The Myths and Legends of the Conquest: Moctezuma II vs. Hernán Cortés

By Julie Etra

Various myths and legends surround the arrival of Hernán Cortés at the court of the last Mexican emperor, Moctezuma II (there are many other spellings) in Tenochtitlán, located in present-day Mexico City. Perhaps the most interesting story is how Cortés was perceived. One version is that the Mexica (Aztec descendants, also called Nahua) perceived him as the long-lost god Quetzalcóatl.

Who was Quetzalcóatl?

Quetzalcóatl (“feathered serpent” or “plumed serpent”) is the Nahuatl name for the feathered-serpent deity of ancient Mesoamerican culture; Quetzalcóatl is not to be confused with Quetzalcoatlus, which is a member of the ancient group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs, and is the largest flying animal, with a wingspan up to 52 feet. It lived during the late Cretaceous period (from 145 to 66 million years ago) and was indeed named for the Nahua god.

Quetzalcóatl has a complicated genealogy, but was recognized as the creator god, creator of mankind, as well as the sun, wind, and air. According to one version (there are many) Quetzalcóatl was coerced by Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky (among other things), into getting drunk on pulque (fermented agave juice), and attempted to seduce his older sister, Quetzalpetlatl, a celibate priestess. The next morning, Quetzalcóatl, embarrassed and regretful, either fled in a canoe to the east or laid himself down in a stone casket and set himself on fire, and his ashes rose and traveled to the east, turning into the morning star. The Mexica awaited his return, and in theory mistook Cortés for the long-awaited god.

Cortés as Quetzalcóatl

The Mexica were already well aware of the Spanish army’s march from Veracruz, where Cortés’ ship had landed, and of his appearance leading the cabalgada (cavalry, i.e., soldiers on horseback) to the capital, where they arrived on November 8, 1519. Complicating the interpretation that he was perceived as a god is the assumption the Spaniards and the Nahua had a similar concept of what ‘god’ meant, which is certainly not true, as the Nahua world consisted of many gods.

History is always retold by the conqueror, so this myth was documented by the Spaniards in the 16th century, 50 years after the conquest (the most famous documentation is in Book XII of the Florentine Codex. (A codex [pl. codices], is a Mesoamerican manuscript, produced by the Aztecs, the Nahua, or Spanish priests. The Florentine Codex was written by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún working with native people – the text is in Nahuatl; it is now located in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy.)

Moctezuma had warned the Spaniards not to enter the city and was trying to delay their arrival until a more auspicious date on the Nahua calendar. Legend has it that the Nahua were meek, and that Moctezuma was deferential to Cortés. The Spanish description of the Nahua as naïve and simple of course supports their rationale for the brutal conquest.

What do we know about the first meeting between the last monarch and the Spanish conquistador? A special issue of Arqueología Mexicana, a magazine put out by INAH, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, indicates that Moctezuma was fully aware of Cortés’ intent, but he was cordial (keep in mind that translations between Moctezuma and Cortés were conducted by Malintzin, a multilingual Nahua woman better known as La Malinche). According to Cortés, the Mexica kissed the ground in front of him, but they stopped him in his attempt to embrace Moctezuma (we know the Spaniards reeked; a humorous interpretation is that a returning and revered god would not smell that bad), but neither gesture is mentioned by indigenous accounts.

If Moctezuma’s entourage really believed they were facing Quetzalcóatl, their behavior does not make sense; they did, however, offer him garlands and covered him in flowers (perhaps a way of dealing with the stench) and other gifts. In a magical-religious context, it is possible that this was meant to placate an antagonist. Cortés offered glass beads known as margaritas.

Supposedly the first words spoken by Cortés were “Are you really Moctezuma?” manifesting his surprise at finally meeting this almost mythic figure. Moctezuma cordially answered “Yes, it is I.” According to some scholars, politeness in the Mexica culture was a way to assert dominance and show superiority. If indeed initially, or for a few months, Moctezuma thought Cortés was the returning feathered serpent, Cortés found Tenochtitlán to be mythical, a resplendent city glittering in the sun in the distance. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador with Cortés, wrote a memoir, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain in 1568; he wrote that upon approaching Tenochtitlán, “It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, or dreamed of before.”

Moctezuma already knew the Mexica were defeated, since the Spanish were accompanied by the Tlaxcaltecas (from the present-day state of Tlaxcala). The Tlaxcaltecas were skilled, fierce fighters who successfully resisted Moctezuma’s forces and greatly resented the tax collectors from Tenochtitlán. Cortés had subjugated the Tlaxcaltecas en route to Tenochtitlán, and convinced them to become allies in the conquest of Moctezuma.

There’s More to the Story

If you are interested in this remarkable history, I suggest you read Díaz del Castillo’s book (used copies are available on Amazon for less than $10 US). However, recall that the idea that Cortés was perceived as a returning god was not developed until after the conquest; also note that the carefully formulated, formal speech Moctezuma delivered to Cortés, which implies Moctezuma sees Cortés as some sort of divinity, has been misinterpreted. Even Wikipedia debunks the notion: “The legend of the returning lords, originated during the Spanish-Mexica war in Cortés’ reworking of Moctezuma’s welcome speech, had by the 1550s merged with the Cortés-as-Quetzalcóatl legend that the Franciscans had started spreading in the 1530s.”

So, there you have it, a post-conquest myth proliferated by the conquerors and religious figures, but on closer examination, we find its origins are more complicated.