Chronicles of America 

Cortés Visits Montezuma

Having concluded an alliance with the Totonacs, Cortés founded in June, 1519, in Bernal Harbor his projected settlement, the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz; and in July he sent to the King letters explanatory of the proceeding. Just prior to this, in renewed fury of missionary zeal — a fury which Father Olmedo, priest to the army, did his best somewhat to restrain — he had thrown down the idols at Cempoalla and cleansed the temples of blood. His next acts were to scuttle and sink his ships; to lash, mutilate, or hang, various Velásquez conspirators; and to frighten away an expedition sent out by the Governor of Jamaica. There now remained, as the one sole objective of the Spaniards in Mexico, Montezuma and his gold.

Montezuma is lord of many kings; his equal is not known in all the world; in his house many lords serve barefooted with eyes cast down to the ground; he has thirty thousand vassals in his empire each of whom has one hundred thousand fighting men; each year twenty thousand persons are regularly sacrificed in his dominions — some years fifty thousand. Montezuma dwells in the most beautiful, the largest, and the strongest city in the world — a city built in the water, possessing a noble palace and plaza, one the center of an immense traffic. Hither flock princes from all the earth bringing incalculable riches. No lord however great is there who does not pay tribute, and no one so poor is there who does not give at least the blood of his arm. The cost of all is enormous, for, besides his household, Montezuma is constantly waging war and maintaining vast armies.

These words of the cacique Olintetl echoed in the ears of Cortés as, on August 31, 1519, he departed from the friendly Totonac country on his way to pay that visit to Montezuma which had been so persistently declined. Had it been Columbus, what more of confirmation would he have required that he was about to behold the city and court of the Great Kaan? As it was, even the practical-minded Cortés felt himself impelled to write: "According to our judgment, it is credible that there is everything in this country which existed in that from which Solomon is said to have brought the gold for the Temple."

Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Abode of the War God, the "Place of the Stone and Prickly Pear," seat of the power of Montezuma, whereof the Spaniards had heard under the name Ulúa, was a wonderful place to the Spaniard, but he failed to understand its real significance. What the Spaniard found in Mexico, as he believed, was merely a "feudal monarchy" under a "king," supported by a "nobility" occupying "palaces" in a picturesque " city " full of "mosques." In point of fact Cortés unwittingly was looking across an abyss of perhaps ten thousand years — actually seeing the dead past live again. "To say," remarks John Fiske, "that it was like stepping back across the centuries to visit the Nineveh of Sennacherib or hundred-gated Thebes is but inadequately to depict the situation, for it was a longer step than that." Yes, immeasurably longer, for it was a step from civilization quite to mid-barbarism.

Just here, however, our account of Mexico-Tenochtitlan must cease, for at the South Causeway, bowing, stands Cortés. He has come with some four hundred men, fifteen horses, and seven light guns. The route by which he traveled from the 31st of August to the 15th of October has been from Xocotlan southwest to Tlascala, a community independent of Montezuma yet distrustful of the Spaniard; and from Tlascala southwest to Cholula. From Cholula, in the valley or plain of Huitzilipan, the invaders have marched west to the mountain ridge connecting Popocatepetl with its mate, Yztaccihuatl, and from here, early in November, have surveyed the basin-like valley of Mexico, with Mexico-Tenochtitlan afar off amid the waters of Lake Tezcoco. They have then approached the border of Lake Chalco, traversed a causeway leading to a peninsula, Itztapalapan, and now, in the community of Itztapalapan itself, stand dazed before the "stone work," the "woodwork of cedar and other sweet scented trees," the "orchard and garden full of roses and fruit trees, " and the "pond of fresh water with birds of many kinds and breeds." To Bernal Diaz and his followers, touched with the spirit of Spanish romanticism, the scene appears as the "enchantments of the legend of Amadis."

In the mind of Montezuma, meanwhile, the grave question has been : Can these Spaniards, these strangers of the sunrise, be gods?

When Grijalva's expedition appeared off the coast in 1518, it had been reported to Tenochtitlan that in the "waters of heaven," as the open sea was called, "floating towers" had appeared, from which had descended beings with white faces and hands, with beards and long hair, and wearing raiment of brilliant colors and "round head-coverings." Could these beings be priests or heralds of the Fair God Quetzalcoatl, come, according to the Maya-Nahua tradition, to resume sway over his people? Before proof could be adduced, Grijalva had departed; and then, shortly, had come swift messengers with news of Cortés and with pictures of his "floating towers" and of his fair-visaged yet bearded attendants, handling the thunder and bestriding fierce creatures that spurned the ground.

Proof regarding the quality of the fair strangers was required now more than ever, and so the first embassy had been sent to Cortés — the embassy that had carried back, as a specimen of the round head-coverings of the strangers, the gilt helmet. This contrivance, as it chanced, resembled the head-coverings of the Aztec gods, and especially of Huitzilopochtli, god of war. So there had been sent to Cortés the second embassy, bringing the head-dresses of quetzal feathers. Now these headdresses were those of the four principal gods of the Aztecs: Tezcatlipoca, god-of-the-breath-of-life; Huitzilopochtli, god of war; Tlaloc, god of fertility; and Quetzalcoatl, the fair or culture god. What they seemingly were meant to signify to Cortés was that Montezuma, tentatively at any rate, was willing to acknowledge the former as, like himself, entitled to wear them as a representative of the gods.

Nor was this all that the wonderful gifts of the second embassy were meant to signify. Among the gifts, as will be remembered, were two great wheels — one of gold, and one of silver. All Indians of America possess a social system more or less fully worked out from the heavenly spaces — the Four Quarters or cardinal points of direction, and the three regions — Above, Below, and Center. The four head-dresses, symbolizing the four principal gods, may therefore be conceived as meant to stand to Cortés for the Four Quarters; and the gold and silver wheels, respectively, for the Above and the Below. Something of this kind almost certainly was symbolized by the gifts which, besides being in the nature of a bribe to the Spaniard, as a human being, to depart, were likewise in the nature of a propitiatory offering to him, as a god or at least a high priest, to be merciful.

Whether or not the Spaniards really possessed preternatural attributes, it had vastly puzzled all Mexico to decide. The Cempoallans had industriously spread the idea that they did; and one thing only had served to detract from the claim. At Tlascala, where the matter had been put to a test, some of the Spanish horses, those creatures of terror, had been killed, hacked apart, and triumphantly devoured at feasts. At Cholula, however, Cortés by the cleverness of Marina had with unerring precision alighted upon an Aztec plot to destroy him — had, as the marveling Cholulans expressed it, "read their very minds and thoughts "; and such power could pertain to gods alone.

But to come back to the Spanish leader as he stands, bowing, at the South Causeway outside of Itztapalapan. Whether he be divine or human, it has become apparent that his entry into Tenochtitlan can no longer be prevented by gifts nor thwarted by guile. Montezuma, therefore, making a virtue of necessity, is about to come forth to greet him. Not that machinations have ceased at all. Once the Spaniards are beyond the drawbridges with retreat cut off, once securely lodged in one of the principal tecpans, it is the purpose of the Chief-of-Men, counseled thereto by the dire Huitzilopochtli himself, to destroy the invaders utterly and to send them in batches to the great pyramid as a savory and acceptable blood-offering.

The point where the ceremonies incident to the meeting of Montezuma with Cortés are to take place is on the South Causeway at Acachinanco, a causeway junction, and here a great crowd is gathered. It would seem that not alone is Tenochtitlan a settlement of four divisions, but that Aztec territory as such, outside of Tenochtitlan, partakes of the same plan; for at the causeway junction Cortés is received by four Aztec subchiefs from Tezcoco, Itztapalapan, Tacuba, and Coyohuacan, settlements on the lake shore to the northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest, respectively, of Tenochtitlan. The lake is crowded with observers in canoes, but the causeway itself, the present Calzada de Iztapalapan, is kept clear, and down the vista which it forms rises Mexico, full of mystery.

The four subchiefs conduct the Spaniards to the point where the South Causeway merges in the South Avenue, the present street El Rastro, leading to the great square, and here Montezuma appears in person. He comes reclining in a sumptuous litter borne upon the shoulders of attendants. At sight of Cortés he descends, and there is spread above him a baldaquin of light greenish-blue feathers with fringe of gold, pearls, and jade. He is a man about fifty-two years old, tall, slender, and of dignified mien, and his hair is worn short over the ears. His garb is a robe of radiant blue and gold, and his feet are shod with golden sandals. Is it as priest of Huitzilopochtli that he thus presents himself to Cortés, the possible representative of that other deity, the Fair God Quetzalcoatl, waiting to dispossess him? Be that as it may, the four subchiefs, habited likewise in heavenly blue, advance to his support. Dignitaries bearing tripartite wands, symbolizing the authority of the Confederacy, go before him, while attendants sweep clean the highway, and even lay carpets that the golden sandals may not touch the ground.

As Montezuma draws near, Cortés dismounts from his horse and steps forward. Montezuma kisses the earth — an act performed by pressing it with the hand and then carrying the hand to the lips — and offers to Cortés — how much of Mexico is here! — a bunch of roses. The Spanish leader moves to salute Montezuma by an embrace, but is restrained by a gesture and instead places about his neck a necklace of beads taken from his own person. Throughout the ceremony the sides of the avenue are lined with attending sages, all of whom are barefoot, and to none of whom is it permitted to raise the eyes to Montezuma — the man of great medicine, the high priest.

Back to: The Spanish Conquerors