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Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico
     

Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico

by Hugh Thomas
 

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Drawing on newly discovered sources and writing with brilliance, drama, and profound historical insight, Hugh Thomas presents an engrossing narrative of one of the most significant events of Western history.

Ringing with the fury of two great empires locked in an epic battle, Conquest captures in extraordinary detail the Mexican and Spanish civilizations

Overview

Drawing on newly discovered sources and writing with brilliance, drama, and profound historical insight, Hugh Thomas presents an engrossing narrative of one of the most significant events of Western history.

Ringing with the fury of two great empires locked in an epic battle, Conquest captures in extraordinary detail the Mexican and Spanish civilizations and offers unprecedented in-depth portraits of the legendary opponents, Montezuma and Cortés. Conquest is an essential work of history from one of our most gifted historians.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From the author of The Spanish Civil War comes this epic history of the fall of the Aztec empire to Spain. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Digging into thousands of pages of legal testimony given in the 1520s by participants in Cortes's expedition against the Mexico of ancient Mesoamerica, Thomas revisits the Spanish invasion of the Aztec Empire. The result is a richer account of the personalities, events, and social setting of this momentous episode than currently exists in accessible form. The complex genealogical interweaving of Castilian and Mexican royal families, the intricacies of battle strategy and tactics, the labyrinthine political machinations, and the brutal imposition of external standards of behavior and belief--all are described in a gripping narrative by Thomas, a British academic. His sterling achievement is to illustrate the complex historical foundation of modern Mexico. Although the book is intended for a general audience, extensive chapter-by-chapter endnotes and an annotated bibliography of major sources reveal the depth of the author's scholarship. No library should be without this important contribution to Latin American history.-- William S. Dancey, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
Jay Freeman
Taking his cue from William Prescott's definitive nineteenth-century history of the conquest, Thomas has written a scholarly, fascinating, richly detailed history. Virtually every aspect of both Castilian and Aztec society is examined microscopically; Thomas views the conflict as a clash of two equally confident, aggressive, and militaristic cultures. Thomas sometimes ignores the power of the "story" within the history; as a result, the general reader may be overwhelmed by his exhaustive attention to detail. However, for the scholar of the period, this work should be required reading.
New York Times Books of the Century
...[A]n encyclopedic history....eloquently conjures up the grandeur, fury, mystery and tragedy of this epic story...
Kirkus Reviews
For either longterm consequences or immediate drama, there are few conflicts in history to rival that between Montezuma and Hernan Cort‚s. Thomas (Armed Truce, 1987, etc.) does it full justice, offering an authoritative, consistently colorful account of a clash in which character proved fate for both principals and their cultures. Drawing on standard sources and previously untapped archives in Seville, the author focuses on how an audacious soldier of fortune from Spain's minor nobility was able to conquer the Aztec realm and claim what is now central Mexico for Charles V. A 15-year veteran of the West Indies, Cort‚s landed in the Yucatan in 1519 with a small band of followers in hot pursuit of gold and glory. With hordes of indigenous allies (disaffected by Montezuma's rule), the captain from Castile gained both riches and fame by defeating (albeit only after a lengthy siege that cost both sides dearly) the mountain redoubt of Tenechitlan (modern-day Mexico City). Thomas does not shy away from cataloguing the many flaws of Cort‚s, whose brutality to native peoples triggered a bitter home-front debate on whether forcibly converting heathen practitioners of human sacrifice could be justified. The author nonetheless concludes that the unique strengths and ambition of this one conquistador were primarily responsible for the "astonishing" achievements of the Spaniards in a bewilderingly new world. He also sheds fresh light on why the ultracivilized but irresolute and superstitious Montezuma did not simply crush the trespassers before they reached his capital. Covered as well are the perdurable faith and advanced technology (guns, horses, steel swords, etc.) that gave fewer than 500 Spanishtroops decisive advantages against numerically superior foes. Occasionally overdetailed, but, still, a grand, interpretive retelling of an epic chapter in the westward course of empire—with considerable appeal for lay-readers as well as scholars.

From the Publisher
Edward Schumacher The Wall Street Journal A fascinating work that will surely go down as a defining book on the era and one of the best and most readable nonfiction books of the year.

Alfred MacAdam Newsday Conquest makes such exciting reading one forgets that these things actually happened. Hugh Thomas documents characters and events in as much detail as humanly conceivable....Monumental.

Thomas Christensen San Francisco Chronicle Thomas balances writerly skill, exhaustive research, and scholarly documentation to make his book as useful as possible to both general and more involved readers....Essential.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt The New York Times So dramatic is the account in Mr. Thomas's telling, that...you almost don't want to give the story away....Compelling recounted.

Wendy Smith Chicago Sun-Times Thomas does full justice to a titanic subject in his vigorous narrative, which contains enough heroism, cruelty and pathos for ten Greek tragedies.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781439127254
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
04/16/2013
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
832
Sales rank:
668,737
File size:
26 MB
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

Harmony and order

"The fashion of living [in Mexico] is almost the same as in Spain with just as much harmony and order..."

Hernán Cortés to Charles V, 1521

The beautiful position of the Mexican capital, Tenochtitlan, could scarcely have been improved upon. The city stood over seven thousand feet up, on an island near the shore of a great lake. It was two hundred miles from the sea to the west, a hundred and fifty to the east. The lake lay in the centre of a broad valley surrounded by magnificent mountains, two of which were volcanoes. One of these was always covered by snow: "O Mexico, that such mountains should encircle and crown thee," a Spanish Franciscan would exult a few years later. The sun shone brilliantly most days, the air was clear, the sky was as blue as the water of the lake, the colours were intense, the nights cold.

Like Venice, with which it would be insistently compared, Tenochtitlan had been built over several generations. The tiny natural island at the centre of it had been extended to cover 2,500 acres by driving in stakes, and throwing mud and rocks into the gaps. Tenochtitlan boasted about thirty fine high palaces made of a reddish, porous volcanic stone. The smaller, single-storey houses, in which most of the 250,000 or so inhabitants lived, were of adobe and usually painted white. Many of these had been secured against floods by being raised on platforms. The lake was alive with canoes of different sizes bringing tribute and commercial goods. The shores were dotted with well-constructed small towns which owed allegiance to the great city on the water.

The centre of Tenochtitlan was a walled holy precinct, with numerous sacred buildings, including several pyramids with temples on top. Streets and canals led away straight from the precinct at all four points of the compass. Nearby stood the Emperor's palace. There were many minor pyramids in the city, each the base for temples to different gods: the pyramids themselves, characteristic religious edifices of the region, being a human tribute to the splendour of the surrounding volcanoes.

Tenochtitlan's site made it seem impregnable. The city had never been attacked. The Mexica had only to raise the bridges on the three causeways which connected their capital to the mainland to be beyond the reach of any plausible enemy. A poem demanded:

Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?

Who could shake the foundation of heaven...?

Tenochtitlan's safety had been underpinned for ninety years by an alliance with two other cities on, respectively, the west and east sides of the lake -- Tacuba and Texcoco. Both were satellites of Tenochtitlan, though Texcoco, the capital of culture, was formidable in its own right: an elegant version of the language of the valley, Nahuatl, was spoken there. Tacuba was tiny, for it may have had only 120 houses. These two places obeyed the Emperor of the Mexica in respect of military affairs. Otherwise they were independent. The royal houses, as there is no reason not to call them, of both were linked by blood with that of Tenochtitlan.

These allies helped to guarantee a mutually advantageous lacustrine economy of fifty or so small, self-governing city states, many of them within sight of one another, none of them self-sufficient. Wood was available for fire (as for carved furniture, agricultural tools, canoes, weapons, and idols) from the slopes of the mountains; flint and obsidian could be obtained for some instruments from a zone in the north-east; there was clay for pottery and figurines (a flourishing art, with at least nine different wares) while, from the shore of the lake, came salt, and reeds for baskets.

The emperors of Mexico dominated not only the Valley of Mexico. Beyond the volcanoes, they had, during the previous three generations, established their authority to the east as far as the Gulf of Mexico. Their sway extended far down the coast of the Pacific Ocean in the west to Xoconocho, the best source of the much-prized green feathers of the quetzal bird. To the south, they had led armies to remote conquests in rain forests a month's march away. Tenochtitlan thus controlled three distinct zones: the tropics, near the oceans; a temperate area, beyond the volcanoes; and the mountainous region, nearby. Hence the variety of products for sale in the imperial capital.

The heartland of the empire, the Valley of Mexico, was seventy-five miles north to south, forty east to west: about three thousand square miles; but the empire itself covered 125,000 square miles.

Tenochtitlan should have been self-confident. There was no city bigger, more powerful, or richer within the world of which the people of the valley were informed. It acted as the focus for thousands of immigrants, of whom some had come because of the demand for their crafts: lapidaries, for example, from Xochimilco. A single family had ruled the city for over a century. A "mosaic" of altogether nearly four hundred cities, each with its own ruler, sent regular deliveries to the Emperor of (to mention the most important items) maize (the local staff of life) and beans, cotton cloaks and other clothes, as well as several types of war costumes (war tunics, often feathered, were sent from all but eight out of thirty-eight provinces). Tribute included raw materials and goods in an unfinished state (beaten but not embellished gold), as well as manufactured items (including amber and crystal lip plugs, and strings of jade or turquoise beads).

The power of the Mexica in the year 1518 or, as they called it, 13-Slate, seemed to rest upon solid foundations. Exchange of goods was well established. Cocoa beans and cloaks, sometimes canoes, copper axes, and feather quills full of gold dust, were used as currency (a small cloak was reckoned as worth between sixty-five and a hundred cocoa beans). But payments for services were usually made in kind.

There were markets in all districts: one of these, that in the city of Tlatelolco, by now a large suburb of Tenochtitlan, was the biggest market in the Americas, an emporium for the entire region. Even goods from distant Guatemala were exchanged there. Meantime, trade on a small scale in old Mexico was carried on by nearly everyone, for marketing the household's product was the main activity of family life.

The Mexican empire had the benefit of a remarkable lingua franca. This was Nahuatl: in the words of one who knew it, a "smooth and malleable language, both majestic and of great quality, comprehensive, and easily mastered". It lent itself to expressive metaphors, and eloquent repetitions. It inspired oratory and poetry, recited both as a pastime and to celebrate the gods. An equally interesting manifestation was the tradition of long speeches, huehuetlatolli, "words of the old men", learned by heart (as was the poetry) for public occasions, and covering a vast number of themes, usually affording the advice that temperance was best.

Nahuatl was an oral language. But the Mexica, like the other peoples in the valley, used pictographs and ideograms for writing. Names of persons -- for example, Acamapichtli ("handful of reeds") or Miahuaxochitl ("turquoise maize flower") could always be represented by the former. Perhaps the Mexica were moving towards something like the syllabic script of the Maya. Even a development on that scale would not have been able to express the subtleties of their speech. Yet Nahuatl was, as the Castilian philologist, Antonio de Nebrija had, in the 1490s, described Castilian, "a language of empire". Appropriately, the literal translation of the word for a ruler, tlatoani, was "spokesman": he who speaks or, perhaps, he who commands (huey tlatoani, emperor, was "high spokesman"). Mexican writers could also express elegiac melancholy in a way which seems almost to echo French poetry of the same era:

I am to pass away like a faded flower

My fame will be nothing, my renown on earth will vanish.

Nahuatl, its foremost modern scholar has passionately said, "is a language which should never die".

Beautiful painted books (usually called codices) recorded the possession of land, as of history, with family trees and maps supporting the inclination of the ancient Mexicans to be litigious. The importance of this side of life can be gathered from the 480,000 sheets of bark paper regularly sent as tribute to "the storehouses of the ruler of Tenochtitlan".

The politics of the empire were happily guaranteed by the arrangements for imperial succession. Though normal inheritance customarily passed from father to son, a new emperor, always of the same family as his predecessor, was usually his brother, or cousin, who had performed well in a recent war. Thus the Emperor in 1518, Montezuma II, was the eighth son of Axayácatl, an emperor who died in 1481. Montezuma had followed an uncle, Ahuítzotl, who had died in 1502. In the selection of a new ruler, about thirty lords, together with the kings of Texcoco and Tacuba, acted as an electoral college. No succession so decided seems to have been challenged, even if sometimes there had been rival candidates. (Vestiges of this method of election can be detected by the imaginative in modern methods of selecting the President of Mexico.) Disputes were avoided since each election of a ruler was accompanied by the nomination of four other leaders, who in theory would remain in their places throughout the reign of an emperor, and of whom one would become the heir. No doubt the actual duties of these officials ("Killer of Men", "Keeper of the House of Darkness") had become detached from the titles just as the "Chief Butler of the King" had ceased in Castile to have much to do with the provision of wine. The system of succession varied in nearby cities: in most of them, the ruler was hereditary in the family of the monarch, though in some places the kingship did not always fall to the eldest son. In Texcoco primogeniture was the rule.

It is true that the deaths of the last three emperors had seemed a little odd: Ahuítzotl died from a blow on the head when fleeing from flood waters; Tizoc was rumoured to have been killed by witches; and Axayácatl died after defeat in battle. Yet there is nothing to prove that in fact they did not die from natural causes.

The Mexican emperor stood for, and concerned himself with, the external face of the empire. Internal affairs were ultimately directed by a deputy emperor, a cousin, the cihuacoatl, a title which he shared with that of a great goddess, and whose literal translation, "woman snake", connected him with the feminine side of divinity. The word gives an inadequate picture of his multifarious duties. Probably in the beginning this official was the priest of the goddess whose name he had.

The internal life of Tenochtitlan was stable. It was in practice managed by an interlocking network of something between a clan, a guild and a district, known as the calpulli, a word about whose precise nature every generation of scholars has a new theory, only agreeing that it indicated a self-governing unit, and that it held land which its members did not own, but used. It was probably an association of linked extended families. In several calpultin (that being the plural style) families had the same professions. Thus featherworkers mostly lived in Amantlan, a district which may once have been an independent village.

Each calpulli had its own gods, priests, and traditions. Marriage (celebrated in old Mexico with as much ceremonial as in Europe) outside the calpulli, though not impossible, was unusual. The calpulli was the body which mobilised the Mexica for war, for cleaning streets, and for attending festivals. Farmers of land which had been granted by the calpulli gave a proportion of the crops (perhaps a third) to that body for delivery to the imperial administration. Through the calpulli, the farmer heard the requests, or the orders, of the Emperor. There were perhaps as many as eighty of these in Tenochtitlan. Earlier, the leader, the calpullec, had apparently been elected but, by the fifteenth century, that office had become hereditary and lifelong. He too had a council of elders to consult, just as the Emperor had his more formally contrived advisers.

The most powerful calpulli was that in the suburb known as Cueopan, where there lived the so-called long-distance merchants, the pochteca. These had a bad name among Mexica: they seemed to be "the greedy, the well-fed, the covetous, the niggardly...who coveted wealth". But they were officially praised: "men who, leading the caravans of bearers, made the Mexican state great". Knowing that they were the object of envy, they were secretive. They served the Mexica as spies: telling the Emperor the strengths, the weaknesses and the wealth of the places which they saw on their journeys.

These merchants, who imported Tenochtitlan's raw materials, as well as the luxury goods from both the temperate zone and the tropics, antedated the empire in their organisation. Much of their work consisted of the exchange of manufactured objects for raw materials: an embroidered cloak for jade; or a gold jewel for tortoiseshells (used as spoons for cocoa). These great merchants lived without ostentation, dressed badly, and wore their hair down to their waists. Yet they had many possessions. They were even referred to by the Emperor as his "uncles"; and their daughters were sometimes concubines of monarchs.

Important though the merchants were, the supremacy of the Mexica in the valley and beyond had been won by their soldiers. These warriors were both well organised and numerous: the rulers were said to have waited till their population was large before challenging the Tepanecs, to whom they had previously been subject, in 1428. Boys in Mexico were prepared for war from birth in a way which both Spartans and Prussians would have found congenial. At baptisms (the process of naming a child included the use of water sprinkled on the infant, and the placing of water over the heart, so the Christian word is appropriate) the midwife, taking the male child from the mother, would announce that he "belongs to the battlefield, there in the centre, in the middle of the plains". Male children's umbilical cords were buried in places facing where the enemy might be expected. "War is thy desert, thy task..." the midwife would tell the newborn boy, "perhaps thou wilt receive the gift...[of] the flowered death by the obsidian knife" (that is, by sacrifice, as a prisoner of war).

The weapons of war were present too at christenings: the bow and arrow, the sling, the stone-headed wooden spear. Those weapons, along with the club and the macuauhuitl, a two-edged sword of black obsidian blades set in oak (they cut "like a razor from Tolosa", one conquistador would say), had given these armies their victories. The sign (glyph) for government in Nahuatl was a depiction of a bow and arrow, a round shield (of tightly arranged feathers on a wooden, or cane, backing), and a throwing stick (atlatl, used to launch spears -- at fish as well as at men). The best cloaks and the richest jewels were obtained as prizes for valour, not by purchase. Any male who failed to respond to the call to go to war lost all status, even if he were the son of the Emperor ("he who does not go to war will not consort with the brave" was a Spanish chronicler's formulation of the principle). Promotion in the army (and hence a social rise generally) depended on capturing a specific number of captives: an event consummated by special insignia. Membership of the knightly orders, the "jaguars" and the "eagles", was a supreme distinction obtained by the brave.

The costumes of these orders, and indeed all the war costumes, ridiculous though they seemed to Europeans, were intended to terrify, by playing on the nerves of enemies. Full-feathered constructions on bamboo frames were strapped to captains' backs, while feather-decked heads of animals, sometimes worn as part of a full animal skin, completed the psychological warfare of armies whose first aim was to inspire fear, and so secure surrender without conflict. The colossal Mexican sculptures, such as that of the great Coatlicue, for which there was no precedent in earlier empires in the valley, had the same purpose. There had been so many conflicts that war, not agriculture, seemed the main occupation of the ancient Mexica: "if war is not going on, the Mexica consider themselves idle," the Emperor Montezuma I had remarked. For, as poets insisted, "a battle is like a flower". It must sometimes have looked like that.

The commitment of the population to war makes credible the estimates given by historians of the late sixteenth century for the size of the Mexican armies. Thus Axayácatl, the rash poet-emperor who lost a war against the Tarascans, was said to have had 24,000 men with him. His successor but one, Ahuítzotl, who tried to absorb far-off Tehuantepec, was believed to have had an army of 200,000, gathered from many cities. Tenochtitlan during this campaign was said to have been empty save for women and children.

These forces, organised in legions of 8,000 men, divided into companies of 100, and co-ordinated by the calpultin, maintained peace, and imperial rule, by the constant threat, and sometimes the use, of terror. No doubt references in codices to decisions "to wipe out all traces" of such and such a place were often exaggerated. But since successful wars ended with the burning of the enemy's temple (which had the benefit of enabling the destruction of the armouries which were usually close by), brutality must have occurred. Mexican leaders often arranged to persuade their own people that conflict had been forced upon them. There were many small wars, or shows of force, for the empire was so large, the terrain so rugged, that the armies of Tenochtitlan were constantly on the move, putting down rebellions, as well as conquering new cities.

This Mexican era of continuous conquest had begun about 1430. The instigators were the first emperor, Itzcoatl, and his curious nephew, and general, Tlacaelel, who was also cihuacoatl. Previously, the Mexica had seemed to have been just one more small tribe of demanding people in the valley. But as a result of the efforts of these two men, the Mexica had transformed themselves into "a chosen people", with a mission, whose purpose was to give to all humanity the benefits of their own victory.

A special people needs a special training. That was possible since most of the Mexica lived in a city and therefore their children could easily be sent to schools. The upper class sent their sons to rigorous boarding academies, the calmécac ("houses of tears"), which, in their cultivation of good breeding, their design to break boys' loyalties towards their homes, and their austerity, bore a definite resemblance to public schools in England during the reign of Victoria (boys aged seven were urged not to look "longingly to thy home...Do not say 'my mother is there. My father is there'"). Attention was paid to "character": the preparation, it was said, of a "true face and heart". But there were classes too in law, politics, history, painting, and music.

The children of workers received vocational training in the more relaxed telpochcalli, the "houses of youth" established in every district. The teachers were professionals, but priests played a part. From these institutions, children could go home frequently. Yet they, like those in the calmécac, received ample instruction in morality and natural history through homilies which they often learned by heart, and of which some survive. "Almost all," wrote a good observer in the 1560s, "know the names of all the birds, animals, trees and herbs, knowing too as many as a thousand varieties of the latter, and what they are good for." A strong work ethic was inculcated: and children were told that they had to be honest, diligent and resourceful. All the same, preparation for combat was the dominating consideration where boys were concerned: above all, single combat with a matched enemy.

In both educational institutions, food was provided by children or their parents, but the teachers were supplied by what it is probably permissible to call the state. Girls received training as housewives and mothers.

The commitment to fighting for male children was marked by a custom whereby, at the age of ten, a boy had his hair cut with only one lock left on his neck. He was not permitted to have that removed till, at the age of eighteen, he had taken a prisoner in war. Then he could grow his hair, and embark upon a competition, which lasted throughout his early manhood, to achieve other benefits, by capturing more prisoners.

Another mark of serenity in Tenochtitlan was that there seemed to be no tensions between religion and civil government. Indeed, the very idea would have seemed incomprehensible. The monarch had supreme religious duties. His responsibility, like his palace, was distinct from that of the priesthood. He had civil duties. His judges and their officials administered a civil law. Yet he had a mandate which he considered came from the gods. He used that to preserve society by playing on his people's sense of natural obligation, rather than by imposition. For all citizens accepted that the reason for their being was to serve the gods.

In the early sixteenth century, no Mexican questioned the central myth of the people, the Legend of the Suns. According to this, time on earth had been divided into five eras. The first of these, known as "4-Tiger", had been destroyed by wild animals; the second, "4-Wind", by wind; the third, "4-Rain", by fire; and the fourth, "4-Water", by floods. The last, the fifth age, that of the Mexica, known as "4-Motion", would, according to myth, one day culminate in a catastrophe brought on by terrifying earthquakes. Monsters of the twilight would come to earth. Human beings would be changed into animals: or, possibly, turkeys.

In order to stave off that bleak day, the god Huitzilopochtli (whose name meant "Hummingbird on the left", or "of the south"), who incarnated the sun (as well as war and the chase), the virginally conceived child of the ancient earth goddess Coatlicue (literally, "serpent skirt"), had, every morning, to put to flight the moon (his sister Coyolxauhqui, whose name meant "her cheeks are painted with bells") and the stars (his brothers, the Centzonuitnaua, "the four hundred southerners"). That struggle symbolised a new day. It was assumed that Huitzilopochtli would be carried into the middle of the sky by the spirits of warriors who had died in battle, or on the sacrificial stone. Then, in the afternoon, he would be borne down, by the ghosts of women who had died in childbirth, to the sunset, close to the earth.

To carry through this ceaseless work, Huitzilopochtli had, by extraordinary convention, to be given nourishment, in the shape of human blood ("most precious water").

Huitzilopochtli may once have been a real chief who had been deified after his death. He may not even have been known till the Mexica, after a peregrination, reached the valley. In those early days, other deities such as the earth goddess, Coatlicue (Huitzilopochtli's mother), or the god of rain, Tlaloc, were far more important than he. But the role of Huitzilopochtli had grown with the empire. He was more and more represented in fiestas where previously he had had no place. He seemed to be the central deity.

The Great Temple, at the geometric centre of Tenochtitlan, symbolised the place of gods in the minds of the people. Each profession had, however, its own deity. Important professions had their own sanctuaries in each of the city's four quarters. Every common food, above all maize, also had its god, or was expressed as a deity. Agricultural tools were not only revered, but thanked, with food, incense and octli, the fermented juice of the cactus (now known as pulque).

Priests were ascetic celibates of high standing. Two high priests commanded them: one to serve Huitzilopochtli, the other to care for the interests of the still very important deity, Tlaloc, god of rain. Both were named by the Emperor.

Priests had many responsibilities. They acted as watchmen as, nightly, they patrolled the hills round the city, and looked at the heavens to await the periodical reappearance of the planets. They sounded the hours, and inaugurated battles with conch shell trumpets. They guarded the temples, and preserved the people's legends. Their bodies dyed black, their hair long, their ears tattered by offerings of blood, priests were immensely influential.

The Emperor, meantime, was considered a semi-divine figure, to whom even the priests looked up. Both Montezuma II, Emperor in 1518, and his predecessor, Ahuítzotl, had been high priests in early life. Mexico was not a theocracy. There was no public cult of the Emperor's person. Yet religion governed all. The average Mexican's home of adobe and thatch was bare. It rarely had more than a sleeping mat and a hearth. But it always had a shrine, with a clay figurine, usually of the earth goddess Coatlicue.

The priests served perhaps 200 major deities, perhaps 1,600 in all. Figures representing these gods were to be seen everywhere, at crossroads, in front of fountains, before large trees, on hilltops, in oratories, sometimes made of stone, sometimes of wood, baked clay, or even seed, some big, some small. The leading deities, such as the ubiquitous Huitzilopochtli, the capricious Tezcatlipoca, the rain god Tlaloc, and the normally humane Quetzalcoatl, were the real rulers of the Mexica.

There may appear to the modern enquirer to be ambiguities about the role of certain gods. For example, one account describes the sun, fire, water and the regions beyond the heavens as being seen to have been created by four separate deities. Another suggests that the mother-father, Ometeotl, God-Goddess, god of the positive and negative at the same time, was responsible. The gods of Mexico seem to have been the rain, the sun, the wind, fertility, themselves -- not just the inspirers of those things. Different interpretations of these complexities divide scholars, partly since the Mexican religious world was all the time changing: the old gods of the Mexica as nomads were still being superimposed upon deities already established in the valley. Though often seeming contradictory to us today, Mexican religion at the time inspired no controversies.

Then a recent king of Texcoco, the long-reigning poet Nezahualcoyotl, with a group of cultivated courtiers, had apparently been drawn to the potentially explosive idea of a single "Unknown God", Ipalnemoani, a deity who was never seen and who was not represented by portraits:

My house is hung with pictures

So is yours, one and only God,

Nezahualcoyotl had written, in one of his many moving poems. This poet-king's eloquent devotion to the god Tezcatlipoca, "smoking mirror", might seem to foreshadow the coming of a single inspiration: "O lord, lord of the night, lord of the near, the night and the wind," Mexicans would often pray, as if, in moments of perplexity, they required a unique recipient of supplication. Even if Nezahualcoyotl's poems are dismissed (as they sometimes are) as the skilful embroideries of his descendants, the Mexica plainly accepted that there was a grand supernatural force, of which all other gods were the expression, and which assisted the growth of man's dignity: one divine poem talked of precisely such a person. This force was the combination of the Lord of Duality, Ometecuhtli, and his lady, Omecihuatl, the ancestors of all the gods, who if almost in retirement, still decided the birth date of all beings. They were believed to live at the top of the world, in the thirteenth heaven, where the air was "very cold, delicate and iced".

In the remote past, in the nearby lost city which the Mexicans called Teotihuacan, "place where gods are made", there may even have been a cult of the immortality of the soul. There had thus been those who had said, "When we die, it is not true that we die. For still we live. We are resurrected. We still live. We are awakened. Do thou likewise."

Yet Nezahualcoyotl's "Giver of Life" was not the focus of a major cult. The handsome, empty temple to him in Texcoco was not copied. Nor did Nezahualcoyotl abandon his belief in the traditional gods. There seems to have been no contradiction between Nezahualcoyotl's stress on the Divine Giver and his acceptance of the conventional pantheon.

There was also in Mexico a semi-sacred profession separate to the priesthood, containing men dedicated to private rites, principally fortune-telling, miracle-healing, and interpreting dreams. These were as ascetic and dedicated as the priests. But they were able to transport themselves into states of mind incapable of being reached by ordinary men and women, finding the answer to all problems by placing themselves in a state of ecstasy, itself often obtained by drinking pulque, smoking tobacco, eating certain mushrooms (sometimes with honey, to constitute the "flesh of the gods"), or the seeds of morning glory, the datura lily, and the peyote cactus. The mushrooms, to the Mexica the most important of these plants, came from the pine-covered slopes of the mountains surrounding the valley. Others were brought to Mexico as tribute. Through their use, men thought that they could be transported to the underworld, to heaven, or to the past and to the future. (Conventional priests also used mixtures of these sacred plants, in the form of a pomade, when they talked to the gods.) These things may have been employed by the Mexica in their nomadic stage. They were certainly the special delight of their remote cousins, the surviving Chichimecs.

Neither the priests nor these divines should be confused with magicians and sorcerers. The tricks of these men included the art of seeming to change themselves into animals, or to disappear. They knew all sorts of magic words or acts which could "bewitch women, and turn their affections wherever they chose".

Finally, in the Mexican divine scheme of things, there was the sun. Like most societies of that era, including most in the old world, the heavenly bodies dominated life. The ancient Mexica were not the only people to follow the movement of the sun meticulously, to note down what they observed, to predict eclipses, to plan their buildings for effective observation, or for astronomically satisfying angles. Indeed, the Mayas in Yucatan, in their heyday in the sixth century AD, had been more remarkable in their persistence, and knowledge. They had "a long count" of years which the Mexica did not. Their mathematics had been more complex. Mexican hieroglyphs were also more pictorial and less abstract than Maya ones. All the same, the Mexican priests who interpreted the calendars and, with two notched sticks, the heavens, were mathematicians of skill and imagination. Most cities of the size of Tenochtitlan forget the heavenly bodies. The capital of the Mexica, through the placing of its sacred buildings, and through its gods, emphasised them. Thereby "harmony and order" seemed to be guaranteed.

Copyright © 1993 by Hugh Thomas

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Edward Schumacher The Wall Street Journal A fascinating work that will surely go down as a defining book on the era and one of the best and most readable nonfiction books of the year.

Alfred MacAdam Newsday Conquest makes such exciting reading one forgets that these things actually happened. Hugh Thomas documents characters and events in as much detail as humanly conceivable....Monumental.

Thomas Christensen San Francisco Chronicle Thomas balances writerly skill, exhaustive research, and scholarly documentation to make his book as useful as possible to both general and more involved readers....Essential.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt The New York Times So dramatic is the account in Mr. Thomas's telling, that...you almost don't want to give the story away....Compelling recounted.

Wendy Smith Chicago Sun-Times Thomas does full justice to a titanic subject in his vigorous narrative, which contains enough heroism, cruelty and pathos for ten Greek tragedies.

Meet the Author

 Hugh Thomas is the author of The Spanish Civil War, Conquest, and many other books. A former Chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies (U.K.), he was made Lord Thomas of Swinnerton in 1981. He lives in London.

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