In A Nutshell
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, the conventional narrative declares that the native Aztecs (properly: the Mexica) mistook the conquistadors for gods. That, along with Spanish steel, guns, and horses, was the reason for the small Spanish retinue’s unlikely conquest. Except no one, not even the Spanish, initially suggested there was any case of mistaken identity. The story was likely an apocryphal invention of the conquered Mexica to recast their defeat as a result of religious symbols, not military failings.
The Whole Bushel
How do you explain the conquest of an impressive civilization like that of the Mexica by mere hundreds of conquistadors? Well, a question of mistaken identity, i.e., that the Mexica believed the Spaniards to be gods sounds a lot better than the alternative. Which is the Spanish conquest of the Mexica was made possible thanks largely to the Mexica’s oppression of subject peoples.
The Mexica empire which Hernan Cortes encountered in 1519 was actually a confederation of several disparate Native American peoples brought together under the Mexica yoke. The Mexica were not the most benevolent or interested of rulers; aside from the crippling demand for a third of all produced goods and crops from subject peoples, the Mexica were mostly content to allow the conquered to govern themselves.
When the Spanish arrived, they seemed as appealing an alternative as any other to the current system of tribute bondage. The foreigners couldn’t possibly be worse than the Mexica, right? As Cortes demonstrated in small actions, his conquistadors were a formidable match for the much-feared Mexica warriors. And as the conquistadors made their way inland toward the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlan, the Spanish solicited native allies. Tens of thousands of native auxiliaries aided the Spanish conquest and in battle often served as the vanguard of a conquistador-native army.
Straightforward enough, so where did the belief the Spanish were gods come from? Not from the conquistadors themselves. Any mention of being hailed as a god is conspicuously absent from Cortes’s letters and memoirs. The closest his and other conquistadors’ accounts get to the “god-myth” is describing the natives as awe-struck at the display of Spanish firearms. One account mentions a native mistaking a mounted Spaniard as a centaur creature, before realizing he was viewing, “man and beast.” Hardly deification.
It seems the god-myth originated with the Mexica decades after the conquest, trying to make sense of the disaster which had befallen them. The Florentine Codex, written in the 1550s, is a native account of the Spanish conquest and the earliest extant example of the deification of the Spanish. The sources for this account of the conquest were likely aging former warriors who had battled the Spanish. It was, of course, the warrior class which had been responsible for Mexica ascendancy and later for its demise when the Spanish could not be defeated. Of course, if the portends and symbols all had pointed to the Spanish being returning gods, the reason for Mexica leaders’ indecision is clear. It was mistaken identity and religious devotion which crippled the Mexica response to invasion. Certainly, it wasn’t the ignorance of foreign threats, oppressive rule which alienated subjects, or Spanish weaponry which undid the Mexica empire.
The Spanish played their part later on in the myth-making. As much as they may have wanted to celebrate their military prowess, the Spanish used the god-myth to confer a quasi-divine right to rule upon themselves. This granted the Spanish further justification for the annexation of these new territories. The conquistadors’ unprovoked invasion suddenly had the tacit acceptance of the conquered. After all they had “welcomed” Cortes as one of their gods.