition that has its roots in Jerusalem and Athens, achieves its modernity in Europe, has come to its current culmination on this continent, and is spreading its effects all over the globe. What can be more necessary at this moment than to grapple with the being of this West?
As I read on it seemed to me often that the reasons given by historians for Anahuac’s sudden collapse before the Spaniards might well be cumulatively necessary but could not be sufficient conditions. I mean that without their operation the Empires could not have fallen so quickly, but that altogether they did not so completely account for the fall as to make it seem unavoidable. It is true that the Spaniards brought horses into a land without draft animals, and so the cavaliers could run down the pedestrian Aztec warriors and frighten the Indians into seeing the Europeans as centaurs, four-footed monstrous men-horses. But these Indians soon learned that man and horse were separable and mortal; during their desperate and bloody defense of Tenochtitlan there appeared on the skull rack of a local temple, beneath 53 heads of Spaniards, the heads of a number of horses, of “Spanish deer,” as they were now called. The crossbows and cannons may have delivered more swift and terrifying destruction than the Aztec javelin-throwers, the metal armor deflected the cuts of obsidian-studded wooden swords; the driving greed for that gold, which, as Cortés ironically represented to an Indian official, was the specific remedy for a disease that troubled the Spaniards, may have disoriented the people; the physical disease brought by the Spaniards, the smallpox, did more than decimate the uninoculated natives; Spanish luck at crucial junctures may have demoralized the caciques, the Indian chieftains; the harsh exactions and suppression of Montezuma’s empire did indeed provide Cortés with Indian allies (though the 150,000 Indians that came with the now 900 Spaniards to retake Tenochtitlan were by their very numbers an encumbrance on the heavily defended causeways into the island city and by their excited hatred for their Mexica oppressors a danger to Cortés’s prudent intentions); the crucifix may well, in Carlos Fuentes’s words, “have made their minds collapse,” as they saw how their own numerous gods demanded numerous sacrifices of them, while this one Christian god sacrificed one man, himself Such factors or forces are called, in the categories in which history is conceptualized, technological, demographic, epidemiological, political, psychological, or what have you. Perhaps they were necessary to Spanish success. But a number of contemporaries thought that at various junctures it might well have gone otherwise. For example, the strong-minded king of Texcoco, Cacama, said that all the Spaniards within Tenochtitlan could be killed in an hour; Cortés himself thought so. To me historical inevitability seems an ex post facto cause. It is the way a fait accompli presents itself, when passage has turned into past. I cannot quite tell whether my rejection of historical determinism should be reinforced or thrown into doubt by the fact that the Mexica themselves had given themselves over to fate, as I will tell. Perhaps that very self-surrender was a sufficient condition, the factor that makes the outcome practically certain. But that would only be half the explanation; for the other half one would have to look in the nature of the Europeans as well.
Before doing that, let me complete the apology for my title. In it I mention the two empires, though I will speak of one only, Anahuac. I mean no reflection on the Inca realm, that marvel of social administration and public works built with the most astounding masonry I’ve ever seen. But both of the Peruvian protagonists were like deteriorated copies of their Aztec templates. Pizarro was an intrepid thug, by all accounts, and Atahualpa a culpably and carelessly arrogant man with a violent history. Since it seemed to me that the pairs of chief actors in this drama not only were the main factors because both empires were autocracies, but were also in their very distinctive ways personally emblematic of their worlds, I chose the more humanly accessible, the more expressive duo, Montezuma and Cortés.
Finally, I refer to the Sun because the solar domination under which both these Precolumbian empires labored seemed to me more and more significant. The Incas called themselves the Children of the Sun; their great Sun Temple at Cuzco, the Coricáncha, was studded with gold, “the tears wept by the sun.” So too the Mexica, who called their generals “the Lords of the Sun,” had come into the marshes of Lake Texcoco, their place of destiny, led by priests who bore on their backs a twittering medicine bundle. It was Huitzilopochtli, who was reborn as a sun on the way at Teotihuacan, the birthplace of the gods, and later installed in Tenochtitlan in the Great Temple. There he was incessantly nourished with human blood. Of course, when I use the indicative mood in speaking of the Aztec gods, I am not reporting fact—I am telling what the Aztecs said and are thought to have believed. The most difficult thing, I have discovered, is for historians to find the right voice in speaking of alien gods, especially when they are many in number, fluid in function, and visible in many forms.
It is the Indians’ relation to the sun that I have come to think of as symbolic of the whole debacle and even as its proximate cause. To anticipate my version of a common idea: The daily, annual and epochal returns of the heavenly body were to the Aztecs so fearsomely antic, so uncertain, that they burdened themselves, as their traditions taught them, with rituals and sacrifices. These were so demanding that they enfeebled both the Nahua empire and the Nahua’s souls. The West’s relation to the Sun was just the opposite.
In 1506, just about the time young Cortés came to the Indies, Copernicus was beginning to write On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. It is one of Western modernity’s seminal works, which our sophomores study. In it he shows that the mathematical rationalization of the heavens is more economically accomplished and the celestial phenomena are better “saved” if the sun stands stably at the center of the world. But his motive is not only mathematical economy. “For who,” he says, “would place this lamp of a very beautiful temple in another place than this, wherefrom it can illuminate everything at the same time?” Cortés was surely not a premature Copernican, but he acted out of a tradition in which one God controls the cosmos through the laws of nature. Since the deity is not capricious, celestial nature is ever-reliable, well-illuminated and confidence-inspiring. Nature’s sun does not, in any case, respond to human propitiation and Nature’s god prefers prayers to ritual sacrifices.
Let me append here a poignant incident told by Cortés. In the final days of the investment of Tenochtitlan, a delegation of parched and starving Mexica came to the barricades. They said that they held Cortés to be a child of the Sun, who could perform a circuit of the earth in a day and a night. Why would he not slay them in that time to end their suffering?
Let me hold off yet one more minute from my main task to tell you what motives drew me into a study so far from our Program. To begin with, there was the sheer enchantment of what proved to be a fragile civilization and the unburdened romance of comfortably un-current drama. All that romance I got from reading William Hickling Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico of 1843, and his Conquest of Peru of 1847. Of the first book he himself wrote that it was conceived “not as a philosophical theme but as an epic in prose, a romance of chivalry.” For this approach later historians, for whom demythification, deromanticization, and the dispersal of human deeds into forces and patterns is a professional requirement, despise him somewhat, and it took me a while to see what valuable lesson could be drawn from his telling. Prescott has it right; first the great tale, then the critical theory.
From the first I knew that I was reading the American Gibbon. We at St. John’s used to read parts, particularly the notorious fifteenth chapter, of that English historian’s monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completed in 1788. To my taste the American is the finer of the two. Gibbon conceals in the magnificently Latinate periods of his style the universal irony of the ultimately enlightened man. I do not fault him for sitting in judgment, for a non-judgmental historian is an incarnate contradiction and produces only an armature of facts without the musculature that gives it human shape. But I am put off by his judging as an Olympian enthroned on Olympus. In that fifteenth chapter, which treats the question “by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of this earth?” (a question of the kind I am asking) he reflects with raised eyebrows in turn on the mortification of the flesh, pious chastity and divine providence, so as to come to a pretty secular answer, just as if Christianity were not first and last a faith. Surely when a faith conquers, its substance must be given some credit.
Prescott, on the other hand, who had in his youth privately critiqued Gibbon’s style for its “tumid grandeur,” writes with deliberate American plainness, though to this twenty-first-century ear, with a dignified elegance. What matters more to me is that he does his level best to enter into the feelings and thoughts of his alien world, finding much to admire in the Aztecs and much to blame in the Spaniards; for example he calls the massacre of the Indians in fateful Cholula a “dark stain” on Cortés’s record. But for all his romantic pleasure in new marvels he never condescends to accept the horrifying elements of Aztec civilization. He recognizes that these are nor individual crimes but systemic evils that his Western liberal conscience cannot condone. One might say that he dignifies his subjects with his condemnation. For this candor he is, as you can imagine, belittled these days as naïve, culture-bound, and ethnocentric. I shall have a word to say on the sophisticated reverse bigotry of his belittlers.
His style, to add one more feature, is extraordinarily vivid; it compares to Gibbon’s as a classical statue in all its original bright encaustic colors to one that has been dug up, now only bare white marble. This visual aliveness may be a “blind Homer” effect. When Prescott was a young student dining at the Harvard Commons, he was hit in the eye by a hard piece of bread during a food fight and was half-blind for the rest of his life. It is characteristic of this man that, although he knew whose missile had hit him, he never told the name. His enormous collection of sources was read to him and evidently richly illustrated in his imagination.
I might mention the other chief sources I read. (A longer bibliography, merging books read and those merely consulted, is attached.)
First for anyone interested in the actual course of the Conquest is Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s True History of New Spain of 1.555. This simply told, incident-rich account of the march on Tenochtitlan and what happened afterwards gains credence from the fact that the old trooper was disgruntled with his captain’s assignment of rewards—the common condition of the Conquistador ranks; the poor devils got little for their endless exertions and wounds. In spite of his grievances, Díaz’s love and admiration for Cortés unsuppressably dominates his story. The Conquistadores are sometimes represented as having had eyes for nothing not made of gold. Here is the old soldier’s recall of Tenochtitlan as he first glimpsed it, thirty-six years before, on a causeway leading toward the island city:
We were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of Amadis, on account of the great towers and cues (temples) rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream. It is not to be wondered that I here write it down in this manner, for there is so much to think over that I do not know how to describe it, seeing things, as we did, that have never been heard of or seen or even dreamed.
These men, some of them ruffians, but with medieval romances behind their eyes to help them see alien beauty, were evidently not altogether sick with gold greed. But those later writers who don’t blame them for the one, accuse them of the other: they’re either merely medieval knight-errants or merely mercantile expeditionaries. In fact, they seem to have been poignantly aware that they were seeing sights no European had ever seen before or could ever see after.
Here is what they saw: A city edged by flowering “floating gardens,” the mud-anchored chinampas, lying on the shining flat waters of a shallow, irregular lake collected in a high valley guarded by the snowy peaks—even in August—of the two volcanoes; straight broad causeways connecting the city to the shore giving into straight broad avenues leading from the four directions of the winds to its sacred center, the center of the world, with its great, gleaming, colorfully decorated temple pyramid; a grid of smaller streets edged with bridged canals; a myriad of lesser temple pyramids, some smoking with sacrifices; palaces with stuccoed walls and patios polished to gleam like silver; sparkling pools; crowds of clean, orderly people going about their business, especially in the great market of Tlatelolco; gardens everywhere; and the white houses of the city’s quarter million inhabitants with their flat roofs, the azoteas from which two years hence such a deadly shower of missiles would rain down on the returning Spaniards that the dwellings were demolished one by one.—All these features of the vision have been, incidentally, described with a poet’s relish by William Carlos Williams:
[The city spread its dark life upon the earth of a new world, sensitive to its richest beauty, but so completely removed from those foreign contacts that harden and protect, that at the very breath of conquest it vanished.
The mutual admiration of Indians and Spaniards was great—in the beginning. True, the Spaniards, whom Cortés’s vigilance kept sleeping in their armor, stank in the nostrils of the much-bathing Indians, and the priests with their long, blood-matted hair in their gore-bespattered sanctuaries nauseated the Spaniards. (I omit here, for the moment, the Spaniards’ response to the sacrifices themselves, which marked, on the Christians’ side, the beginning of the end of amity.) The Spaniards were astonished by Indian craftsmanship. Díaz describes after decades a necklace made of golden crabs (others say crayfish) that Montezuma placed around Cortés’s neck. Of course, Díaz described the golden gifts more often in terms of the pesos they weighed when melted down into bullion. I note here that the Aztecs did not, evidently, have scales and did not reduce objects to their universal stuff, ponderable mass (thus the Mexicans used natural items, quils of gold dust and cocoa beans, for currency, while the Spanish had the peso d’oro, the “gold weight,” calibrated in fact to silver, to 42.29 grams of the pure substance); this intellectual device of universal quantification even those critics of the West who deplore it can hardly forego in the business of life. The Spaniards were astounded by, and perhaps a little envious of, the stately splendor of the cacique’s accoutrements. The Indians, on their part, were amazed by the invaders’ daring, tenacity, and endurance. They called them, as the Spanish heard it, teules, teotl being rhe Nahuatl word for god. The term seems to have been used somewhat as Homer uses dios, indicating sometimes just excellence and sometimes divinity. As we shall see, the Aztecs had a serious reason to call Cortés and his people gods. The Spanish, on their side, in their very horror of the frightful-looking Aztec god-images, paid them a certain respect in regarding them not as mere idols, deaf and dumb objects of stupid worship, but much as the Mexica themselves did: Sahagiln, of whom I will shortly tell, records an Aztec ruler’s admonitory speech in which he says: “For our lord seeth, hearerh within wood, within stone.” The god-representations were not masks of nothing to the Christians, but they were images of demons, of the Devil in various shapes. Thus in looking at the Nahuatl side in Sahagun’s dual language text, I noticed that diablo, Devil, had become a Spanish loan word in Nahuatl—one new name for all the old divinities, to be abominated but also acknowledged.
The second eyewitness source is Cortés himself, who wrote to his sovereign, Charles V. five letters reporting on his activities. Of these cartas de relacion, letters of report, all but one are extant in copies. They are not notes but voluminous, detailed accounts beginning with the first, pre-Cortés exploration of the Gulf Coast and ending with Cortés’s own post-Conquest explorations; the second and third letter contain the material for this lecture. The English version conveys a flavor of studiedly plain elegance. These clearly literary works are charged by historians with being both subtly self-aggrandizing and consciously myth-making. To me it would seem strange if Cortés, in writing to his sovereign, on whom depended acknowledgements and rewards, did not portray his exertions most favorably. It might be said—I don’t know whether in mitigation or exacerbation—that he was also willing to suppress a brave but irrepressible compañero’s guilt: Nowhere have I found even a mention of Alvarado’s culpability in the events leading to the noche triste. It is also said that Cortés invented the myth of an Aztec empire which rivaled Charles’s own, to whet the Spanish emperor’s interest in his new dominion. To me, the account itself, telling of tributes owed by the subject cities and of their chiefs obliged to be in attendance in Tenochtitlan, sounds more like information he was in fact given by proud Mexica officials or disaffected dependents.
Above all, Cortés fills his letters with myriads of meticulously noted detail—too thick and too vivid to be attributed to mere mendacious fantasizing. He would have had to have been a veritable Gabriel Garcia Márquez to invent so magical a reality. For, he says, “we saw things so remarkable as not to be believed. We who saw them with our own eyes could not grasp them with our understanding.” Cortés himself will appear in a moment.
The third source, the most exhaustive in scope and remarkable in method, is The History of the Things of New Spain by the before-mentioned Friar Bernadino de Sahagun. He had arrived as the forty-third of the religious that Cortés had requested in one of his letters to the emperor. The Conquistador needed them to carry on the task of conversion, because, as he said, the Indians had a great natural attraction to Christianity; indeed in the early post-Conquest years, Indians were baptized by the thousands a day. (The reasons that Cortés’s observation is not implausible will be mentioned below.)
The name New Spain in Sahagun’s title is, incidentally, Cortés’s own for conquered Anahuac: “New Spain of the Ocean Sea.” For the Conquistador it betokens a great colonial accession to old peninsular Spain and the emphasis is on “Spain.” But later the accent shifts to “New,” as the criollos, the Mexican-born Spaniards, rebel against the old country’s domination. Eventually a nativist revival and a growing sense of nationhood leads to a rejection by the native-born Spaniards themselves of their Conquistador heritage, and when in 1821 the country achieves independence, it will be called by the old Nahua name for Tenochtitlan, México (now pronounced in the Spanish way, Mehico). Nativist Mexico’s tutelary deity will be Quetzalcóatl, the dominating god of this lecture, of whom more in a moment.
Back to Sahagun. He learned Nahuatl himself and spent the rest of his life, with much untoward clerical interference, compiling the world’s first inside ethnographic account. In his college he trained his own informants, Indian boys, often of noble descent, who could interview their living elders and obtain the information that Sahagun compiled in parallel columns, Spanish and Nahuatl. The work, in twelve volumes, is known as the Florentine Corpus. Lisa Richmond, our librarian, fulfilled my unexpectant hopes by buying the very expensive English edition for our library, and if one reader a decade finds the delight and illumination in it that I did, the investment will be well justified.
Sahagun begins with the gods and their births—for like Greek gods, these gods were born, at Teotihuacan, 33 miles northeast of Tenochtitlan. This sacred city was well over a millennium old when Anahuac was established, and in ruins. But there the Mexica came to worship, particularly at the great temple pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. What bound new Anahuac to old Teotihuacan—the name means City of the Gods—was their common era, that of the Fifth Sun, upon whose destruction the world would end.
Sahagun then records everything from the sacred rituals and binding omens to the set moral speeches (much more charming without failing to be scary than similar speeches made by our elders) down to the riddles people asked, such as “What drags its entrails through a gorge?” Answer: “A needle.” The next to last book is an inventory of the “Earthly Things” of New Spain, its flora, fauna and minerals; the chapter on herbs begins with the plants “that perturb one, madden one,” the hallucinogens. The twelfth book is Sahagun’s own history of the Conquest.
Some say that the first bishop of New Spain, Zumárraga, conducted a huge auto-da-fe, a book burning of Aztec codices, those screenfold books composed in glyphs (stylized figures with fixed meanings) combined with lively pictures. Others say that those codices that weren’t destroyed by the hostile Tlaxcalans or in the great conflagration of Tenochtitlan were spirited away by Indians. In any case, the art of illustration was still alive, and Sahagun used the talents of Indian painters to supplement his records in this visually delightful pre-alphabetic way.
Finally I want to mention the History of the Indians of New Spain by another Franciscan, affectionately named by his Indian parishioners Motolinía, Nahuatl for “Little Poor One,” since he took his vow of poverty seriously. He reports the terrible post-Conquest sufferings undergone by the Indian population; worse than their cruel exploitation by the disappointed Conquistadores and colonists was the succession of European plagues (smallpox, bubonic plague, measles, for which the Indians reciprocated only with syphilis). I am impressed, over and over, with this pattern: that the inoculated West does most of its harm to other civilizations unintentionally, and I mean not only through their physical susceptibility but even more, through their spiritual and intellectual vulnerability. The reason we can cope with our dangerously developed, potent tradition is that we know how to fight back, how to subject our powers to constraining criticism and how to correct our aberrations by returns to sounder beginnings. Critique and Renaissance are the continual evidence of our self-inoculation, and we see right now the dangerous consequences of the Western invasion of souls not so protected.
But Motolinía also reports successes, not only in conversions, which were too stupendous in number and abrupt in spiritual terms to be always quite real. What is lovely to read about is not only his affection for the gentleness and dignified reticence of his boys but their quick intelligence and general talentedness; some learned enough Latin in a few years to correct the grammar—a tense but triumphant moment for their teacher—of a visiting dignitary. They sang liturgies like angels and easily learned to play European instruments. No wonder Mexico City was to become, in the eighteenth century, this hemisphere’s greatest center of baroque music; its chief composer, Manuel de Zumaya, Chapel Master at the very Cathedral of Mexico City which replaced Huitzilopochtli’s temple, was part-Indian.
I should also mention two more works written with great sympathy for the Indians: Bishop las Casas’s Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies of 1542, a book of passionate accusation against the Spanish conquerors and colonists, and Cabesa de Vaca’s Relación, the story of the tribulations of a discoverer of Florida, who was himself for a while enslaved by Indians.
By our contemporary historians the Aztecs are treated in almost comically opposite ways. Jacques Soustelle paints their daily life as an idyll of gentle, flower-loving, orderly culture, made poignant on occasion by the necessities of the ritual care and feeding of the gods. It is the myth of harmony and happiness the Mexica themselves encouraged in the revisionist accounts that succeeded the “book burning” by Itzcóatl, their first emperor. Inga Clendinnen, on the other hand, depicts a somberly severe, fear-ridden, God-encumbered society, whose sacrificial rituals, coruscating with whirling sights and penetrating musical noise, were, she says, “infused with the transcendent reality of the aesthetic.” Hugh Thomas, the most recent grand historian of the Conquest, a sensible and thorough marshaller of thousands of facts, speaks similarly of “the astounding, often splendid, and sometimes beautiful barbarities” of Aztec ritual practice.
What astounds me is not the antithetical views of Aztec life, for these polarities seem to have been of the Aztec essence. What takes me aback is that my contemporaries seem to wish to appear as knowing what is beautiful but not what is wrong. There are of course exceptions, writers who feel insuperable moral unease over these alien customs they are by their professional bias bound to honor. The imaginary experiment that I, as an outsider and amateur, have devised for myself to put the profession in general to the test is this: When the Spaniards first came on the remains of ritual killings—later they saw the rituals themselves and eventually found the body parts of their own comrades—they broke into the holding pens where prisoners were being fattened and stormed the temples. Would the professors have done the same or would they have regarded the practice as protected by the mantra of “otherness”? I am assuming here that they do disapprove of human sacrifice in their own culture. For my part, I cannot tell what I would have had the courage to do, but I would have been forever ashamed if I had not shared in the revulsion, the reversal of an original appreciation that, for all their rapaciousness, the Christians had for the Indians—and I might add, for certain remarkable Indian women.
I have thus evolved for myself two categories of historians: non-condoners and condoners. The older writers tend to be non-condoners; they are not careful to cloak themselves in moral opacity; what they abhor at home they will not condone abroad, be it ever so indigenous and ever so splendid. One remarkable exception is the before-mentioned Bartolomé de Las Casas, who lays out the case for human sacrifice as being both natural—since men offer their god what they hold most excellent, their own kind—and also as being within our tradition—since Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s bidding, and God himself sacrificed his son. The difficulty with this latter argument would seem to be that Abraham’s sacrifice was called off, and God’s sacrifice was unique, while Indian sacrifices were multitudinous.
Las Casas is the preceptor of Tzvetan Todorov, a European intellectual who, in his book Conquest, tries hard to come to grips with “the Other,” with the Aztec non-West. He finally elevates the Other over his own: The Aztecs made sacrifices, the Spaniards committed massacres. And here the rational difficulty is that Aztec religion commanded these deaths and Christian religion forbade them, so that Todorov is comparing customs with crimes, an evil tradition with unsanctioned wrong-doing.
This enterprise of restricting universal morality in the interests of empathy with otherness puzzles me a lot. For if we are really and radically each other’s Other, then those who leave their own side to enter into the Other will thereby also lose their footing as open-eyed contemplators. In any case, it seems to me that the non-condoning Prescott’s grand narrative has done more for the memory of this bygone civilization than have the condoning contemporaries. For he induces what Virgil calls lacrimae rerum, tears for lost things—while they invite, in me at least, contrariness, resistance to their sanctimonious self-denial.
You can see that as I read on developed an interest in historiography, the reflective study of historical accounting itself. For it seems to me of great current importance to consider a propensity of Western intellectuals, particularly pronounced in the social studies and expressive of a strength and its complementary weaknesses native to this tradition: knowledgeable self-criticism flipping into unthinking self-abasement before the non-West. I say this mindful of the moral quandary of pitting the humanly unacceptable, but, so to speak, innocent evils, the traditional practices of a whole civilization, against the crimes of individuals transgressing the laws of their own, crimes magnified by its superior power.
And now a final motive for this, my aberrant interest: We here on the Annapolis campus are only 200 miles further from Mexico City than from our other half in New Mexico; Incan Cuzco is nearly on our longitude of 76° W. Yet these pre-Columbian empires are hardly ever in our common consciousness, even less now than in the decades after Prescott’s very popular book appeared. True, some of the skyscrapers of the twenties and thirties intentionally recalled Mesoamerican pyramids. True, the Nahuatl words chocolátl and tamálli are in our daily vocabulary, as is Nahua cooking, that is, Mexican food, in our diets. The Aztecs had in fact a high cuisine; the description of the emperor’s daily service with its hundreds of dishes—among which (lest we be tempted too much) there may have been, as Diaz reports, the meat of little children, boiled boy to put it bluntly—is staggering in its variety; indeed there cannot ever have been a potentate more luxuriously or elaborately served. Of all this we’ve adopted, through modern Mexico, the low end, but where else do the Empires of the Sun figure in our lives? This surprised sense of their missing influence made me engage in another one of those imagination-experiments by which we see the world anew: What if, as King Cacáma of Texcoco and some later historians thought possible, the Mexica had just killed Cortés and his band, so that the Westernization of Anahuac had been held off for some centuries?—for it is not within my imagination that the West was forever to be resisted. Suppose the unwitting extermination of the Indians by disease had thus been prevented. (I might say here that this huge demographic disaster, possibly among the worst in history, is numerically unfixed. Some say Anahuac had thirty million, some say it had four before Cortés. Some say by the mid-fifteenth century this population had been reduced to 2.6 or 1.2 million, to be fully restored only much later.) Suppose, then, that the ravaged generation of the Conquest and post-Conquest era had instead been preserved, and Nahua civilization with it. Suppose eventually North American jeans and technology had drifted down and Aztec gorgeousness and craftsmanship up the latitudes.—I might inject here that the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who has grappled seriously with such dreams, comes to the sad but realistic conclusion that the loss of native culture is worth the benefit to ordinary people that these Northern imports bring.—Suppose moreover that our American English had absorbed some of the suavely dignified classical Nahuatl, its urbane address, its poetic rephrasings, its expressive word-agglutinations; suppose as well that the speech of the Nahua had accepted some of our flamboyant informality. Suppose our clothing had been restyled by Aztec orchidaciousness and our manners had been a little improved by Aztec ceremoniousness. Suppose our political discourse had been informed by a neighboring monarchy against which we had never had to rebel. We can learn in our imagination whether such fine acquisitions could have come into our way of life without losing their hieratic heart. Would not one of the parties in this cultural exchange eventually turn out to contribute the core and the other the decoration? My provisional answer is that the West would assert itself as the substructure and the Empire of the Sun would become part of its recreation—they would be the pilgrims and we the tourists.
The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes tells of a similar imagined reversal of history in the semi-historical story “The Two Shores.” Here Aguilar, Cortés’s first interpreter who had long lived with the Maya, speaks from the grave. He tells how even while in Cortés’s employ he held with the Indians and, by always translating not what Cortés said but what he thought, caused trouble. He confesses that he was jealous of Malinche, the Nahuatl-and Mayan-speaking woman, whose Mayan Aguilar translated into Spanish. She soon became Cortés’s mistress and learned Spanish; she was one of the central figures of the conquest, present and mediating on every great occasion; Aguilar was made redundant. But revenge is not his final passion. It is rather a plan to mount with his Mayans a reverse conquest, a successful invasion of Spain, and there to recall the defeated Moors and the expelled Jews, to inaugurate a darker-skinned, better-melded Europe, “a universe simultaneously new and recovered, permeable, complex, fertile,” where “Sweet Mayan songs joined those of the Provencal troubadours. . . .” But Aguilar, as he dreams his impossible dream, is dead of the bubonic plague that did not attack only Indians.
So these imagination-experiments endorse the question raised by the facts with which I began: How can we understand what happened here, on this American continent, between 1519 and 1534? Can we compel the fortunes of war and the forces of history to show their human motive power?
To get at some sort of answer, I shall take up the four factors in the conquest of Mexico that seem to me most revealing: One is a god, Quetzalcoatl; one is a practice, human sacrifice; two are men, Montezuma and Cortés.
Quetzalcoatl, the most appealing of the Mesoamerican gods, is also most deeply implicated in the Mexican debacle. This is a complex figure, a god of human interiority and of the works of civilization, a searcher into the depth of hell and the guardian of terrestrial idylls, a priest king of Tula and the deus absconditus of Anahuac, an Indian Prometheus.
He was not the tribal god of the Mexica, having been in the country long before they arrived. Their god was Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and of the sun, or rather the Sun itself, who shared the great temple pyramid of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the scene of so much of the drama in this tale, with Tlaloc, the god of rain; the god who floods the heavens is partner to the god who drenches the earth. When the Mexica were still Chichimeca (as the Nahua called the wandering semi-savages of the north), coming down from their mythical city of origin Aztlan (whence the name Aztec) in search of their appointed home, their priests carried on their backs, as I mentioned before, a twittering medicine bundle. This was Huitzilopochtli, reborn at Teotihuacan, the birthplace of the gods, as the Fifth Sun. His name means “Hummingbird On the Left” or “On the South,” perhaps because he and his people went southwest to find their marshland home on Lake Texcoco, perhaps because the god-figure was half-bird, having a thin, feathered left leg. In effect their god was crippled. Cripples, dwarves, hunchbacks, albinos play a great role in Nahua history, partly because the valley people had an inexhaustible interest in the sports and varieties of nature: Montezuma’s palace complex included besides an aviary, a zoo, an arboretum, a gallery of anomalous humans; but there may be something deeper to it, some sense of awe before the exceptional—I don’t know.
The war god was a hummingbird because Aztec warriors who died in battle went not to the murky Hades of Mictlán but to a sunny Elysium where they flitted about feeding on flowery nectar—perfect examples of a dominant Aztec characteristic, the abrupt juxtaposing of or transiting from the brutal to the delicate.
Most of the Aztec gods seem to have had frightful aspects. There is a statue of Huitzilopochtli’s mother Coatlicúe, a chunky monster with a necklace of human parts and a head like an oblong package made up from two compressed snakes springing from her neck. The tribal god himself must have looked inhumanly terrifying. Not so Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs were very sensitive to human beauty—the ugliness of the gods is clearly deliberate—and this god was represented as beautiful, though in a way which, although not unique to him, is yet most remarkable.
Quetzalcoatl’s name combines the word quétzal, a Mesoamerican bird that has precious green tailfeathers (the green of quetzal feathers and of jade was the color of the Mexica nobility), with coatl, meaning snake. So he is the bird-snake, or the Plumed Serpent, belonging both to the sky and the earth. And thus he is shown in some sculptures, with coils whose scales are lengthened into feathers neatly piled into a spiral. The fanged jaws are wide open and frame a handsome, spare young male face, with high-bridged nose, well-shaped eyes, thin-lipped mouth—the face, I imagine, of a young Aztec noble.
Is this face that of the god within a serpentine integument, or is the creature as a whole the god, or is it the god’s priest in his ritual costume? It is not clear that it is even a permissible question. The Aztecs appear to have had the most flexible notions of their divinities. The gods amalgamate competences, share names, identify with their victims, and merge with their priests. As far as I can tell, this mode is neither confusion nor indeterminacy. It is rather a kind of conceptual fluidity which does become fixed in the very precisely promulgated rituals. The graphic art of the Aztecs expresses this multifarious melding by its complexly intertwined figures with their attributes all drawn indistinguishably on one plane and discriminable only to an expert in Aztec divinity.
But of Quetzalcoatl we know that he was indeed both god and man. As man he was then Lord of Tula, and as the Toltec lord he became fateful to the Mexica.
To me the most appealing characteristic of these newcomers, these recent Chichimeca, was their longing deference to a city of the past, Tula, a city forty miles north of their lake and overthrown more than 300 years before Montezuma’s day. Tula was to Tenochtitlan what Athens has been to Europe and still is to us in Maryland and New Mexico: the source of wisdom, art, and ideals of life. The Toltecs were to the Mexica like gods, walking swiftly everywhere on blue sandals, wrapped in flowery fragrance. For them corn sprouted in enormous ears, precious cocoa beans—one of the Mexican currencies—were found in plenty, and cotton grew already dyed in rich colors. They made works of art so exemplary that the Aztecs gave their own craftsmen the generic name of toltéca, Tulans.
Over this earthly idyll Quetzalcoatl Topíltzin, Our Dear Lord Quetzalcoatl, ruled as priest and king, godlike but also all too human. I cannot tell you what then happened in all its tragicomic detail. But in brief, Huitzilopochtli and other gods arrived in the guise of mischief-making wizards. Never mind the disparity in dates. This is the story of a newer god of war undoing an older god of civilization, and, I suspect, the story of how Huitzilopochtli’s people betrayed their assumed Toltec heritage. These wizards assaulted the Toltec lord, who had grown in some way neglectful, with portents and temptations. They tempted him with pulque, the wine made from the maguey cactus, the American aloe, whose consumption was fiercely regulated in Tenochtitlan. They raised indecent passions in princesses and induced civil wars that Quetzalcoatl had to win with his army of dwarves and cripples. They caused the Tolteca to sing and dance themselves to death. To these temptations the lord of Tula succumbed as a participant. Finally, however, they tried to force him to make human sacrifices. Here he balked and refused and was for that steadfastness driven from Tula. All this is told by Sahagun and other Indian sources. This is the moment to say once more what needs saying just because it seems too naive for words: To report that Huitzilopochtli did this and Quetzalcoatl that is not to confer the status of existence on these divine figures. Indeed they became fateful to their people precisely because they were so vulnerable to non-existence proofs.
There is a stone head that shows the Dear Lord weeping, long clublike tears issuing straight from the god’s eyes, probably those he wept as he went into exile. The same head shows him heavily bearded, an unusual feature in a young god, and among the Indians in general. He is also supposed to have been light-skinned.
Quetzalcoatl flees toward the east. He crosses, in space not time, the path of the Mexica’s god going southwest, and he makes his way toward the east coast, there to embark with his loyal band on a raft of serpents and to drift into the rising sun—the very way Cortés, a white, bearded man, took in reverse going west and inland. Cortés comes this way in 1519, just as the year that in the Aztec calendrical cycle is Quetzalcoati’s birth and death year, ce ácatl, One Reed, had come round again. In this year the Dear Lord was destined to return by boat from his trans-oceanic exile. You can see the tragedy taking shape.
The biggest pyramid in America rose at Cholula to mark one of the god-man’s stations of flight. There the old god failed his people when, on his way to Tenochtitlan, Cortés massacred more than a hundred unarmed Cholulan nobles in his temple precinct. Cortés thought he had uncovered a plot to betray his band to the Mexica. Perhaps he had, and perhaps the planned ambush would have been the end for him if he had not prevented it with his characteristic merciless decisiveness. That we shall never know, but we do know this: The Cholulans remembered an old prophecy that the god who had rested from his flight in their city would protect them, and that if they pulled a stone out of his pyramid, a flood of water would sweep the enemy away. With panicky energy they succeeded in wrenching out a stone—and got a cloud of dust.
The Plumed Serpent, briefly to finish his tale, was not permanently discredited, nor did he cease to occupy imaginations. He became the savior god of a resurrected Mexico. The friars who came at Cortés’s request wanted a warrant for treating the Indians as aboriginal Christians; they saw in the wandering god St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples who was his missionary to India. Quetzalcoatl was also the guardian god of the nativist movement in New Spain and Mexico, celebrated in murals and hymns by Mexican painters and intellectuals and even by that wandering Englishman D. H. Lawrence. His novel of 1926, The Plumed Serpent, is a repulsively fascinating, garishly proto-Nazi fantasy of the god’s return in provincial Mexico, complete with the paraphernalia of Nuremberg: a charismatic god-representing leader, choreographed soldiery, Nazi-like salutes, and finally human sacrifice all this so that the heroine, a manless ageing Irishwoman, might find a man who is a man, that is, who hardly ever talks. It is a travesty of the sorrowful Toltec divinity of civilization.
Human sacrifice was, I have learned to think, not really just a Mexican custom ascribable to “otherness.” The Mexica knew the story just told of Quetzalcoatl. I cannot believe that some of them, especially their last emperor, did not reflect that they were co-opting the god into a practice he abhorred and over which he went into exile. Perhaps those priests of Huitzilopochtli, with their skull-decorated black gowns and blood-matted hair, were fanatics totally absorbed in their cultic task, but the educated nobles, admirers of Tula, so refined in their intimate habits and their social life, must have had qualms and doubts—unless there is no way to infer from ourselves to others.
The numbers are staggering. It is reported that at the inauguration of Huitzilopochtli’s Great Temple in 1487, 20,000—by some readings 80,000—victims were lined up four abreast in queues stretching from the temple onto the city’s causeways. (Is it altogether an ironical coincidence that these were about the numbers of Indians said to have presented themselves for conversion on certain days after the conquest?) And this killing went on, in smaller numbers, in the numerous minor temples of the city. Every twenty days, by the ritual calendar, there was a god’s feast, requiring sometimes quite a few children, sometimes a woman, sometimes a specially prepared youth.
The operation itself is often shown in the codices. The victims march, mostly unassisted, to the top of the pyramid; there they are laid on a convex sacrificial stone, their limbs are held by four priests while a fifth chokes off his screams with a wooden yoke, the obsidian knife rips into the chest, the heart, still beating, is held up to the Sun and put in a wooden bowl, the “eagle dish.” The victim is rolled down the steps to be dismembered and distributed for feasting according to a strict protocol. The victims are children bought from the poor, the pick of slaves for sale in the market (who are ritually bathed), beautiful young nobles prepared in a year of splendid living for their role as ixíptlas, god-impersonators. Evidently certain divinities, like the ever-present Tezcatlipóca, Lord of the Near and Nigh, who shared functions with the city god, were not only recipients of victims but were themselves sacrificed, albeit through their human incarnations—one noteworthy parallel to Christianity.
It seems to be true that these ritual killings were not sadistic in intention or demeaning to the victims. While there are reports of weeping family and frightened victims, the sacrificial human was evidently well co-opted into the performance. Moreover, the cactus button péyotl and the mushroom teonanácatl, “Flesh of the Gods,” both hallucinogens, and the alcoholic pulque seem to have been administered to the sacrifices, who were, in any case, intoxicated with the ritual swirl and the musical stridor around them. For the prepared chosen at least this passage into a flowery next world was perhaps a high point of this life—though who knows how many victims, particularly the children, died experiencing extreme fear.
These frightful, somber, and splendid festivals were evidently thought to be truly necessary to the survival of the city and the continuing existence of its world. (There may even have been a more elemental need behind the ritual consumption of the sacred victim. In the absence in Anahuac of large animals like cattle, cannibalism may have been driven by protein-hunger; that, however, is a modern speculation.) Yet, as I said, the Aztec nobility, who were so finely attuned to right and wrong conduct (as their stock homilies, preserved by Sahagun, show), must have felt themselves to be living over a moral abyss, doing a balancing act in a threatening and fragile sacred world, which doomed them in their hearts for what they did and through their sacred duties for what they might omit to do.
I have neglected to mention the largest and most steady supply of victims, the prisoners. The highest calling of Huitzilopochtli’s people, the soldiers of the Sun, was war, and the object of war was to take captives, an even higher object than the subjugation of Anahuac’s cities. Promotion in the army was strictly according to the number of prisoners taken. The warriors needed to take prisoners to rise in rank; the city needed prisoners for their flesh and blood, the sacrifices that would feed and maintain the good will of the gods. It was a tight circle of necessities.
This religious trap—I will call it that—had three devastating secular consequences. First, the Mexican army never learned, until it was too late, to fight to kill, to fight a war for survival in realest earnest. Second, Tenochtitlan trained up a deadly enemy for itself, the city of Tlaxcala, seated between itself and the eastern coast. There was a bizarre but logical institution in Anahuac, the so-called “flowery war,” xochiyaóyotl. The Triple Alliance of Anahuac, eventually dominated by Tenochtitlan and including Texcoco, had a mutual arrangement with three cities across the mountains, of which the aristocratic republic of Tlaxcala was the most independent. The agreement was to stage battles regularly for the sole purpose of obtaining from each other prisoners for sacrifice. This was a strange kind of ceremonious warfare, which required the high-born warriors skillfully to take their enemies alive, only to bring them back home to their delayed warriors’ death. Meanwhile the Tlaxcalans remained free, in training, and full of hatred, and they became Cortés’s most effective allies
And third, the evidence and actual sight of human sacrifice turned the Spaniards’ stomachs—as powerful a revulsion as the moral one, [imagine. So when, as I said, they saw the remains of their own people, an ineradicable repugnance seems to have turned their hearts, a disgust which became the pretext for much savagery of their own.
Montezuma was installed as tlatoáni of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1502. Tlatoáni means “He Who Speaks,” who has authority. Since Tenochtitlan was the secular and sacred center of the Aztec world, he was the speaker over the universe, the úei-tlatoáni—usually rendered as “emperor.” When he was killed in 1520 he was 52. His lineage was even shorter than the city’s existence, whose founding date is 1345. The Anahuac empire was put together during the next century; Axayacatl, Montezuma’s father, who died in 1481, was only the third emperor. As was the custom, the council that chose the new lord did not go to the son but first to Axayacatl’s two brothers. When Montezuma became the sixth emperor, Anahuac was less than seventy years old. Historians disagree whether objectively the empire was in a state of youthful vigor or in the course of rigidified decline when Cortés came. But there can be no doubt that Montezuma was a monarch who personally felt doom coming. Motolinía says (probably incorrectly) that his very name—nornen omen—meant one who is sad and serious, as well as one who inspires fear and respect.
As was necessary for the tlatoáni, he had proved himself as warrior and officer, but he was also a highly educated man. The Mexica, like most high civilizations, were committed to a well-defined and diversified plan of education for their young. The set speeches, the traditional admonitions, that the ruling nobles made to their boys and girls upon their having reached the age of discretion are loving, somber, straitlaced, meticulous—and full of Nahua charm. The one from which I will read a sampling goes on for six of Sahagun’s columns. It begins thus:
Here art thou, thou who art my child, thou who art my precious necklace, thou who art my precious feather, thou who art my creation, my offspring, my blood, my image.
And then the child is inducted into Aztec pessimism:
Hear well, O my daughter, O my child. The earth is not a good place. It is not a place of joy; it is not a place of contentment.
Then the little girl is given rules of conduct, for example:
At night hold vigil, arise promptly. Extend thy arms promptly, quickly leave thy soft bed, wash thy face, wash thy hands, wash thy mouth, seize the broom; be diligent with the sweeping; be not tepid, be not lukewarm.
What wilt thou seize upon as thy womanly labors?. .. Look well to the drink, the food; how it is prepared, how it is made. .. .
Then the speech touches deep moral matters:
May thou not covet carnal things. May thou not wish for experience, as is said, in the excrement, in the refuse. And if thou truly art to change thyself, would thou become a goddess?
But there was also public education, a dual system. The Young Men’s (and Women’s) House, the telpochcálli, was open to the lower nobility and even to commoners. The boys’ house had features of our prep school. The emphasis was on physical hardening and the performance of rough public service. A lot of rowdy fun was overlooked; some of the older boys even took mistresses, and, Sahagun reports, “they presumed to utter light and ironic words and spoke with pride and temerity.”
The second institution, the famous calmécac, was part seminary, part cadet corps. Here went the high nobility and commoners destined by talent to be priests. The daily routine was punishing; for example, sleep was often interrupted when the boys were called to draw blood from their earlobes and ankles with maguey spines. This self-sacrifice was said to have been instituted by Quetzalcoatl, who was in fact the tutelary divinity, the super-tutor, of the calmécac. Discipline was fierce. There were constant humiliations, and if a noble’s son was found even a little drunk on pulque he was secretly strangled; a commoner was beaten to death.
The curriculum was rigid and rigorous. The boys learned the revisionist Mexica version of Nahua history from painted books that were expounded to them. They learned to speak ceremoniously and to perform ritual songs and dances accurately. They learned, besides the sign and number count of the 360-day solar calendar with its five unfortunate “hollow” intercalary days, the divinatory calendar. This was the “Sacred Book of Days” by which the priest told the feast days of the gods, the personal destiny of a baby and the epochs of the world. This study was evidently the most effective initiation into the Aztec way of seeing the world. That is the reason why the friars, trying to extirpate Aztec worship, denounced this sacred calendar with particular vehemence as having cast loose from the natural heavenly revolutions and being an evil convention—as they said: “the fruit of a compact with the Devil.”
The two calendars came together every 52 years, an era called the Bundling of the Years. Ominously, such an epoch evidently occurred in 1506, “One Rabbit,” when just as many year-bundles had gone by as would make the setting of the Fifth Sun imminent, and with it the final destruction by earthquakes of Huitzilopochtli, his city, and the world whose center was Tenochtitlan. The year of 1519, moreover, was, as I said, ce acatl, “One Reed,” the name of the year of Quetzalcoatl’s birth, exile and prophesied return. A student of the calendar presumably knew himself to be living at once near doomsday and near delivery.
From this schooling and his experience in the field, Montezuma emerged as high priest, warrior and tlatoáni: spiritually austere for all his palatial luxury, a severe father to his Mexica, rigidly religious, and, for all the self-abasement his set accession speech required, an autocratic and aristocratic ruler, the first to restrict high office to the nobility. He was inaccessible to the populace, stately and ceremonious with his nobles, reserved as to his person. When Cortés as he himself tells, tried to hug him “in Spanish fashion,” Montezuma’s attendants stopped him; this was court etiquette but presumably also personal preference. But above all he was a burdened man, doom-ridden, half hopeful, self-doubtful. “What shall I do, where shall I hide? If only I could turn into stone, wood or some other earthly matter rather than suffer that which I dread!” he cried out, this victor of nine pitched battles, to his magicians who could not turn to good the omens of evil to come (and got severely punished for it). This was no coward’s funk but a pious man’s terror of a probably inevitable future—thus a self-fulfilling fear.
There was a city across the lake, Texcoco, a member of Tenochtitlan’s Triple Alliance. It paralleled the Italian cities of the Renaissance in high culture; it was a Tula revived. In the fifteenth century it had a poet-king, Nezahualcóyotl, whose poetry has the fragrance that arises when the melancholy of existence melds with elegance of expression. Like a Nahua Lucretius he offers his bitter cup with the rim sweetened by honey. He speaks:
I, Nezahualcóyotl, ask this:
Is it true one really lives on the earth?
Not forever on earth
only a little while here.
Though it be jade it falls apart,
though it be gold it wears away,
though it be quetzal plumage it is torn asunder.
Not forever on earth,
only a little while here.
This is beauty to console for the brevity of being, but in the Texcocan Renaissance prince it is without the panicky gloom of the Mexican Emperor of the late Fifth Sun. Nezahualcóyotl’s underlying sense of life’s inconstancy is the same, but Montezuma’s was infected by the consciousness of a more starkly immediate doom.
I think that Montezuma was probably an overwrought exemplar of a Mexica noble: devout witness of constant bloody brutality; refined connoisseur of jade and feather work; watcher for imminent death and destruction; avid collector of fleeting things like birds and flowers; cruel lord and ever-courteous prince; liar of great ability and treacherous too, as the Tlaxcalans believed; high noble of candid and simple bearing: witness the poignant speech of submission he appears to have made to Cortés when he was still in his own palace, when he still believed in the Spanish savior. He said with a smile:
You too have been told perhaps that I am a god, and dwell in palaces of gold and silver. But you see it is false. My houses, though large, are of stone and wood like those of others. And as to my body [here he threw open his cloak]—you see it is flesh and blood like yours.
Some see delicate irony in his words, particularly in the reference to the absence of gold. But to me his speech sounds heartfelt, and he was in fact submitting to men he thought might be teules, gods; Cortés’s band, the santa compañia, the Holy Company, might indeed be bringing back Quetzalcoatl-Cortés, “the white hero of the break of day.”
He had had some cause to be thus receptive, for in the decade before Cortés’s arrival the omens had multiplied: the spontaneous combustion of Huitzilopochtli’s temple, tongues of celestial fire, finally a bird found in Lake Texcoco bearing a black mirror in its head in which the emperor briefly glimpsed the strangers landing—Sahagun catalogues eight serious omens.
I think Montezuma became heartsick and started vacillating, now welcoming the Spaniard from afar with golden gifts, now holding him off or even arranging his ambush. In the end he was transfixed like a rabbit by a snake, truly a snake since Cortés played the role of the Plumed Serpent. So he sent the Spaniard Quetzalcoatl’s regalia, since it was the year ce acatl, One Reed. Not all his nobles were pleased at the emperor’s submissiveness; they wept when not much later they attended his litter to his place of custody, his father’s palace.
Some historians think the omens were an ex post facto invention to make the catastrophe more palatable to simple people. But they sound very plausible; ominous events do occur in clusters before disasters (as Machiavelli observes in his Discourses), at least for those who have prophetic souls. The omens help explain Montezuma’s fragility before the crisis. It was, I want to say, a type of fragility almost designed to highlight Cortés’s robustness, as if Montezuma had found his fated match, the better to reveal the West to itself.
Once he had made his submission to the Spanish emperor and been taken into Spanish custody, another side of his character came out: He became receptive to new experiences, learned to shoot the crossbow, sailed Lake Texcoco on a brigantine, the first wind-driven vessel on those waters. —It is always the West’s inventions, especially those that shoot far and go fast, that first beguile the non-West. He retained his exquisite courtesy and generosity; he became sociable and even affectionate with the Spaniards. It has been suggested that he was displaying the pathological bonding of a victim to his kidnappers. But by a concord with Cortés Montezuma was running his empire from Axayacatl’s palace where he and the Spaniards were quartered, and he was free to indulge in his old pleasures like hunting. It is reported that if there was fun afoot he could dissolve in giggles.
But this priest-emperor never converted or gave up human sacrifice, although frequently subjected to Cortés’s passionate theological harangues against the ritual on the grounds of human brotherhood. As Fuentes says, it was simply a more urgent question to him whether the sun would rise and the world go on than what the Spaniards did to him or his empire.
Nevertheless, I wonder if it ever came to him that his religious practices were, in the nature of things, futile, that the Christians had a sun that moved reliably and stably in its heavenly orbit (and would soon even stand still at the world’s center) precisely because it was not a god and therefore not amenable to human exertion and sacrifice. Octavio Paz says in his Labyrinth of Solitude that the Aztecs committed suicide because they were betrayed by their gods. I think they were, speaking more precisely, betrayed by their trust in their visible and palpable gods, who (as I think in contrast to the early invaders, who acknowledged them as devils) did nothing and were nothing and absconded more crassly than could an invisible deity or one less abjectly served—a truth I have, strangely enough, never found enunciated by the historians I have read.
Cortés, finally, the Conquistador, seems to me a man as emblematic of the conquering West as Montezuma was of the empire of the doomed Sun. Cortés was a hidalgo from an old, turbulent, moderately situated family. Having gotten into various scrapes, he chose to come to the Indies in 1504 when he was nineteen—an age more often given over to wanderlust than to acquisitiveness. In 1519 he began to subdue Anahuac, whose chiefs became, as he put it, somewhat equivocally, to his sovereign, “Your Majesty’s vassals, and obey my commands.” No sooner had he conquered Mexico for Spain than he was beset by endless audiencias and residencias, tribunals and inquiries, conducted by officials whose rectitude was apparently not much greater than his own and whose daring was considerably less. Nevertheless, by 1529 he was Marquess of the Oaxaca Valley and Captain-General of New Spain, empowered to discover further lands and to colonize them. (In fact following Mexico he discovered and named California after a queen in one of those medieval romances.) He died in 1547, and his bones have undergone grotesque removals paralleling his downward course in Mexican history, during which Quetzalcoatl was raised to a national hero while his unwitting impersonator was suppressed by the descendants of the Conquest.
The story of his and his Holy Company’s march toward Tenochtitlan in 1519, his first peaceful entrance into the sacred and magical city, his expulsion, near-annihilation and devastating re-entry have lately been retold in all its fiction-defying detail by Hugh Thomas in Conquest. He lands on Anahuac’s eastern shore with his little fleet of “water houses,” as the natives described his three-masted square-riggers, of the type called naos. When they first saw them, they reported on them as “mountain ranges floating on water.” His boldest first stroke is to dismantle his ships before he marches inland. Now the thirty-four-year-old sailor emerges as a man of many devices and deceits, a bold man of faith—and greed-inspired audacity—albeit somewhat more devoted to the salvation of his soul than to the amassing of gold; a resilient man well acquainted with suffering and depression; a man of self-and other-punishing endurance and scary tenacity, who seems to live on little sleep; cruel and charming, careful of his companions and demanding their utmost; prudent and daring; circumspect and lightning-quick; generous and grasping; kind and manipulative; and always an adventurer and a wanderer—as complex a man in his way as Montezuma. Prescott says in his personal memoranda, in which he details for himself the oppositions of Cortés’s character:
The great feature of his character was constancy of purpose…. He was inexhaustible in resources, and when all outward means were withdrawn, seemed to find sufficient to sustain him, in his own bosom.
Now listen to the beginning of Homer’s Odyssey:
Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many twists who wandered so much when he had sacked the sacred city of Troy. He saw the towns of many men and knew their mind, and suffered much on the sea, seeking to save his soul and the return of his companions.
No two men could be more alike; if I were to inventory the characters of the two adventurers nearly every feature in one list would turn up quite recognizably in the other, including the bouts of depression. And this happy circumstance tells me that Cortés was not primarily a man of his time: not just a medieval knight-errant or a mercantile-minded gold prospector, or a hard-to-control vassal of the Spanish crown, or a fierce competitor for the rights of first conquest.—He was certainly all these, and it was because he returned to the Gulf Coast to intercept his Spanish pursuers that he first lost Tenochtitlan. But before these and more fundamentally he was a man who in his intense individuality expressed an ancient and enduring type of the West, Odysseus the self-sufficient, who talks to his own heart, who has many twists and devices, who is blunt and tactful, who can be driven to extreme cruelty and engage in gratuitous acts of kindness, who lies but not ignobly, and above all, who can, in a pinch, rely on his virgin goddess, Athena, because be relies on himself.
In Cortés that ancient pagan character type seems to have comfortably accommodated, or better, absorbed the God from the other root of the Western tradition, though Cortés was particularly devoted to the Virgin. Hugh Thomas says that he became more God-fearing as the expedition went on—who wouldn’t? His flagship sailed under a banner he had inscribed with the saying: “Friends, let us follow the Cross and if we only have faith in this sign we shall conquer.” He was citing the legend under which the Emperor Constantine fought the battle that in 312 turned the Roman Empire Christian. Cortés’s Christianity is a debated subject, but to me it seems unquestionable. One kind of evidence is that this prudent commander several times put his expedition at risk because of his religious impetuousness and had to be restrained by Bartolomé de Olmeda, the wise and patient friar with the expedition, a man who while practicing prudence also thought of the Indians’ feelings—so unlike Pizarro’s fatal chaplain. On one memorable occasion, the emperor, at Cortés’s request, invited him with some of his captains to come up the Great Pyramid of Huitzilopochtli. Montezuma himself was, as usual, carried to the top, but Cortés insisted on marching up all 113 steep narrow steps and declared to the solicitous emperor waiting for him that “Spaniards are never weary;” indeed, as I mentioned, Cortés slept little when on campaign. Montezuma then obtained permission from the priests for Cortés, who was clearly already in the Christian conqueror mode, to enter the sanctuary. This reeking place so disgusted him that he asked Montezuma with a smile—not a charming one, I imagine—how so wise a prince could put his faith in a representation of the Devil. He offered to install in this temple, as he had on other pyramids, a cross and an image of the Virgin, before which the false gods would shrink into oblivion. Montezuma was deeply shocked and said—here is irony—that these were the gods that had ever led the Mexica to victory. Cortés, perhaps nudged by Friar Olmeda, apologized. But it was a dangerous moment. Montezuma had to stay behind to expiate the sacrilege. This action, which could have meant the early end of Montezuma’s policy of submission, was certainly impolitic and clearly inspired by pure if untimely Christian fervor. In his own account Cortés naturally suppresses this incident in favor of what must have been a later occasion, when he did actually topple the idol down the pyramid steps, and, as he claims, stop the sacrifices.
Cortés became de facto emperor of Anahuac close to the time, namely 1513, that Machiavelli’s Prince appeared. So I looked Cortés up, as it were. I have often wondered for whom this manual on rulership is meant, since natural princes already know it all and untalented rulers will simply use it as permission for misconduct. Cortés, it turns out, knows most of Machiavelli’s lessons: how to fight both like a fox and a lion, for he was proud of his “cunning stratagems” and fierce even when wounded and unarmed; how not to be good on occasion, for he could be brutal; how to get credit for every exploit, for his letters take care that he should; how to rule more by love than fear, as his trooper Diaz attests; how, finally, to be lucky, and—a Machiavellian or Odyssean trait of his own—how to lie royally without being commonly dishonest. But there were many more things that he did not do by this book but did rather against its explicit advice: he relied heavily on auxiliaries, fought with an amateur’s improvisation, and did not study eminent predecessors—for there were none. But above all, Machiavelli doesn’t seem to know, or at least to enunciate, the one thing most needful to an imperial conquistador: faith—in Cortés’s case, Christian faith, but faith also in a more expansive sense, as I will try to show.
Both rulers made mistakes. Montezuma should not have sent gold to greet the “Holy Company,” though how was he to know? He should not have quartered the Spaniards in Axayacatl’s palace where the state treasure was hidden—and so on. But the chief mistake was to believe the prophecies and to submit to the omens, and so to the bearded white men coming over the water. Some of his nobles seem indeed to have realized this, but they were themselves used to submitting to their lord, and so they wept silently.
Cortés’s errors were those of a nervous yet decisive aggressor. At Cholula he stained his name with a possibly preventable massacre. At Tenochtitlan, when he hastened to the coast to repel his pursuers, he left in charge a valorous young brute, Pedro d’Alvarado, whom the Indians called Tonatiuh, the Sun, because he was blond and beautiful. He proved worse to them than their own doomed Fifth Sun, for as he was edgy, eager and without judgment, he unleashed a massacre on the unarmed celebrants of Huitzilopoehtli’s festival which ended every chance of peaceful dominion and brought on that Sad Night. This was the night when the Spaniards, their Indian allies, and the Spanish women fighting desperately alongside their men, were driven from the city and nearly exterminated.
Above all, he razed Tenochtitlan, the finest city in the world. Was it a mistake, a crime? Here is what he himself says in his account of the recapture of the city from the Mexica, who under the young Emperor Cuauhtémoc, Montezuma’s nephew, had learned the Spanish skills: to fight to kill, to fight at night, to fight from the water. The passage is from the third letter to Emperor Charles V:
All I had seen forced me to two conclusions, the one that we should regain little of the treasure the Mexicans had taken from us; the other that they would force us to destroy and kill them all and this last weighed on my soul. I began to wonder how I could terrify them and bring them to a sense of their error. It could only be done by burning and destroying their houses and towers of the idols…
Of course, the letter explains first things first: why the Emperor isn’t getting his customary fifth of treasure. Of course, it assumes that the Mexica are legally in rebellion. But it also reveals a certain travail of spirit, a conscience, a care for a people whose intelligence Cortés admired and whose fate he pitied, albeit he was its cause. On Cortés’s premise the destruction was a necessity, but was the premise itself necessary? For my part, I simply cannot judge. It is true, however, that once he was master of Anahuac he looked carefully after his realm and probably did it more good in the long run than it ever was in Montezuma’s power to do: He spent his own resources in rebuilding the country, introduced new plants and draft animals, condemned the enslavement of the Indians and recorded in his will his deep misgivings of conscience about the institution of slavery itself, and tried to mitigate the treatment of the natives by the colonists. And, of course, he abolished human sacrifice. All in all, his dubious deeds had the effect of relegating Anahuac to the past; his good deeds gave Mexico a future. And, pressed to think in these terms about the Conquest itself, I suppose with the Peruvian writer Mario Llosa that it belongs in the long run to the credit side of something, call it human welfare.
But the question I proposed was how and why it could happen. So let me try to come to some sort of conclusion. Two worlds clashed (here the cliché tells the simple truth), and the leaders happened to be emblematic of their worlds. Let me first compare the divinities that led the leaders.
We have an alumnus, Peter Nabokov, the stepson of the man to whom this lecture is dedicated, William Darkey. He is an expert on Indian sacred life and its sacred space. When he heard that I was reading on this subject he sent me a large box of books from his private library. In one of these books I found an article containing an antithetical listing of Aztec and Christian religiosity.
On the left, the Nahua side, is listed (I select for brevity’s sake) Symmetry, Autonomy, Interchangeability, and Cyclicality. On the right, the Spanish side, is listed Hierarchy, Centralization, Fixity, and Linearity. This right side is in fact recognizable as a checklist of features condemned in the West as evils of the West, a compendium of the self-critique of the West such as was current in the later part of the last century.
I also recognize the left side of the list, and it does appear to me to be descriptive of Aztec religion. But notice this strange effect: how each characteristic of that religion induced an opposite effect on the Aztec polity. The complexly related Symmetries of divine functions make for a draining tangle of rituals; the Autonomy of the deities—as many as 1600—leads to a burdensome multiplicity of services; the Interchangeability of identities leads to dependence on priestly interpreters; and the Cyclicality leads to a sense of inescapable doom. In fact it was Anahuac that most tended toward social Hierarchy, administrative Centralization and rigid Fixity of protocol. The Spanish side, on the other hand, gave its real-life practitioners one supreme God, reliable in his operations, author of a stable creation, progressing hopefully into a new day. And so it was the Spaniards who could afford to be free, flexible, energetic, and self-reliant: When God permits them to be defeated it is, Cortés says, on account of their own sins, a deserved punishment, nor a divine antic.
But, a student of Aztec religion might argue, the similarities to Christianity are remarkably exact and numerous, so why would religion make the difference? To give a sampling of the parallelisms: The Indians had the symbol of the cross, a Maltese type, that turns up frequently in their visual art. They had absolution by confession, though it could be undergone only once in a lifetime. They had a form of baptism, ritual fasting, even an invisible god. Above all, they had the ritual ingestion of their god’s blood: the victim’s or their own blood was kneaded into loaves of amaranth seeds that were god-images and were then eaten. This last practice, the analogue of Christian communion, is most interesting to me, because some scholars represent this Christian sacrament as a form of cannibalism that brings Christianity closer to the Aztec feasting on flesh. But, of course, the blood partaken of during the Christian Eucharist is precisely not the blood of a living human being. Even a very untheoretical Christian knows that it is a mystery which is accompanied by a complex rational theology. Communicants understand, if vaguely, that the wafer and wine are neither merely symbolic nor brutely real—the nature of their transformation is open to rational questioning: For example, have they undergone transubstantiation, so that the substance itself, the bread and the wine, are to be regarded as now the body and blood of Christ, or have they achieved consubstantiation, such that they present a duality of visible properties and invisible essence
I may be allowed to dismiss the beguiling but bizarre notion of the friars that the Indians were lapsed Christians, baptized a millennium and a half ago by Quetzalcoatl/St. Thomas; at any rate, they themselves were always afraid that the willing conversions of the Indians were perhaps rather shallow and masked the survival of the old similar-seeming worship. It remains a problem, requiring really deep investigation by people who know not only the methods of comparative ethnography but the ways of faith, whether such similarities betoken pure coincidence, or are features belonging to some general human religiosity, and whether such all-human phenomena have a deep or shallow common root. To me it seems, judging only at first glance, that a religion supported by many disparate narratives, whose meaning, being a matter of memory, is uncircumventably in the hands of trained priests, is simply incommensurable with a religion that has one master story whose ever-new interpretations, carried on by priests, theologians, and laymen alike, strive for coherence. Let me make my point brusquely and minimally: Such a religion, Christianity in the present case, seems to me simply more energizing. To wit: Cortés liked to read, as he said, when he had time, and he knew some theology which, in turn, gave him the self-confidence to harangue an emperor. He went to mass in the morning without fail and was ready for the day. In defense, Montezuma could only tell divine stories—myths to us—and insist on his gods’ past services, which he had to keep securing by spending every day much time and many resources on arduous cultic performances.
Moreover, Cortés’s Holy Company could rely on their God who, being invisible—though having one and only one human incarnation—was therefore impervious to sudden toppling. This God, a god mysterious but not capricious, made nature according to laws and left it largely alone. Thus God’s created nature was open to the self-reliant inventiveness of human beings. This natural realm, being amenable to human rationality, invited initiative, for its God had himself engaged in radical innovation when he created the world and when he irrupted into history in human form.
I have been engaged by this puzzle: We know that the Indians had wheeled toys; why did Anahuac wait for Cortés to introduce wagons? It seems to me that it is not generally true that necessity is the mother of invention, but rather than inventions develop necessities: We see a convenience and we need it. Anahuac, to be sure, had no draft animals and enough slaves and commoners with tumplines to drag its building stones anywhere. But why didn’t someone think of the splendor of rolling in stately carriages over the waiting causeways of Tenochtitlan? By my premise it was not lack of need but something else, at which I am guessing: the Aztecs were close and loving onlookers and clever users of nature, but they were not on the lookout to go her one better, to whirl rather than to walk over her terrain. Perhaps the wheel isn’t the most convincing general example, since it seems to have come to the Western world not as an original invention but by diffusion, probably from Mesopotamia, but to me its absence in Anahuac does seem testimony to Aztec invention-inertia.
Theology, the laws of nature, interpretative accessibility, and inventiveness—these are great but they are not the only advantages that these Westerners who came out of the East carried with them. Others have been intimated: the fraternal equality of human beings insofar as they are ensouled creatures that Cortés preached to the Aztec nobles, whereas Anahuac was caste-ridden; the ensuing closeness of the leader to his men that made Cortés listen to the complaints and some-times—never at crucial moments—heed the advice of his companions, whereas Montezuma was deliberately remote—his subjects had to avert their eyes when he passed—and autocratic; the project of propagating to all the world a truth felt to be universal that unquestionably drove Cortés if not the “Holy Company”—the name was first given ironically—whereas the Mexica rather collected the gods of other cities, ever more of them, so that Montezuma even established a sort of all-Anahuac pantheon for them; and, for our times, above all, the tenacity of the Christians in holding on to life, whereas the Aztecs seemed somehow—I’m far from understanding it—to surrender themselves more readily to the thought of death and to death itself.
Of course, the Conquistadores’ Christianity was intertwined with that other root of our West, pagan antiquity, particularly the intellectual taproot, the Greek one. From this dual root stems, it seems to me, that faith in a more comprehensive sense I mentioned before, the faith that underlies a daily life free for confident projects: the trust in the stable motions of nature combined with a contemplative care for transcendence, the faith in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to cite our founding charter.
All of us here know—or will learn in the next four years—how much the Christian and post-Christian West owes to the Greek science of celestial nature and the philosophical account of its divinity. But I want to recur to the human model that is exemplified with such spectacular accuracy by Cortés, the Homeric Odysseus, the first mature Western man (for Achilles, though in years the same age in the Iliad as was Cortés in 1519, is constitutionally a youth). This antique man, a soldier and sailor too, is free, self-reliant, inventive, a discoverer of new lands, be it of the world or the soul, and, I nearly omitted to say, the lover of women of stature. Cortés, too, like Odysseus, who had his semi-goddesses abroad and his Penelope at home, had in his life two royal daughters of Montezuma and two Spanish wives, but above all his comrade, his advisor and interpreter, Malinali or Malinche, the Mexican princess christened Dona Marina. It was his partnership with her that gave him his Nahua nickname—the Indians addressed him as “Malinche;” if it was meant in derision, it was a misplaced scorn. She and Cortés were, like Odysseus and Penelope, one in their wily works, and they had a son, Don Martin Cortés (named after the Conquistador’s father), a son to whom he was as attached as Odysseus was to his Telemachus.
I cannot pretend to understand how this distinctive species of Odyssean individualists is propagated down the ages, nor can I quite figure out whether the type produces the tradition or the tradition generates the type. In other words, to me this question seems askable and therefore pursuable: Whatever may be the case for the rest of the human world, is our West ultimately more a civilization or a kind of human being? I tend toward the latter, but for the moment I will take the safe though weasly way and say that together, type and tradition in tangled reciprocity, they are responsible for the West’s apparently irresistible expansiveness. The Empires of the Sun, on the other hand, fell so fast into ruin because they and their leaders displayed characteristics that were, so to speak, the fateful complement, the matched antithesis, of the men and machines of the West.
The lessons learned in thinking about a problem amount more often to collateral insights than direct solutions. So I want to end with two such lessons I believe I learned: first, that we really must come to grips with this actual expansiveness of the West and if, on thoughtful consideration, it proves necessary, consider candidly its possible superiority—superiority, that is, in the scope it gives to individual human nature by the universality of its conceptions. And second, that we, as conscious representatives of that tradition, owe those overrun and extinguished civilizations, with all their irreplaceable strange beauty, a respectful remembrance—not merely as projects for research but as objects of human regard.
This essay was originally published in The St. John’s Review (Volume 47, No. 1, 2003) and is republished here with gracious permission.
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The featured image is “Hernán Cortés” (c. 1879) by José Salomé Pina (1830–1909) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.