Hernan Cortez and the Quetzalcoatl Prophecy: How the Spanish Conquest of Mexico was Facilitated by a Prophecy

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Hernán Cortés

With the stars lining up for him, Hernan Cortes’ conquest of Mexico may have been made easier by the centuries old prophecy of a returning bearded god from the east.

Less than 30 years after Christopher Columbus landed on the Western Hemisphere and claimed it for Spain, another Spanish explorer, Hernán Cortés sailed across the Atlantic towards the New World in search for wealth and status. The treasure hunt would ultimately end in the Conquest of the Aztec Empire. Had it not been for certain facilitating factors, however, Mexican history might have very well been a different one all together.

Hernan Cortes Arrives on Hispaniola

Towards the end of the 15th century, Pope Alexander VI decreed that Spain could claim any lands in the New World for itself under the condition that the natives were converted to Christianity. Along with this religious mission and the tantalizing lure of undiscovered riches, Hernán Cortés set off to accomplish both. After his arrival on Hispaniola in 1504 and subsequent participation in the conquest of the island of Cuba, Cortés made a name for himself as a bold and enterprising leader. Cortés moved up the social and governmental ranks during his time on the islands.

Cortes Appointed Leader of Third Mexican Expedition

After commissioning two previous expeditions of Mexico headed first by Francisco Fernandez de Cordova and then Juan de Grijalva, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, decided on a third Mexican expedition in 1518. This one was to be headed by 34 year old Cortés.

Though Velazquez de Cuéllar revoked his charter shortly after giving it to him, Cortés managed to leave Cuba hurriedly and set out on his own – along with 500 men, horses and artillery – to conquer Mexico.

Cortes’ Mutiny

Cortés landed at Cozumel in the Yucatan peninsula in the early spring of 1519. Sailing further up along the east coast of Mexico, Hernán Cortés and his men took Veracruz, claiming it for the Spanish crown. Cortés had already separated himself from Cuban governor Velazquez de Cuéllar, but by the taking of Veracruz, Cortés placed himself directly under the command of King Carlos V of Spain.

A Prophecy Paved the Way

Whether by shear luck or by providence, the time of Cortés’ arrival coincided with the prophesied return of the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. During the 16th century, Quetzalcoatl – whose name in the Nahuatl language means “feathered serpent” or “plumed serpent”, was one of the principle Aztec deities. According to one of the legends, Quetzalcoatl, who was among the gods of creation, was forced into exile by Tezcatlipoca; another principal Aztec god. Quetzalcoatl sailed away into the Atlantic on a raft made of snakes with a promise to return on his year, the First Year of the Reed (this occurs once every 52 years).

Two Other Incarnations of the Plumed Serpent

Aside from being depicted as the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl was often characterized as the god of wind, Ehécatl, who was shown as a bearded man. Another name for Quetzalcoatl was the White Tezcatlipoca – making him the yin equivalent to Tezcatlipoca (also known as the Black Tezcatlipoca). These two interpretations of the god Quetzalcoatl, along with Cortés’ march into Tenochtitlan on the First Year of the Reed, have led to the accepted assumption that the invading Spaniards were mistaken by the Aztecs as either being representatives or incarnations of Quetzalcoatl.

Why Some Refer to the Cortes/Quetzalcoatl Issue as Myth

The problem that some ethnocentric scholars seem to have with the previously accepted belief that Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztecs, put up little resistance to the Spaniards because he thought their arrival was the fulfillment of the Quetzalcoatl prophecy has to do with the fact that history is written by the victors. The only documents that confirm the naïve Montezuma theory are ones either written by Hernán Cortés himself or ones that were penned years after the conquest by Spanish historians.

The Enemy of an Enemy was Cortes’ Friend

Cortés’ victory over the Aztecs was not brought about solely by the Spanish sword. In fact, thousands of natives aided Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. The Aztecs dominion over Mexico came about by years of war, as a result, the Aztec had many enemies. This was advantageous for Cortés being that he was able to win allies primarily within the Tlaxcala of central Mexico and the Totonac of Veracruz.

Cortes and Spain are Victorious in Mexico

In the summer of 1521, the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish. Hernán Cortés and the conquerors built Mexico City on the ruins of the once great Aztec capital. Whether or not the Quetzalcoatl prophecy was instrumental in helping Cortés conquer Mexico may never be known for certain. What is known is that a once great empire met a sudden and violent end in the 16th century and even though much evidence of the Aztec culture and everyday way of life was destroyed by the conquerors and their Church, scholars, archeologists and historians continue to uncover new facts about the ancient civilization that was the Aztec Empire.

Sources:

  1. Almazan, Marco A. “Hernan Cortes: Virtu vs. Fortuna”. Journal of American Culture; Summer97, Vol. 20 Issue 2, p131, 7p
  2. Berdan, Frances. “Aztec Empire”. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, 2005, Vol. 1, p221
  3. Downing, Todd. The Mexican Earth. New York. 1940
  4. Hassig, Ross. “Cortés, Hernán”. Reader’s Companion to Military History. 1996, p109
  5. Peppas, Lynn. “Spanish Conquest”. Life in Ancient Mesoamerica. 2005, p30
  6. “Quetzalcoatl”. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. 2002
  7. Sanna, Ellyn. “The History of Mexico”. Mexico: Facts & Figures; 2003, p16-21, 6p