The Aztecs Didn’t Mistake The Spanish For Gods

“He who surpasses or subdues mankind, / Must look down on the hate of those below.” —Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

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.

Show Me The Proof

Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall
The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction, by Matthew Restall, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
In the Hall of Maat: Burying the White Gods

  • lbatfish

    Interesting article.™

    • Lisa 39

      I thought so also.™

      • lbatfish

        Hey . . . I just noticed your trademark™! Well done!

        BTW, if you ever want to print any of the hundred-some other characters that have no key to type them (shapes, foreign letters, card suits, etc.), just Google for “ANSI chart” and then hold down the [Alt] key and type 0 + the three digits for the desired “extended character”.

        Amaze your friends! Intimidate your foes! And befuddle everyone else!

        • Lisa 39

          Thank you lbatfish (i remembered lol) i saw that you did that so i played with my phone and found it! ™ i’ll go look for the ansi chart to see what they have, thanks, i’m learning lol

          • lbatfish

            In an unrelated development, did you notice that in the “Afterlife” list today in LV, Patrick’s comment was “Awesome list” instead of “Interesting list”?

            My god . . . what have we unleashed!!!

            [Update: Yes, now I see that you upvoted him, too. :-)]

          • Lisa 39

            I did notice, i think we unleashed the kraken!

          • lbatfish

            LOL, yes! I’m contacting a few others to ask them to do the same. 🙂

          • Lisa 39

            I just learn all kinds of good stuff from you and our lv friends!

          • lbatfish

            Same for me, too.

          • Faroe

            I’m new here so I’m pretty much clueless right now…

          • lbatfish

            A few days ago, a few of us here who are sometime the first to post comment were doing an experiment. Usually, any reference to the fact that you’re the first one to comment results in that comment being deleted (which is actually not a bad policy, because they get kinda boring to read). So we started using “(topic) is awesome!” instead. And not only did they survive, they also got lot of upvotes and replies. And ever since then, the word “awesome” seems to be popping up a lot. 🙂

          • Faroe

            Awesome!

          • lbatfish

            That’s the spirit! And BTW, welcome aboard! The articles here and at Listverse.com are usually good, sometimes not as good . . . but there are quite a few very good commenters (present company excepted out of modesty, of course). A fun place to waste time!

          • Faroe

            Thanks!

          • lbatfish

            Hi Faroe!

            I saw what I think was your attempt to delete some of your comments in another article, so I replied to it. But then I remembered that because you used the [Delete] function, you wouldn’t be notified and might not see my reply. So I copied it and am pasting it below.

            ————————————————–

            No, the Disqus [Delete Comment] function doesn’t work properly (other than temporarily) — it just changes the comment name to “Guest”. The closest that you can get to deleting is to use [Edit] to change the unwanted comment to almost-nothing, such as a period or [space], and then [Save]. Then use the [Delete].

            The result (after a screen refresh) will be a blank-looking comment supposedly made by “Guest”.

            [Note: After that, you will have NO ability to edit it again, because it won’t be “yours” anymore.]

          • Faroe

            “Fun size” 😀

          • Lisa 39

            I thought it was cute!

          • Faroe

            It was both 🙂

  • UN

    hmmm…..i always believed it was the gun powder that out did them

  • Exiled Phoenix

    Live by the sword… Die by the sword™

    • lbatfish

      Oh, you sly eavesdropper, you! 🙂

  • LyndsayWaugh

    The Article is so interesting to dump with God by the Aztecs.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/117604589@N03/12532479385/

    • lbatfish

      Ahhhh . . . so they DID delete your old Disqus account, eh? Well, at least this time the wording in your spam-post came out much more entertaining!

    • Faroe

      Thanks for the weight loss ad! *Sarcasm*

      • lbatfish

        This was the third time, but the last two both used the same fake name. I also see over at Flickr that, yes, they deleted “her” old account over there, too. So apparently, this is just the third of once-a-day-spams from here on out. *sigh*

        BTW, the spammers don’t really notice (or care about) the replies to their posts. The only reason for responding to them is for the amusement of yourself (and possibly other comment-readers).

        • Faroe

          Third account? Wow, spammers just don’t give up…

  • Hillyard

    This was interesting. Once again what I learned in history class was wrong. Good article.

    • Faroe

      I know right! I had no idea that the Aztecs didn’t think that the invading Conquistadors were gods

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    To reward to Spaniards who participated in the conquest, the Spanish
    crown authorized grants of native labor in particular indigenous
    communities. The Spanish conquerors in Mexico during the early colonial
    era lived off the labor of the indigenous. Due to some horrifying
    instances of abuse against the indigenous peoples, Bishop Bartolomé de
    las Casas suggested importing black slaves to replace them. Bishop
    Bartolomé de las Casas later repented when he saw the even worse
    treatment given to the black slaves. The other discovery that
    perpetuated this system was extensive silver mines discovered at Potosi,
    in Upper Peru (now Bolivia) and other places that were worked for
    hundreds of years by forced native labor and contributed most of the
    wealth that flowed to Spain. Spain spent enormous amounts of this wealth
    hiring mercenaries to fight the Protestant Reformation and to halt the
    Turkish invasions of Europe. The silver was used to purchase goods, as
    European manufactured goods were not in demand in Asia and the Middle
    East. The Manila Galleon brought in far more silver direct from South
    American mines to China than the overland Silk Road, or even European
    trade routes in the Indian oceans could. The Aztec education system was
    abolished and replaced by a very limited church education. The Spanish
    conquest of the Aztec Empire was one of the most significant events not
    only in the Spanish colonization of the Americas, but also in world
    history.

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    Smallpox, influenza, mumps, measles and a literal host of other diseases decimated the native populations of America. From a pre-Columbus population estimated at 1 million, the native population of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) fell to only 500 by year 1500. Natives of Americas were completely upended by so many deaths. Entire cities lay sick and dying from smallpox and plague; military formations were crushed by disease long before they could attack the Spanish.

  • Santi

    Let’s not forget about disease as a contributing factor as to why the Spanish were able to so easily conquer the Mexica. Many people think that the shear might of the conquistadors is what conquered the Mexica, but disease played a very large role. Cortes and his men had to initially retreat. By the time they returned, the Smallpox disease was devestating the Mexica Empire and had weakened the Mexica army. If not for disease, I think the Mexica would have easily defated the Spanish or at least gave them a run for their money.