Our ongoing First Contact series continues with a look at the initial encounter between the Aztecs and the Spanish. Rather than rehashing the conquistadors’ standard accounts of Tenochtitlan‘s grandeur and the horrors of human sacrifice, we thought we’d focus on the Aztecs’ point of view—specifically their mistaken belief that Hernando Cortes and his soldiers were pale-skinned gods.
Despite its obvious civic and scientific achievements, Aztec civilization was hamstrung by its devotion to magic. The royal court spent an inordinate amount of time on divination, and listened far too closely to the advice of priests who were little more than charlatans. And so when a pair of Aztec messengers returned from Cortes’s ship to report on the visitors technology, they couldn’t help but describe what they’d seen as nothing short of supernatural:
[The king] was terrified to learn how the cannon roared, how its noise resounded, how it caused one [messenger] to faint and grow deaf. The messengers told him: “A thing like a ball of stone comes out of its entrails: it comes out shooting sparks and raining fire. The smoke that comes out with it has a pestilent odor, like that of rotten mud. This odor penetrates even to the brain and causes the greatest discomfort. If the cannon is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. If it is aimed against a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters. This is a most unnatural sight, as if the tree had exploded from within.”
The messengers also said: “Their trappings and arms are all made of iron. They dress in iron and wear iron casques on their heads. Their swords are iron; their bows are iron; their shields are iron; their spears are iron. Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house.
“The strangers’ bodies are completely covered, so that only their faces can be seen. Their skin is white, as if it were made of lime. They have yellow hair, though some of them have black. Their beards are long and yellow, and their moustaches are also yellow. Their hair is curly, with very fine strands.
“As for their food, it is like human food. It is large and white, and not heavy. It is something like straw, but with the taste of a cornstalk, of the pith of a cornstalk. It is a little sweet, as if it were flavored with honey; it tastes of honey, it is sweet- tasting food.
Their dogs are enormous, with flat ears and long, dangling tongues. The color of their eyes is a burning yellow; their eyes flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are hollow, their flanks long and narrow. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there panting, with their tongues hanging out. And they are spotted like an ocelot.
When Motecuhzoma heard this report, he was filled with terror. It was as if his heart had fainted, as if it had shriveled. It was as if he were conquered by despair.
The Spanish, of course, felt no such despair upon seeing the great cities that the Aztecs had constructed. Even when most wowed by the Aztecs’ ingenuity and craftsmanship, they never once thought they had stumbled upon a divine people. And that attitude, combined with the fear their strangeness struck within Motecuhzoma, goes a long way toward explaining why Cortes was able to conquer Mexico with such a tiny coterie of men and arms.