Ancient History & Civilisation

26/CORTÉS (II): THE BEHEADED CULTURE

The Spaniards of the age of conquest marched behind the banner of the Cross and their battle cry was “Espiritu Santo!” Wherever they carved out a foothold they planted the Cross and speedily built churches. Priests heard their confessions before they went into battle, celebrated their victories with ceremonial Masses, and at once set about converting the natives.

Before entering the Aztec kingdom, the Spaniards had been dealing with savages, whose religion was a barbaric animism in which natural forces and ghosts were revered. The rites and customs of this elemental religious complex were easily shaken. With the Aztecs, however, the situation was quite different. Their religion was of a higher order, a “culture religion.” Though this was on the whole polytheistic, monotheistic tendencies showed through in the powerful cults of Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl. The whole culture, under the influence of the ubiquitously regulatory calendrical lore, acquired a stamp as distinctive as any exhibited by the universalist or redemptive religions.

The mistake of the Spanish conquistadors and their priests was that they recognized this fact too late. The outlook of sixteenth-century Europeans strongly hindered any concessions to civilizations different from their own. This narrow attitude, which recognized highs and lows only in its own scale, and on no other, was not in the least modified when the conquistadors saw in Mexico unmistakable signs of a clearly differentiated and highly developed social life. They became acquainted with educational methods in some respects superior to their own and were not impressed. Nor did the discovery that the Aztec priests were amazingly learned in astronomy have any effect on them.

The Plan of the Great Aztec Temple, Mexico.

The purely civilizational progress made by the Aztecs, as for example in the regulation of traffic, census-registration in the cities, and the construction of buildings for sacred and profane use, had even less qualifying effect on the Spaniards’ conviction that they were dealing with savages who must at all costs be converted. They saw nothing but the devil’s handiwork in the rich city of Mexico, with its lagoons, dikes, streets, and floating islands of flowers.

Unfortunately the Aztec religion had one feature that repelled everyone who encountered it and inevitably fostered belief in Aztec diabolism. This was the practice of human sacrifice on an incredibly large scale, a rite culminating in the priest’s tearing the living heart out of the victim’s breast. And only we moderns, perhaps, have the right to remind the Spaniards, who were roused to anger by the Aztec practice, that their own Inquisition slowly roasted Spanish flesh during the autos-da-fé. At the same time it is true enough that this Aztec ritual was cruel beyond anything of the kind ever known in the world.

In actual fact a highly developed morality was mingled with barbaric amorality in the Aztec civilization. To accept both strains was beyond zealot capacity. In consequence the Spaniards overlooked the fact that the Aztec people, unlike the Indians encountered by Columbus, Vespucci, and Cabral, could be humbled only up to that point at which their religion was involved. This critical point was reached when the Spaniards began to desecrate the temples and the gods. Nevertheless, they laid on with a ruthless hand. The essential incompatibility of Spaniard and Aztec set the stage for a series of violent acts that nearly destroyed the fruits of Cortés military and political conquests.

Aztec drawing showing a human sacrifice.

It is worthy of remark that among the members of the Cortés expedition it was not the priests who were the worst bigots. Father Juan Díaz and Father Bartolomé Olmedo, particularly the latter, tempered the conduct of their religious office with political understanding.

According to all reports, it was Cortés himself, perhaps yielding to a subconscious impulse to justify his own deeds, who first attempted to convert Moctezuma. The Emperor politely heard out the Spaniard’s harangue. When the great conquistador invidiously compared the pure and simple rite of the Catholic Mass with the hideous Aztec practice of human sacrifice, however, Moctezuma put in a word. It was much less revolting to him, he explained, to sacrifice human beings than it was to eat the flesh and blood of God himself. We do not know whether Cortés was quite able to counter this dialectic.

Cortés went even further. He asked for permission to examine one of the large temples, and after Moctezuma had consulted with his priests, this permission was reluctantly granted. At once Cortés climbed up the great stairs of the teocalli, which was located in the middle of the capital, not far from the Spanish headquarters. When he suggested to Father Olmedo that the teocalli would be the most appropriate place to house the cross, the priest advised against this. They went in to look at the jasper block on which the sacrificial victims were slaughtered with an obsidian knife. They saw the image of the god Huitzilopochtli, terrifying of visage, identical, in Spanish eyes, with the very devil himself as described by their priests. The hideous idol was embraced within the thick folds of a serpent studded with pearls and precious stones. Bernal Díaz, also present during this visit, was the first to become aware of an even more gruesome sight. The walls of the whole room were plastered thickly with dried human blood. “The evil stench,” writes Díaz, “was less tolerable than that of the slaughterhouses in Castile.” Then he looked closely at the altar stone. There lay three human hearts, which he fancied were still smoking and bleeding.

The word “Teocaltitlan” (temple people; “teo-cal-li”: House of God) in Aztec hieroglyphics. according to H. Jensen’s interpretation: lower left: character for lips (T-N-TLI); to the right below: a road or path as indicated by footprints (O-TLI); above left: a house (CAL-LI); above right: character for tooth (TLAN-TLI).

Having descended by way of the long teocalli stairs, the Spaniards, a little later, caught sight of a large framework building on a mound, which they were moved to explore. Within, neatly piled up to the rafters, they found the skulls of Huitzilopochtli’s victims. A soldier estimated that there were 136,000 of them.

Soon after, when the phase of request had been succeeded by the phase of curt command backed by threats, Cortés moved his headquarters into one of the towers of the teocalli. After his first visit to the temple he had spoken of it rudely and sacrilegiously to Moctezuma, who was shocked but silent. This time, however, Moctezuma was sufficiently aroused to tell the Spaniard that his people would tolerate no such intrusion. Cortés, unyielding, ordered the temple to be cleaned and had an altar set up with the cross and an image of the Virgin Mary. The Aztec gold and jewels were removed and the walls decorated with flowers instead. When the Te Deum was heard here for the first time by the Spaniards who had gathered upon the long stairway and the platform of the teocalli, tears of joy ran down their cheeks, so moved were they by this victory of their faith.

The deed that was to exhaust the Aztecs’ patience was but one step away.

The story can be told briefly. When Cortés was away from the capital on his expedition against Narváez, a delegation of Aztec priests asked permission of his lieutenant, Alvarado, to celebrate their annual festival, called “the incensing of Huitzilopochtli,” with the customary ritual dances and songs, in the court of the great teocalli (one tower of which now contained the Spanish chapel).

Alvarado agreed on two conditions: that the Aztecs should offer no human sacrifice and should come without weapons.

On the day of the festival about six hundred Aztecs appeared, mostly members of the highest nobility, unarmed and dressed in their finest clothing and jewels. While the religious ceremonies got under way a considerable number of Spaniards in full armor began to mingle with the crowd. As the festivities approached a climax the Spaniards fell on the defenseless worshippers at a prearranged signal and massacred every one. An eyewitness remarked that “the pavement ran with streams of blood like water in a heavy shower.”

When Cortés re-entered the capital, with a force greatly increased by his victory over Narváez, he found himself in a completely changed city. Soon after the treacherous massacre the Aztecs had risen in revolt, chosen Cuitlahuac, a brother of Moctezuma, to lead them on behalf of the immobilized Emperor, and since then had been blockading the palace in which Alvarado had barricaded himself. When Cortés appeared, Alvarado was in desperate need of relief. But to raise the Aztec siege meant that Cortés must himself enter the trap.

Every sortie now launched by Cortés became a Pyrrhic victory. When he destroyed three hundred houses, the Aztecs destroyed the bridges and dikes over which he would have to retreat if he withdrew from the city. When he burned down the great teocalli, the Aztecs stormed his fortifications with redoubled fury.

Moctezuma’s behavior in this situation is hard to understand. His past military record was indisputably good. So far as is known, he had taken active part in nine battles. Under his rule the Aztec kingdom had reached a peak of might and splendor. Yet after the arrival of the Spaniards this great ruler seemed steadily to lose his grip. He now came to the Spaniards and offered to mediate with his people. Wearing the full insignia of his imperial office, he went onto the walls and began to speak, but was stoned by the crowd, receiving wounds that brought about his death. On June 30, 1520, Moctezuma II died, the once great Emperor of the Aztecs, to the last a Spanish prisoner.

Aztec hieroglyphics. The skull stands for “death”; the weeping eye for “widowed.”

Now that the Spaniards no longer held the person of Moctezuma as a trump card in the play for Mexico, their predicament had become serious indeed. Cortés was to experience a most nerve-racking adventure: the noche triste, as the history books call it.

As the “sad night” loomed, Cortés issued orders for a breakout. This was a counsel of despair, in view of the fact that a mere handful of men would have to fight their way through ten thousand bloodthirsty Aztec warriors. Before making this final move, Cortés had the Aztec treasure spread out, saying disdainfully: “Take what you will of it. But beware not to overload yourselves. He travels safest in the dark who travels lightest.” A fifth part of the treasure was reserved for the Spanish King so as to ensure royal clemency should Cortés suffer defeat, yet live. This fifth was carried in the middle of the retreating column.

Cortés’s veterans took their leader’s advice to heart and burdened themselves with only a little gold, but Narváez’s troops loaded themselves down with valuables. They stuck gold ingots in their belts and boot-tops, they bound jeweled implements to their bodies,and so weighted themselves that after the first half hour they had fallen back, all out of wind, as far as the rear guard.

In this first half hour of the night of July 1, 1520, the Spaniards succeeded in withdrawing, unseen by the Aztecs, through the sleeping city and out on the cause-way. At this juncture the cries of the Aztec sentinels rang out, and the priests began to sound the great drum in the temple of the war god. Hell broke loose.

By laying down a portable bridge that had been especially carpentered for this purpose, the Spaniards managed to cross the first breach cut in the causeway by the Aztecs. There was a sound like that of trees soughing in a rainy wind. Then the heavens were rent by war cries, a sound that mingled with the frantic splashing of canoe paddles. Showers of arrows and stones rained down on the Spaniards. The shrieks of their wounded were answered by the yells of the Aztecs. Warriors began to climb out of the darkness up onto the causeway, where they engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Spaniards, using clubs furnished with iron-hard cutting edges of obsidian.

Where was the portable bridge when the Spanish van reached the second breach let into the causeway to hinder their retreat? Frantic calls to the rear elicited the alarming information that under the weight of so many men and horses the supports of the improvised bridge had sunk into the soft earth and could not be budged. What up to now had been an organized retreat degenerated quickly into a rout. The troops became a mob; each man fought aimlessly for his own life. On foot and horseback the Spaniards plunged into the waters of the lake in their frantic efforts to gain the farther shore. Packs, weapons, and finally the gold were all sloughed off and lost in the darkness of the night.

There is no point in dwelling too long on the particulars of this battle. Not one Spaniard, not even Cortés—who, according to all reports, wrought miracles of courage—came off unwounded. When the morning grayed and the remnants of the Spanish force had crossed the dike, the Aztecs meanwhile having been diverted from their harassment of the enemy by the rich spoil, the commander took stock of the situation. Contemporary accounts of the losses suffered during the noche triste do not agree. By conservative estimate the Spaniards lost about a third, their Tlascalan allies a fourth or fifth, of their combined forces. All the muskets and cannon had been lost, a part of the crossbows, and most of the horses. Cortés band had been reduced to a ghostly shadow of the proud column that had entered the capital nine months earlier.

But the Spaniards Via Dolorosa was still not at an end. For eight days after the noche triste there was constant skirmishing as the Spaniards struggled to save themselves by retreating into Tlascalan territory. The Tlascalans, their allies, were the traditional enemies of the Aztecs. They retreated very slowly, being weakened by exhaustion and hunger. Then, on July 8, 1520, the crippled band, having toiled up the steeps enclosing the valley of Otumba, were greeted by a spectacle that seemed to seal their fate.

As far as the eye could see, the valley, the only avenue of escape, was filled with Aztec warriors arrayed in better battle order than anything the Spaniards had yet seen in Mexico. At the head of the methodically disposed battle columns the Spaniards could make out the chiefs, standing out from the rest. In their shimmering feather cloaks they looked like bright birds against the snow of the white cotton mail worn by the common warriors.

The situation was hopeless, but the Spaniards did not hang back. They had no choice but to press forward and take their chances or to become sacrificial victims for the Aztec gods. Prisoners of war taken by the Atzecs were commonly fattened in wooden cages until they were deemed acceptable to the god. The only thing to do, therefore, was face almost certain death and try to force a path through the Aztec horde. There was no other way.

And now, at the moment of complete hopelessness—the Aztecs were later estimated to have numbered 200,000 men, and the Spaniards were attacking without benefit of the firearms that had won them their initial victories—a miracle occurred.

Cortés’s men broke into the sea of Aztecs in three groups: a large striking force at the center; on either wing the remaining handful of cavalry, totaling some twenty men. At once the Spaniards and their Tlascalan allies were swallowed up. The lanes that the twenty riders plowed through the enemy closed in behind as the Aztecs sprang back like grass in a plowed furrow. Cortés, who fought in the front line, lost his horse, mounted another, was wounded on the head, but hacked his way on. Still, the Aztecs were legion. Between cut and thrust he chanced to see, from a slight elevation, a cluster of strikingly ornamented warriors, and in their midst a litter. On the litter he recognized the cacique in command of the whole Aztec force, a certain Cihuacu, distinguished by his staff with a golden net for a banner, and the field-badge attached to his back. Then the miracle came to pass, not one worked by the Virgin Mary or the saints, but the miracle of Hernán Cortés, a deed worthy of being sung about any warrior’s campfire. The wounded Cortés spurred his steed forward, hardly waiting for the two or three tried and trusted cavaliers who swept along in his wake. Together they pressed on, with thrust of lance and sword, riding down the Aztecs, sticking and cutting, always hammering their way diagonally through the warrior phalanx. The enemy gave way before their savage onslaught. In a few minutes Cortés’s mad ride had brought him up to the Aztec cacique. Murderously he thrust him through with his lance. Tearing loose the cacique’s badge, he waved it aloft over the seething battle.

Like magic the tide turned. The Aztecs, seeing their victory emblem in the hands of the conquistador, who to them seemed stronger than their gods, precipitately fled the field. This was a supreme moment. When Hernán Cortés seized the Aztec banner, Indian Mexico was doomed and the kingdom of the last Moctezuma had died.

The historian Prescott sums up the Spanish conquest in these words:

“Whatever may be thought of the Conquest in a moral view, regarded as a military achievement it must fill us with astonishment. That a handful of adventurers, indifferently armed and equipped, should have landed on the shores of a powerful empire inhabited by a fierce and warlike race, and, in defiance of the reiterated prohibitions of its sovereign, have forced their way into the interior;—that they should have done this, without knowledge of the language or of the land, without chart or compass to guide them, without any idea of the difficulties they were to encounter, totally uncertain whether the next step might bring them on a hostile nation, or on a desert, feeling their way along in the dark, as it were; that, though nearly overwhelmed by their first encounter with the inhabitants, they should have still pressed on to the capital of the empire, and, having reached it, thrown themselves unhesitatingly into the midst of their enemies;—that, so far from being daunted by the extraordinary spectacle there exhibited of power and civilization, they should have been but the more confirmed in their original design;—that they should have seized the monarch, have executed his ministers before the eyes of his subjects, and, when driven forth with ruin from the gates, have gathered their scattered wreck together, and, after a system of operations, pursued with consummate policy and daring, have succeeded in overturning the capital, and establishing their sway over the country;—that all this should have been so effected by a mere handful of indigent adventurers, is a fact little short of the miraculous,—too startling for the probabilities demanded by fiction, and without a parallel in the pages of history.”

For the sake of the record it should be mentioned that in the months immediately following the Battle of Otumba, prior to their final dissolution, the Aztec people rose to heights befitting their tradition as “Roman Americans.” After Cuitlahuac, who died of smallpox after ruling for four months, came Cuauhtemoc, an Emperor in his twenty-fifth year. So vigorously did he defend his country’s capital against Cortés, who meanwhile had added strong reinforcements to his army, that the Spaniards suffered greater losses at his hands than from any previous Aztec commander. Yet the end was inevitable. Cuauhtemoc was taken prisoner, tortured, and hanged. The capital was destroyed, its houses burned to the ground, its idols overturned, its canals filled in.

Mexico made a new start with the Christianization and colonization of the land by the Spaniards. During the last siege the Spaniards from the teocalli had watched Aztec priests in the plaza below rip the hearts from the breasts of fallen compatriots. Now they built a gleaming collegiate church on the same site and dedicated it to St. Francis. The houses of the city were rebuilt. After a few years 200 Spanish families lived in Mexico City, and some 30,000 pure-blooded Indians. The land round about the city was divided up according to the repartimiento system, which in effect imposed slavery on all the peoples who had once made up the Aztec realm—and of course on all the tribes who fell prey to later conquests. None but the Tlascalans, to whose aid Cortés was so deeply indebted, were exempted from the rule, and even they only for a time.

Aztec hieroglyphic writing after Christianization. Symbols showing fourth and fifth commandments of the decalogue.

This sudden Spanish ascendancy, otherwise of such dazzling benefit to the motherland, was marred by only one defect: the destruction of the treasure of Moctezuma. The booty lost during the noche triste the Spaniards had hoped to retrieve when they retook Mexico City, but it had all vanished and has never to this day been recovered. Cortés had Cuauhtemoc tortured before hanging him, but he would not sing to the Spanish tune. Cortés also had all the ditches and lagoons searched by divers, who explored the bottom with their feet. But nothing was gained from this effort except a great many cut toes and a few scattered pieces that the Aztecs had overlooked. The total value of the treasure recovered from the lake did not amount to more than 130,000 gold castellanos, or about one fifth of the value of the share labeled originally for delivery to the Spanish government. The conquistadors themselves must have felt a certain grim satisfaction when the news came to Cortés, in a letter postmarked May 15, 1522, from the captain entrusted with the transport of the treasure to Spain, that his vessel had been captured by a French privateer. In the end it was not Charles I of Spain, but Francis I of France who, to his genuine surprise, came into possession of the Aztec treasure.

Now what did this Spanish conquest mean in the total picture of the ancient Middle American cultures? That a true culture actually did exist in Mexico when Cortés arrived on the scene is self-evident from the record. But we should still like to know what sort of impression this lost Indian world made on Cortés and his Spanish company. Of course, the Aztec culture was already dead and all but forgotten some eighty years after Cortés had struck into its vitals. The 1,800,000 Aztecs, more or less, still living in Mexico today exist like fellahin in a historical vacuum.

Cortés’s reaction to Aztec culture is astonishing. Like the majority of other contemporary eyewitnesses, he completely ignored the might and meaning of the people whom he brought under the Spanish heel. Had he not done this, he would have by so much minimized his own accomplishment in the eyes of the watching world. The thought apparently never entered his head that rather than destroying a barbaric kingdom of savages, he had “beheaded a culture as the passer-by sweeps off the head of a sunflower.” Strange as this may seem, it can be explained by the spirit of an era that, characteristically, had many chroniclers but no historians. But an even more amazing and unexampled phenomenon is the fact that the enormously detailed fund of knowledge pertaining to Aztec life acquired at the beginning of the sixteenth century was ignored and finally forgotten by posterity. Even archaeology itself, until quite recent years, felt no urge to devote to the ancient Mexican world the attention that it so richly deserved.

The argument that this superficial treatment is due to the circumstance that we are not bound to these Indian cultures by the historico-developmental ties that bind us to Babylonia, Egypt, and Greece simply will not hold water. For we have a much more active conception of remote Chinese and Indian (Hindu) cultures than of the ancient American, though they lie much farther outside our economic and political orbit, the land bridges connecting them with us notwithstanding. Moreover, Mexico has been steadily hispanicized for more than four hundred years, and latterly has drifted into the North American sphere of interest. These developments, one might think, would guarantee at least a limited interest in the Aztecs, Mayas, and the like, but they do not. In this regard it is interesting to note that the first real archæological institute founded in America—in 1879—for decades concentrated its entire efforts on the excavation of the antiquities of Europe and Asia Minor. Even now only a small part of the tremendous sums that American scientific institutes allot for archæological investigations is spent in their own back yard.

It is now time to put Aztec culture in its proper place within the American complex. It was the first to be discovered, but there were other far more important Indian societies. The Aztec kingdom was really no more than the civilizational reflection of much higher and older cultures.

With this we return again to the flow of our story, and to the rediscovery of ancient Middle America. Two remarkable men are memorable in this connection. The first, without crossing the threshold of his study, resurrected the Aztecs from oblivion; the second, hacking his way through the Central American jungle with a machete, did the same for a much older people, first encountered by one of Cortés’s lieutenants. This time the greatness of the Indian past evoked a spellbound recognition that simply had not been intellectually possible until the nineteenth century.

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