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An extract from Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas.

A trunk was then brought to Tenochititlan [now Mexico City] from the Gulf of Mexico. It had been washed up on the shore. Inside were several suits of clothes, some jewels and a sword. Whose possessions were they? No one had ever seen anything like them before. The Emporor Montezuma divided the contents between the kings of Tacubaya and Texcoco. A little later a message came from Yucatan, probably sent by a Mexican merchant. It was a folded manuscript. This depicted three white temples at sea floating on large canoes…

Then merchants from Xicallanco seem to have more reports of strange new men. This probably confirmed stories from the other Mexican outposts farther south down the isthmus of Central America. The Mexica would thus perhaps have heard of a colony of white men which had been established in 1513 only a thousand miles (as the crow flies) south east of Yucatan, in Darien.

It was also, later reported that in Mexico, after about 1502 a series of phenomena were observed which seemed to presage difficult times. First, for example, a tongue of fire in the sky, presumably a comet of unusual brilliance, was said to have been seen every night for a year. Then the thatched roof of the temple of Huitzilopochtli caught fire on top of the great pyramid: the flames could not be put out. Another temple, that of a more ancient deity, Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire (also known as the lord of the turquoise and even as the father and mother of the gods), was destroyed by what was described as a noiseless thunderbolt. This was especially alarming, since fire, expressed by family hearths and braziers before temples, was looked upon as one of the great achievements of the gods. Then a comet was said to have fallen sharply in the sky, to have divided in three, and to have scattered sparks throughout the Valley of Mexico. The water of the lake [on which Tenochititlan was built] foamed for no reason; many houses built next to the water were flooded…

The most famous tale of this time is the most esoteric: some fishermen were said to have found a bird like a crane, of an ashen colour. They showed it to the Emperor, who saw a mirror on its head. In the mirror, he observed the heavens and the stars, and then a number of men riding on deer, approaching as for war. The Emperor is said to have summoned specialist wise men. He asked them for their interpretation. But when they looked, the vision, the mirror, and he bird had all disappeared…

People in old Mexico were often influenced by far less dramatic events than these. Unaccustomed noises or sights of any kind, from the cry of an owl to the sight of a rabbit running into a house, suggested calamities. The call of a white headed hawk (identified with the sun) might have several interpretations. Anyone whose path was crossed by a weasel might expect a setback. The Mexica spent a great deal of time speculating about the significance of such things. This should not be a matter of surprise. It has been represented that these “portents” never occurred and the interpretations in consequence were invented later. Machiavelli in his Discorsi, in these very years (1515-18) remarked: “Both modern and ancient examples go to show that great events never happened in any town or in any country without their having been announced by portents, revelations, prodigious events or other celestial signs”… In this spirit of scepticism… some have argued that these portents in Mexico were artfully devised in the 1530s or 40s on the ground that simple people find catastrophes easier to bear if it can be argued that they have been foretold.

Yet most of these phenomena in Mexico were unsensational. Assuming that one or other of them occurred at all, they might have been forgotten had the Mexican empire subsequently prospered… Storms on the Lake of Mexico which caused water to foam were not infrequent. Fires on the thatched roofs on the top of  pyramids should have been expected since braziers were nearby. Two-headed beings [also having appeared] could have been Siamese twins. Both they and the bird with the mirror sound as if they were figments in the imagination of someone who had eaten sacred mushrooms… [Finally,] comets and eclipses were in fact seen in these years.

The most likely interpretation of the story of these portents is that some, if not all, of them occurred; that given that rumours of atrocious happenings in Panama and the Caribbean had reached Tenochtitlan, gloomy conclusions were being draw; that though they may have been temporarily forgotten, both the portents and the interpretations were recalled in 1519.


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