The arrival of the Spaniards was by Moctezuma interpreted – at least initially – not as a danger from outside, but rather as an end to a cosmic period and the beginning of a new one, Octavio Paz notes.
In the Mexican mainland, the Aztecs were thinking great thoughts. They had got a lot to think of because there had been omens. In times of crisis, one take a lot notice of this kind, and in the time after they can be interpreted so that they explain what actually happened.
Today we know the omens from Spanish sources, which of course were first written after the Spaniards had arrived and therefore were marked by the Spanish writers although some Spaniards were better at listening and more loyal than others to reproduce what they had heard.
Again I choose Sahagúns Codex Florentino which he wrote with natives and which Hvidtfeldt has translated from Aztec:
Before the Spaniards had arrived, ten years before, an omen for the first time appeared in the sky; it was like a flame of fire, like a flame, it looked as if the morning red appeared as it turned out, it looked like it was pouring the sky into blood. It was wide at the bottom, pointed at the top. To the center of heaven, to its heart, it reached, until the heart in heaven it reached. That was how it looked toward the east; it rose, it came out, at midnight; and when the morning red appeared, at dawn, it displaced the sun. And when it had arrived, it rose every night for a whole year. – In the year 12 House it began. And when it turned out, there was an enormous noise, some shouted as they hit their mouth, one felt very oppressed.
In the dark night – and the darkness lowers early in Mexico, because we are close to the equator – there is the possibility of watching stars, especially outside the big cities where we are not blinded by the electric light pollution. Five hundred years ago, priests attentively followed the changes of heaven, quite different from us who just look up and say what a beautiful night with stars.
According to the text, this omen is seen ten years before the arrival of the Spaniards but the year 12 House does not correspond to what we call 1517 – so it can not fit. When Sahagún rewrites the text in 1585 in the Boston Manuscript, it says two years before the Spaniards arrived, and the year 12 House is omitted.
The two years before Cortés arrival fit with Francisco Hernández de Cordobas expedition from Cuba to Yucatan. Perhaps it has just been a typo, perhaps the Aztecs had seen the phenomenon 10 years before and perhaps Sahagún would help the Spaniards into the indians magical story by correcting his presentation.
There is a general problem when taking omens: So many peculiarities can be observed and which one has to be chosen as the sinister, which one must be adjusted and which must be omitted? Is it lightning or a two-headed jaguar one must choose? Shall you interpret the one track or the other? Prophecy can be misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused. They belong to metaphysics.
If white peoples appearance in itself was an omen, then Columbus could have been counted in, because in 1502 at Honduras he met a large Mexican canoe with merchants and that meeting must have been reported at the highest place. And in 1511 the monk Gerónimo de Aguilar was caught by the Mayans and was in their captivity for several years. Also this has probably been known by priests interpreting the stars. This I mention because the Aztec omens can’t just be rejected as post-rationalisations. It would be too categorical. Observations of foreign ships may have triggered interpretation of omens of future fatal events, writes Sundby-Sørensen.
The second omen happened here in Mexico. All by itself, it burned, it was ablazed without anybody igniting, it burned by itself – the house of the Diablo Huitzilopochtli, which bore the famous name Tlacateccan. It turned out to be the square wooden columns that burned, out of them stood the flames, the fire tongues, the fire blanket, and very fast all the housetimber was eaten. Then there is an huge noise, saying: Mexicans! Come quickly to put out the fire! Your water jars! But when they throw water to put the fire out, it just flares much more. It could no longer be put out, it burned completely.
The way the text is told – I assume – is due to his Indian staff, but the word diablo, the devil, must be due to Sahagún or that employees have interpreted in Christian terms rather than loyally presenting what they had heard. This second omen is the only so clearly marked by the mission.
The third omen: Lightning struck, hit a temple. It was only a straw hut, named Tzonmulco, the sanctuary of Xiuhtecutli. It did not rain closely, it just dropped a little. Therefore they thought it was an omen; they call it a summer lightning; no thunder was heard.
According to Sahagúns six year younger account of this omen in the Boston Manuscript, the fire was ignited without thunder and lightning, which really seems more magical than a lightning flashing and igniting a temple in a straw hut. Sahagún may also have taken this as a sign!
The fourth omen: While the sun was still there, a fireball came, in three parts it came. It emerged where the sun goes down, and moved there where it rises; like a flower of fire, glowing coal, it emitted sparks, far away stretched its tail, far away reached its tail. And when it had been seen, there was a huge noise – just like sound of bells.
Comets and meteors – fireballs – can occasionally be seen in the sky, but scientists have not been able to document any comets during that time.
The fifth omen: The water foamed without any wind bringing it to foam; it was just as it bubbled, it just cooked, it spread far, as it began to rise. And it reached the lower part of the houses, so some were flooded and some crashed. – It’s about the big lake that is here with us in Mexico.
In 1499, Ahuitzotl, the 8th Tlatoani of the Aztecs, the man behind the bloody inauguration of the temple in 1487, built an additional water supply to send fresh spring water through an aqueduct to ever-growing Tenochtitlán. In the same year, the city was first hit by a snowy winter and later by heavy cloudbursts; in the following few years, violent floods followed. In 1502, Ahuitzotl died during a flood that flooded his palace in the center of the city.
The sixth omen: Often a woman was heard crying and shouting during the night. She shouts a lot, she walks and says: My dear children – it’s over – even we go away! Sometimes she says: My dear children, where shall I bring you?
The seventh omen: The people who live by the water were once fishing with nets, or maybe they were hunting with bird nets. They caught an ashgrey bird, like a crane. Then they went to show it to Moctezuma in the black priesthouse. The sun was in the sky, it was still day. There was something like a mirror on the head of the bird, round, transparent and round, as if pierced in the center; there the sky was, the stars, Firedrill, a star image appeared. And Moctezuma took it as a great omen when he saw the stars and the Firedrill. And when he looked at the birds head for a second time, he saw some coming trampling, coming in big masses, getting ready for war, deer carrying them on their backs. And then he summoned the sages, the wise, said to them, I don’t know what I have seen there – like some who come in great masses. But when they wanted to answer him, what they looked at disappeared, and they no longer saw it.
The eighth omen: Often people appeared, human aberrations, with two heads but only one body. They were taken to the black priesthouse, where Moctezuma saw them, and after seeing them, they disappeared.
The omens were remembered and in 1579 written in Codex Florentino, that was more than sixty years after they had been observed.
Already in the 1530s – ten years after the arrival of the Spaniards – the Spanish monk Olmos wrote in the History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings that something from the top of a volcano had hovered over the city and that it had been explained as an omen of approaching death. The omen had appeared the year the Spaniards first landed in Mexico. In that codex omens are also described after the Spaniards had taken power.
Perhaps Olmos had not heard his source read of further omens before the Spanish conquest – and perhaps the many omens described by Sahagún first were gathered in the forty years that passed between Olmos and Sahagún wrote their codices. Sahagúns omens could thus be a glimpse of events that had gradually been systematised and interpreted in order to confirm a historical course. Thus, the Spanish conquest was written into a larger – divine – plan.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in his memories that the Aztecs, shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, in the sky had seen a circular shape in a mixture of green and red colors. Immediately afterwards, a similar shape appeared and it moved toward the rising sun to join the first one. Moctezuma had summoned his priests who had asked Huitzilopochtli who had answered that they were omens of dreadful wars, and that it was necessary to sacrifice some human beings.
B R E A K I N G N E W S : W O R L D H I S T O R Y M E E T I N G
While Spaniards both night and day dreamt of gold, omens had given Aztecs theirs to dream of. Hvidtfeldt & Amstrup summarizes what should become one of the strangest coincidences of world history:
During the Spaniard Juan de Grijalva expedition along the coast in 1518 – the Aztecs spoke of the year 13 Rabbit which was going to meet the following year 1 Reed – the Spaniards had several quarrels with Indians. When Grijalva and his men during their voyage approached Aztec area of interest, the Aztec statechief ordered his men personally to examine the strangers. The statechief was named Pinotl, and together with two other statechiefs, he went to the Spaniards on their ships under the pretext of a wish to bring them gifts. In fact, secretly to examine them so that Moctezuma could get reliable and direct intelligence.
The Aztecs waited for the god Quetzalcoatl to return, and it was with that expectation that Pinotl met the Spaniards. In the religious calendar, Quetzalcoatl was associated with the year 1 Reed, he was born in such a year, and at his earthly death he had left toward the east in such a year. It was told that he once would return, and the conviction that it had to be Quetzalcoatl who now was coming was reinforced by the fact that the year 1 Reed was imminent.
Pinotl brought gifts consisting of goddresses, precious robes that were used during the religious feasts when the Tlatoani or other high-ranking acted gods. The Spaniards did not understand and did not care much for these precious robes, but showed that they would like to swap their own glass beads against the gold of the Aztecs, and they got it. The Aztecs perceived the strange green and yellow glass beads as gifts in return for the goddresses and they admired the pearls. The Spanish farewell greeting was that they would soon return and then come all the way to Mexico.
In haste, Pinotl and his companions rushed to the capital to report. Almost breathless they told Moctezuma about their experiences at the sea: There we have seen our Lords, the gods, out on the water! As a proof, they handed the glass beads to the Tlatoani, who ordered them to keep the case completely secret, while ordering them to guard the coast wherever the gods could land. And as the old year in the Aztec era was about to end – and the new year, 1 Reed, was about to come – the Spaniards reappeared at the coast.
In 1502, Moctezuma had been crowned as Tlatoani over the Aztec Empire, which during his predecessor Ahuitzotl, had become so large so further extensions were considered almost impossible. The road to the borders of the empire – and thus to enemies who could be taken as prisoners – had become long. Too long. Much too long.
Instead, Moctezuma turned towards the independent enclaves that existed within the loosely organized Aztec Empire with the hope that his warriors could stabilize the empire and, not least, take prisoners there. The hostile tribes, some of them had resisted previous conquest attempts, were considered as a threat when they assaulted Aztec merchants and units carrying tributes to Tenochtitlán. But for the first time in the history of the empire, the fightings did not succeed with great victories. Quite the contrary. Death hit Moctezumas brothers and nobles, he wept bitterly and rumors circled in the city. Defeat. Even the drums were mute.
Moctezumas war strategy was result of a radical shift – perhaps result of real-political, military-tactic considerations, but also influenced by his personal, groving nervousness by the omens. Strangers had been observed! Was the mighty Moctezuma persued by his own shadow? Was Moctezuma neurotic or was he convinced of the seriousness of the situation?
According to Codex Florentino, Moctezuma had ordered the coast to be guarded, had informed the commanders of what had happened and had shown the dark green glass beads that strangers had given to his men who had thought it had to be Quetzalcoatl they had met.
Codex Durán and Codex Florentino are more or less written at the same time, that was half a century after the events. But Codex Durán contains more about what followed. Durán describes an almost modern approach to the situation; according to him, Moctezuma had said:
I want you to find out who their commander is, since he is the one to whom you must give all the presents. You must discover with absolute certainty if he is the one our ancestors called Topiltzin or Quetzalcoatl. Our historians say that he abandoned this land but left word that he or his sons would return to reign over this country, to recover the gold, silver, and jewels that he left hidden in the mountains. According to the legends, they are to aquire all the wealth that we now possess. If it is really Quetzalcoatl, greet him on my behalf and give him these gifts.
According to Durán, Moctezuma continued his investigations by calling the best artist of the country to paint what the envoys had seen and explained again. Moctezuma had threatened the painter with death penalty: Nobody else should ever have to know what he heard and painted! The painter had promised silence and painted the ship, the Spaniards with their long beards, white faces, colored clothes, hats, swords in the belts. When Moctezuma saw the picture, he asked his envoys if it corresponded to what they had seen, and the envoy replied that it was exactly as he had seen. Moctezuma asked the painter if he or his ancestors had seen anything of this kind, but that the painter categorically rejected.
Then Moctezuma asked if the painter had drawings of those who might come to the country and take possession of it. The artist promised to return, and he did so, but without pictures. Then Moctezuma called the oldest bookpainters and asked if they knew anything about those who might come to the country and take possession of it. These artists brougth pictures of men with one eye in the forehead, single-legged men, a man with a fish body and another one with a snake body. But no one was able to present anything that resembled what his envoys had seen. Then Moctezuma sent for painters of Toltec origin.
They informed the King that their ancestors had left a tradition that the sons of Quetzalcoatl were to come to these lands and take possession of them, and they would recover that which had been theirs in ancient times. They were also to acquire again that which the Toltecs had hidden in the hills, in the woods, in the caverns. They showed Moctezuma in their old manuscripts what kind of men those sons of Quetzalcoatl were, but they did not look like the ones Moctezumas artist had painted.
Subsequently, Moctezuma was presented to Quilaztli, an old man with painted manuscripts and very conscious of the seriousness of the situation.
Before showing him the paintings he narrated that some men would come to this land in a great wooden hill. This wooden hill would be so big that it would lodge many men, serving them as a home. Within it they would eat and sleep. In the rear of this house they would cook their food and in it and on the surface they would walk and play as if they were on firm land. They were to be white, bearded men, dressed in different colors, and on their heads they would wear round coverings. Other men were to arrive with them, mounted on beasts similar to deer and others on eagles that would fly like the wind. These men were to possess the country, settle in all its cities, multiply in great numbers, and become the owners of the gold, silver, and precious stones. So that you may see, continued Quilaztli, that what I say is the truth, behold it drawn here! This painting was bequested to me by my ancestors. He then took out a very old painting on which were depicted the ship and the men dressed in the same manner as those which the king had already seen in the painting his artist had made. There he also saw other men mounted on horses or on flying eagles, all of them dressed in different colors and wearing their hats and swords.
Moctezuma said he could see that the painters ancestors had been very wise, and Quilaztli added that the strangers will return before two years have passed. Moctezuma rewarded him and his kinsmen with houses in Tenochtitlán and Moctezuma always had him at his side so he could listen to his advice.
In Codex Florentino, Sahagún recited a quotation from Tlatoani Moctezuma:
This is our prince, Quetzalcoatl, who has come. Such was his desire. He would come, he would come here, he would come and take his mat, his ruler seat. That is why he is showing himself now. And Moctezuma sent five envoys to receive him with presents.
And to his men, Moctezuma should have said:
Come here, my ocelotmen, come here! It is said that finally our Lord has come here. Go to him to receive him. Listen carefully, be careful about what he says. Exactly what you hear you will bring to me! Look here, you have to bring this to our Lord:
Quetzalcoatls equipment: the snake mask made in turquoise, the quetzal feather headpiece, the green gemstone collar in braid with the gold dial in the center, a shield whose drawing is golden alternating with seashell, on the edge provided with quetzal feathers and with a quetzal feather flag, a loin mirror with quetzal feathers and this loin mirror is equipped with a turquoise shield, inlaid with turquoise, is turquoise covered, and the gemstone band with the gold bells, and also the turquoise spearthrower, completely covered with turquoise, with a head like a snake head, it is provided with a snake head and the obsidiansandals.
(pp. 297-305 in volume 1, reproduced without notes and illustrations):
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO AZTECS AND INCAS: MYTHS AND STORIES FROM MEXICO AND PERU. Edited, translated, retold and commented by Mikael Witte. Volume 1 + Volume 2
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