In 1524, according to colonial accounts, an extraordinary face-off took place in one of the great buildings of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Triple Alliance—the Aztec empire, as it is better known—which Hernán Cortés had conquered three years before. *13 Facing each other across a room, two delegations of elite clerics battled over the nature of God. On one side were twelve eminent Franciscan monks, who had traveled from Europe in a mission authorized by Pope Hadrian VI. On the other were twelve high priests from the Triple Alliance, men who had wielded immense spiritual and political power until Cortés shuttered the grand temples and brought down the clerisy. Although the pope in Rome had authorized the friars’ mission, all twelve were Spanish, because Spain had conquered the empire, and because Spain, which had spent centuries extracting itself from the rule of African Muslims, had experience with powerful alien ideologies. Analogously, the priests of the Triple Alliance were probably all Mexica. The Mexica were the dominant partner in the Alliance, and they had founded and populated Tenochtitlan, the empire’s biggest city.

The Franciscans’ mission had begun with a request by Cortés. Cortés believed that the military conquest of the Alliance had to be accompanied and justified by an equivalent spiritual conquest. The Indians, he said, must be led to salvation. And he asked King Charles V of Spain for some priests to do the job. In turn the king turned to the pope for his blessing and advice. Cortés did not want “bishops and pampered prelates,” wrote historian William H. Prescott, “who too often squandered the substance of the Church in riotous living, but…men of unblemished purity of life, nourished with the learning of the cloister, [who] counted all personal sacrifices as little in the cause to which they were devoted.”

Led by the intellectual Martín de Valencia, a man so dedicated to ascetic faith that he ended his days as a hermit in the Mexican desert, the friars intended to guide Spain’s new subjects along the exhilarating path to Christendom. The monks understood that the Mexica already had a church—a false church intended to snare their souls for the devil, but a church nonetheless. And they knew that the Indians were too numerous to be reached by even the most zealous missionaries. Valencia’s plan was conversion by proxy: he and the rest of the twelve would open the eyes of the Indian priesthood to the beauties of the true faith, gaining their adherence by reasoned theological discussion, and then the priests would fan out and spread the Gospel in their native tongue.

The sole record of the discussions between the monks and the Mexica was compiled four decades later by another Franciscan, Bernardino de Sahagún. Sahagún knew ten of the twelve Spaniards at the meeting, interviewed four of the Mexica priests, and filled in gaps by extrapolating from similar theological discussions in which he had participated. Written in dialogue verse, an opera seria exchange of long recitatives, his reconstruction does not individually identify the speakers—perhaps, some historians believe, because the great meeting did not actually take place, Sahagún’s account being a distillation of many smaller encounters. Only part of the original manuscript survives, written in Nahuatl, the Mexica language, which Sahagún learned to speak fluently. Still, what remains is enough to indicate how the Mexica viewed their position vis-à-vis the Spanish: defeated, but not unequal.

In Sahagún’s reconstruction, the Franciscans speak first, their interpreters struggling to make European concepts clear in Nahuatl verse, the language of high discourse. The monks explain that they have been sent by “the one who on the earth is the greater speaker of divine things,” the pope, to bring the “venerable word / of the One Sole True God” to New Spain. By worshipping at false altars, the friars say, “you cause Him an injured heart, / by which you live in His anger, His ire.” So infuriated was the Christian God by the Indians’ worship of idols and demons that he sent out “the Spaniards, /…those who afflicted you with tormenting sorrow, / by which you were punished / so that you ceased / these not few injuries to His precious heart.” The Triple Alliance was subjugated, in other words, because its people had failed to recognize the One True God. By accepting the Bible, the priests explain, the Mexica “will be able to cool the heart / of He by Whom All Live, / so He will not completely destroy you.”

The Mexica respond immediately. Not wanting to join Christendom, they also know that they cannot prevail in a direct confrontation with their conquerors. Shrewdly, they try to shift the terms of the argument to more congenial rhetorical ground—an approach that will force the friars to treat them as equals. “What now, immediately, will we say?” the lead cleric asks. “We are those who shelter the people, / We are mothers to the people, fathers to the people.” Translation: We priests are in the same business as you Franciscans. We are high-ranking clerics, elite intellectuals, just like you. And just like you we have a function: providing comfort and meaning to the common folk. To disavow their faith, the Mexica say, would tear apart their lives. For this reason and others, the priests explain, “we cannot yet agree to [Christianity] ourselves / We do not yet make it true for ourselves.” Behind the priests’ refusal is an implied request: You know what it is like to be in our shoes. You carry the same responsibilities. As one group of highly placed religious functionaries to another, don’t do this to us!

Having expected childlike natives, empty vessels waiting to be filled by the Word, the Franciscans instead found themselves fencing with skilled rhetoricians, proud of their intellectual traditions. In the end the friars resorted to a crude but effective argument: the Indians had to pledge fealty to the Christian god, because their own “gods were not powerful enough to liberate them from the hands of the Spaniards.” In a sober ceremony, the Mexica abjured their old religion and embraced Christianity.

For more than a decade, Sahagún and other religious authorities regarded the conversion as atriumph. He initially began his reconstruction of the debate to commemorate it. But he never published the manuscript, because he was slowly coming to believe that the Church’s efforts in New Spain had been a failure. Despite lip-service devotion to the Gospel, the Mexica remained outside Christendom, as do some of their descendants to this day.

Sahagún is known as the first American anthropologist, for he labored for decades to understand the Indians he sought to convert. With other missionaries, he amassed an archive on the Mexica and their neighbors—dynastic histories, dictionaries of native languages, descriptions of customs, collections of poetry and drama, galleries of paintings and sculpture—unequaled by that on any other Indian group, even the Inka. From it emerges, in almost full detail, a group portrait of a kind that is usually obscured by loss.

Masters of power politics, engineers of genius, the Mexica were also upstarts and pretenders, arrivistes who falsely claimed a brilliant line of descent. They are best known for assembling the greatest empire ever seen in Mesoamerica. But their finest accomplishment may have been the creation of a remarkable intellectual tradition, one that like the Greeks began with the questions of lyric poets and then went on to distinct schools of inquiry associated with elite academies.

Mexica histories begin by relating their migration to the Basin of Mexico. Fringed by mountains, the basin was about a hundred miles long from north to south and perhaps half that size from east to west. At its center was Lake Texcoco, a fifty-mile-long volcanic lake with exceptionally clear, clean water. Around the time of Christ, a small village on its northeast periphery named Teotihuacan emerged as a military power. During the next four centuries its realm steadily expanded until it ruled directly over much of central Mexico and indirectly, through puppet governments, as far south as Guatemala. Its eponymous capital then may have had 200,000 inhabitants, enormous at the time; its ruins, an hour by bus from Mexico City, are among the few remnants of the ancient world that today don’t seem small.

The city was organized around the Avenue of the Dead, a miles-long, north-south boulevard that cut straight as an ax stroke across the landscape. From the northern end of the avenue rose the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, each as big as the biggest Egyptian pyramids. To their south sprawled the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, where the empire’s rulers, as ruthless and preoccupied with national glory as so many Bismarcks, considered what to do with their soldiers. Despite the empire’s fame and power, its history is still little known; archaeologists do not know what language its people spoke, or even its proper name (“Teotihuacan” was coined centuries later). It had writing of some kind, though it seems not to have been used much; in any case the script has not been deciphered.


At about 200 feet tall and 700 feet on a side, the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan is the world’s third-largest pyramid. It was built in stages in the second and third centuries A.D. atop a deep, 300-foot cave created by a lava tube that may have represented the place where humankind emerged onto the earth. The pyramid and the rest of the city are oriented on a rectilinear grid 15° 25” from true north, a direction that may have aligned with the cave mouth.

Teotihuacan fell in the eighth century for reasons yet unknown, but left an enduring mark in central Mexico. Three hundred years afterward the rising Toltec styled themselves its heirs. They, too, built an empire, which fell amid internal dissension in about 1200 A.D. The collapse of the Toltec created an opening in the warm, fertile basin. Into it moved half a dozen groups from the northern and western desert, the Mexica among them.

The Mexica were an unlikely choice for heir to the imperial tradition of Teotihuacan and the Toltecs. Poor and unsophisticated, they probably came to Lake Texcoco about 1250 A.D. and became vassals of more important groups. Eventually some enemies drove them away from the fertile shore. The Mexica fled to a swampy, uninhabited island. According to an account by Hernando Álvaro Tezozómoc, grandson of the last Mexica ruler, the refugees stumbled about the island for days, looking for food and a place to settle, until one of the priests had a vision in a dream. In the dream, the Mexica’s patron deity instructed his people to look in the swamp for a cactus. Standing on the cactus, the god promised, “you shall see an eagle…warming itself in the sun.”

And [the next morning], once more, they went in among the rushes, in among the reeds, to the edge of the spring.

And when they came out into the reeds,

There at the edge of the spring was the tenochtli [a cactus fruit],

And they saw an eagle on the tenochtli, perched on it, standing on it.

It was eating something, it was feeding,

It was pecking at what it was eating.

And when the eagle saw the Mexica, he bowed his head low.

Its nest, its pallet, was of every kind of precious feather—

Of lovely cotinga feathers, roseate spoonbill feathers, quetzal feathers.

And they also saw strewn about the heads of sundry birds,

The heads of precious birds strung together,

And some birds’ feet and bones.

And the god called out to them, he said to them,

“Oh Mexica, it shall be there!”

(But the Mexica did not see who spoke.)

It was for this reason that they call it Tenochtitlan.

And the Mexica wept, they said,

“Oh happy, oh blessed are we!

We have beheld the city that shall be ours!

Let us go now, let us rest….”

This was in the year…1325.

In this way came into being Tenochtitlan, sole rival, in size and opulence, to Teotihuacan.

Among the Mexica, a council of clan elders chose the overall ruler. Or, rather, chose the overall rulers—the Mexica divided authority between a tlatoani (literally, “speaker”), a diplomatic and military commander who controlled relations with other groups, and a cihuacoatl (literally, “female serpent”), who supervised internal affairs. For a century after Tenochtitlan’s birth, the tlatoani’s position was unenviable. The Mexica were subordinated by a nearby city-state on the shore, and the tlatoani was forced to send Mexica men as conscripts for its wars. Only in 1428 did Itzacoatl, a newly selected tlatoani, ally with two other small vassal states to overthrow their mutual overlords. In victory, the three groups officially formed the Triple Alliance, with the Mexica the most powerful leg of the tripod. Like Tawantinsuyu, the empire grew rapidly. Its presiding genius was not Itzacoatl, though, but his nephew Tlacaelel (1398–1480).

During his long life Tlacaelel was twice offered the position of tlatoani but turned it down both times. Preferring the less glorious and supposedly less influential position of cihuacoatl, head of internal affairs, he ruled from behind the scenes, dominating the Alliance for more than fifty years and utterly reengineering Mexica society. Born to an elite family, Tlacaelel first became known at the age of thirty, when he inspired the Mexica to revolt against their masters, supervised the gestation of the Alliance, and served as Itzacoatl’s general during the assault. After the victory he met with Itzacoatl and the Mexica clan leaders. In addition to taking slaves and booty, wartime victors in central Mexico often burned their enemies’ codices, the hand-painted picture-texts in which priests recorded their people’s histories. Tlacaelel insisted that in addition to destroying the codices of their former oppressors the Mexica should set fire to their own codices. His explanation for this idea can only be described as Orwellian: “It is not fitting that our people / Should know these pictures. / Our people, our subjects, will be lost / And our land destroyed, / For these pictures are full of lies.” The “lies” were the inconvenient fact that the Mexica past was one of poverty and humiliation. To motivate the people properly, Tlacaelel said, the priesthood should rewrite Mexica history by creating new codices, adding in the great deeds whose lack now seemed embarrassing and adorning their ancestry with ties to the Toltecs and Teotihuacan.

A visionary and patriot, Tlacaelel believed that the Mexica were destined to rule a vast empire. But because ambition succeeds best when disguised by virtue, he wanted to furnish the Alliance with an animating ideology—a manifest destiny, as it were, or mission civilisatrice. He came up with a corker: a theogony that transformed the Mexica into keepers of the cosmic order.

At its center was Huitzilopochtli, a martial god who wore a helmet shaped like a hummingbird’s head and carried a fire-breathing serpent as a weapon. Huitzilopochtli had long been the Mexica’s patron deity. It was he who had entered the Mexica priest’s dream to explain where to found Tenochtitlan. After the formation of the Triple Alliance, Tlacaelel “went about persuading the people,” as one Mexica historian wrote, that Huitzilopochtli was not a mere tutelary deity, but a divinity essential to the fate of humankind.

At the apex of the celestial hierarchy stood Ometeotl, the omnipresent sustainer of the cosmos, “the Lord of the Close Vicinity” in Nahuatl. In Tlacaelel’s vision, Ometeotl had four sons, one of whom was Huitzilopochtli. These four sons had been vying for supremacy since the beginning of time; the history of the universe was mainly a record of their endless struggle. At intervals the brothers would wrestle themselves into a precarious equilibrium, like sumo giants straining motionlessly against each other in the ring, with one brother on top and the other three in a temporary, isometric balance below. In these interregnums of order, Tlacaelel explained, the topmost brother linked himself to the sun, on which all living creatures depend.

In some versions of the story, the brother became the sun; in others, he merely supervised its workings. Either way, life could exist only when one brother held sway and the cosmic battle quieted and the sun was able to shine. But when the balance came apart, as it always did, the brothers would resume their strife. The sun would go dark, sinking the cosmos into an endless, lethal night. Eventually the sons would arrive at a new transitory order and reignite the sun, letting existence begin anew. This apocalyptic cycle had occurred four times before. The Mexica lived during the Fifth Sun, when the sun was identified with Huitzilopochtli.

The sun’s role was hellishly difficult, Tlacaelel said. Even when the strife among Ometeotl’s sons quieted enough to allow the sun to shine, it still had to battle the stars and moon every day as it rose in the sky—a literal struggle of light against darkness. Each day of sunlight was a victory that must be fought and won again the next day. Because the sun could not hold out forever against its foes, one sixteenth-century Nahuatl account explained, it would one day inevitably lose—there was no getting around it. “In this Sun it shall come to pass / That the earth shall move, / That there shall be famine, / And that we all shall perish.” But the calamity could be postponed, at least for a while, if the sun was fortified for its battles with the stars. To gain strength, the sun needed chalchíhuatl—the mysterious, ineffable fluid of life-energy. The sacred mission of the Triple Alliance, Tlacaelel proclaimed, was to furnish this vital substance to Huitzilopochtli, who would then use it for the sun, postponing the death of everyone on the planet.

There was but one method for obtaining this life-energy: ritual human sacrifice. To obtain the victims, Tlacaelel said (according to one of Sahagún’s contemporaries), the sun needed a “marketplace” where he could “go with his army [that is, the army of the Triple Alliance] to buy victims, men for him to eat…. And this will be a good thing, for it will be as if he had his maize cakes hot from the griddle—tortillas from a nearby place, hot and ready to eat whenever he wishes them.” Occasionally the victims were slaves and criminals, but mainly they were prisoners of war. In this way the sacred mission of the Triple Alliance became translated into a secular mission: to obtain prisoners to sacrifice for the sun, the Alliance had to take over the world. In Tlacaelel’s scheme, imperial conquests were key to “the moral combat against evil,” explained Miguel León-Portilla, a Mexican historian who has devoted much of his career to analyzing Mexica thought. “The survival of the universe depended on them.”

Human sacrifice is such a charged subject that its practice by the Triple Alliance has inevitably become shrouded in myths. Two are important here. The first is that human sacrifice was never practiced—the many post-conquest accounts of public death-spectacles are all racist lies. It was indeed in the Spanish interest to exaggerate the extent of human sacrifice, because ending what Cortés called this “most horrid and abominable custom” became a post hoc rationale for conquest. But the many vividly depicted ceremonies in Mexica art and writing leave little doubt that it occurred—and on a large scale. (Cortés may well have been correct when he estimated that sacrifice claimed “three or four thousand souls” a year.)

The second myth is that in its appetite for death as spectacle the Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe. Criminals beheaded in Palermo, heretics burned alive in Toledo, assassins drawn and quartered in Paris—Europeans flocked to every form of painful death imaginable, free entertainment that drew huge crowds. London, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, held public executions eight times a year at Tyburn, just north of Hyde Park. (The diplomat Samuel Pepys paid a shilling for a good view of a Tyburn hanging in 1664; watching the victim beg for mercy, he wrote, was a crowd of “at least 12 or 14,000 people.”) In most if not all European nations, the bodies were impaled on city walls and strung along highways as warnings. “The corpses dangling from trees whose distant silhouettes stand out against the sky, in so many old paintings, are merely a realistic detail,” Braudel observed. “They were part of the landscape.” Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historian V. A. C. Gatrell, England executed seventy-five thousand people. At the time, its population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel.

In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike than either side grasped. In both places the public death was accompanied by the reading of ritual scripts. And in both the goal was to create a cathartic paroxysm of loyalty to the government—in the Mexica case, by recalling the spiritual justification for the empire; in the European case, to reassert the sovereign’s divine power after it had been injured by a criminal act. Most important, neither society should be judged—or in the event judged each other—entirely by its brutality. Who today would want to live in the Greece of Plato and Socrates, with its slavery, constant warfare, institutionalized pederasty, and relentless culling of surplus population? Yet Athens had a coruscating tradition of rhetoric, lyric drama, and philosophy. So did Tenochtitlan and the other cities in the Triple Alliance. In fact, the corpus of writings in classical Nahuatl, the language of the Alliance, is even larger than the corpus of texts in classical Greek.

The Nahuatl word tlamatini (literally, “he who knows things”) meant something akin to “thinker-teacher”—a philosopher, if you will. The tlamatini, who “himself was writing and wisdom,” was expected to write and maintain the codices and live in a way that set a moral example. “He puts a mirror before others,” the Mexica said. In what may have been the first large-scale compulsory education program in history, every male citizen of the Triple Alliance, no matter what his social class, had to attend one sort of school or another until the age of sixteen. Many tlamatinime (the plural form of the word) taught at the elite academies that trained the next generation of priests, teachers, and high administrators.

Like Greek philosophy, the teachings of the tlamatinime were only tenuously connected to the official dogma of Tlacaelel. (To be sure, Plato does have Socrates subtly “correct” Homer, because the gods supposedly couldn’t have behaved in the immoral way described by the poet. But by and large the Greek pantheon on Mount Olympus plays no role in either Plato or Aristotle.) But the tlamatinime shared the religion’s sense of the evanescence of existence. “Truly do we live on Earth?” asked a poem or song attributed to Nezahualcóyotl (1402–72), a founding figure in Mesoamerican thought and the tlatoani of Texcoco, one of the other two members of the Triple Alliance. His lyric, among the most famous in the Nahuatl canon, answers its own question:

Not forever on earth; only a little while here.

Be it jade, it shatters.

Be it gold, it breaks.

Be it a quetzal feather, it tears apart.

Not forever on earth; only a little while here.

In another verse assigned to Nezahualcóyotl this theme emerged even more baldly:

Like a painting, we will be erased.

Like a flower, we will dry up here on earth.

Like plumed vestments of the precious bird,

That precious bird with the agile neck,

We will come to an end.

Contemplating mortality, thinkers in many cultures have drawn solace from the prospect of life after death. This consolation was denied to the Mexica, who were agonizingly uncertain about what happened to the soul. “Do flowers go to the region of the dead?” Nezahualcóyotl asked. “In the Beyond, are we still dead or do we live?” Many if not most tlamatinime saw existence as Nabokov feared: “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

In Nahuatl rhetoric, things were frequently represented by the unusual device of naming two of their elements—a kind of doubled Homeric epithet. Instead of directly mentioning his body, a poet might refer to “my hand, my foot” (noma nocxi), which the savvy listener would know was a synecdoche, in the same way that readers of English know that writers who mention “the crown” are actually talking about the entire monarch, and not just the headgear. Similarly, the poet’s speech would be “his word, his breath” (itlatol ihiyo). A double-barreled term for “truth” is neltilitztli tzintliztli, which means something like “fundamental truth, true basic principle.” In Nahuatl, the words almost shimmer with connotation: what was true was well grounded, stable and immutable, enduring above all.

Because we human beings are transitory, our lives as ephemeral as dreams, the tlamatinime suggested that immutable truth is by its nature beyond human experience. On the ever-changing earth, wrote León-Portilla, the Mexican historian, “nothing is ‘true’ in the Nahuatl sense of the word.” Time and again, the tlamatinime wrestled with this dilemma. How can beings of the moment grasp the perduring? It would be like asking a stone to understand mortality.

According to León-Portilla, one exit from this philosophical blind alley was seen by the fifteenth-century poet Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin, who described it metaphorically, as poets will, by invoking the coyolli bird, known for its bell-like song:

He goes his way singing, offering flowers.

And his words rain down

Like jade and quetzal plumes.

Is this what pleases the Giver of Life?

Is that the only truth on earth?

Ayocuan’s remarks cannot be fully understood out of the Nahuatl context, León-Portilla argued. “Flowers and song” was a standard double epithet for poetry, the highest art; “jade and quetzal feathers” was a synecdoche for great value, in the way that Europeans might refer to “gold and silver.” The song of the bird, spontaneously produced, stands for aesthetic inspiration. Ayocuan was suggesting, León-Portilla said, that there is a time when humankind can touch the enduring truths that underlie our fleeting lives. That time is at the moment of artistic creation. “From whence come the flowers [the artistic creations] that enrapture man?” asks the poet. “The songs that intoxicate, the lovely songs?” And he answers: “Only from His [that is, Ometeotl’s] home do they come, from the innermost part of heaven.” Through art alone, the Mexica said, can human beings approach the real.

Cut short by Cortés, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. The musings of the tlamatinime occurred in intellectual neighborhoods frequented by philosophers from Brussels to Beijing, but the mix was entirely the Mexica’s own. Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence—and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the distintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole.

Having grown separately for millennia, the Americas were a boundless sea of novel ideas, dreams, stories, philosophies, religions, moralities, discoveries, and all the other products of the mind. Few things are more sublime or characteristically human than the cross-fertilization of cultures. The simple discovery by Europe of the existence of the Americas caused an intellectual ferment. How much grander would have been the tumult if Indian societies had survived in full splendor!

Here and there we see clues to what might have been. Pacific Northwest Indian artists carved beautiful masks, boxes, bas-reliefs, and totem poles within the dictates of an elaborate aesthetic system based on an ovoid shape that has no name in European languages. British ships in the nineteenth century radically transformed native art by giving the Indians brightly colored paints that unlike native pigments didn’t wash off in the rain. Indians incorporated the new pigments into their traditions, expanding them and in the process creating an aesthetic nouvelle vague. European surrealists came across this colorful new art in the first years of the twentieth century. As artists will, they stole everything they could, transfiguring the images further. Their interest helped a new generation of indigenous artists to explore new themes.

Now envision this kind of fertile back-and-forth happening in a hundred ways with a hundred cultures—the gifts from four centuries of intellectual exchange. One can hardly imagine anything more valuable. Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia. Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia. Along with the unparalleled loss of life, that is what vanished when smallpox came ashore.

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