Superstition can get you into trouble. It doomed the Athenian expedition against Sicily in 415 BCE, made the Black Death worse in 1305, and in 1521 ensured the fall of an entire New World empire. A number of factors led to the conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortes and his 500 soldiers of fortune. The Aztecs had been dominant over their large empire for less than a century. They had inherited, by way of a three-way alliance, the original empire of the Toltecs. It wasn’t until 1431 that the Aztecs were in a position to begin expanding, and they did so with a vengeance. By 1465, their empire dominated all of Mexico and Central America as far as today’s Guatemala. But this was never an easy occupation. Rome endured because it made the people they conquered part of their empire. The Aztec religion ensured that could never happen.
The faith of the Aztecs was the worship of sky deities, particularly the sun. But their sun god needed constant replenishment. That came in the form of blood and sacrificed prisoners. On a major Aztec religious holiday, thousands of humans would be sacrificed. The most common victims were prisoners. If there wasn’t a war going on, the Aztecs often needed to start one to ensure a steady supply of sacrifices. This need for blood guaranteed a high degree of antipathy from the Aztecs’ neighbors and subject peoples. Although this belief may have contributed to the dramatic downfall of the Aztec empire, it was not the primary cause. When Cortes landed in the New World, he found a land full of conflict and peoples who harbored a deep hatred for the dominant Aztecs. Almost from the beginning, he was able to recruit entire tribes into what quickly became a crusade against their oppressor. As much as anything, the conquistadors were a catalyst around which resentful Aztec enemies and subject tribes rallied. The superstition that encouraged the resentment and, at a key point, ultimately undermined Aztec resistance, was that of Quetzalcoatl, the white god.
Quetzalcoatl was a man with godlike powers who occasionally appeared among the Central American peoples, performing miracles and teaching them new skills. (Yes, modern UFO believers make much of this.) The myth was that when he next returned it would be the beginning of a golden age. Hernando Cortes was pale skinned, wearing armor far superior to any that could be made in the Americas, and was accompanied by horses and cannons. It is not surprising that he reminded so many Native Americans of the story. The Spaniard quickly saw the advantage this myth gave him and played it for all he could.
Tens of thousands of local warriors and chiefs joined the Spanish against the Aztecs. But the real edge that the legend of Quetzalcoatl gave to Cortes, and the one that made his conquest possible, was the fact that Montezuma, who had been the Aztecs’ leader for more than a quarter century, was highly superstitious. In September 1521, as Cortes and his allies marched toward the Aztec capital, the guns and horses of the conquistadors proved decisive in several battles. When Cortes was warned of an ambush and avoided it, rather than looking for spies, Montezuma took this as a sign that the Spaniard really was Quetzalcoatl and could not be resisted. Rather than having to fight their way in, Cortes and his men were welcomed into Tenochtitlan, today’s Mexico City, by Montezuma. They were then showered with gifts.
The city and empire were never the same. After Cortes went back to the coast, the garrison he left behind was besieged in a palace. But the conquistador leader quickly returned and easily restored his control of the Aztec capital. From that time on, Montezuma, who mistook a greedy adventurer for a god, was just a puppet. When the Spanish tried to force Christianity on all the Aztecs and banned their old sun-worshiping religion, the Aztecs finally rose up against Cortes and their captive king. Montezuma’s brother was elected to replace him, since he remained a prisoner of Cortes. For a while the Spanish were again besieged, but the real strength of the Aztecs was broken. Their hold over the more numerous tribes and even their unity was gone because one very important and even more superstitious man, Montezuma, mistook Hernando Cortes for Quetzalcoatl. If he had not been so superstitious, a powerful empire might not have fallen to a handful of adventurers. Spain would not have had the Aztec gold that for two centuries made it the most important nation in Europe, and the peoples of the Americas might very well have been treated quite differently had the Aztecs remained a power to be reckoned with.